Thursday, 6 December 2007
Over the last day or so we had our first snowfall, reminding us that it is December already and term is coming to an end. There is a festive paper chain hanging in our lounge over the white board and our holiday tree is against one wall. Well, OK, it is a Christmas tree, but I prefer to think of it as a seasonal decoration. We are not a Center for Religious Studies, but a Center for Philosophy of Science. The tree already has decorations emphasizing an international theme, reflecting the origins of our Visiting Fellows. I thought I should try to add some decorations that spoke of science. There is already a " Darwin" in the tree and, on short notice, I managed to find some stretchy rubber science frogs to go with the other more dubious decorations.
The first meeting of our Visiting Fellows' reading group in the closing days of summer now seems distant. We have each taken our turn in offering something to read. The topics have ranged ranged far. One topic, however, was a repeating visitor: causation. Michael had given us one reading on it; I had another; and last week Jim Woodward had us read one of his most recent papers.
Throughout, I had tried to rein in the philosopher's default mode of constant criticism. "This is not a slash and burn session," I like to say. "Our goal is to be helpful." We had done pretty well on that score. Or at least that is what I infer from Patrick Grim's plan for this week's reading group. He has a work in progress, a manuscript jointly authored with two others not in Pittsburgh. Would we read that?
Patrick seemed convinced that our discussion would be helpful and productive, so much so that he arranged for it to be recorded. That way his distant co-authors could listen. The Center has a digital recorder of better than amateur quality. Peter Gildenhuys set it up in the lounge, giving me careful instructions on how to work it. Couldn't be simpler. This button starts it. This one stops it. No, don't touch any other buttons. You don't need to.
Patrick also was contributing to the technology. His manuscript is on computer simulations. But he felt the images in the paper unimpressive. So I found him in our lounge setting up a digital projector with which he could display the good stuff. He was hunched over the tangle of wires connecting all the components, fiddling. It was slow annoying work. Every time he moved the projector to get a better image, it would shut down and go through a new warm up cycle. And, to make matters worse, he could see me out of the corner of his eye snapping photos.
The sight of this level of preparation worried me a little. One rule we had managed to maintain in our reading group was that the author of the paper did not give an opening synopsis of the paper. The holy presumption was that everyone had read the paper and we were ready to discussion it immediately. The other rule--give us 12 pages maximum-- was intended to make sure that no one had an excuse for not reading the paper. Then, to reinforce it all, someone would briefly state the paper's main theses and arguments back to its author. When I took on that role, I would use the white board and color code my scratchings. Others in that role preferred just to speak.
Patrick assured me that he would not present his paper. He just wanted to show us some pictures.
This day also I was "Joyce," who was not coming in. I brewed a fresh pot of coffee--strong, the way I think it should be--and arrayed the cookies Joyce had ceremoniously handed over to me two days before. All the rest would be as usual. When we finished our academic discussions, we'd turn to the earnest discussion of just where we'd go for dinner.
At the appointed time, we were all assembled. Patrick was eager to start. Out went the lights and up came the images. They were fascinating. Simulation after simulation of this or that system. How does racial segregation arise in a city? How do flocks of birds fly? And there was the old standby of Conway's "life." They were patterns, some wildly colored, some less so, all graphically intriguing.
Patrick presented them with the joy and pride of a grandparent with photos of his grandchildren. These were his delight and he could not imagine how we could fail to take a similar delight in them. Then, for some, the projector failed to pick up the image. So he spun his laptop screen round to face us and we jostled into position while the show continued.
It was a new way for us to start our reading group. Now having had a close encounter with our scientific subject, we were ready to discuss Patrick's manuscript, which grappled with the challenging question of just what creative philosophical analysis could be mounted on the topic of simulations. I think the discussion was helpful and fruitful. One indication that this was so came the next day when Patick called me and asked me to take of photo of the whiteboard, now covered in writing. "Oh," he added, "and if you want to stand in front while they take the photo, that would be good." So I did that too.
John D. Norton