Guest post for birds 
Christy Mag Uidhir recently started a blog about philosophy of art called Aesthetics For Birds. The title is a riff on a quotation from Barnett Newman, "Aesthetics is for the artist as Ornithology is for the birds."

I'm reminded of the quip often attributed to Richard P. Feynman: "Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds." I'm not sure whether Feynman said it (if he said it at all) before or after 1952, when Barnett Newman made the parallel crack about aesthetics. I'm not sure why Newman and Feynman held ornithology in such low esteem, either. Birds are interesting, and the study of them is a worthy enquiry. I'm enough of a generalist to think that's true about most things.

Today, Christy published a guest post by me: How I came to be interested in interesting things

UPDATE: John Wilkins and Malte Ebach, in their forthcoming The nature of classification, suggest that the ersatz Feynman was probably actually by either Steven Weinberg or someone summarizing Weinberg and that it's a reuse of the earlier Newman bon mot.


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No cause for alarm 
I just read Bradford Skow's Are There Non-Causal Explanations (of Particular Events)?, which is due to be published in BJPS. His thesis, in short, is that No, there are not.*

In dealing with the last of several examples, Skow concludes:
I do not think we have a non-causal explanation here. ... The mathematical theorem tells us that E was unpreventable: nothing, not even changes to prior conditions that broke the laws of nature (if changes of that sort even make sense), could have produced any alternative to E.

The example is one from Mark Colyvan involving the Borsuk-Ulam theorem,** but Skow's reply generalizes to a simpler example. Let E be the event that at the instant the faculty meeting convened, no department member was both present and absent. The explanation for E is that absent means "not present" and the law of non-contradiction applies. This seems to me to be a non-causal explanation if ever there were one. However, since it shows that E is unpreventable in that no prior conditions could have made one of the department members both present and absent just at that moment, on Skow's reasoning (replacing 'mathematical' with 'logical') it is a causal explanation.

This example shows that the work of the article is done by a voracious sense of "causal explanation". Skow considers but rejects two narrower definitions, starting with
T1: A body of fact causally explains E iff it identifies a cause of E.

He provides two arguments against it.

First, "if some event, E, is uncaused then the fact that it is uncaused causally explains why it occurred."

This seems odd to me. I am inclined to say that E's being uncaused shows that there is no causal explanation for E. So noting that E is uncaused gives as much causal explanation as it is possible to give: namely, none. But silently getting up to make a cup of tea also gives as much causal explanation as it is possible to give, because it gives no explanation.

Second,
[E]ven if some event, E, has causes, a body of fact need not identify any of them in order to explain E. Suppose that a window breaks, and that Huey, Dewey, and Louie were the only three around who might have thrown a rock at it. The fact that Dewey did not throw a rock but one of the other two did constitutes causal-explanatory information. But it does not identify the actual cause; it merely rules out one possible cause. Now, maybe a complete causal explanation of the window’s breaking must say who threw the rock. But we should allow a body of facts to constitute a partial causal explanation even if it does not constitute a complete causal explanation.


Again, odd. I am inclined to say that Dewey's not throwing the rock only provides some causal explanation along with the background assumption that one of the three must have done it, but then it does so by underwriting an inference to the fact that either Huey or Louie did it. The background assumption is itself a rather indefinite causal explanation (One of the three of them did it) and Dewey's innocence allows us to arrive at a more definite explanation (One of the remaining two did it).

If Dewey's not breaking the window is a causal explanation just on its own, then Pierre's not breaking the window is also a causal explanation. Pierre was never a suspect, you say? Perhaps not before, but now he has been exonerated. His lack of guilt raises itself as nothingness on the ground of the nihilation of the window.

Trivial examples multiply: My not shooting JFK causally explains why he is dead! and so on.

So I am inclined to think that T1 is the right way to characterize causal explanation and that Skow secures his 'No' answer against counterexamples by a highly revisionary broadening of what counts as causal explanation.


* This is me being glib. His thesis is actually the more cautious claim that every alleged example of non-causal particular explanation fails.
** Quoting Skow, the example is: "Right now there are two points, p and q, on the earth that (i) are antipodal (opposite one another); and (ii) have the same temperature and atmospheric pressure." Skow considers the reply that this isn't an event at all, and a similar reply could be given to my example. My intuitions about the ontology of events are not robust enough to shoulder such a move.


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Sounding the scores 
Branden Fitelson points to an article at Physics Central about how students in various disciplines perform on the GRE. The most recent figures have philosophy leading the pack in the Verbal Reasoning and Analytic Writing section. Philosophy comes out behind Math, Physics, Economics and other numbers-heavy fields in the Quantitative section but is ahead of the other humanities.

The article draws a happy conclusion for philosophers: "Philosophy departments focus heavily on logical reasoning and identifying logical fallacies, most likely leading to philosophy students' dominance of the verbal and analytical writing sections."

And that seems right to me. A training in philosophy does seem to help with clear, critical thinking; i.e., things that standardized tests at least try to measure.

A limitation that the article does not note: The figures do not include students who never consider graduate school seriously enough to take the GRE. Since graduate school in philosophy notoriously provides poor prospects career-wise, there is little incentive for students to go on unless they think they will do well. Students in what are perceived to be more remunerative fields may pursue a grad degree in a discipline even if they do not have an aptitude for it.

So GRE scores might reflect greater culling of the herd than other disciplines, and philosophy's supremacy might partly be the result of that sample selection bias.

But, aha! I noticed this problem with the figures because of my background in philosophy. So the discipline can deliver the goods on critical thinking, and it can't all be sample selection.

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Some words about evidence and method 
I wrote in a recent post that I like the kind of book review which "offers a critical view of the issue and situates the book in recent discussions" and which also "treats the book as a bit of philosophy worthy of criticism."

So that's what I was aiming for with my review of Peter Achinstein's new book, published today at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

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The title is a deliberate pun 
I just posted a draft of a second paper on Mill's account natural kinds. In some ways, it picks up where the first one left off.

The first part of the paper is historical, looking at Mill on taxonomy and some of his nineteenth century critics. The second part applies lessons from history to better understand HPCs.

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