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::: center home >> being here >> last donut? >> end of term 2008

End of Term 2008

The March and April brings our Spring break, rain and warming weather. It also brings a rising sense among Visiting Fellows that their year is passing rapidly and they have not done nearly enough of the work they'd planned. "That's OK," Mehmet replied when I asked him if he was falling into this usual end of year panic, "I ended up working on something quite different than I'd planned. But that is the way it should be. I get exposed to new ideas and start new projects."


There were plans afoot to capture these last fleeing days. "We're having an Armagnac tasting," Peter Machamer said to me, leaning over so he could keep his voice down. "It's coming from the Fellows. Richard wants it." One Saturday night, a week later, the armagnacs were lined up on Peter's sideboard. First there was a cognac, to be tasted as a baseline, then a series of armagnacs, then another cognac and finally a Californian "cognac." Each bottle had a story. Some came from Peter's cellar. Others had to be retrieved from out of state by one or other fellow. Each had been collared by Peter and commissioned with the holy charter of visiting a liquor store outside Pennsylvania's prohibition era state stores where the liquor selection was grander.

Our stomach's were fortified with Peter's pasta, cleverly formulated without meatballs, thanks to Jim Bogen's confusion over just which was the day he should bring them. We were now instructed to taste the bottles in sequence. The Fellows were sitting as a group around Peter's dining room table, glasses in hand. One was on "number two"; another on "number four." It was as convivial a scene as one could imagine.

Then the oddness struck me. I leaned over to Peter, who was standing next to me. "They're talking philosophy of science," I whispered in the hushed tones of a nature watcher who has just found a prized specimen. It was a wonderful moment to see the energy of exchange that bounced to and fro across the entire table. I had sensed that this group had connected philosophically and here again was that connection displayed. Merely putting them together is enough to spontaneously ignite the philosophical fires.


Those fires were still burning the following Monday. At lunchtime, a number of Fellows had already assembled into our lounge when I wandered in. Obligatory inquiries into Mehmet's hangover rapidly wafted away and the discussion became philosophical.

"Let me ask you something. I want to see if what I am thinking is completely crazy," Derek said. He'd just heard Isabelle and me discussing a problem in the application of Bayesian methodology. That triggered his concern over a problem in the testing of counterfactuals in biology. He'd been canvassing viewpoints around the room.

The discussion grew as more voices joined in and none left. Michael's voice soon grew loudest and we each began to take note of his insistence that there was no clear way to give meaning to counterfactuals. "Their antecedents are false!" He kept saying. We proceeded like this in the usual philosopher's mode. Where we started out thinking that there was just one claim, we begin to map out the terrain of variant claims such that each provided a comfortable home to the many conflicting intuitions round the room.

"This is very helpful!" Derek suddenly exclaimed and he was right.

Where first I had no idea what Michael was getting at, I now realized that what he was getting at made perfect sense. I recalled Michael's constant bewilderment at my skepticism over the metaphysics of causation and induction. "Michael," I called out, "Do you see the oddity of this? For once I am defending a more metaphysical viewpoint than you!" He looked back at me with a bewilderment that melted into his trademark beaming smile. There was a sense at that moment that he'd won, although I'm still not sure just what the victory was.


We were now counting down the days. Flights home had been booked and we knew there would only be two more reading group meetings. Today's meeting was on the manuscript Derek had prepared on evolutionary contingency. Just how differently might things have been had we "rerun the tape"? It would turn out that today's tape would end differently from any other we had run. It was a small irony of which we then had no inkling.

Instead, all our attentions were focused on the cookies that Joyce had provided. They were the fare laid out to sustain us during the strenuous intellectual labors to come. This time they were more than just laid out; they were constructed architecturally. Apparently the original plan cooked up by Joyce and my daughter Josie, who'd briefly stopped by at the right moment, was to build little stonehenges. Round cookies are not as compliant as rectangular stones. Nonetheless, we all agreed that the result truly was to baked goods as stones are to ancient monuments.

No one had the courage to desecrate these artifacts. Something had to be done to mark the achievement. "Take a photo!", Delphine called out. Off I went to get the camera. And while I was taking the photos Joyce wandered past. She reluctantly agreed to pose behind her creation.

We proceeded with our discussion. Our nerves were a little unsettled. Mehmet reported he had heard a fire alarm and wondered if we should be sitting there at all. Then a little while later, Joyce appeared again showing me a text message on her cell phone. It said that there had been a "threat" to the building and we should evacuate. I wasn't quite sure what to make of all this. While the discussion continued, I did a round of our offices, peering out of the windows. Everything seemed quite normal except for the four or so police cars pulled up on the sidewalk on one side.

True to philosophical tradition, we decided to reflect on our choices and their merits before taking precipitous action. Wouldn't the fire alarm system be activated if we really had to evacuate, I thought. Then the answer came in the form of a campus policewoman. She told us we were just about the last people left in the building and that it was time to go. So we did.

We reconvened our discussions on the stone patio, enjoying the first days of warmer weather and, at times, shouting over the noise of passing helicopters. We watched the parade of university people mill past out of the corners of our eyes. At one point, the Chancellor walked past, looked over at us, smiled and waved. I hoped he was approving the fact that nothing stops our meetings!


While the countdown to the end of term continued, we, the staff of the Center, were delighted to receive an email from our Visiting Fellows inviting us all to lunch as their guests at Lucca's restaurant. It was an unexpected and very welcome invitation. I liked especially that the group realized just how hard our staff-- Karen, Joyce, Carol and Peter--work to make their visits comfortable and successful. I also noticed that they had picked the one restaurant in Oakland that I had declared off limits for our dinners after our reading group on the grounds that it is too expensive.

The final day came with a boat cruise on the rivers. It had been organized as an event for the joint Departments of Philosophy and of History and Philosophy of Science. The Center Fellows were added to the invitation list. We enjoyed Pittsburgh's rivers, bridges and cityscape one last time together. Then, we stood rather formally on the dock with boat behind us. The scene reminded me vaguely of an old movie I'd seen once about someone going somewhere. It was sad and vaguely unsettling. We made our farewells.


John D. Norton

Revised 5/5/08 - Copyright 2006