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::: center home >> being here >> last donut? >> unsimple truths
Unsimple Truths
Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The unsimple truth is that I don't remember when I first heard that my colleague and Chair of the Department of HPS, Sandra Mitchell, was writing a book on complexity and the philosophy of science. It was not to be an ordinary book. It would be a pocket-sized text aimed at a broad, popular audience. Well, it might not be quite so broad since its readers would need to be undaunted by terms like "integrative pluralism" and the "evolutionary contingency thesis."

That would fatally reduce readership among the average Tom and Jane. However, it turns out, that is not so among the Hans's and Gretl's. Sandy's Komplexitäten - Warum wir erst anfangen, die Welt zu verstehen appeared in 2008 in German bookstores as a slim green volume published by Suhrkamp Verlag. While Sandy speaks some German, the text had been, the volume assured us, "translated from the American." Presumably the American in question was Sandy.

In the months following, Sandy began to disappear into short excursions to Germany where she had been invited to speak in venues outside normal philosophical circles. As Sandy grew weary from the travel, we began to see in her absences that she had something of a hit on her hands.

That all but assured that there would be an English language edition. University of Chicago Press took up the volume and it was published as Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity and Policy last year in 2009.

Our workshop today is devoted to Sandy's book. There is something about the notion of complexity that grabs attention. We knew we'd have a successful event with a full hall when, a few days before the workshop, I received an email from a scholar in Kansas. Would we consider podcasting the proceedings?

In the workshop, we would hear from Jim Bogen and from Dale Jamieson, who'd made the trip in from NYU. Commenting, as they had agreed to do, is not easy. The event is clearly intended to have a celebratory tone. However philosophical discourse does not function well on agreement. Commentators are expected to find tensions somewhere, but not so many as to be insulting to the author. So it is always interesting as an illustration of the craft of philosophy to see just how a commentator balances the competing demands.

Sandy 's volume is complex. While I knew many of the ideas in the volume from Sandy's talks and papers, I had read the volume hastily over the previous weekend in order to absorb it as a whole. It was clear to me that my whole might not be everyone else's whole. The basic theme of the book is that the complexity of the world needs to be accommodated into the way we conceptualize, investigate and act in the world. Under conceptualization, Sandy noted, we needed a new pluralist approach to theorizing that allows laws that do not have universal, exceptionless scope, admits many levels of explanation, that the choice of level be made pragmatically and that we recognize that our knowledge is dynamics and evolving.

It was a good story and every good story needs a villain whose lingering menace is fought and overcome. That villain turns out to be a benighted reductive picture of science supposedly delivered by physics. This narrative is a commonplace amongst those who write on emergence in biology, but a frustration to people like me who work in philosophy of physics. In so far as there ever was a debate in biology worth having over reduction, it was settled ages ago in favor of reduction, when we decided that there is no animating life spirit. Living things are just big bags of wet chemicals. The only way to keep antireductionism alive is to try to saddle reductionists with dumb claims. Does anyone we take seriously defend the claim that the theory of cell biology should be replaced with the standard model of particle physics since cells are just many such particles?

When it comes to theories, physicists are as integratively pluralist as biologists. Comets may be big messes of quantum particles, but no serious astrophysicist uses quantum field theory to predict the return of Halley's comet. On pragmatic grounds, they make the prediction from a theory at a different level, classical celestial mechanics.

These were my thoughts and apprehensions as I sat down to hear Jim and Dale. What would theirs be? It did not go at all as I feared. We philosopher of physics were not the villains. Indeed we rated no mention at all. The focus rapidly turned to an ingenious reductive argument of Jaegwon Kim. Higher-level phenomena, such as certain life processes, are identical to lower-level ones, such as certain electrochemical ones. So any causal or explanatory powers of the higher-level, emergent phenomena, are fully carried by the lower-level ones, thereby rendering the higher-level phenomena causally and explanatorily inert.

Sandy 's rebuttal had focussed on Kim's assumption that there is a unique and complete description of the higher level phenomena in terms of the lower-level. Jim Bogen picked up on that rebuttal and sought to amplify it. Jim has an expansive knowledge of neuroscience. He used it to recount what we know of the neuroscience of vision. His central point was that this knowledge was revealing a temporal dislocation between visual sensation and the neural processes that realize it. That, Jim concluded, drove the two levels of of Kim's argument apart.

While Kim's argument occupied a smaller part of Sandy's book, it was as if the two speakers had coordinated their material. For Dale Jamieson now took the other side. Sandy's rebuttal, he told us, has missed its mark because Kim had encumbered his argument unnecessarily with talk of descriptions. The argument really only needed the metaphysical fact that the higher-level phenomena are constituted by the lower-level. Whether we have a complete description of the lower level does not matter to it.

This was a perfect, communal negotiation of the dual burden of commentators. Sandy was not the battered target, besieged on two fronts. In her reply, Sandy could position herself between the two commentators and mediate. No, she responded, in a verbally clever turn, it is physics versus physical. Kim's argument needs the lower level to be the level of physics theory, not merely the physical. The description has to be complete to be assured that the lower-level is endowed with all the causal powers of the higher-level. The point was amplified by Slobodan Perovic rather clearly in question time. In philosophy of science, we are loath to cede authority over the facts of the world to an abstract domain called metaphysics. Physical facts about lowerlevels must be facts in a theory of physics, not metaphysics.

There were of course many more ideas exchanged and weighed. Is Sandy merely supplementing the "standard model" of science, Dale probed, or is her account a replacement? Just how different are the action models Sandy contrasts in her book? And can Sandy's pragmatic laws really explain, Jim pressed, if they don't delve into the specific causes? These were issues that Jim and Sandy, we found, had been debating for decades. A mere afternoons discussion could not settle them.

John D. Norton

Revised 2/15/10 - Copyright 2010