Bat speak

Some friends pointed me to a Smithsonian article about recent research on fruitbat vocalizations. The upshot is that fruitbats gripe at each other in lots of different ways.

[N]early all of the communication calls of the Egyptian fruit bat in the roost are emitted during aggressive pairwise interactions, involving squabbling over food or perching locations and protesting against mating attempt.

Using algorithms, researchers were able to discern differences in bat griping depending both on who the target bat was (who was being griped with) and the context (what the griping was about).

I have argued that, for a domain of enquiry that includes meerkats in their natural environment, different meerkat alarm calls and the classes of threats which elicit them comprise natural kinds (see ch4). That admits six kinds, because there are three different calls and three corresponding classes of threats.

There’s no reason why the argument doesn’t generalize. For fruit bat groups in their environment, there may well be natural kinds corresponding to distinct classes of vocalizations and to the classes of objects picked out by those vocalizations. But what if it turns out that bat reference to individual other bats uses sounds functioning in the fashion of proper names? Suppose there’s an individual bat that the other bats pick out with a specific squeeky sound, something like “leeko leeko leeko”. Does that individual bat count as a natural kind?

One might think the answer has to be no, because kinds and individuals are different ontological categories. I’m not tempted by that, however. As I argue, species might turn out to be continuous individuals (in their fundamental ontology) but still count as natural kinds (see ch6).

Nevertheless, the category for the specific bat leeko could only be a natural kind for the domain including that specific bat population. And it might lack enough general importance to be a natural kind for a domain that includes all the Egyptian fruit bat populations across both space and time. So my account doesn’t require the answer to be yes.

Moreover, it’s not clear to me from the recent report whether the distinctions between bat vocalizations are clear and sharp enough to count as natural kinds. As always, the answer will depend on the details.

The value in the algorithm

The LA Times has an interesting interview with self-described “data skeptic” Cathy O’Neil, the author of Weapons of Math Destruction. Although the Times puts her skepticism in terms of big data, her concerns are really about values in science. Algorithms, she suggests, have a veneer of objectivity but always reflect choices and valuations. When the algorithms are secret, then the values incorporated in them aren’t open to scrutiny. She says:

I want to separate the moral conversations from the implementation of the data model that formalizes those decisions. I want to see algorithms as formal versions of conversations that have already taken place.

She also makes a point about how polling isn’t just objectively reporting on the state of the electorate, something I would probably have mused about if I’d written the post about the election that I never quite wrote:

[P]olitical polls are actually weapons of math destruction. They’re very influential; people spend enormous amounts of time on them. They’re relatively opaque. But most importantly, they’re destructive in various ways. In particular, they actually affect people’s voting patterns. … Polls can change people’s actual behavior, which disrupts democracy in a direct way.

I’ve ordered a copy of her book, and when it arrives I will put it on top of the stack of books I regret not having read.

CFP: phil art grad conference

Every year, the grad students here at UAlbany host a conference. The first one, a decade ago, was on epistemology. This year: philosophy of art!

The conference is always a lively event with great discussion. If you are a graduate student working in philosophy of art or doing work which has applications in philosophy of art, I encourage you to submit a paper and attend. If you know someone who fits that description, I encourage you to encourage them to submit.

Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics

10th Annual Graduate Philosophy Conference

University at Albany, State University of New York

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

Keynote speaker: Dr. Christy Mag Uidhir, University of Houston

Deadline for submissions: Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

We invite graduate students to submit papers in any area of Philosophy of Art and/or Aesthetics.

Papers should be suitable for a 25 to 30 minute presentation (approximately 3,000-4,000 words). All submissions should be prepared for blind review and should include a separate document containing the following information: your name, paper title, an abstract of approximately 100 to 250 words, institutional affiliation, e-mail address, phone number, and where you saw this call for papers. Please submit papers via e-mail with ‘2017 Conference Submission’ in the subject line.

Acceptable formats are MS Word documents, RTF files, or PDF files. Please send submissions to uapa.submission<at>

Please note: Housing can be provided for graduate student speakers. In addition, conference registration and all meals on the day of the conference are free for all conference attendees.

Submission deadline: Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

For more information about the conference or about the submission requirements, please contact Sydney Faught at sfaught<at>

link: philevents listing for the conference

News, macabre and otherwise

I have formed the kernel of a post about the election several times, but not typed anything. It’s complicated.

What’s less complicated is publication news. 😀

I was on Marius’ thesis committee, although I got involved after he already had a good sense of the project. He began with an interest in horror fiction, planted a beachhead on the small philosophical literature about it, and used that to foray into ethics and moral psychology. More briefly and less metaphorically: His work is nifty and original.

Weekend getaway

Guro Dan Inosanto in Syracuse 23oct2016
Guro Dan Inosanto; a poor snapshot, because I didn’t take very many pictures

Cristyn and I got back last night from a weekend road trip to Syracuse, where we attended a martial arts seminar with Dan Inosanto. It was the first vacation we’ve taken in a while.

My vacation schema for as long as I can remember is to take along a laptop and some books and to fill in-between time with philosophy. I’m not sure I can remember a vacation as an adult that didn’t have at least some of that. But not this time.

Instead, my head was filled with punches, kicks, sumbrada, trapping, and hubad lubud. There was definitely more going on than I could follow, but I had things to do and learn. Cristyn has done a lot of JKD, and so grokked more of the barehand material than I did. Also, in addition to Guro Inosanto, there were a lot of high level practitioners in the room who were happy to help out.

There was also fascinating history and storytelling, literal sitting at the feet of the master stuff. This included the quotable aphorism: “If I teach you, you will forget. If you discover it, you will not forget.”

The event was organized by Kevin Seaman and Tai Kai Jui Jitsu. Thanks to them and the other attendees for making it a great weekend.

I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did Doing hubad with Dan Inosanto would be on it. And it would be checked off.

Synchronicity in blue

Tracy McMullen, a musician and scholar who plays saxophone and thinks about American vernacular music, was in Albany last weekend to collaborate with Cristyn on a musical project.

Making conversation at dinner on the last night of her stay, I asked if she’d heard of and had opinions about Mostly Other People Do The Killing’s Blue (an album that’s a note-for-note remake of the 1959 classic Kind of Blue). It turns out that she has a paper about it forthcoming in The Journal of Jazz Studies. Since I’ve also written about it, there was lots to say. A long discussion about covers, authenticity, and versioning practices ensued.

Since the number of people who have written scholarly articles about Blue is small, possibly just the two of us, it’s an odd coincidence. In some ways, though, it was like old times. I originally started thinking about the philosophy of music because of social connections through Cristyn, at grad school parties where I ended up in conversations with musicians. Although I met Tracy once or twice back then, I hadn’t really gotten a chance to know her until this weekend.

Tracy’s visit also made me nostalgic for my year at Bowdoin, since she’s now a prof there. I’m not struck by it often, but it doesn’t take much for me to be struck by that nostalgia.

Why values and science?

There are a number of different connections between values to science. These sometimes get lumped together in the values and science literature. Even when they are distinguished, it isn’t always noted that each connection (1) applies to somewhat different values and (2) applies to somewhat different aspects or parts of science.

I distinguish five different ways in which values and science are connected in a preliminary attempt to sort some of this out.

Continue reading “Why values and science?”

Consciousness nihilism

Jenny Saul at Feminist Philosophers links to a pretty funny list by Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa of ideas which philosophers refuse to take seriously. It’s a sarcastic broadside at recent discussions about how contemporary philosophy won’t take X, Y, or Z seriously, where the dummy letters are racist and chauvinist crap.

I think #5 is my favourite:

5. Norse mythology (Marvel Comics version (Ultimate continuity))

you’ll find plenty of philosophers of religion offering arguments for Christianity or even atheism. but leading journals NEVER publish arguments defending the truth of the version of Norse mythology where Thor’s powers are more tech-based and he has an axe/hammer hybrid

I’m posting, though, because of #6:

6. consciousness nihilism

esteemed philosophers have argued for dualism, emergentism, panpsychism, and even zombies, but can you imagine what would happen to someone who argued there is no such thing as conciousness at all? no? thank you for proving our point

You totally can take that seriously!

Years ago, I wrote a paper advocating an interpretation of Quantum Mechanics which is nihilist about consciousness. It was published in a journal and everything.

What’s missing from my CV is serious discussion of tech-based axe/hammer hybrids.

The historian and the pope

For popular books, it is traditional to get a big shot to write an introduction in hopes that star power will increase sales. I remember countless science fiction books from when I was a kid with introductions by Isaac Asimov or Harlan Ellison. Stephen King later stepped into the role of ubiquitous introductions.

So there is a strange thrill from the fact that Naomi Oreskes wrote the introduction for Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality. Naomi, a geologist turned historian of science, was faculty at UCSD when I was a grad student. I took a course and an independent study with her, and she was a member of my dissertation committee. She’s since moved to Harvard and become a heavyweight in reflections on climate change. Her book Merchants of Doubt (with Erik Conway) is a fascinating study of the forces behind science denial.

Continue reading “The historian and the pope”

The scope and force of epistemic risk

By coincidence, my seminar on science and values covered Rudner’s Argument from Inductive Risk on the same day that Matt Brown posted an exchange about the Argument with Joyce Havstad. It’s taken me a couple of days to collect my thoughts.

Continue reading “The scope and force of epistemic risk”