Archive for category Methodologies

Back from Vacation

Well, I’m back from “vacation.” Of course, all I mean by that is that I’m back from working at the shore instead of working at my desk here. That’s the great thing about online teaching (and philosophy): it can be done anywhere. The benefit of doing it down the shore is that there is, um, a shore waiting for you when you sign off. The drawback is that you tend to come back to your desk fatter, broker, and perhaps a tiny tad hungover (if your brothers are around every evening). Back to my monkish existence…at least for the next 9 months or so.

Besides the awesome restaurant food in Cape May, I’ve recently loaded up on a banquet of new technology: new Retina MacBook Pro, iPad Air, and a boat-load of new apps, all of which are intended (after a 5 year lull) to bring me up to date and make me more organized, efficient, and productive. That’s the hope, anyway.

I find I’m indebted to a number of helpful sites (especially Macademise and Macademic) that have given me plenty of good advice on academic workflows and handy apps. I hope to pay it forward by reporting on my impressions of apps like DEVONThink Pro Office, Scrivener, Circus Ponies Notebook, Text Expander, Keyboard Maestro, Bookends, and so on, as well as how I have used these tools to improve my work (if, in fact, they have improved it).

One of my new (school) year’s resolution is to work more diligently on this blog (as well as our birdingdaily blog), along with finishing off a couple of philosophy projects that have been languishing.

Stay tuned.



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“Nothing can be reduced to anything else…”

From Bruno Latour:

I taught at Gray in the French provinces for a year.  At the end of the winter of 1972, on the road from Dijon to gray, I was forced to stop, brought to my senses after an overdose of reductionism.  A Christian loves a God who is capable of reducing the world to himself because he created it.  A Catholic confines the world to the history of the Roman salvation.  An astronomer looks for the origins of the universe by deducing its evolution from the Big Bang.  A mathematician seeks axioms that imply all the others as corollaries and consequences.  A philosopher hopes to find the radical foundation which makes all the rest epiphenomenal.  A Hegelian wishes to squeeze from events something already inherent in them.  A Kantian reduces things to grains of dust and then reassembles them with synthetic a-priori judgments that are as fecund as a mule.  A French engineer attributes potency to calculations, though these come from the practice of an old-boy network.  An administrator never tires of looking for officers, followers, and subjects.  An intellectual strives to make the “simple” practices and opinions of the vulgar explicit and conscious.  A son of the bourgeoisie sees the simple stages of an abstract cycle of wealth in the vine growers, cellarmen, and bookkeepers.  A Westerner never tires of shrinking the evolution of species and empires to Cleopatra’s nose, Achilles’ heel, and Nelson’s blind eye.  A writer tries to recreate daily life and imitate nature.  A painter is obsessed by the desire to render feelings into colors.  A follower of Roland Barthes tries to turn everything not only into texts but into signifiers alone.  A man likes to use the term “he” in place of humanity.  A militant hopes that revolution will wrench the future from the past.  A philosopher sharpens the “epistemological break” to guillotine those who have not yet “found the sure path of a science.”  An alchemist would like to hold the philosopher’s stone in his hand.

To put everything into nothing, to deduce everything from almost nothing, to put into hierarchies, to command and to obey, to be profound or superior, to collect objects and force them into a tiny space, whether they be subjects, signifiers, classes, Gods, axioms—to have for companions, like those of my caste, only the Dragon of Nothingness and the Dragon of Totality.  Tired and weary, suddenly I felt that everything was still left out.  Christian, philosopher, intellectual, bourgeois, male, provincial, and French, I decided to make space and allow the things which I spoke about the room that they needed to “stand at arm’s length.”  I knew nothing, then, of what I am writing now but simply repeated to myself:  “Nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else.”  This was like an exorcism that defeated demons one by one.  It was a wintry sky, and a very  blue.  I no longer needed to prop it up with a cosmology, put it in a picture, render it in writing, measure it in a meteorological article, or place it on a Titan to prevent it falling on my head.  I added it to other skies in other places and reduced none of them to it, and it to none of them.  It “stood at arm’s length,” fled, and established itself where it alone defined its place and its aims, neither knowable nor unknowable.  It and me, them and us, we mutually define ourselves.  And for the first time in my life I saw things unreduced and set free.

From “Irreductions” in The Pasteurization of France, pp, 162-163. [1988]

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Thomas Aquinas on the air…

aquinas 4

Check out a BBC radio broadcast on our man Thomas.

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“Some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis…”

I couldn’t agree more!  A colleague sent me this gem from Erwin Schr0edinger (1887-1961), pioneer of quantum mechanics and Nobel Prize winner:

We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge.  The very name given to the highest institutions of learning remind us, that from antiquity and throughout many centuries, the universal aspect has been the only one to be given full credit. But the spread, both in width and depth, of the multifarious branches of knowledge by during the last hundred odd years has confronted us with a queer dilemma.

We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to require reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind to fully command more than a small specialized portion of it. I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true aim be lost for ever) than that some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them – and at the risk of making fools of ourselves.

From preface to “What is Life?” 1944
Based on a series of lectures given in Dublin in 1943

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I came here (to the University) for an argument…

…or rather for a disputation.  It may be a necessary ingredient for transdisciplinarity and something like the unity of knowledge.  Here’s Josef Pieper:

In the medieval university it was no more possible that it is today to achieve universality of knowledge and present things in such a way that students, or even teachers, obtained a truly “integral view.”  In this sense, the medieval university, just like our own universities, was not a place for studium generale.  But there was a difference:  the medieval university had the disputatio, and through it universality was achieved!  Hence we may validly ask whether the disappearance of disciplined debate carried out within the framework of the university between individuals and among the faculties may not be the true reason for the much-lamented loss of even a sketchy integral view.  It should be clear that I am not speaking here of converse among specialists and on a subject interesting only to specialists.  I mean converse on the subjects of “man in general.”  On these subjects, of course, the separate disciplines are constantly raising new questions and offering new material for discussion.  I know that for a debate of this nature several prerequisites are needed which were obviously present in the medieval university and which seem lacking today–for example, the common language and the relatively unitary philosophical and theological world view.  But perhaps it would not be altogether utopian to attempt to rebuild our academies on the basis of those very principles which were the foundation stones of the Occidental university–one of which is certainly the spirit of disputation.

[Guide to St. Thomas, 87-88]

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The (Natural) Law: Not (just) a good idea…?

Gerard Mannion asks in a recent essay in The Tablet whether natural law is such a good idea (20 October 2007, pp. 12-13).  The way he sometimes describes it, you might not think so.

Mannion is commenting on Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the International Theological Commission in Rome on October 5, 2007.  In his address, the Pope is arguing that the occlusion of the natural law has consequences that reach further than the confines of the Catholic Church (if there really are any…), and he, the Pope, offers in Mannion’s words “natural law as a means of offering moral guidance not only to Catholics but those with different or even no religious beliefs–as a form of ethics that can transcend interreligious and indeed religious secular boundaries.”  But Mannion wonders: “So could natural law be a kind of moral Holy Grail?  Would it be right to perceive natural law as a definitive code of absolute moral norms, applicable at all times and all places?”

Mannion then goes on to help his readers understand just what is meant by “natural law.”  He rightly notes that there term has been used ambiguously and that there is a rich history of thought surrounding the concept.  He concludes

Thus “natural” means the attempt to ground ethics in existence and in a shared understanding of what it is to be human, while “law” means something very unlike the modern understanding of the term–principle or orientation might be a more appropriate term today, as opposed to fixed and rigid “laws” in a legalistic sense.  Even a shared understanding of what it means to be human does not mean that all persons must follow the same course of action in a given situation for we also share in common human uniqueness.

Every reader of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics would know as much (as would, of course, just about anyone).

Mannion is worried that the Pope’s address is one more example of the Magisterium’s asserting itself, and that the Pope is pushing “a particular understanding of NLT (natural law theory) as normative for all human beings” in an effort to “claim greater certitude or find ‘closure’ concerning numerous questions, be they moral, ecclesial, or political.”  Mannion opines:  “Certainty is appealing and safe. Uncertainty is not.”  Mannion sees this as the contunuation of the battle against the evils of postmodernism, calling a concern for what may appear as nihilsm as “reactionary Christian discourse” in which “all ‘relativism’ is shunned as somehow detrimental to the faith.”

Mannion says that a survey of history would show plenty of examples of positions once held to be absolute and binding being overturned as context-bound and relative to the times or situation.  Indeed, Mannion argues,

the Church’s moral tradition has changed.  There were no universal, immutable natural ‘laws’ teaching against religious freedom, against democracy, freedom of the press, human rights, ecumenism and so on, nor were there any written in the hearts of human beings in favour of allowing capital punishment, in favour of rigidly defined social-class hierarchy or permitting slavery.  And yet, in the past, the Church and many Catholics have spoken as if there were.

Mannion cites theologian Charles Curran in holding that

morality is best understood along a continuum that moves from the more general to the specific.  At the general end, we thus speak of wider moreal principles and of orientation.  At this end, of course, a great deal of agreement can be achieved.  At the opposite end we have the specific or particular situations and contexts whereby the more general principles need to be applied and the fundamental moral orientation needs to prevail.  Here there will be differences concerning the right course of action ‘relative’ to specific persons, communities and contexts, and there will even be legitimate diversity.

Actually, it is not “morality” that moves along a continuum, but rather our capacity for certainty in judgment.  If understood this way, this is, again, right out of Aristotle.

He continues: 

In between these two poles of the general and the specific will advance the norms, directives and guides of the moral tradition at one end, with the transition between objective principle to subjective moral practices coming somewhere in the middle: here concrete decisions need to be made and conscience plays a pre-eminent part and must do so.  Finally, in the specific and particular situation we find the need for casuistry, that process whereby we attempt to allow the general principles and norms to inform the particular situations and practices.

Mannion sees the “grey area” being shrunk by NLT according to the Pope’s tastes. 

Morality changes, says Mannion, but he is not arguing that just “anything goes.”  He counsels:  “General moral principles maintain consistency: do good, shun evil.  How one might best do good and shun evil in a given situation, at a given time, is obviously something less fixed and universally determinable.”  He reminds us, “NLT is not an ‘exact’ science by any stretch of the imagination.”  At best, such a “universal ethical system” (the Pope does not use this phrase, by the way) would offer guidelines more that strict rules.  But these guidelines for living would not be “infallible guides that will lead one effortlessly through every ethical forest, tunnel or cavern, for no such universal moral ‘map’ could possibly exist.”  Maps are for specific regions; a map for one city won’t do for another. But learning to read any given map might provide transferrable skills for reading another map.  And getting the advice of others who have gone before us into the land in which we are traveling certainly can help.  But Mannion says there can be no universally applicable Mapquest-like directions (go straight one mile, turn left, turn left, go straight, turn right) that would get anyone anywhere they’d want to go anytime.  And what if the maps, advice, or set of directions was bad in the first place?

No, what we need, says Mannion, is not postmodern nihilistic anything goes absolute relativism (love that phrase, btw…), nor an “equally absolutist ‘universal’ ethical ‘system’.”  What we need, he says, is “a healthy and pluralistic dialogue between different faiths, churches, political, social and scientific ideologies and across diverse communities and nations.  The common good cannot be ‘defined’, it must be discerned.”  We don’t need a “voluminous rulebook,” just an “understanding of the nature and process of moral discernment itself.”

The problem with this essay is that Mannion makes it seem like he’s picking a big fight with the idea of natural law, but ends up describing and defending a fairly standard model of NLT.  NLT theorists do not think the result of their work will be “voluminous rulebooks” or algorithmic moral machinery.  From Aristotle on, natural moral law was taught and learned by studying cases.  Mannion is misleading by noting that St. Thomas “spends but few pages upon ‘natural law’ as such,” because the whole of Thomas’ analyses of the virtues depends on a prior understanding of human nature.  It’s all about natural law (and, yes, “law” in the sense that Mannion describes it, as principle and orientation, and not a mathematico-physical law).

I am not complaining about how Mannion would help us in essence to become more moral, more virtuous.  No one working for Metanexus is going to object to a call for the most wide-ranging dialogue!  My complaint is that Mannion seems to have an axe to grind with the Vatican in its application (but not necessarily its understanding) of natural law.  We all sin and fall short of the glory of God.  The problem, seems to me, is with the execution, not the play that was called.  These are different.

Mannion, for instance, suggests that “morality has changed” and so the Vatican is wrong to persist in condemning certain forms of artificial contraception.  But how are the Pope and Mannion going to figure this out? 

And, this leads back to the title question of Mannion’s essay:  Cast in stone?  My question in response is “Is what cast in stone?”  The essential principles of natural law? Mannion himself notes the “consistency” with which those principles are maintained.  Perhaps the principles are cast in stone, only seeming to waiver when the will is weak.  But is any particular moral act set in stone?  The actual act?  No, in the sense that I could do otherwise.  And no, in the sense that there may be more than one act that would satisfy the demands of morality in this case (although perhaps…perhaps…not the demands of excellence).  But that the act will have moral significance?  Yes, that’s set in stone, too.

Read the Pope’s address.  See for yourself whether he is talking about systems and algorithms or whether he is talking about what underlies the complex richness of all human interaction, the occlusion of which has adverse consequences.  And see whether the Pope and Mannion are that far apart. 

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Laws or Models? offers an excerpt from a book edited by Angela N. H. Creager, Elizabeth Lunbeck, and M. Norton Wise entitled, Science Without Laws:  Model Systems, Cases, Exemplary Systems, published by Duke University Press.

The several authors of this volume argue for or give examples of analogical modeling as a rigorous methodology, not only in biology but in a wide variety of fields.  This modeling methodology is more true to the objects of study than would be precise mathematical laws (a preeminent form of reductionism).

Here’s a little taste:

Unlike the idealized representational models characteristically featured in the history of the exact sciences, in which the model (e.g., the Bohr atom) has been supposed to mirror a natural system (hydrogen) by embodying the mathematical laws and structure from which the behavior of the system can be deduced, model systems maintain their own autonomy and specificity. That is, model systems [NOTE:  this refers to “a select set of rodents, fish, amphibians, microbes, and even a plant”] do not directly represent humans as models of them. Rather, they serve as exemplars or analogues that are probed and manipulated in the search for generic (and genetic) relationships. They serve as models for human attributes. The use of standardized organisms in biomedicine is part of a broader model-systems approach in the life sciences that includes the investigation of a far wider range of entities, from specific proteins (e.g., hemoglobin) to particular lakes (e.g., Linsley Pond in Connecticut), and whose utility in producing general knowledge relies on the routine use of analogies to other examples and entities.

These distinctions between representational and representative functions, between models of and models for, have proven quite useful in discussing the characteristics of model systems. We suggest that insofar as similar objects inhabit spaces far beyond biology laboratories, the same distinctions extend to other areas, areas where relations of similarity rather than deduction have grounded claims to generality and where specificity has been a resource rather than a problem. Many fields have developed canonical examples that have played something like the role of model systems, which serve not only as points of reference and as illustrations of general principles or values but also as sites of continued investigation and reinterpretation. What we here call model objects of this sort in this volume include Athenian democracy in political theory, the ritual in anthropology, and the so-called Prisoner’s Dilemma in game theory. Through what processes do particular organisms, cases, materials, or texts become foundational to their fields? How do they serve a classificatory function for the organization of knowledge, whether it is in a biology laboratory or an art museum? When does the specificity or idiosyncrasy of an example threaten its utility?

Examining the pursuit of knowledge organized around exemplars rather than around fundamental laws, we aim to reopen the old question of the relation between the human sciences and the natural sciences. In the nineteenth century, the question was cast in terms of the relation between the generalizing lawlike sciences (nomothetic, in the canonical formulation of Wilhelm Windelband) and the particularizing sciences (idiographic), where lawlike referred to the universal laws of physics as the ideal of science.

It is no longer the case, however, that universal laws either do or can serve as a model for all science, even natural science. This has become most apparent with the emergence of biology in the past thirty years as the so-called science of the future. It is not clear that there are any high-level laws in biology, in the sense of predictive laws that determine the future behavior of a biological system (except perhaps in evolutionary theory); we will not be concerned with whether such laws may emerge. Instead, we want to show how the model-systems approach so pervasive in biology compares with the use of cases, exemplars, and related methods in other fields. Interestingly, it appears that many of these approaches grew up in response to the challenge of producing something like lawlike knowledge in disciplines in which laws seemed incapable of capturing the specificity and complexity of organisms, geological processes, or human productions. If the result has not been laws, it has nevertheless been reliable systematic knowledge. Thus, our title: Science without Laws.

The book will also make a case for “casuistry,”so to speak–that is, reasoning by cases.  Pascal was bothered by this, but he should really have been bothered only by the abuse of casuistry. Again from Science Without Laws:

To Ian Hacking’s enumeration of six “styles of reasoning” that characterize the sciences, for example, John Forrester has proposed “reasoning by cases” as a seventh scientific method, widely used not only in the human (and biological) sciences, but also in law, medicine, and ethics. Case-based reasoning relies on relations of similarity rather than on conventional reductionism and treats specificity as a resource, not a problem. The essays in this book attend to case based modes of inquiry usually neglected by historians and philosophers of science, demonstrating that their epistemological practices and patterns extend far beyond the boundaries of science.

Table of Contents:

Introduction / Angela N.H. Creager, Elizabeth Lunbeck, and M. Norton Wise 1

Part 1: Biology
Redesigning the Fruit Fly: The Molecularization of Drosophila / Marcel Weber 23
Wormy Logic: Model Organisms as Case-Based Reasoning / Rachel A. Ankeny 46
Model Organisms as Powerful Tools for Biomedical Research / E. Jane Albert Hubbard 59
The Troop Trope: Baboon Behavior as a Model System in the Postwar Period / Susan Sperling 73

Part 2: Simulations
From Scaling to Simulation: Changing Meanings and Ambitions of Models in Geology / Naomi Oreskes 93
Models and Simulations in Climate Change: Historical, Epistemological, Anthropological, and Political Aspects / Amy Dahan Dalmedico 125
The Curios Case of the Prisoner’s Dilemma: Model Situation? Exemplary Narrative? Mary S. Morgan

Part 3: Human Sciences
The Psychoanalytic Case: Voyeurism, Ethics, and Epistemology in Robert Stoller’s Sexual Excitement / John Forrester 189
“To Exist Is to Have Confidence in One’s Way of Being”: Rituals as Model Systems / Clifford Geertz 212
Democratic Athens as an Experimental System: History and the Project of Political Theory / Josiah Ober 225
Latitude, Slaves, and the Bible: An Experiment in Microhistory / Carlo Ginzburg 243

Afterword: Reflections on Exemplary Narratives, Cases, and Model Organisms / Mary S. Morgan 264

Contributors 275
Index 279

Interested readers should also have a look at this chapter (.pdf) from Nancy Cartwright’s book, The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science.

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