“Cuverian Functionalism and the impossibility of evolution” (2/17/17)

February 22, 2017

Aaron Novick

Abstract: Ernst Mayr famously argued that all major disputes in the history of evolutionary theory could be understood as disputes between (good) population thinkers and (bad) typological thinkers. The basic difference between these two camps concerned the metaphysics of variation. In elaborating his conception of typological thinking, Mayr made the striking claim that a typologist must either deny evolution altogether or advocate a saltational theory of evolution (i.e. evolution by large leaps).
Enter contemporary developmental genetics. During the Cambrian radiation, the basic body plans of all extant animal phyla evolved. In the subsequent 500+ million years, those body plans have changed rather little. Eric Davidson and Douglas Erwin have developed an explanation of this remarkable evolutionary stasis in terms of recursively wired gene regulatory network subcircuits (called “kernels”) that serve special developmental functions. Interestingly, their explanation crucially invokes the saltation-or-non-evolution dichotomy that Mayr treated as a consequence of typological thinking. Is typology making a revival?
My goal in this paper is to elucidate the nature of this new explanation of deep conservation. I defend three claims. (1) I argue, on conceptual grounds, that what generates the saltation-or-non-evolution dichotomy is not typological metaphysics but a rejection of the possibility of gradual evolution, and I show historical “typologists” (e.g. Georges Cuvier and Otto Schindewolf) rejected gradualism for reasons entirely independent of a belief in typological metaphysics. (2) I show that the appearance of this dichotomy in contemporary developmental genetics rests on a form of functionalism similar to that of Cuvier, albeit modified. I show, further, that these very Cuvierian aspects of contemporary developmental genetics lead to a revival of Schindewolf’s notion of a graded hierarchy of variability. (3) But Cuvier was a famous opponent of all evolutionary (transformist) theories, and Schindewolf a famous opponent of gradual, Darwinian evolution. Does the revival of their ideas signal radical changes to evolutionary theory as we know it? To mitigate this fear (or dampen this excitement, as the case may be), I show how developmental genetics and standard evolutionary theorizing can be smoothly integrated.

“Success Without Representation” (2/10/17)

February 12, 2017

Shahin Kaveh

Abstract: I will argue that it is possible to explain the success of mature physical theories in such a way that assumes a robust connection between the theory’s parameters and the inner workings of the system, but without assuming that these parameters refer to or resemble any entities, properties, or structures within the system. In short, the idea is that the theory’s parameters track a contextually-defined state of the system, characterized by certain constraints and resolution limits, and that tracking is what makes the theory successful. َSome of the conclusions I will be arguing for are: 1) tracking is a relation to the system that is weaker than “representation” but stronger than “capturing the observables”, 2) the idea of tracking satisfies the realist and the anti-realist’s intuitions simultaneously and thus stands the test of both realist and anti-realist objections, 3) even if tracking parameters in some sense represent the system, we still cannot infer the inner composition of the system from them, and 4) even if tracking parameters represent, what makes them successful is that they track the system, not that they represent it.


“Three Obstacles to the Interpretation of Quantum Field Theory” (1/19/17)

January 19, 2017

Michael Miller

Abstract: We have it on good authority that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. In this talk I will consider three problems for this view that arise in quantum field theory, our best theory of the fundamental constituents of matter.  Each of the problems takes the form of an inconsistency in the mathematical foundations of the theory. I show that each of the inconsistencies can be overcome by taking the empirical content of the theory to be inexact. This shows that we can still regard mathematics as the language in which meaningful claims about the world are expressed, but it is a language that functions rather differently than has been assumed.


“Who’s Afraid of ‘Reductionism’?” (12/1/16)

December 1, 2016

Alexander Franklin

Abstract: Consider two crudely caricatured cohorts of philosophers: on the one side there are those who pay very close attention to the way science actually works, but tend to shy away from more metaphysical questions; on the other there are those who deal with science in the abstract and make a lot of metaphysical claims. I aim to chart a course between these two camps. I focus on the thesis of reductionism. One diagnosis for the divergent methodologies discussed above is that the main tool used in the philosophy of physics is the Nagelian theory of reduction. I briefly argue that this tool is hopelessly inadequate to the way science in practice describes the world After outlining reasons why reductionism is nonetheless worth thinking about, I outline a new hope, which I dub ‘the explanatory theory of reduction’. I argue, through a case study, that one can employ this tool to assess claims of reductionism even in the context of real science in all its intricate mess.


“Polish High School Graduate Major Choice” (11/17/16)

November 17, 2016
Tom Wysocki
Description of Project: I’m trying to finish a study in economics (that means economics, not philosophy of economics) that I started some years ago and neglected forever. The project is on how high-school graduates choose their major, and, in particular, whether norms (as in “one ought to study” or “everyone in my family has a degree and so should I”) play a role. I have the data already, estimated some models, and in the meanwhile I ran into some methodological problems. Some of them are in statistics/econometrics, some are more conceptual, and some are straightforwardly from philosophy of science. In my presentation, I want to (a) describe the project, (b) the hitherto results, and (c) signal the problems I ran into and hopefully get some helpful suggestions. I promise it’s more interesting than the abstract makes it seem.

“How to Stop Worrying about Model Microfoundationality: Lessons from Multiscale Cancer Modeling” (10/31/16)

October 31, 2016

Jacob Neal

Abstract: Microfoundational or bottom-up models aim to reproduce high-scale behavior of a system by modeling interactions between lower-scale entities. Epstein and Forber (2013) posit five virtues of microfoundational models, claiming they have advantages over other model types. I argue that bottom-up modeling is not so special. The virtues Epstein and Forber associate with microfoundational models are not exclusive to bottom-up models. Analysis of cancer modeling shows that middle-out modeling that spans multiple spatial and temporal scales also embodies these virtues. These virtues cannot differentiate between bottom-up and middle-out modeling, thereby suggesting we ought to be pluralists with respect to biological modeling.


“Darwin reading Macleay: a re-assessment”(10/27/16)

October 27, 2016

Aaron Novick

Abstract: It has long been recognized that, from July 1837 to November 1838, Darwin engaged extensively with William Sharp Macleay’s quinarian system of classification. His species notebooks are full of attempts to explain how the strange patterns “discovered” by the quinarians could have appeared plausible. But there is a puzzle. The first indication that Darwin actually read any of Macleay’s work does not appear until February 1838. By this time, Darwin’s opinion of the quinarian system had taken a decided turn for the worse. And indeed, in his comments on Macleay’s work that he had read, we see little attempt to further develop his explanations (away) of the quinarian system. Nonetheless, he read a great deal of Macleay’s work at this time. Why did he do so, if his interest in the quinarian system was waning? I argue that what Darwin found interesting in Macleay’s work was not his defense of the quinarian system, but his views on more general topics: (a) the distinction between humans and animals, (b) the distinction between species and varieties, and (c) the methodology of classification. I suggest, further, that Darwin’s reflections on Macleay’s methodology led to a shift in Darwin’s thinking that persisted into the Origin.