On Monday, April 23, 7 PM, I (Eliot) will be giving a talk to the Hofstra for the Honors College Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math group, called “What Science Aims At.”
In the presentation, I will explain why I believe it’s important to pursue the question of what science tries to produce, and then describe how the answer might be changing in recent science. I’ll discuss the answer that has dominated our thinking about science for centuries, a view we can call “the Newtonian Ideal.” I’ll examine some of the problems with the Newtonian Ideal and ways those problems have been addressed in the last few years by philosophers of science. Then, in Part 2, I’ll outline an alternative answer I developed in a 2011 article published in Philosophy & Theory in Biology. In that article, I analyzed a body of theory about competition in ecology, and argued that it aims at something other than the Newtonian Ideal. Then, I’ll invite your questions and comments about these ideas, and, if you like, about philosophy of science more generally.
Contact me or Hofstra student Michael Kahen if you’re a student interested in attending.
An article of mine (PDF link) on a philosophical problem in biology and environmental policy was just released in a new book called Philosophy of Ecology, edited by Kevin deLaplante, Bryson Brown, and Kent Peacock.
Philosophy of ecology is a new and quickly developing research area in philosophy of science, and this book contains articles by some of the researchers working most on it. Ecology is an exciting area of biology for philosophers to engage, because its questions are important ones — like How much are biological systems on which we depend changing with global climate change? — and yet ecology is very different from physics. If there are laws of ecology at all, they have nothing like the precision that the laws of physics have. And there may be no laws. So, how do we recognize where ecologists have produced models we can trust? Some biologists themselves have been writing on that and related philosophy of science questions, too, like Steward Pickett et al’s 2007 Ecological Understanding: The Nature of Theory and the Theory of Nature.
My essay in the book takes up the question of whether, or in what sense, there are ecological communities — actual things corresponding to the units ecologists use to discuss groupings of multiple species, like “Beech-Maple Forest.” Environmental ethicists have suggested that conservation should focus on preserving communities, rather than just species. But if so, communities would probably need to be real things, not accidental collections. For example, the group of birds and squirrels that are within 100 yards of Heger Hall right now form an accidental collection. They don’t have any particularly special relationship to one another that a Cardinal 105 yards away is missing. So that is not an interesting community. It is not something anyone would want to preserve as a thing. But then, what is? What kinds of relationships do there need to be among parts to make up interesting wholes? -CE