FALL 2007 Colloquium Series
All talks are on Friday from 4:00 to 6:00 PM in Ballantine Hall 003, unless otherwise noted.
Calendar [click date for details]
Sep 07 Edward (Ted) Davis Intelligent Design on Trial
Sep 14 Rega Wood How Islamic Philosophy Shaped Scholastic Physics
Sep 28 Oron Shagrir Marr's Computational Theories
Oct 05 Michel Janssen Van Vleck and Slater
Nov 09 Laura Snyder CANCELLED Bold Leaps
Nov 16 Ofer Gal The Enlightenment of Vision That Is the Absent Observer of Baroque Science: The Baroque Observer
Dec 03 Gregory Radick CISAB Seminar Room 402 N. Park Vervetese and its Contexts
Edward (Ted) Davis
Title: Intelligent Design on Trial
Abstract: In the fall of 2005, international attention was drawn to the small rural community of Dover, Pennsylvania, when the Dover school board was sued for its recently implemented policy of reading a statement about "intelligent design" in high school biology classes. The ACLU provided legal assistance when the case came to trial at the federal courthouse in Harrisburg, and several prominent scientists and philosophers of science appeared as expert witnesses on both sides. Much of the testimony involved aspects of the history and philosophy of science. Dr. Davis attended several days of the trial and covered it for a national magazine. Author of several articles about science and religion in modern America, he will provide an overview of the "intelligent design" issue, stressing philosophical and cultural aspects in his analysis. He will explain some of the main ideas associated with intelligent design, discuss the political and educational goals and strategies of the intelligent design movement, and comment briefly on the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial.—This talk was originally prepared for the Forum on Science, Ethics & Policy at the University of Washington; it has also been given at Carnegie Mellon University. Another version was published in Religion in the News (Winter 2006).
Title: How Islamic Philosophy Shaped Scholastic Physics
Abstract: The impact of Islam on Western Civilization is often told as a story of translations. The Oxford History of Islam, for example, tells us that "one of the most significant and lasting contributions of the medieval Muslim world to Christendom was to provide access for western scholars to the great classics of Greece." With few exceptions, however, Aristotle was taught from translations based directly on the Greek and not on Arabic intermediaries. Accordingly thinkers hostile to Islam deny the debt. In truth, however, it is greater than popular accounts suggest.
Though scholastics rarely commented on Arabic based translations, without these translations and more importantly without the interpretative tradition that accompanied them, the Western tradition of natural philosophy would have been much poorer; indeed, it might never have arisen. After all, James of Venice's translations had been available since about 1150, but Aristotelian metaphysics and natural philosophy had no strong impact in the West until the Michael Scot translation that accompanied the Arabic commentaries became available around 1225. Moroever, the teaching and commentary tradition that began once Andalusian translations such as Scot's became available focused on problems framed by Muslim authors.
Not Aristotle translations but translations of works of Muslim science and philosophy themselves exercised the most profound influence on the Western tradition. To illustrate their impact, we need consider only two authors, Ibn Sînâ (d. 1037) and Ibn Rušd (d. 1198). Avicenna and Averroes, as they were known to scholastics, influenced scholastic authors from the early thirteenth century to the fourteenth, and often into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Not just early scholastics like Richard Rufus and Albert the Great, but every important scholastic author, including Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus, William Ockham and John Buridan, was indebted to Avicenna and Averroes. Moreover, their influence almost universal. In this talk, however, I limit myself to the Muslin influence in physics and chemistry. Western contributions to natural philosophy as distinctive as impetus theory and as basic as the concept of place were decisively influenced by Muslim thought. Particularly when they disagreed Avicenna and Averroes stimulated a rich Western debate.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Title: Marr's Computational Theories
Abstract: In his Vision (1982), David Marr introduces a computational approach, which is entrenched in detailed theories of visual processes. According to Marr's approach, the goal of a computational level theory is to characterize what function is being computed, and why computing this function is appropriate for the visual task. He argues that the "how" descriptions of mechanisms, including algorithms and their implementation, belong to different levels of analysis. My aim in this talk is to explicate this somewhat unusual conception of computational theory. I will address the distinct role of the why-element in Marr's computational theories, and conclude with comments on the "non-mechanistic" and "semantic" nature of computation.
University of Minnesota
Title: Van Vleck and Slater
Abstract: American theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate John H. Van Vleck once told an audience that "although we did not start the orgy of quantum mechanics, our young theorists joined it promptly." In a less guarded moment, the modest Van Vleck told his former student Thomas S. Kuhn, who interviewed him for the Archive for the History of Quantum Physics(AHQP) project, that, if he had been more perceptive, he might have taken off from a paper he published in 1924 and come up with matrix mechanics himself. His fellow graduate student at Harvard, the immodest John C. Slater, boasted in his AHQP interview that he would have developed quantum mechanics within a year if Heisenberg and Co. had not beaten him to the punch. Paying special attention to the contributions of these two American theorists, I will relate the story of how matrix mechanics, the first form of the new quantum mechanics, grew out of the treatment of optical dispersion in the old quantum theory. Van Vleck shares the credit with Max Born for being the first to publish a full derivation of the crucial Kramers dispersion formula using Bohr's correspondence principle. Slater was one of the architects of the short-lived but influential Bohr-Kramers-Slater (BKS) theory that helped popularize the so-called Ersatz or virtual oscillators central both to the treatment of dispersion in the old quantum theory and to the transition to matrix mechanics.
St. John's University
Title: Bold Leaps
Abstract: In his Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830), the astronomer and philosopher J.F.W. Herschel claimed that it was sometimes acceptable to invent a theory by making a "bold leap" to a hypothesis, so long as this hypothesis was then tested deductively. Because of this comment, Herschel has generally been considered a proponent of the "hypothetical-deductive" or "hypothetical" method of science. It has been argued by commentators that because Herschel was well-versed in science, he realized that the science of his day relied on unobservable entities, such as light waves, ethers, and tiny particles of matter; Herschel, it is said, correctly recognized that theoretical science requires a hypothetical method. In my paper, I will show that this interpretation of Herschel is just one of a number of instances in which modern philosophers of science have erred in attributing a hypothetical method to writers of the past. I will demonstrate that Herschel, like these other writers, believed that analogical reasoning was a key part of scientific discovery. Scattered comments about "bold leaps" are meant to refer to instances of analogical inference, not conjectures or guesswork. Herschel, and other misunderstood writers such as Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century and Herschel's friend William Whewell in the nineteenth, believed that analogical inference played a large role in scientific discovery, even for theoretical science. And they were right. Part of the reason for these misinterpretations is historical
University of Sydney
Title: The Enlightenment of Vision That Is the Absent Observer of Baroque Science: The Baroque Observer
Abstract: In the 17th century the human observer gradually disappears from optical treatises. This development is set in motion when Kepler eschews visual rays and transforms optics into a strictly physico-mathematical theory of light. This turns the eye into a natural object, immersed in causal processes and deprives it of its privileged position as the telos of the optical progression. No longer subservient to reason, images are projections of light bouncing off objects, and vision is interiorized within the human mind. Ironically, the naturalization of vision estranges observer from image and prepares the ground for Descartes' epistemological worry: that we may be completely wrong.
University of Leeds
Title: Vervetese and its Contexts
Abstract: In 1980 the ethologists Dorothy Cheney, Robert Seyfarth, and Peter Marler, then based at the Rockefeller University, published the results of soon-famous fieldwork in Amboseli, Kenya, on the alarm calls of vervet monkeys. Using experimental playback of recorded alarm calls, the group claimed to show that the vervet calls were rudimentarily semantic, in that they conveyed information not just about the emotional state of the caller, but about the nature of the environmental threat - specifically, whether a leopard or an eagle or a python was present. This paper will explore some historical and philosophical issues raised by one of the tests for semanticity applied to the vervet alarm calls: that an animal signal counts as (at least rudimentarily) semantic if the response to the signal is elicited independently of context. Clarifying the interpretive options available in applying this test turns out to help with a related interpretive problem, of understanding what Cheney and Seyfarth meant when they wrote to Marler in November 1977 that, up to that point in their playback trials in Amboseli, the experimental results weakened the case for vervet alarm semanticity.