Calgary Summit on Philosophy of Science: Elliot Sober

We’re here in the Rozsa Centre at the U of C. Elliot Sober is speaking.

Two Dangers for Philosophy of Biology

Phil of bio will change, and might drift away from mainstream phil. Philosophers think phil of bio is less important thanthey did 20 or 30 years ago. Then we had important issues – sociobiology and creationism, and gifted writers – Gould, Lewontin, Dawkins, etc.

Phil of bio may have little to contribute to biology. Only 95% of biologists think phil of bio is bullshit, as opposed to 99% of physicists.

Regionalism: nothing useful to bio outside the discipline. Darwin disagreed.

Next meeting of POBAM is in May 2016. Many participants unaware that some problems had already been solved in general phil of sci.

phil of bio reluctant to make normative statements about biologists, whereas they do all the time concerning creationists. And biologists judge other biologists.

Quine thought epistemology should be subsumed under cognitivevscience thereby dropping all normative goals.

Laudan: epistemology as constructing means/ends hypothetical imperatives. Other philosophers don’t count descriptive phil of bio as philosophy. Hist of sci not friendly to normative statements.
Is rational reconstruction of hist of science useful? Helps understand the theory, but not the scientist.

Back to normativity: Look at controversies where philosophical tools can be used. Not all scientific controversies have this element.
Quine: in principle, everything could be relevant t everything else. But this isn’t true in practice.
Find scientific propositions that are plausible and find conditions where they are true or false. Example: statistical analysis of cladistic parsimony.

Collaborate with scientists to publish.

Normative problems should be rethought, not abandoned: degrees of confirmation, criteria of empirical significance, relevance of Occam’s Razor (ex. does cladistic parsimony assume that the evolutionary process is parsimonious?)

Mohan Matthen: commentator, attracted to philosophy when “interdisciplinarity” was popular. Some people attracted by interD process; others by interD problems.

The notion of “natural kind” was revised by philosophers of science. Phil of sci should do more to set own research agenda. Lack of confidence in own problems responsible for decline.

The concept of “function” is crucial to the debate about junk DNA, but many biologists aren’t aware of the complexities.

Phil of bio is thriving in Canada; most departments have hired philosophers of biology in the last ten years.

Feminist phil of sci has resulted in more papers presented on social and ethical issues.

Dupre: knowledge of science less important than it was in the past. European departments have very little power.

History of science still relevant. Reichenbach: all discussion of knowledge is normative. Scientists should, in principle, be able to endorse rational reconstructions of their own work.

My hunch is that the isolation Sober bemoans is endemic to most disciplines and sub-disciplines. As research increases, specialization becomes more rife, and specialists are less able to understand material outside their increasingly smaller fields. Accordingly, philosophers of science must have great and specialized expertise in history of science and science itself.

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