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Fall Semester 2015

(September 18: Mary Domski)
"Descartes and Newton on Deducing True Laws of Nature"

ABSTRACT: Descartes’s Principles of Philosophy (1644) and Newton’s Principia mathematica (1687) are two of the most important works of seventeenth century natural philosophy. Yet, when put side by side, it is far easier to identify differences between the texts than it is to pin-point similarities. Their laws of nature are a case in point.  Descartes deduces his three laws from our knowledge of God and claims these laws are true insofar as they capture the world as God actually created it. Newton, in contrast, “deduces” his laws of motion “from the phenomena,” which suggests that these laws are true of the world as it is presented to our senses. In this paper, I first clarify the epistemic significance of Descartes’s and Newton’s competing “deductions” and competing notions of truth. Based on that treatment, I then highlight a significant and frequently overlooked point of agreement: Both Descartes and Newton adopt methods for establishing true laws of nature that allow us to know that bodies obey particular laws without a complete understanding of why they do, i.e., without requiring that we identify the natural processes and properties that explain the behaviors that the laws describe. (return)

(September 25: Harold Cook)
"A Different Descartes: The New Galen"

ABSTRACT: Descartes is often said to be the French philosopher who gave us the mind-body problem. But he only began to write philosophy seriously in his 30s, living abroad. In his youth he apparently became we acquainted with libertine writers; when the assassination of the Queen Regent’s favorite, Concini, took place in 1617 he left to learn the art of war and became deeply immersed in French entanglements related to the Thirty Years War. After another short period in Paris his personal and political involvements seem to have caused him and his friends to feel threatened by the chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu. He spent the last twenty years of his life (1629-49) as an exile in The Netherlands, where he indeed had the leisure and ambition for writing about the nature of the world. Can we re-connect his mind and body? (return)

(October 2: Christopher Noble)
"Leibniz and Technology: What Automata, Mills, and Calculators Teach Us about Cognition"

ABSTRACT: This presentation examines the way that seventeenth-century technology and machines informs the German philosopher and mathematician, G.W. Leibniz’s, view of the mind. In the seventeenth-century, many philosophers came to understand physical nature in terms of machines, leading to the development of the so-called “mechanical philosophy.” Leibniz stands apart, however, for utilizing mechanical images and metaphors to illustrate the nature of the mind. The presentation will show the many ways Leibniz used machines to capture the nature of cognitive processes including his  comparison of the soul to a self-moving machine or “spiritual automaton,” his well-known thought experiment concerning the mechanical parts of a mill, as well his invention of a mechanical calculator. We thus get a fascinating glimpse into an Early-Modern attempt to compare minds and machines. (return)

(October 9: Richard Scheines)
"The Revolution in Computational Causal Discovery"

ABSTRACT: Social scientists have been pursuing causal knowledge from observational studies for well over 100 years, with limited success. In the last 25 years, however, the computational and statistical methods available for causal modeling and discovery have exploded.  I describe this revolution and illustrate it on some recent case studies in social and biomedical science.  I also describe the challenges that still remain, including conceptual problems of defining variables and inferential problems arising from trying to measure them. 

(October 16: Ahmed Ragab)
"How to be a Patient: Patienthood and Medical Thinking in the Medieval Islamicate World"
ABSTRACT: Not yet available. (return)

(October 23: Joseph Gabriel)
"Origins of a Legitimation Crisis: Medical Science, Private Profit, and the Challenge of Big Pharma"

ABSTRACT: Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, has recently suggested that as much as half of all published medical literature may be false. Horton is not alone in making such a claim: over the past decade a growing number of influential critics from within the medical establishment have raised significant concerns about the evidentiary basis of contemporary medicine. Drawing from my recent work on intellectual property rights and the history of the pharmaceutical industry, in this talk I present some preliminary thoughts on the origins of what I see as a brewing legitimation crisis facing medical science. I suggest that one possible origin point for current concerns about the evidentiary basis of scientific medicine can be found during the late nineteenth century, when a series of therapeutic reformers re-conceptualized the relationship between medical science and monopoly rights in drug manufacturing. In doing so, these reformers sought to legitimize the role of private profit in the production of scientific knowledge; unintentionally, they also cast in doubt the very possibility of an objective science free from motivated self-interest. Since then, I suggest, the tension between private profit as both a productive force and a source of skepticism has been generalized to such an extent that the very possibility of actionable scientific knowledge in the medical domain now seems threatened.

(October 30: Margaret Morrison)
"Fictional Models and Models as Fictions: Disentangling the Difference"


ABSTRACT: Because models often represent the world in unrealistic ways an increasingly popular view in the philosophical literature classifies models as fictions, aligning the way they convey information with strategies used in various forms of fictional writing.  While fictional models certainly play a role in science I want to resist the “models as fictions” view by arguing that it not only has the undesirable consequence of erasing an important distinction between different types of models and modelling practices, but it fails to enhance our understanding of the role that fictional models do play in the transmission of scientific knowledge. (return)

(November 6: Michael Reidy)
"How to Create a Physicist"

ABSTRACT:In 1850, John Tyndall was struggling to find his way: he was a thirty-year old graduate student in mathematics living in an attic in Marburg, completely unknown, utterly broke, and working himself to the brink of mental and physical exhaustion. Within three years, he held a distinguished professorship at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, working alongside the likes of Michael Faraday, and commanding sold-out crowds wherever he lectured. I will follow Tyndall for these three years as he rose from obscurity to stardom. The route he took will sound both surprising and familiar to modern ears. How he navigated his way through the social and scientific world of mid Victorian Britain can tell us much about how a physicist is created, both then and now. (return)

(November 13: Donna Bilak)
"Steganography and the Art of Secret Writing: New Perspectives on Michael Maier's Alchemical Emblem Book, Atalanta fugiens (1618)"

ABSTRACT: In 1618, an alchemical savant named Michael Maier published an extraordinary alchemical emblem book, the Atalanta fugiens. Distinguished among the hermetic corpus for its fifty exquisite engravings of enigmatic alchemical images, which are set to music, Maier's Atalanta fugiens is an elegant audio-visual articulation of alchemical theory and practice for producing the philosophers’ stone, the panacea held to restore perfect health and longevity to humankind. The Atalanta fugiens is Maier's allegorical paean to wisdom achieved through the pursuit of true alchemy, and it is his evocation of a Golden Age published on the eve of the Thirty Years' War. However, this book contains a secret that has lain hidden for the past four hundred years, enciphered in its pages. This talk explores Maier's Atalanta fugiens as a virtuoso work of allegorical encryption that fuses poetry, iconography, music, mathematics, and Christian cabala to extol hermetic wisdom, while evoking alchemical technologies and laboratory processes - for Maier’s emblem book functions as a game or puzzle that the erudite reader must solve, decode, play.  (return)

(November 20: James Justus)
"Ecological Theory and the Niche"

ABSTRACT: At least until Hubbell’s neutral theory emerged, no concept was thought more important to theorizing in ecology than the niche. Without it––and its highly abstract definition by Hutchinson in particular––technically sophisticated and well-regarded theories of character displacement, limiting similarity, and many others would seemingly never have been developed. The niche concept is also the centerpiece of perhaps the best candidate for a distinctively ecological law, the competitive exclusion principle. But the incongruous array of proposed definitions of the concept squares poorly with its apparent centrality. I argue this definitional diversity reflects a problematic conceptual imprecision that challenges its putative indispensability in ecological theory. Recent attempts to integrate these disparate definitions into a unified characterization fail to resolve the imprecision. (return)

(December 4: Peter Distelzweig)
"Method and Morals in William Harvey's Philosophical Anatomy"

ABSTRACT: In the preface to his 1655 De Corpore, Thomas Hobbes identified William Harvey as the first to discover and demonstrate the science of the human body, and set him alongside Copernicus and Galileo as a founder of genuine natural science. Hobbes says Harvey is the only man he knows who, conquering envy, established a new doctrine in his own lifetime. Harvey himself frames his De motu cordis (1628) as an effort, both methodologically sound and morally upright, to convince “studious, good, and honest men” despite the ill will and machinations of those with biased minds. Drawing on his anatomy lecture notes, Dr. Distelzweig will first unpack Harvey’s understanding of right method in “philosophical anatomy.” He will then trace how this understanding shapes Harvey’s argumentation in the De motu cordis, including its moral valence. (return)

(Decmeber 11: Nicholas Buchanan)
"Tanked: On Keeping This Alive in Places They Shouldn't Be"

ABSTRACT: In this talk, Dr. Buchanan will discuss the history of two tanks, each of which was designed to keep organisms alive in places where they otherwise would have perished.  These artificial environments—aquaria beginning in the mid-19th century and spacecraft in the mid 20th—together offer a window onto changing perceptions about the human ability to know the natural world and to use that knowledge to control, manipulate, and even replicate it.  In both cases, scientists, engineers, and enthusiasts used changing knowledge about the earth and its inhabitants to create technologies that were meant to be “an imitation of the means employed by nature herself” (to use the words of a Victorian aquarian), ranging from table-top jars to large institutional aquaria, from single-person capsules to plans for permanent human colonies in space.  I’ll argue that building artificial environments was an important activity from which scientists, engineers, the public, and policy-makers learned about the systemic complexities of nature.  What’s more, the difficult task of making artificial environments that could actually support life for long periods, and the ease with which these could be “broken,” highlighted the fragility of nature and its vulnerability to human intervention. (return)

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