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::: center home >> being here >> last donut? >> west coast idealism


West Coast Idealism
Bill Bechtel
Lunchtime Talk
Oct 28, 2014

What makes a great talk? Well... you have to get so many things right that I'll not even try to answer fully. There is, however, one thing that I especially like in a talk. I like a clear agenda and a single powerful thought carried through from start to finish. Talks that do that are rare, alas. But when I hear one, it is a delight.

That was my experience today. Bill Bechtel is our Senior Visiting Fellow this year in the Center and it was his turn to speak in our lunchtime talk series. He drew a good crowd and, when it was time to start, there were few chairs left.

Bill's point was clear from the start. The notion of a mechanism has become core to much philosophical analysis in sciences, such as neuroscience. We treat the mechanisms as if they comprise the basic ontology of all processes. The processes can be divided into discrete mechanisms. We can study and understand the mechanisms individually. Then, we reassemble the process and understand it.

Something like this view, Bill assures us, has been defended in various corners of our field. Mechanisms are basic in our ontology, it is said. Mechanisms are truth-makers.

Bill's talk will deny this claim. Evolution never bothered to retain a perfectly modular structure in its products. Evolved systems, Bill assures us, make connections opportunistically, without concern for conceptually appealing modules. Its products are more like Rube Goldberg machines.

So where do the mechanisms come from? They are artificially delineated from the greater mess by us according to our explanatory needs. They are theoretical constructs. This is the core claim of "West Coast Idealism," a term Bill thanks his student Ben Sheredos for coining.

Why do we bother to construct mechanisms? We need them for our explanations. These mechanistic explanations are not perfect accounts. Rather they are merely first approximations, used with the understanding that further work may change them. They are a fallible heuristic.

It was now time for Bill to make his case. It depended on two claims:

Mechanisms lack spatial boundaries.
Mechanisms lack temporal boundaries.

The bulk of Bill's time was spent making good on these claims. His argument depended upon looking at specific systems in neuroscience. For the spatial thesis, he looked at the system that provides our circadian clocks and others like it. We once treated these systems as truly modular. Not anymore. Our latest understanding is that they are not spatially isolated but enjoy extensive connections with other systems.

Graph theory is now being used quite successfully to model the network of connections and a "scale-free" graphical structure has proven common. Such a system will have a few hubs with many connections and many more nodes with fewer. What we don't have is perfect isolation of any subsystem.

For the temporal thesis, a similar analysis looked at things like neural action potentials. The triggering and response of a neuron is usually understood to be quite localized in time. New research, Bill reported, was showing that this was not so. A once-activated neuron retains a lingering memory of that fact and that memory will alter its subsequent behavior.

At this point, I was remarking to myself on a second thing that Bill had done right in this talk. The level of technical detail in neuroscience was impressive and well beyond my level of understanding. As you can surely guess, that sense is a common one in more technical talks in philosophy of science.

All too often, however, as far as I can see, that technical erudition is all that is in the talk. Technical details, more technical details and still more technical details. Such talks leave me frustrated. Where's the philosophical content, I ask myself. Are you a philosopher of science, or just a wanna-be scientist?

There was no danger of that here. This great mass of technical detail was being used to make a foundational point in philosophy of science: whatever these mechanisms might be, they are delimited neither in space nor time.

With that claim established, Bill closed by reminding us of West Coast Idealism. It denies the ontological claim: the world is not structured by mechanisms. The explanatory claim is alive and well: mechanics still provide us explanations.

While the room stretched and sought out the last few donuts, I congratulated Bill on a perfectly laid out talk. He seemed surprised to hear it. He bowed his head and confessed that he'd missed mentioning a key point. I've been there, I thought to myself. A speaker sees even the most minor of slips as a major breach. We didn't notice.

When I went back to my seat, I mentioned my satisfaction at the talk to a neighbor. His face took on the awkward expression of someone not sure if they should tell me that I'd just dribbled ketchup down my shirt, and not sure if they should not tell me.

"Have I been snowed?" I thought and said.

That set me thinking. I don't work in this area, so a well-crafted talk will and should convince me. Was there a hole? I'd already written a comment in the margin of my notes "Are there mountains?" They are not properly delineated in space, at least, but they can be truth makers of sentences concerning plane crashes.

Perhaps that is the thing to think about. A mechanism may not be delineated perfectly in space and time. But imperfect delineation may be good enough. There was a crush of questions. The back and forth was detailed and I didn't always follow it. But I do think that same thought had taken root in the room.

John D. Norton

Revised 11/4/14 - Copyright 2012