A mathematical model in science can be formulated as a counterfactual conditional, with the model’s assumptions in the antecedent and its predictions in the consequent. Interestingly, some of these models appear to have assumptions that are metaphysically impossible. Consider models in ecology that use differential equations to track the dynamics of some population of organisms. For the math to work, the model must assume that population size is a continuous quantity, despite that many organisms are necessarily discrete. This means our (...) counterfactual representation of the model can have an impossible antecedent, giving us a counterpossible. Analogous counterpossibles arise in other sciences, as we’ll see. According to a prominent view in counterfactual semantics, the vacuity thesis, all counterpossibles are vacuously true, that is, true merely because their antecedents are necessarily false. But some counterpossible formulations of differential equation models in science are not all vacuously true—some are non-vacuously true, and some are false. I go on to show how an alternative semantics, one that employs impossible worlds, can deliver this judgment. (shrink)
A counterpossible is a counterfactual whose antecedent is impossible. The vacuity thesis says all counterpossibles are true solely because their antecedents are impossible. Recently, some have rejected the vacuity thesis by citing purported non-vacuous counterpossibles in science. One limitation of this work, however, is that it is not grounded in experimental data. Do scientists actually reason non-vacuously about counterpossibles? If so, what is their basis for doing so? We presented biologists (N = 86) with two counterfactual formulations of a well-known (...) model in biology, the antecedents of which contain what many philosophers would characterize as a metaphysical impossibility. Participants consistently judged one counterfactual to be true, the other to be false, and they explained that they formed these judgments based on what they perceived to be the mathematical relationship between the antecedent and consequent. Moreover, we found no relationship between participants’ judgments about the (im)possibility of the antecedent and whether they judged a counterfactual to be true or false. These are the first experimental results on counterpossibles in science with which we are familiar. We present a modal semantics that can capture these judgments, and we deal with a host of potential objections that a defender of the vacuity thesis might make. (shrink)
In their 2010 book, Biology’s First Law, D. McShea and R. Brandon present a principle that they call ‘‘ZFEL,’’ the zero force evolutionary law. ZFEL says (roughly) that when there are no evolutionary forces acting on a population, the population’s complexity (i.e., how diverse its member organisms are) will increase. Here we develop criticisms of ZFEL and describe a different law of evolution; it says that diversity and complexity do not change when there are no evolutionary causes.
Fictionalists believe that scientific models are about model systems that are imaginary. Michael Weisberg has claimed that fictionalism is indefensible because many scientific models are about model systems that are unimaginable. According to a certain account of imagination, what Weisberg says is plausible. According to another, more defensible account of imagination, it is not. I discuss these issues within the context of an allegedly unimaginable model system in ecology, but the conclusions I draw are more general. I then describe how (...) fictionalism should be recast in order to deal with Weisberg’s critique. (shrink)
The contextual approach is a prominent framework for thinking about group selection. Here, I highlight ambiguity about what the contextual approach is. Then, I discuss problematic entailments the contextual approach has for what processes count as group selection—entailments more troublesome than typically noted. However, Sober and Wilson’s version of the Price approach, which is the main alternative to the contextual approach, is problematic too: it leads to an underappreciated paradox called the vanishing selection problem and thereby generates the wrong qualitative (...) account of whether group selection is occurring in a certain family of cases. In response, I develop an account of group selection that can deal with the counterexamples to both the contextual approach and the Price approach. I then discuss the role that contextual analysis can continue to play in the discussion of individual fitness and metapopulation evolution. (shrink)
The “negative view” is the claim that natural selection cannot explain why a particular individual has one trait, rather than another. Here, I modify an example from Lewens (2001) to show that this claim is sometimes false. I then advance a variation on the negative view. It is the claim that selection at the organism level within a lineage cannot explain why a particular individual in that lineage has one allele, rather than another. This formulation better describes the explanatory role (...) of selection. (shrink)
The “negative view” is the claim that natural selection cannot explain why a particular individual has one trait, rather than another. Here, I modify an example from Lewens to show that this claim is sometimes false. I then advance a variation on the negative view. It is the claim that selection at the organism level within a lineage cannot explain why a particular individual in that lineage has one allele, rather than another. This formulation better describes the explanatory role of (...) selection. (shrink)
Causalism is the thesis that natural selection can cause evolution. A standard argument for causalism involves showing that a hypothetical intervention on some population-level property that is identified with natural selection will result in evolution. In a pair of articles, one of which recently appeared in the pages of this journal, Jun Otsuka has put forward a quite different argument for causalism. Otsuka attempts to show that natural selection can cause evolution by considering a hypothetical intervention on an individual-level property. (...) Specifically, Otsuka identifies natural selection with the causal relationship between a trait and fitness, claims an intervention on the strength of this relationship can cause evolution, then concludes that natural selection can cause evolution. Below I describe why Otsuka’s argument for causalism is unconvincing. Central to my criticism is that Otsuka’s argument works only if one adopts an indefensible account of natural selection, according to which natural selection can occur in the absence of trait or fitness variation. I go on to explain why any attempt to demonstrate the truth of causalism via a hypothetical intervention on an individual-level property would appear to require one to adopt an account of natural selection that is inadequate for the same reason. This in turn means the plausibility of causalism does indeed depend on the plausibility of the claim that population-level properties, which supervene on the properties of the individuals in the population, can be causally efficacious. (shrink)
How is the human tendency and ability to collaborate acquired and how did it evolve? This paper explores the ontogeny and evolution of human collaboration using a combination of theoretical and empirical resources. We present a game theoretic model of the evolution of learning in the Stag Hunt game, which predicts the evolution of a built-in cooperative bias. We then survey recent empirical results on the ontogeny of collaboration in humans, which suggest the ability to collaborate is developmentally stable across (...) a range of environments. Lastly, we use an account of innateness developed by Ariew (Philos Sci 63:S19–S27, 1996) and Sober (Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy. Routledge, London, pp 794–797, 1998) to assess the extent that (1) the model predicts the fixation of innate collaboration and (2) the empirical studies show a human’s ability to collaborate to be innate. (shrink)
Suppose a theory T entails hypotheses H and $$H'$$, neither of which entails the other. A number of authors have argued that a piece of evidence E “indirectly confirms” H when E confirms either T or $$H'$$. But there has been a protracted and unsettled debate about whether indirect confirmation is a sound inference procedure. Skeptics argue that the procedure employs conditions of confirmation that jointly lead to absurdity. Proponents argue that this criticism is unfounded or that its import is (...) exaggerated. I will argue that no side has the story quite right, and some have the story quite wrong. Indirect confirmation, as characterized above, is unsound, and a good chunk of this paper will be concerned with showing why most extant defenses of the procedure err. On the other hand, when certain probabilistic (in)dependence relations hold between T, H, and $$H'$$, indirect confirmation can work, for reasons that trace back to Reichenbach’s principle of the common cause. I illustrate these matters with some contemporary and historical examples, with a particular focus on Kepler’s use of data about mars’s elliptical orbit to justify a claim about earth’s. (shrink)
There are ongoing debates in philosophy of biology about what falls within natural selection's explanatory scope. These include debates about whether selection can explain individual-level traits, the extent to which selection can explain distributions of trait frequencies, and whether selection can explain the origin of novel traits. Here I'll survey these debates, suggest which views seem most plausible, and describe some useful conceptual frameworks for thinking about the issues involved.
Understanding modeling in biology requires understanding how biology is organized as a discipline and how this organization influences the research practices of biologists. Biology includes a wide range of sub-disciplines, such as cell biology, population biology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, and systems biology among others. Biologists in sub-disciplines such as cell, molecular, and systems biology believe that the use of a few experimental models allows them to discover biological universals, whereas biologists in sub-disciplines such as ecology and evolutionary biology believe (...) that the use of many different experimental and mathematical models is necessary in order to do this. Many practitioners of both approaches misunderstand best practices of modeling, especially those related to model testing. We stress the need for biologists to better engage with best practices and for philosophers of biology providing normative guidance for biologists to better engage with current developments in biology. This is especially important as biology transitions from a “data-poor” to a “data-rich” discipline. If 21st century biology is going to capitalize on the unprecedented availability of ecological, evolutionary, and molecular data, of computational resources, and of mathematical and statistical tools, biologists will need a better understanding of what modeling is and can be. (shrink)
Michael Tomasello’s new book Why We Cooperate explores the ontogeny and evolution of human altruism and human cooperation, paying particular attention to how such behaviors allow humans to create social institutions.