Tag Archives: Philosophy

Peter Godfrey-Smith Takes On The Philosophy Of Biology

Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Philosophy of Biology (Princeton University Press), may not sound like the kind of book even science enthusiasts want to crack open for pleasure, but it’s a great way to get up to speed on all the issues that working biologists love to debate amongst themselves.

Godfrey-Smith is a professor in the Philosophy Program at City University of New York. His more academic books include, Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection (Oxford University Press), and Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (University of Chicago Press). His main areas of interest include the philosophy of mind and pragmatism.

In just 200 pages, Philosophy of Biology includes short, succinct chapters on mechanisms and models, natural selection, genes, adaptation and function, species and the Tree of Life, evolution and social behavior, and information.

But as I mentioned in my last post, the question for many science geeks is: why even bother with a book on philosophy at all–let alone the philosophy of science?

What good is it?

So, I asked Scott Carson, an associate professor of philosophy at Ohio University*, what he tells his students at the start of each semester.

Carson’s main areas of interest are the history of evolutionary biology and the biomedical sciences, and among his publications is this fascinating essay he co-authored on how quantum indeterminacy may effect evolution.

“Typically,” he said via email, “I tell my students that philosophy of science is important because we live in a society that is very much a product of what Bas Van Fraassen called ‘The Scientific Image’. That is, we are, as persons, largely shaped by the culture that surrounds us and we are presently surrounded by a culture that is increasingly impacted by science and technology.

“If we are to be intelligent and well-informed members of the society and culture in which we find ourselves, it is essential that we understand not only the results of scientific research, but the foundations of science itself.”

In Carson’s view, this will put us in a better position to evaluate questions about the nature of the authority of the sciences and the reliability of the conclusions and recommendations made by scientists.

“Ideally a philosopher of science is not someone who hopes to make any positive contributions to the working sciences,” he said, “but someone who is interested in answering philosophical questions that are informed by the discoveries of the sciences and who wants to describe and assess scientific practice as accurately as possible.”

In terms of the current book, he added, “I think you will find that this is very close to what Godfrey-Smith believes is the proper function of the philosopher of science.”

Read on @Forbes

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Heaven’s Gaits – What we do when we walk

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Why people walk is a hard question that looks easy. Upright bipedalism seems such an obvious advantage from the viewpoint of those already upright that we rarely see its difficulty. In the famous diagram, Darwinian man unfolds himself from frightened crouch to strong surveyor of the ages, and it looks like a natural ascension: you start out bending over, knuckles dragging, timidly scouring the ground for grubs, then you slowly straighten up until there you are, staring at the skies and counting the stars and thinking up gods to rule them. But the advantages of walking have actually been tricky to calculate. One guess among the evolutionary biologists has been that a significant advantage may simply be that walking on two legs frees up your hands to throw rocks at what might become your food—or to throw rocks at other bipedal creatures who are throwing rocks at what might become their food. Although walking upright seems to have preceded throwing rocks, the rock throwing, the biologists point out, is rarer than the bipedalism alone, which we share with all the birds, including awkward penguins and ostriches, and with angry bears. Meanwhile, the certainty of human back pain, like the inevitability of labor pains, is evidence of the jury-rigged, best-solution-at-hand nature of evolution.

Over time, though, things we do for a purpose, however obscure in origin, become things we do for pleasure, particularly when we no longer have to do them. As we do them for pleasure, they get attached either to a philosophy or to the pursuit of some profit. Two new accounts of this process have recently appeared, and although they occasionally make you want to throw things, they both illuminate what it means to be a pedestrian in the modern world.

Matthew Algeo’s “Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport” (Chicago Review) is one of those books which open up a forgotten world so fully that at first the reader wonders, just a little, if his leg is being pulled. How could there be an account this elaborate—illustrated with sober handbills, blaring headlines, starchy portrait photographs, and racy newspaper cartoons—of an enthusiasm this unknown? But it all happened. For several decades in the later nineteenth century, the favorite spectator sport in America was watching people walk in circles inside big buildings.
The story Algeo tells begins in 1860, at the start of the Civil War, when a New Englander named Edward Payson Weston made a facetious bet with a friend that, if Lincoln won the Presidential election, he would walk all the way from the State House in Boston to the unfinished Capitol, in Washington, in ten days. Lincoln won, and, ten days before the inaugural, Weston set off. Though he didn’t get there quite in time, his progress, chronicled by the newspapers, enthralled a nation in need of some small fun, and he became an improbable American hero, a kind of Lindbergh of the corns and calluses. Liking his new celebrity, and the money it brought, Weston decided to keep a good thing going and, when the war ended, began to engage in competitive, six-day (never on Sunday) walking marathons in Chicago, New York, and, eventually, London.

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