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::: center home >> being here >> last donut? >> 28 February 2006

28 February 2006
Two Americans . . .

Two Americans, a Canadian, two Bulgarians, a Chinese, a Greek, an Australian, a New Zealander and an Italian meet in a lounge. This might have been the start of the world's longest, worst joke. As it happens, it was not. It was the weekly meeting of the reading group of the Visiting Fellows at the Center for Philosophy of Science.

Today is February 28--well into the term--and we are drawing to the end of the series of meetings. For each, a Visiting Fellow circulated a short manuscript of a dozen or so pages on some aspect of their latest research. The reading group then meets and dissects it. Topics have been widely spread so far, from a critical examination of the likelihood principle, to theories of history and feminist approaches to philosophy of science.

This week the topic is action theory. How can we make sense of omissions in action theory? They are actions as long as they have causal powers, argues Gabriele De Anna. The discussion starts immediately. The presumption is that everyone has read the manuscript so there is no need for Gabriele to explain to everyone just what his claims are. The questions are tough and start with Carla. Why Mackie? Why INUS? Couldn't all this be done better using a counterfactual 
account of causation? Why not use difference makers? Gabriele is thoughtful. Wouldn't that be too complicated? All those possible worlds? The questions keep coming. What is your definition of causation? Why not counterfactuals? Gabriele is getting his rhythm. What are the truth conditions for counterfactuals?

It goes like this. Questions. Answers. Elaborations. Rejoinders. Eager as they are to join in, everyone is taking their turn. And sometimes not. "To follow up on that last question," one interjects, but as the follow up unfolds it becomes clear that the questioner has just hi-jacked the discussion. An hour passes and then an hour and half. Now the discussion is less energetic. The group is engaging 
more with the drift of the project and questions become more reflective. "So where does action theory come from," I finally ask. "I've never really know why we have a theory of it rather than a theory of ..."  "Betty?" someone volunteers. We all laugh, but the answers flood in. Wittgenstein, someone calls out.

As the two hour mark approaches, the discussion turns to the more serious matter of deciding where we will go to eat. A few different restaurants are canvassed. One is summarily rejected since it does not have a liquor license. We have transcended the thirst for understanding with another thirst.

John D. Norton

Visiting Fellows Reading Group
28 February 2006

Revised 10/15/07 - Copyright 2006