Adrian Currie is a senior lecturer of Philosophy at the University of Exeter. He is primarily interested in how scientists successfully generate knowledge in tricky circumstances: where evidence is thin on the ground, targets are highly complex and obstinate, and our knowledge is limited. This has led him to examine the historical sciences – geology, paleontology and archaeology – and to argue that the messy, opportunistic (‘methodologically omnivorous’) and disunified nature of these sciences often underwrites their success. His interest in knowledge-production has also led him to think about the natures of, and relationships between, scientific tools such as experiments, models and observations, as well as in comparative methods in biology. He also has an interest in how we organize scientific communities, particularly regarding scientific creativity. Dr. Currie is a founder of the philosophy of paleontology blog Extinct, and author of Rock, Bone and Ruin from MIT Press. The abstract for his talk is below.
Before Mobility: Lost Worlds & Ediacaran Avalon
Complex metazoan life arose in the Ediacaran, the earliest signs being in the Avalonian assemblages of frond-like organisms of unknown taxonomic affinity, feeding strategy and ecological role. What is well established is the sessility of the Avalonian Ediacaran’s animals: this was a time before mobility. Avalon is the perfect case on which to build a new framework for understanding the epistemology of sciences concerned with the deep past.
Most previous analyses focus on what I’ll call erasure: how ‘records’ of the past degrade as time goes by, and how this undermines the capacities of scientists to reconstruct the past. What we know of Avalon is held hostage to what happens to fossilize, what happens to survive into our time, and what happens to be discovered. In addition to erasure, we should also focus on loss: in many ways the past is not like the present, and this challenges our capacity to understand it. As we’ll see, the lack of mobile animal life had profound consequences for the taphonomic and ecological context of Avalon; consequences making the Avalonian world fundamentally different to our own. We might say we live in separate worlds, and the differences between our worlds constitute a major epistemic challenge beyond the incompleteness of Avalonian ‘records’.
I will lay out a framework that captures both erasure and loss, and put it to work by articulating a set of strategies paleontologists adopt in light of past worlds. I’ll also explore how the lost world framework raises new perspectives regarding the value and nature of historical knowledge.
Nora Mills Boyd is an assistant professor in the Philosophy department at Siena College. She works primarily on empiricism in philosophy of science and on associated topics such as the nature of scientific evidence and the relationships between theories and data. In addition, Dr. Boyd has active research interests in the philosophy of physics, especially astrophysics and cosmology. Between degrees, Dr. Boyd worked as Research Engineer/Scientist at the Center for Experimental Nuclear Physics and Astrophysics at the University of Washington on projects ranging from neutrino mass research to the search for dark matter particles. The abstract for her talk is below.
“‘Stellar’ Experiments and Bad Jokes: On the Purported Epistemic Inferiority of Non-Experimental Sciences.”
Extragalactic experimentation, Ian Hacking has said, is not even science fiction, it’s just a bad joke. If experimentation were necessary for scientific knowledge, the bad joke would also be bad news for fields like astrophysics. It would be bad news for astrophysics if experimentation were necessary for even just some cherished types of scientific knowledge (knowledge of causes, say) or if experimentation made it significantly easier to come by good empirical results than non-experimental methods in general. Is any of this true? Does experimentation deliver us epistemic goods that non-experimental empirical methods cannot? Insofar as experimentation is impossible in astrophysics, does that imply an epistemic limitation? To answer these questions, we first have to clarify what the distinction between ‘experimental’ and ‘non-experimental’ is supposed to be, and to investigate whether whatever grounds that distinction could make an epistemic difference. I will consider two plausible ways of explicating this key notion of ‘experimental’ and argue that they fail to support a general epistemic inferiority argument and moreover, that focusing on the experimental/non-experimental distinction diverts our attention from the sites of real epistemic action.
Meira Gold is a postdoctoral fellow at York University. She is a historian of science specializing in nineteenth-century British Egyptology. Her work examines the emergence of colonial archaeological fieldwork in late Ottoman-Egypt through the lens of disciplinary specialization and popularization in Britain. Her article “Ancient Egypt and the Geological Antiquity of Man, 1847-1863” published in History of Science (2019), received the 2020 Alexander Prize from the Royal Historical Society. Dr. Gold is also the recipient of the 2020 Nathan Reingold Prize from the History of Science Society for her paper “Shit Archaeology: Ancient Fertilizer and the Manufacture of British Egyptology, 1878-1914.” The abstract for her talk is below.
Shared ground, land use, and the colonial politics of field sites
The development of British colonial archaeology throughout the nineteenth century was predicated on the creation of new spaces of observation, excavation, recording, and collecting. From short topographical surveys to sustained large-scale excavations, archaeological authority depended on the identification, demarcation, and especially, long-distance control of the ‘field site.’ But how were sites made archaeological? And for whom? The lengthy fraught process always involved territorial disputes. In late-Ottoman Egypt, for example, ancient sites were contested, multipurpose places, populated by a range of figures. Land use practices seemed counterproductive: British archaeologists sought to preserve the soil in situ while agriculturalists needed to rotate and redistribute the soil to harvest the country’s mass-exported cotton cash crops. As archaeologists appropriated agricultural labourers, and claimed territorial space for their new field science, they effectively conceptualized and popularized the excavation ‘site’ as a new locale for reliable knowledge-making. This talk will take a land-centered approach to discuss the spatial and social politics of the field site and the shared ground between archaeology and agriculture. In the process, I will explore what histories of archaeology (and other historical field sciences) can gain from perspectives in the history of science, environmental history, and postcolonial scholarship.
Max Dresow is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota (project: Agency, Directionality and Function: Foundations for a Science of Purpose) and a fellow at the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science. Utilizing his background in biology and ecology, as well as his own experience with fieldwork, Dr. Dresow’s research explores the material practices of the earth and life sciences. His recent work on the philosophy of geohistory explores how scientists are able to learn about and reconstruct the deep past. The abstract for his talk is below.
“Uniformitarianism Re-examined, or The Present is the Key to the Past, Except When it Isn’t (And Even Then it Kind of Is)”
Perhaps no term in the geological lexicon excites more passions than uniformitarianism, whose motto is “the present is the key to the past.” The term is controversial in part because it contains several meanings, which have been implicated in creating a situation of “semantic chaos” in the geological literature. Yet I argue that debates about uniformitarianism do not arise from a simple chaos of meanings. Instead, they arise from legitimate disagreements about substantive questions. This paper examines these questions and relates them to several “forms of understanding” pursued by researchers in geohistory.