Archive for the ‘Philosophy of Science’ Category

Here is an interesting article regarding the relationship between natural science and social science, specific to  public policy.

I recently had an exchange with a sociology major who insistent upon the relevance of Marxist theory in social science (I should be clear though; the immediate intent of this post is not a discussion of Marxist theory, though of course, that discussion can emerge). I was willing to admit that the social scientist can tease around ideas and theories that those in the natural sciences would probably never take too seriously (e.g., I can’t for the life of me think of a single chemist, physicist, or biologist who would use a theory of exploitation within their respectable disciplines). However, I insisted that social scientists ought to be continuous with the natural sciences, specifically biology. I mentioned, for example, that emergent complexity has far more explanatory power than Marxism. Thus, social scientists ought to embrace this theory rather than Marxism, especially since Marxism isn’t even a viable scientific theory. Of course, like many social scientists, he was unwilling for this move and was inclined to think of social science as su generis.

These sorts of debates are popular because of the constant creeping in of radical relativism, interpretative  theories, and worst of all, Post-Modernism. This is unfortunate, as the origins of disciplines, such as Anthropology, emerged as explicitly scientific (e.g,, Darwin, Neurath, Tyler, Saussure, and many more). Consequently, we often see departments that have a traditional scientific social scientist alongside a supposed psychoanalytic theorist; we see a social scientist who is skilled in data management, statistical testing, etc. alongside individuals who see science as filtered through a western white male psyche.

To conclude, the philosopher constantly complains of having to explain exactly what it is they do because of peoples’ lack of understanding. Likewise, the dedicated “scientific” social scientist is left with a similar burden.

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The recent philosophy club discussion dwelled some time on how evolution by natural selection might track truth. Paul Griffiths makes the case that evolution has manipulated cognitive processes  in such a way that they tend to track truth and also responds to Plantinga’s EAAN (which I have not found persuasive, though I am inclined to think that one can have warranted religious beliefs even with an evolutionary explanation for those cognitive processes influencing them).

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Michael Dummett, perhaps one of the most influential Anglo-American philosophers of the last half of the 20th century, died on December 27th, 2011. I would have posted earlier had I been aware, but Dummett’s death only recently caught my attention. Personally, Dummett’s work on intuitionistic logic and verificationism have greatly influenced my own thoughts on logic and epistemology and, ironically, despite his verificationism, Dummett was also a practicing Roman Catholic.

For those who may be unfamiliar with Dummett’s work, here is an informative discussion given by Graham Priest, who last year permitted the FSPB to interview him, and Alan Saunders, the host of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s programme The Philosopher’s Zone.

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In ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism,’ Alvin Plantinga argues that naturalism excludes the means to validating our cognitive faculties. In a nutshell, Plantinga argues that if the reliability of our cognitive faculties is under question, one cannot answer the question whether they are reliable by pointing out that these faculties themselves deliver the belief that they are reliable; one needs more, one needs good, independent reason to believe our cognitive faculties are reliable. Crudely, Plantinga criticisizes empiricists / naturalists for failing to provide a logically satisfactory argument for asserting that our cognitive faculties are reliable.

Plantinga’s argument, though, does not immediately commend itself to acceptance: Essentially, the empiricist / naturalist must provide an argument for the foundational reliability of our cognitive faculties only if she first accepts a foundationalist epistemology. However, empiricists / naturalists need not accept a foundationalist epistemology. Indeed, the empiricist / naturalist should instead reject the premise that knowledge requires an Archimedean foundation. (I guess Plantinga could assert that the empiricist / naturalist is somehow committed to a foundationalist epistemology, but I would like to see the argument for that. In any case, I have little confidence the argument would work.)

Rather, pace Hasok Chang (epistemic iteration), C.S. Peirce (pragmatism) or W.V.O. Quine (coherentism), the empiricist / naturalist can take other routes. Though I have significant misgivings about coherentism, it remains a viable option. However, a more promising route, I believe, would be Chang’s idea of epistemic iteration, which is a thoroughly proper empiricist epistemology (situated within a largely Peircean pragmatist framework). To see this, let us look at Chang’s analysis of the historical problem of the reliability of thermometry in early and mid 19th science. Though crude and without the requisite scholarly detail, the synopsis should suffice to give the rough view.


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Tim Dacey

In a recent class discussion a debate brewed over the topic of Randy Thornhill’s and Craig Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape. The arguments proposed in their book have been widely criticized and rejected by much of the scientific and philosophical community (for good and bad reasons). What follows is some general thoughts; perhaps though, a formal paper will emerge for this topic if a good discussion results.  It seems there are some important flaws that can be revealed in the assumptions Thornhill and Palmer use to make their argument.  I am inclined to use an example from the history of evolutionary biology, namely, Stephen Jay Gould’s criticism of the assumptions underlying the adaptation of antlers in “Irish Elk.” Similar to Gould,  I will reveal a similar ‘bad’ assumption that Thornhill and Palmer use and then present an alternative argument that may prove more convincing.


Recall that the assumptions the adaptationist program was using to explain the immense antlers (and bodies) of the Megloceros, or “Irish Elk,” focused on combating predation where antlers served as weapons. However, the largest predator that this creature would ever face in the late Irish Pleistocene was a wolf pack. In fact, these massive antlers could be harmful to the survival of the Elk. That the antlers were often detrimental to the survival of the Elk seemed to present and anomaly for Darwin’s theory of natural selection, as a trait was being selected for that was harmful to the individual. It was Gould who pointed to the faulty assumption that antlers were weapons combating predators and that this was the only way large antlers would emerge. Gould challenged this assumption and insisted that competition for females may have led to large bodies. That is, Elk with larger body size would tend to triumph over those males who were smaller ultimately leading them to pass their genes on to offspring. A consequence of this, of course, are larger antlers; this follows a principle of allometry.


Likewise, it is my contention that Thornhill and Palmer use a faulty evolutionary assumption, that rape is intended for procreation. There are at least two general categories that we can place rape in: (1) genetically predisposed (I am not suggesting a ‘rape gene’, rather just that there could exist genes that when malfunctioning or ‘overly present’ may create an anxious and violent drive for sex leading to something such as rape) and (2) conditionally predisposed (e.g., watching violent pornography may construct an anxious and violent cognitive drive for sex). (1) is where Thornhill and Palmer would need to focus there argument, as individuals regarding (2) could not pass their traits on to their offspring, or at least not genetically. Further, the argument that Thornhill and Palmer would need to insist upon would be similar to Gould’s—that rape isn’t being selected for per se. Rather, genes correlated with behaviors of dominance (perhaps testosterone genes) are selected for via sexual selection. Suppose that in early hominins males with higher levels of testosterone are selected for because they can dominant their opponents for mates (not a surprising behavior among apes). These individuals will pass their genes on to their offspring who in turn compete for mates and pass their genes on. What tends to emerge are males with aggressive behavior causing genes. Since these genes will also correlate with sex drives, then a by-product—an unfortunate one in this case—emerges where individuals with increased aggressive and sexual drives may ‘rape’ other members in the population. That “rape is selectively advantageous for procreation” can be rejected in the same fashion that the original argument used in Megaloceros’ antlers was rejected.

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Too many people take the so-called theory of intelligent design seriously, which is unfortunate since nobody who takes a scientific view of the world should, and everyone ought to take a scientific view of the world. As many have argued, ID theory is not, properly, a theistic explanatory model. However, I am not convinced that this is the case, and for two primary reasons. (Though, I find that insofar as ID theories are not theistic models, they actually suffer from more problems, so they really ought to welcome theistic interpretations. But this we may skip for now.) First, the correlation between theism and ID theory is too great for it to be an accident of honest inquiry. The overwhelming majority of ID theory proponents are theists, and theistic conceptions of god are, not surprisingly, suitable candidates for the intelligent designer. Second, the Discovery Institute, the main intellectual impetus behind ID theory in the English speaking world, published The Wedge, wherein they explicitly advocate for a theistic interpretation of ID theory. (FYI: One may read the document here: The Wedge.)

In any case, what is to follow is a rough and ready argument against theistic explanatory models.


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The logician and philosopher of science Neil Tennant’s piece entitled ‘What might logic and methodology have offered the Dover School Board, had they been willing to listen?’ Read it here in the articles section.

P.S. Tennant (appropriately) takes Larry Laudan to task for the latter’s position on the scientific nature of creationism, which he (Laudan) expressed in a 1982 paper highlighted recently in a post on the blog. 

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