Debriefing * science 
The last day of classes for the semester was yesterday. I was teaching Understanding Science (an intro to science studies course) and Philosophy of Science (a survey for advanced undergrad and grad students). As is my usual practice, I asked students which topics I definitely should include when I teach the course again and which I should omit. This is partly to focus their attention on which topics were substantively rewarding and which not, but I also take it into account when revising a course.

To me surprise, there was not a groundswell of dissatisfaction for any of the topics in either course. This is somewhat reassuring to me, because I have taught both courses many times now. I have made piecemeal changes to them over time. Although every change was meant to make them better, I often feel as if the syllabuses have become patchwork monsters.

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The FOE digest for 2012 
This post continues the tradition of taking the first sentence from the first post of every month in order to generate a summary of the year's blogging; cf. 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011.

I: Regarding the lengths of things that I've written, the manuscript for the unstably named book on natural kinds is about 75K words.

II: In summarizing his philosophical approach to the photographer Steve Pyke, David Lewis said...

III: I wrote my dissertation on the underdetermination of theory by data.

IV: [n/a]

V: I have completed the index for my forthcoming book, which is to appear in September.

VI: In a commencement address at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Neil Gaiman offers the following advice...

VII: Jim Holt, writing in the New York Times' philosophy blog The Stone, asks whether philosophy can be literature and answers yes.

VIII: My open access logic book, forall x, is going to be used this Fall for the first year logic course at Cambridge.

IX: In an epicycle of self-promotion, I am profiled by the UAlbany College of Arts and Sciences because my open access logic textbook was adopted at Cambridge.

X: In a post over at Crooked Timber, John Quiggin invokes the distinction between scholars who follow a K-strategy and those that follow an r-strategy.

XI: Consider the sentence, "Tautologists all agree."

XII: Via Brian Leiter and Mohan Matthen, I came across Alvin Plantinga's review in the New Republic of Thomas Nagel's newbook.

Despite my intention to blog a little each month, I posted nothing for April. I've managed to avoid such gaps since November 2008, when I was similarly silent. Other than the fact that 2008 was also a light year for blogging, I don't think there are any parallels worth noting.

Content from months where I did post looks to be about one half musings launched by something that I read on-line and one half me talking about my books. A light cocktail of non sequitur and horn tooting.

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Common sense of the hokum variety 
Via Brian Leiter and Mohan Matthen, I came across Alvin Plantinga's review in the New Republic of Thomas Nagel's newbook. Nagel and Plantinga both deny that life on Earth could have developed naturally, without any explicit purpose. For Nagel, who is an atheist, purpose is supposed to be something intrinsic to nature. For Plantinga, who is a theist, purpose is impressed on nature by God.

So both reject the naturalistic, Darwinian account of how life developed. Plantinga quotes Nagel as complaining that it's "a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense." Further down, he writes, "Nagel supports the commonsense view that the probability of this happening in the time available is extremely low, and he believes that nothing like sufficient evidence to overturn this verdict has been produced." Since this latter quote uses Plagtinga's own words, we get them both endorsing the idea that the naturalistic account violates the common sense view of the world.

As some commenters demonstrate, it's easy to ridicule this talk of common sense. One reason that common sense philosophy collapsed, after all, is that 19th-century know-nothings claimed that all of their dogmas were common sense.

Common sense as originally articulated by Thomas Reid is substantially more subtle.* For Reid, common sense is about faculties of belief formation rather than about specific propositional beliefs. Reliance on our senses is common sense, which means that seeing is prima facie grounds for believing. It is impossible to get enquiry started at all without provisional trust in the operations of our senses, memory, and reason. That trust in the first place is a trust in the faculties rather than in any specific beliefs formed by them.

Note that common sense, understood in Reid's way, doesn't include any specific beliefs. So it doesn't include any specific beliefs about origins of life and the universe.

Yet, I concede, common sense quickly yields some specific judgments. When I see a cat on the mat, I do employ my faculty of perception and judge 'A cat is on the mat'. Yet it is unclear what faculty is supposed to license 'The development of life would be inexplicable without there being some purpose'. I do not look and see it, nor do I receive it from any of the faculties which I trust at the outset of enquiry.

So Nagel and Plantinga are just appealing to common sense in that horrible, know-nothing sense that sunk common sense philosophy.

Plantinga goes on to explicate Nagel's argument by what seems to me to be an equivocation between probability, conditional probability, and likelihood. Further on, though, he parts company with Nagel. Where Nagel wants there to be purposes in nature itself, Plantinga wants them to be put in by God.**

Plantinga's idea is that the existence of God makes life and universe rather more probable than anything else would. He writes, "Given theism, there is no surprise at all that there should be creatures like us who are capable of atomic physics, relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and the like." In a sense, this is simply false. Everyone in the early 20th-century, whether theist or not, found relativity and quantum mechanics to be surprising.

He can reply here by saying that the capability is unsurprising, even if the content itself was a surprise. Theism explains why we can know things, because it posits that God made us to be knowers. Yet, accepting that God gave us truth-apt cognitive faculties, He still gave us limited capacities. Although we can figure out quantum mechanics, there are more complicated things we can't figure out. Why should he not have made our limits different, so that quantum mechanics would be forever beyond our ken?

If we take that question seriously, then it might be surprising even for theism that we are capable of quantum mechanics. If we scoff at the question, then we should not pretend to assign objective prior probabilities to there being creatures just like us given that a god exists. Those probabilities could not be anything more than our own subjective bleatings.

As I've argued elsewhere, arbitrary priors are the opposite of what Reid would have considered common sense.* So, to sound the drum again, the common sense of Nagel and Plantinga is the know-nothing hokum variety.

* For more discussion of this point, see my paper on Reid.

** Regarding the explanation of life in the universe, Plantinga comments that "God himself is living." The theology-cum-biology perplexes me, because I don't see how this could possibly be true in any scientifically useful sense of living.

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Belated seventh blogiversary 
I missed noting the end of this blog's year seven, which occurred back on October 4. It has been my practice to mark the date by tallying up the number of entries and words added to the blog in the course of the year. By subtracting out the entries I've written in the past month and half, I divine that year seven saw 29 new entries and 10,828 total words to end with a total of 273 entries and 126,862 words. That makes it the least productive year of blogging to date. Year eight is already off to a good start, however, including this here bit of puffery.

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In which I talk myself up 
I was at the Philosophy of Science Association meeting last week. Good times. Edification. All that stuff. I won't try to estimate the schmoozing to learning ratio, but the tallies in both columns were considerable. I have now been in the profession long enough that the conference lets me catch up with friends who I haven't seen in years.

Even though my paper was about something else, I talked a bunch about natural kinds. My book is sufficiently new that the publisher did not have a copy of it yet for the book exhibit, so it came up naturally in conversations about what I've been working on. And I spoke with other people whose papers did touch on the topic.

Palgrave's webpage for my book has a link to download a "sample chapter", but that really just means the three-page Introduction. I've pasted in the contents of the Introduction below the fold, in case you'd rather read it here. The download also contains the complete table of contents and index, if you want a more telegraphic but complete summary.

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