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Abstracts for CamPoS

CamPoS (Cambridge Philosophy of Science) is a network of academics and students working in the philosophy of science in various parts of the University of Cambridge, including the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and the Faculty of Philosophy. The Wednesday afternoon seminar series features current research by CamPoS members as well as visitors to Cambridge and scholars based in nearby institutions. If you are interested in presenting in the series, please contact Matt Farr (mwef2). If you have any queries or suggestions for other activities that CamPoS could undertake, please contact Huw Price, Jeremy Butterfield or Anna Alexandrova.

Seminars are held on Wednesdays, 1.00–2.30pm in Seminar Room 2.

Further details of the composition and activities of CamPoS

Lent Term 2019

Show overview

23 January Lina Jansson (University of Nottingham)
Explanatory directionality
In this talk I will argue that being careful about conditions of application provides a way of recovering explanatory directionality even in the presence of seemingly non-directed physical laws. I will show how this solution can be extended to some unexpected cases such as why we might take certain symmetries to explain conservation laws without taking conservation laws to explain the symmetries. Finally, I will consider whether this approach can be used in the case of, so-called, distinctively mathematical explanations of physical phenomena and argue that it can.
30 January Agnes Bolinska and Joseph Martin (HPS, Cambridge)
Negotiating history: contingency, canonicity and case studies
Objections to the use of historical case studies for philosophical ends fall into two categories. Methodological objections claim that historical accounts and their uses by philosophers are subject to various biases. We argue that these challenges are not special; they also apply to other forms of philosophical reasoning. Metaphysical objections, on the other hand, claim that historical case studies are intrinsically unsuited to serve as evidence for philosophical claims, even when carefully constructed and used, and so constitute a distinct class of challenge. We show that attention to what makes for a canonical case can address these problems. A case study is canonical with respect to a particular philosophical aim when the features relevant to that aim provide a reasonably complete causal account of the results of the historical process under investigation. We show how to establish canonicity by evaluating relevant contingencies using two prominent examples from the history of science: Eddington's confirmation of Einstein's theory of general relativity using his data from the 1919 eclipse and Watson and Crick's determination of the structure of DNA.
6 February James Nguyen (UCL)
Non-literal model interpretations
I suggest that the representational content of a scientific model is determined by a 'key' associated with it. A key allows the model's users to draw inferences about its target system. Crucially, these inferences need not be a matter of proposed similarity (structural or otherwise) to its target, but can allow for much more conventional associations between model features and features to be exported. Although this is a simple suggestion, it has broad ramifications. I point out that it allows us to re-conceptualise what we mean by 'idealisation': just because a model is a distortion of its target (in the relevant respects, and even essentially so), this does not entail that it is a misrepresentation, even with respect to the features it distorts. Rather, we should focus on interpreting the distorted aspects of such models non-literally. I investigate various ways of doing so, and demonstrate that for at least some idealised models, the result is that they are not misrepresentations after all, thereby diffusing various puzzles associated with their use in science.
13 February Peter Epstein (Philosophy, Cambridge)
Spatial experience: more than mere structure
According to a widely-held view of spatial experience known as structuralism, perceptual representations of spatial features are merely structurally isomorphic to abstract Euclidean geometry; they do not themselves comprise substantive Euclidean concepts. Building off of a distinction between geometrical and merely metaphorical spaces developed by Tim Maudlin, I show that this structuralist view fails to explain the way in which we apply our Euclidean concepts to the spatial features we perceive. For, on the structuralist picture, the results of Euclidean geometry would be equally applicable in perception to any set of features isomorphic to Euclidean space. Colours are one such set of features: their variations along the dimensions of hue, saturation and brightness can be used to generate a (metaphorical) colour 'space' that maps onto the structure of Euclidean space. But we do not perceive colours, in spite of their being isomorphic to the features we reason about in Euclidean proof, as instances of Euclidean spatial relations – we do not see groups of objects as, say, square in virtue of their colour properties. It is only when we perceive the literal spatial features of objects – for example, when we see a chessboard as a square – that we take our geometrical concepts to be applicable. This shows that, unlike in the case of colour, the connection between our spatial experience and our geometrical reasoning is more than merely structural.
20 February Milena Ivanova (HPS, Cambridge)
Beauty, truth and understanding
In this paper I explore the epistemic justification of aesthetic values in scientific practice. It is well documented that scientists use aesthetic values in the evaluation and choice of theories they employ. Aesthetic values are not only regarded as leading to practically more convenient theories, but are very often taken to indicate the likelihood of a theory to be true. That is, often scientists place epistemic import on the aesthetic values of theories, deciding whether to commit to a theory in light of its beauty, especially in situation when the empirical data is not available to guide such decisions. The question then arises as to whether beauty can be trusted to be informing our epistemic attitudes towards scientific theories.

I outline some timely defences of the idea that beauty can be a guide to the truth and evaluate whether such defences have been successful. I turn to an alternative explanation for the relevance and importance of beauty in science. I argue that the employment of aesthetic values reflects our own intellectual capacities and provide heuristic guides to achieving understanding.
27 February Inkeri Koskinen (University of Helsinki)
Two types of success: epistemic exchange and societal impact in extra-academic research collaborations
My aim in this paper is to criticise an assumption that is sometimes made explicitly in science policy, but is usually implicit in the literatures on extra-academic expertise and the democratisation of science. According to this assumption, in research collaborations breaking the boundaries of science, success in creating the wanted societal impact requires successful epistemic exchange. I argue that this is not the case, and present a case study as a counterexample. It is possible to succeed in creating the wanted societal impact through extra-academic collaboration while failing in epistemic exchange.

I will begin with an overview of a large and complex development: the democratisation of science and the increase of research collaborations with extra-academic experts. After that, I introduce three measures of success relevant in this context, focusing on the latter two. Following Gibbons et al. (1994) I call the first measure scientific excellence as defined by disciplinary peers. The second is the created societal impact. Its importance is emphasised in virtually all of the literature on the democratisation of science and extra-academic expertise – though the understanding of the nature of societal impact varies greatly. The third measure is epistemic exchange. Researchers provide something to the extra-academic participants in a collaborative project, but also gain something: knowledge and skills from extra-academic experts, a better understanding of the values at stake from citizen participants, or new perspectives and useful criticism from stakeholders (e.g. Epstein 1995; Kitcher 2011; Wylie 2015). The creation of functioning trading zones (Galison 1997) or boundary objects (Star & Griesemer 1989) can be seen as indicators of success in epistemic exchange.

It is often assumed in the literature that success in creating the wanted societal impact requires successful epistemic exchange. I have conducted a case study where I followed a two-year research collaboration between social scientists, journalists and artists. I use the case as a counterexample, and argue that it is possible to create the wanted societal impact through extra-academic collaboration, even if the participants fail in epistemic exchange.
6 March Finnur Dellsén (University of Iceland)
A surprising epistemic advantage of accommodation over prediction
There are two ways for a piece of data to confirm a theory. If the theory was designed to fit the data, we say that the theory accommodates the data. If not, we say that the theory predicts the data. Many philosophers argue that prediction typically confirms theories more strongly than otherwise similar instances of accommodation; others deny this and place accommodation on a par with prediction. This paper argues that, perhaps surprisingly, there is a respect in which accommodation is typically epistemically superior to prediction. More precisely, the fact that a theory T accommodates some data D is, under certain common conditions, a pro tanto reason to place more confidence in T than if T had been used to predict D under those same conditions. In some cases, this pro tanto advantage of accommodation may even outweigh whatever epistemic advantage there might be to prediction, making accommodation epistemically superior to prediction all things considered.
13 March Maarten Steenhagen (Philosophy, Cambridge)
On a central puzzle in philosophical catoptrics
This paper will address one of the central puzzles of philosophical catoptrics, the philosophical study of the optical properties of mirrors. When you look in your bathroom mirror you see your own face. This seems obvious. However, it is also natural to say that what you see is a mirror image of your face. I will assess whether these claims are ultimately compatible. My main aim is to clarify our conception of the relation between mirror images and the reality of which they are images. This will contribute to our understanding of the optical properties of mirrors, but will also help refine currently dominant conceptions of images.