HOPOS 2008 program posted

The International Society for the history of philosophy of science (a.k.a. HOPOS) has just posted the program for its 2008 conference in Vancouver, taking place June 18-21. (According to the program, I'm speaking about someone named 'Quien.')

Hope to see you there! If you are going, and want to meet up, send me an email.


Are there empty natural kind terms? (The 2nd in a series)

There are empty names, like 'Santa' and '(Planet) Vulcan'; there is a fairly large literature dealing with them in both the philosophy of language and in logic (called 'free logic'). But there has not been any discussion of empty natural kind terms -- which prompts the question: are there any such terms? I ask because it seems to me that 'phlogiston,' 'caloric,' and other central terms of now-discarded scientific theories may qualify as empty natural kind terms.

This question is complicated by the fact that there is not widespread agreement on what natural kind terms are. The two candidates are (I) predicates and (II) names. (Predicates are the leading contender, so you can skip the final paragraphs if your patience for this kind of thing is limited.)

(I - Predicates) This takes us back to the subject of the previous post: are there any empty natural kind predicates? As noted in the last post on this subject, if 'empty' just means 'has the null set as its extension, and the whole domain of discourse as its anti-extension,' then the answer is obviously yes. But then it's uninteresting -- empty names are interesting because (both for direct reference theorists and Frege) sentences containing them will lack truth-value, unless the direct reference theorist proposes an ad hoc fix (cf. David Braun). If empty predicates behave classically/ nicely, they won't generate truth-value gaps.

So here's an argument that natural kind predicates like 'phlogiston' are empty in the same way that 'Vulcan' is, i.e. they can fail to express semantic content sufficient to determine truth-value. How? On a Kripkean account, natural kind terms express properties that objects have essentially. To determine what property is expressed by a natural kind term, we take samples of the stuff that that term refers to in the actual world, and determine what is essential to them, i.e. what property (or combination of properties) those samples must have in order to be that kind of stuff. So the natural kind term ‘water’ expresses the property of being H2O, because in the actual world, having that inner constitution suffices for something to be water. But what is the essential, inner constitution of all the stuff we call ‘phlogiston’ in the actual world? Nothing —- since there is no such thing as phlogiston, there is no essential property or inner constitution to discover. (Note: James Woodbridge helped me a lot with this argument; if you like it, you should attribute it to him, not me.)

So if phlogiston has no inner constitution, then 'phlogiston' lacks semantic content. And thus (atomic) sentences containing the term will be semantically defective, and thus (presumably) will lack a truth-value. But is this argument any good?

(II. - names) One might think natural kind terms are names, because they appear in subject position:
'Water is wet'
But if they are names, what are they names of? Scott Soames (Beyond Rigidity) gives two 'obvious candidates':
(i) the merelogical sum of all the water everywhere, or
(ii) an "abstract type" that is instantiated by the stuff that comes out of our faucets etc.

If it's (i), then there are clearly empty natural kind terms, and 'phlogiston' and 'caloric' are examples. However, Soames gives two arguments against (i): first, if (i) were correct, then 'Water weighs more than 1 million pounds' should be true and felicitous, but it seems clearly not so. Second, if (i) were right, then 'water' would not be (anywhere close to) a rigid designator, and there is a widespread intuition (or Kripkean dogma?) that it is.

If it's (ii), it's not clear to me that there are empty natural kind terms; I don't know how one shows a type does not exist (or, for that matter, how one shows a type does exist). As James Woodbridge and Seyed (in the comments on the first installment of this series) pointed out to me, it seems reasonable to say that an abstract type that is somehow contradictory does not exist, but we'll have nothing like the set-theoretic or semantic paradoxes when it comes to natural kind terms. But I am not all that worried about (ii), because it's not clear (again following Soames in Beyond Rigidity) that natural kind terms are names at all -- they seem to be predicates first and foremost. As Soames points out, 'Whales are mammals' is naturally understood as 'Anything that is a whale is a mammal.' So natural kind terms are not names.


Indeterminism in developmental biology

There's a review article in this week's Science (v.320, April 4 2008, 65-68) that is potentially of philosophical interest, "Stochasticity and Cell Fate". The bumper sticker version: although a cell's transformation into a specialized subtype is deterministic in most cases, "[i]n some cases, however, and in organisms ranging from bacteria to humans, cells choose one or another pathway of differentiation stochastically, without apparent regard to environment or history."

Discussions of indeterminism in biology have usually been restricted to the 'random' mutations that drive evolutionary change. This, if it holds up, looks to be a quite different kind. And interestingly, the authors point out reasons why a certain degree of indeterminism may confer selective advantage upon organisms whose development contains stochastic elements.


Are there empty predicates?

Empty names are names that fail to refer, like 'Santa,' 'Pegasus,' and 'Planet Vulcan.' 'Santa Claus' fails to refer because (on most semantics for empty names) there is no entity that is assigned to 'Santa' as its referent. This is clearly distinct from another view (e.g. Frege's) that 'Santa' should be assigned e.g. the empty set as its referent. That is, there is a difference from having no referent and referring to the empty set -- for my cat has no referent, but '∅' refers to the empty set.

So are there empty predicates? That is, are there predicates that do not signify properties (or extensions, kinds, intensions (= functions from possible worlds to extensions), or whatever your preferred semantic value for predicates is). There are of course predicates whose extension is the empty set (e.g. 'is not identical with itself') -- these predicates signify uninstantiated properties (assuming you think predicates signify properties). But they still signify a property.

There is a fairly massive literature on empty names. (I can recommend Ben Caplan's 2002 dissertation as a nice survey of the empty names landscape.) But there is no talk of empty predicates -- is this because somehow every predicate, unlike names, automatically refers?

Related issue: Philosophers of science often say things like 'phlogiston' and 'caloric' fail to refer. Often, in explaining their claim "The word 'phlogiston' does not refer", these philosophers will say things like "The extension of the predicate 'is phlogiston' (or 'contains phlogiston') is empty." But having the empty set for your extension is different from failing to refer. So when we say that 'contains phlogiston' fails to refer, it seems like we should be saying that it has no (determinate?) extension, not that its extension is empty.

So are there any empty predicates? Are such things even possible? And can the usage of the philosophers of science be defended?