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The Rotman Institute of Philosophy is excited to announce the inaugural Rotman Graduate Student Conference (RGSC2021), taking place on Saturday, May 15 and Sunday, May 16, 2021 over Zoom. We are pleased to announce biologist, Dr. Daniel McShea (Duke University) and Presidential Professor of Philosophy, Dr. Muhammad Ali Khalidi (City University of New York) as our keynote speakers.

For planning purposes, advance registration for RGSC2021 is requested.

Please direct any questions about your registration to rotman.institute@uwo.ca.


RGSC2021 conference program

Thank you to Cameron Yetman for designing the RGSC2021 conference program!

Why the Past Matters: Scientific Taxonomy and Etiological Kinds

Muhammad Ali Khalidi, City University of New York

Abstract: Some scientific disciplines and sub-disciplines are widely regarded as historical, notably: cosmology, geology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, historical linguistics, and others. As recognized by Whewell (1847), one reason for regarding a science as historical is thatsome of its taxonomic categories are based (at least in part) on causal history. But why should science categorize on the basis of causal history rather than synchronic causal powers? In this paper, I will take a look at some of the ways in which a variety of scientific taxonomies categorize on the basis of causal history and will put forward some reasons for justifying such classificatory practices. Though some philosophers of science have argued that classification by causal history is not scientific, I will argue that taxonomic categories formed on the basis of causal history can serve the goals of explanation and prediction (or retrodiction), and that there are strong scientific grounds for classifying on this basis. I will conclude by applying some of these lessons to taxonomy in psychology and cognitive science.

Speaker Bio: I am Presidential Professor of Philosophy at City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. Before that, I was Professor of Philosophy at York University in Toronto. I’ve also taught at the American University of Beirut, University of Nevada at Reno, and (as a post-doc) at the University of Chicago and Columbia University. My work focuses on the philosophy of science, particularly cognitive science and social science. I’ve also done some work on classical Arabic-Islamic philosophy. My current project is a book titled, Cognitive Ontology: Taxonomic Practices in the Mind-Brain Sciences, which is supported by an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). To get some idea of what it’s about, you can watch a 2016 presentation on mind-brain taxonomy here.

An Externalist Teleology

Daniel W. McShea, Duke University

Abstract: What is the source of guidance for teleological entities? What explains their mysterious directedness – their persistence – in pursuit of a goal? Aristotle looked inward, to the entity’s internal nature. It is in a rock’s nature to go downward when it moves, he theorized. Today we have what I call “field theory.” Objects present near massive bodies are immersed in a gravitational field that persistently directs them toward the body. Today, in explaining the seeming goal directedness of developing organisms, their persistence as they transform from embryo to adult, we still look inward for the source of goal directedness, to the genes. The problem is that genes are not up to the job. Genes are certainly central in development, but they cannot guide the process in a goal-directed way. Genes are switches, of a sort, turning on and off,or continuously regulating, the production of proteins. And they contain no blueprint, no map, sufficient to guide the development of macroscale organismal structures. Such guidance can onlycome from something larger than and external to the guided structures, what today are variously called gene activation patterns, biochemical gradients, or simply morphogenetic fields. Here I raise the possibility that guidance by external fields is a common feature of all teleological entities, from organismal tropisms to human artifacts. Sunflowers tracking the sun across the sky are guided by the light field emanating from the sun. A homing torpedo tracking a target ship is guided by the sound field emanating from the target ship. What’s more, natural selection itself is a teleological process in which an evolving lineage is guided by an ecological “field.” In all of these, the teleological guidance, the field, is external. Extending the reasoning even further, intentionality in organisms can be understood as a system in which a goal-directed entity, consciousness, is immersed in and directed by external “fields.” Here the fields are affective processes – wants, preferences, cares, the passions, or simply the motivations – here conceived as larger than and enveloping the consciousness they direct. In this view, the affective processes themselves are directed by the yet-larger social structures in which they develop, as well as the ecological fields that guided their evolution. In sum, it would seem that across the board, for all goal-directed entities, guidance arises from external fields. And field theory solves the mystery of teleology.

Speaker Bio: Daniel McShea is a Professor of Biology at Duke University. He works mainly in two areas:

1) Evolution of Complexity: In a 2010 book with Robert Brandon, Biology’s First Law, we argue that the complexity of organisms will tend to increase spontaneously in the absence of natural selection and other forces. In evolution, complexity is easy. (And simplicity is hard.) … A second book, The Missing Two Thirds of Evolutionary Theory is due out in 2020.

2) Teleology (purpose, goal directedness): A common physical structure underlies all goal-directed systems, from acorns turning into oak trees to homing torpedoes to human passions and purposes. All of these are hierarchically structured, consisting a small thing nested within a large thing, more precisely, a goal-directed entity moving within a larger directing field. For the homing torpedo, the directed entity is the torpedo itself, and the directing field is the sound field emanating from a target ship. In us, the directed entities are thoughts and behaviors, and the larger fields are motivations, in other words, wants, preferences, and cares. According to this view (and consistent with David Hume’s centuries-old argument), it is not reason that powers and directs purposeful behavior, but our passions, both calm and strong.

This year’s conference will focus on metaphysical, epistemological, and conceptual aspects regarding the relationship between complexity and explanation in the sciences. We encourage graduate students completing interdisciplinary work in philosophy and science to submit original papers that raise important problems or are motivated by questions connected to complexity and explanation, broadly construed. 

RGSC2021 Submission Guidelines: 

  • Submissions are accepted through: https://easychair.org/conferences/?conf=rgsc2021
  • Maximum 5000 words, including footnotes and appendices (but not references). If the paper includes tables, figures, or equations, an appropriate number of words should be subtracted from the limit. 
  • Papers should be accompanied by an abstract that is no longer than 300 words.
  • Papers are to be prepared for anonymous review (meaning your name should not appear within the paper).
  • Co-authored papers are not eligible for submission.

Deadline: Friday, March 5th, 2021

Accepted Papers: Each presenter will be allocated an hour-long time slot; presentations should be approximately 30 minutes long with 30 minutes for a Q&A period 

Examples of topics for RGSC2021 may include but are not limited to:

  • Conceptual engineering as it relates to concepts in the sciences and social sciences.
  • Explanatory frameworks that attempt to reconcile the nature of highly complex systems.
  • Issues regarding complexity, causation, and scientific explanation.
  • The role of idealizations in the explanation of the behavior of a complex system.

Please send any questions to the RGSC2021 Committee: rgsc@uwo.ca

All the best, 

The RGSC2021 Committee

Thank you to the Rotman Institute of Philosophy, the Department of Philosophy, and the Department of Neuroscience at Western University for their generous support of RGSC2021.

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