Tales in a subdued palette of chestnut and white 
Charles Sander Peirce observed that it's a poor bet to insist that science will never be able to solve some question. Make the bet, he says, and
[t]he likelihood is that it will be solved long before you could have dreamed possible. Think of Auguste Comte who when asked to name any thing that could never be found out instanced the chemical composition of the fixed stars; and almost before his book became known to the world at large, the first steps had been taken in spectral analysis.*
Yet there are certainly some questions we won't be able to solve. The problem, of course, is identifying which facts those are.

Traces of the past have been effaced, and so there are some facts about what the past was like that are unrecoverable. In explaining underdetermination to people, I use the colour of dinosaurs as an example. It may just be that the fossil record has not preserved enough for us to figure it out.

And yet researchers claim to figure it out based on microscopic bits responsible for extruding pigment; see the NYTimes article. The Sinosauropteryx, we are told, had "had a head-to-tail feathered mohawk in a subdued palette of chestnut and white stripes."

The story goes on to indicate that other scientists challenge the result, that the data set is small, and so on. And I only ever used the example in a conditional way, to say that the relevant evidence might not exist in the fossil record. I only meant say that this kind of underdetermination will arise in historical sciences. Of course we can't know with certainty which questions will be underdeterminated in this way.

Still, I need a new example.


* See here for the full citation.

[crossposted]

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Grue on a Tuesday 
My copy of Philosophy of Science* arrived today, and I've just read Ingemar Nordin's "Technology and Goodman's Paradox." The central claim of the article is that the problem of induction is primarily an issue about whether or not to believe theories and so does not arise for reliance on techniques. Nordin ultimately suggests that - given the choice between two techniques - we should rely on the one that has the longest track record of working for us in the past.

I'm going to suggest: Either (A) Nordin's solution works for theories, too; or (B) the solution doesn't work for techniques. In either case, the problem of induction is as much a problem for technology as it is for theory.

A. Nordin's suggestion that we should rely on our most longstanding techniques is a lot like Goodman's own suggestion about predicates. Goodman suggests we generalize using 'green' rather than 'grue' because the former is entrenched. Of course, this doesn't justify our use of 'green' in any transcendent sense. If our forebears had used gruesome vocabulary, then 'grue' would be the entrenched predicate.**

But Nordin wants to say that relying on an entrenched technique is rational, whereas generalizing using an entrenched predicate is not. This requires a distinction between theories (which are confirmed) and techniques (which are relied upon). Indeed, Nordin tells us that a theory "is of course a linguistic entity that is capable of having a truth value" (p. 347). This presumes what used to be called the Received View of theories, that they are linguistic entities which have truth values. It is no longer received, not a consensus, and arguably only the minority view now. But it does yield a sharp distinction between theories (which are for believing) and techniques (which are for using).

Suppose instead that a theory is a set of resources for building models. In a paper, I call this the 'toolbox theory' concept. On this view, theories are not distinct from techniques. Instead, theories just are techniques of a particular kind. Nordin ultimately advocates something similar, writing "that from a technological point of view scientific theories should be treated as tools; as instruments for construction of techniques" [p. 352].*** If we adopt the toolbox theory concept, then any principled reason to use entrenched techniques should also be a reason to use entrenched predicates.

B. Nordin only forms grue-like alternatives to theories understood as statements. So, regarding some technique T, he opposes claims like "T works" to grue-like rivals like "T works before January 2011, but does not work afterwards." (Typing that, it makes me think that the warranty on T must run out at the end of 2010.) But we can consider gruesome techniques, too.

Suppose that I have consistently used the technique hit it with a hammer and that this has worked out for me so far. Nordin would suggest that it would be rational for me to keep hitting it with a hammer in future cases. However, how I am I supposed to know that my technique in those previous instances was to hit it with a hammer rather than to hit it with a hammer if before January 2011, but stab it with a screwdriver afterwards?

Either I have a description of my technique in mind or I do not. If I do, then we are back in with predicates. I am thinking of this as a 'hammer' rather than a 'hamdriver', and it is green vs. grue all over again. If I do not, it's not clear what distinguishes future applications of this technique from applications of different techniques. I carry on doing what I'm doing, whatever that is.

To sum up: There isn't any fault along which to separate the theoretical problem of induction from the practical problem of induction. If it's a problem, then it's a problem on both sides of the line. Theories are techniques, but techniques are also theoretical.


* v 76, n 3, July 2009. Is the journal still this far behind, or am I just getting it late?
** Note that relying on entrenched techniques leads down the same road as relying on entrenched predicates; cf. p. 353. If our forebears had long used odd techniques, then they would now be entrenched. In fact, our forebears did use lots of odd techniques. Somebody did something quirky and things went well, the quirky thing became common practice, and it became the thing that people had always done. We call these superstitions.
*** Nordin's suggestion is different than the toolbox view in two respects. First, he says it only holds "from a technological point of view." Second, he sees theories as tools for constructing techniques rather than for constructing models.

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Contents may settle during shipping 
Matt asks about the contents of the recently released New Waves in Philosophy of Science. Amazon has a preview for other books in the series, but not this one yet. I'm sure it will in due time, but here's the list of contributions anyway:

1. Juha Saatsi, Form vs. Content-driven Arguments for Realism
2. Sherri Roush, Optimism about the Pessimistic Induction
3. Anjan Chakravartty, Metaphysics Between the Sciences and Philosophies of Science
4. Jessica Pfeifer, Nominalism and Inductive Generalizations
5. Otavio Bueno, Models and Scientific Representations
6. Greg Frost-Arnold and P.D. Magnus, The Identical Rivals Response to Underdetermination
7. Laura Perini, Scientific Representation and the Semiotics of Pictures
8. Jay Odenbaugh, Philosophy of the Environmental Sciences
9. Justin Biddle and Eric Winsberg, Value Judgments and the Estimation of Uncertainty in Climate Modeling
10. Kristen Intemann, Feminist Standpoint Empiricism: Rethinking the Terrain in Feminist Philosophy of Science
11. Daniel Steel, Naturalism and the Enlightenment Ideal: Rethinking a Central Debate in the Philosophy of Social Science
12. Michael Weisberg, New Approaches to the Division of Cognitive Labor

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Book and Pitt 
Two brief items of note.

1. New Waves in Philosophy of Science, a volume of new essays that I coedited with Jacob Busch, has now been published. The link is to the Amazon page.

2. I've been invited to be a visiting fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Science in Pittsburgh, next Fall while I'm on sabbatical. This invitation did not come out of the blue - I applied - but it's still pretty exciting.

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It's only a question 
[A couple of months ago, I was invited to join the giant group blog It's Only a Theory. This post is the first one since then that's been suitable for that venue, so I've cross posted.]

Although there is not consensus about what would make a natural kind natural, most traditional views agree that naturalness is a monadic feature; ie, "K is a natural kind" can be true or false of a given kind without specifying any further parameters. Call this the monadic presumption.

A few philosophers of science have denied this assumption and insisted that a kind is only a natural kind relative to a specified enquiry; ie, it's a relation of the form "K is a natural kind for E." (Proposals of this kind have been made by Dupre and Boyd.)

Consider an example like 'race.' There is no essential biological difference between members of different races, and so it may be tempting to say that race is not a natural kind. This flatfooted conclusion that race is not a natural kind only makes sense given the monadic presumption. On the relational conception, all that follows is that race is not a natural kind for biology.

A sociologist trying to understand social stratification and discrimination in the US South (for example) might need to recognize race, at least in some form. If so, then race would be a natural kind for that sociological enquiry.

It's tempting to say that race is not a natural kind because we want to deny the bogus rationale for discrimination. Recognizing race as a natural kind for sociology doesn't undercut that, however, since the sociologist's 'race' category couldn't justify the practices that it is used to explain.

To take a different example, biological kinds will not be natural kinds for particle physics - but they are nevertheless natural kinds for appropriately specified enquiries.

Although Dupre proposed a relativized conception of natural kinds over twenty years ago, the monadic presumption is still alive; eg, Bird and Tobin, in the SEP entry on Natural Kinds, simply presume it.

What I'm wondering is whether you, reader of this blog, consider the monadic presumption to be the default view of natural kinds. How heterodox is the relativized conception? Do you even consider the relativized conception when you think about natural kinds?

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