Thursday, 14 October 2010

a title goes here

SMBC hits again:

[I apologize for the whole "no posts last week" thing. I've been busy. I'll be back soon, I promise.]

Sunday, 3 October 2010

women's intuition

According to a recent study, there may really be such a thing as women's intuition, but it isn't what we might have thought. Instead, it could help explain why there are so few women in academic philosophy.

The study (via Leiter) is by Wesley Buckwalter (CUNY) and Stephen Stich (Rutgers).

The paper presents a series of gender-differentiated intuitions from common philosophical thought experiments. Not every thought experiment produces a statistically significant gender difference, but in those that do, the effect is marked.

The authors argue for the strong conclusion that this gender difference in intuitions about thought experiments is implicated in the gender difference in academic philosophy. (They are clear that this is not the only cause.)

Consider the predicament of a young woman in a philosophy class, who (like 71% - 75% of women in the Starmans & Friedman study) does not find it obvious that the characters in Gettier vignettes do not have knowledge of the relevant proposition. Rather, her intuitions tell her that the Gettier characters do have knowledge, though her instructor, whether male or female, as well as a high percentage of her male classmates, clearly think she is mistaken. Different women will, of course, react to a situation like this in different ways. But it is plausible to suppose that some women facing this predicament will be puzzled or confused or uncomfortable or angry or just plain bored. Some women may become convinced that they aren’t any good at philosophy, since they do not have the intuitions that their professors and their male classmates insist are correct. If the experience engenders one or more of these alienating effects, a female student may be less likely to take another philosophy course than a male classmate who (like 59% - 64% of the men in the Starmans & Friedman study) has the “standard” intuitions that their instructor shares. That male student, unlike the majority of his female classmates, can actively participate in, and perhaps enjoy, the project of hunting for a theory that captures “our” intuitions.
It is enough to convince me that I should be careful in presenting thought experiments as evidence, since my intuitions won't predict those of other people. (It's likely that gender isn't the only bias in the "received" interpretation of thought experiments. See this post.)

Saturday, 2 October 2010

the 27th letter of the alphabet

Geoff Pullum of Language Log writes that "one of the very worst things about the English writing system ... is that it very clearly employs 27 letters in the spelling of words but there is a huge and long-standing conspiracy to market it as having only 26." He explains:
One of the worst things about the forgotten letter is that it never stands for a sound in native English words. Indeed, it could be argued that it never appears as a letter within the plain form of any lexeme, and never occurs initially in any word in modern English. But it does appear as the first letter of the two-letter genitive singular suffix of regular nouns; as the second letter of the two-letter genitive plural suffix; as the middle of the three letters that spell the suffix identifying the negative form of auxiliary verbs; as the first letter in the written clitic forms of am, are, had, has, have, is, will, and would; and it has miscellaneous other uses. But though obligatory where it occurs, it never corresponds to any sound in native words.
If you're still confused, read the whole thing!

CFP: “The Regimen of Bodily Health: Nourishment and Natural Knowledge”

I'm very excited that Steven Shapin is the keynote speaker at my department's grad conference! (Great job organizing, Jai!) See below for the call for papers.


“The Regimen of Bodily Health: Nourishment and Natural Knowledge”

HAPSAT 7th Annual Conference

“The body” as both a material object and metaphor, provides a rich source of inspiration for both philosophical and historical studies of the production and transmission of knowledge. Lawrence and Shapin’s influential anthology, Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge (1998) broke new ground in this area with discussions of bodies as tools for philosophical inquiry, what it means for knowledge to be “embodied” in physical artifacts, and how bodily self-presentation can generate disembodied knowledge. The body also presents an arena for interplay of ideas about proper management of health and diseases and the application of scientific and medical expertise. Seventeenth century physicians, for instance, recommended a mixture of medicine and dietetics for consumptive patients; proper dietary regimes were often based on theoretical ideas about nourishment and health. Moreover, the body and our ideas of the body have been a political battleground: within the “culture of dissection” and public executions; as displays of ecclesiastical value and status; as technologically manipulable aspects of the self; as and as subjects of experimental philosophy.

On Friday March 18, 2011, HAPSAT, the Graduate Student Society at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto, will host its seventh annual conference, The Regimen of Bodily Health: Nourishment and Natural Knowledge.

This year’s distinguished keynote is Steven Shapin (Dept. Of History of Science, Harvard University): “The Long History of Dietetics: Thinking about Food, Expertise, and the Self.” The keynote is jointly hosted by HAPSAT and the IHPST Colloquium Series.

We invite graduate students and recent graduates working in fields such as HPS, STS, history, sociology, philosophy, public health, anthropology, gender studies, and law, to submit paper and panel proposals that critically engage with this theme. For papers please email abstracts of up to 250 words to by December 1, 2010. For panels, please email a document with a 250 word abstract describing the panel as a whole in addition to individual abstracts for each paper (also 250 words). Each presenter will be given 20 minutes.

We welcome papers addressing, but not limited to, the following questions:

  • What is the relationship between embodied lives and disembodied knowledge?
  • How have health regimes influenced historical or philosophical ideas about the body?
  • Do philosophical ideas about the nature of the self, identity, and human agency affect society’s treatment of bodies?
  • To what extent have technologies of the body influenced science in practice (e.g. technologies of blood transfusion)?
  • How are food, bodies, and personal and institutional authority related within the modern medical establishment?
  • What is the relationship between personal appearance and epistemic authority?
  • How have ideas about the degenerate body (e.g. monsters, deformity, disease) been shaped by cultural or social beliefs?
  • How do different modes of food production and consumption affect the political relationships between bodies?
  • What sorts of new political relationships, and political philosophies, are likely to arise if technological advancement makes the transhumanist dream a reality?

We hope to be able to offer billeting and small travel subsides for graduate students travelling to Toronto for the conference.

For more information, visit the conference website (to be updated shortly). The pdf poster is also available.

Friday, 1 October 2010

How to steer a hurricane

Duncan Geere of Wired describes how "microscopic plants less than half a centimeter across may be able to change the paths of 300-mile-wide tropical storms, due to their ability to change the color of the surface of the sea."

Thursday, 30 September 2010

what is creativity?

Steven Johnson argues that good ideas come from coffee shops. The basic idea seems to be that the kind of free-flowing discussion that happens in coffee shops is particularly conducive to the articulation of new ideas. I think that's right. More ideas come to fruition when people interact casually than when people sit alone in armchairs, and more (good) ideas come to fruition under the influence of caffeine than alcohol. But I suspect coffee shops are conducive to particular kinds of creativity -- especially combinatorial creativity or negation (pubs might be even more conducive to negation. Alcohol seems to fuel contrarians).

So what are some other forms of creativity?

Johnson describes one more, the  "long hunch," where the glimmerings of an idea are not yet fully articulated. Often, he says, what's needed is to connect up a number of half-ideas together into one good idea. So the "long hunch" is just a slow drip form of coffee shop creativity. Not really a new kind at all. But Johnson's explanation of the "long hunch" isn't satisfying to me. I think something else is going on.

John Wilkins, who has clearly thought more about this than I have, suggests a candidate, what he calls deep novelty. First, some preliminaries:
we have a frame of prior contrasts in which we typically (and traditionally, since these are inherited from teachers and other cultural influences) set up our problems and thoughts.
Wilkins pictures these contrasts as dimensions in a space of possibilities, explaining that
If you think that God may or may not exist, for example, then believing God does exist is to assert a coordinate in a binary space. If you think God’s existence is a matter of confidence or likelihood, then you settle on (if you do) a coordinate on a continuum.
On this view, coffee shop creativity involves mixing up or applying contrasts in new ways. But there are clear limits to this kind of creativity. "Our semantic world is the sum of all the contrastive axes of that space," which means that it simply isn't possible to express any idea that doesn't fall into the existing contrastive spaces.
To be clear, "our beliefs at any time are the coordinates we assert," and the possible beliefs we have the tools to understand are limited to the sum of the contrastive axes. Anything inside this space will be the combination, permutation, or negation of something pre-existing.
But there's another kind of creativity: "something is deeply novel if an entirely new contrast is added to the space."
I think this is a much better way to understand what's going on with a "slow hunch." To use Johnson's example, Darwin may have had all of the pieces to evolution, but he wasn't able to articulate how they fit together because he didn't yet have the relevant contrast. Once he had the contrastive structure in place, he could fit all the pieces together.
There's one emendation I'd make to Wilkins' account: it's also possible to stretch, shrink, or otherwise reshape existing contrasts. A mundane example of this happened when I moved from the United States to Canada and saw the political spectrum to the left suddenly unfurl and go for miles and miles kilometres and kilometres.
The remaining question (perhaps for cognitive scientists?) is how we come to have new contrasts.
In my dissertation (which is mostly about other things), I suggest that novel contrasts sometimes come about in the development of new scientific instruments. It's a complicated story, but the basic idea is that instrument design puts our conceptual understanding of the functioning of the instrument into conversation with its actual material capacities. We reshape both our ideas and the material instrument with the intention of producing an acceptable degree of agreement between concept and material. We're then able to use the instrument to provide evidence for scientific explanations. And scientific explanations consist in the selection of one state of affairs from a specified set of possible states of affairs (a contrast class).
One day soon, I hope to have the semantic space to explain that more clearly.

a case study in why explaining anything is hard

From Abstruse Goose: