Philosophy of Science Association - Event Information - Philosophy of Science Association

Event Name:
Rotman Graduate Student Conference: Complexity and Explanation

Event Type(s):

The Rotman Institute of Philosophy's inaugural graduate student conference

Event Date:
5/15/2021 - 5/16/2021

Event Time:
9:30 AM - 4:00 PM Eastern

Zoom. Registration link:


Western University's Rotman Institute of Philosophy will hold the Inaugural Rotman Graduate Student Conference on Saturday, May 15 and Sunday, May 16, 2021 over Zoom. This year’s conference will focus on metaphysical, epistemological, and conceptual aspects regarding the relationship between complexity and explanation in the sciences.

We are pleased to announce Biologist, Dr. Daniel McShea (Duke University) and Presidential Professor of Philosophy, Dr. Muhammad Ali Khalidi (City University of New York) as our keynote speakers.

Dr. Muhammad Ali Khalidi - "Why the Past Matters: Scientific Taxonomy and Etiological Kinds"

Abstract: Some scientific disciplines and sub-disciplines are widely regarded as historical, notably: cosmology, geology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, historical linguistics, and others. As recognized by Whewell (1847), one reason for regarding a science as historical is that some of its taxonomic categories are based (at least in part) on causal history. But why should science categorize on the basis of causal history rather than synchronic causal powers? In this paper, I will take a look at some of the ways in which a variety of scientific taxonomies categorize on the basis of causal history and will put forward some reasons for justifying such classificatory practices. Though some philosophers of science have argued that classification by causal history is not scientific, I will argue that taxonomic categories formed on the basis of causal history can serve the goals of explanation and prediction (or retrodiction), and that there are strong scientific grounds for classifying on this basis. I will conclude by applying some of these lessons to taxonomy in psychology and cognitive science.

Bio: I am Presidential Professor of Philosophy at City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. Before that, I was Professor of Philosophy at York University in Toronto. I’ve also taught at the American University of Beirut, University of Nevada at Reno, and (as a post-doc) at the University of Chicago and Columbia University. My work focuses on the philosophy of science, particularly cognitive science and social science. I’ve also done some work on classical Arabic-Islamic philosophy. My current project is a book titled, Cognitive Ontology: Taxonomic Practices in the Mind-Brain Sciences, which is supported by an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). To get some idea of what it’s about, you can watch a 2016 presentation on mind-brain taxonomy here:

Dr. Daniel McShea - "An Externalist Teleology"

Abstract: What is the source of guidance for teleological entities? What explains their mysterious directedness – their persistence – in pursuit of a goal? Aristotle looked inward, to the entity’s internal nature. It is in a rock’s nature to go downward when it moves, he theorized. Today we have what I call “field theory.” Objects present near massive bodies are immersed in a gravitational field that persistently directs them toward the body. Today, in explaining the seeming goal directedness of developing organisms, their persistence as they transform from embryo to adult, we still look inward for the source of goal directedness, to the genes. The problem is that genes are not up to the job. Genes are certainly central in development, but they cannot guide the process in a goal-directed way. Genes are switches, of a sort, turning on and off,or continuously regulating, the production of proteins. And they contain no blueprint, no map, sufficient to guide the development of macroscale organismal structures. Such guidance can only come from something larger than and external to the guided structures, what today are variously called gene activation patterns, biochemical gradients, or simply morphogenetic fields. Here I raise the possibility that guidance by external fields is a common feature of all teleological entities, from organismal tropisms to human artifacts. Sunflowers tracking the sun across the sky are guided by the light field emanating from the sun. A homing torpedo tracking a target ship is guided by the sound field emanating from the target ship. What’s more, natural selection itself is a teleological process in which an evolving lineage is guided by an ecological “field.” In all of these, the teleological guidance, the field, is external. Extending the reasoning even further, intentionality in organisms can be understood as a system in which a goal-directed entity, consciousness, is immersed in and directed by external “fields.” Here the fields are affective processes – wants, preferences, cares, the passions, or simply the motivations – here conceived as larger than and enveloping the consciousness they direct. In this view, the affective processes themselves are directed by the yet-larger social structures in which they develop, as well as the ecological fields that guided their evolution. In sum, it would seem that across the board, for all goal-directed entities, guidance arises from external fields. And field theory solves the mystery of teleology.

Bio: Daniel McShea is a Professor of Biology at Duke University. He works mainly in two areas:

1) Evolution of Complexity: In a 2010 book with Robert Brandon, Biology’s First Law, we argue that the complexity of organisms will tend to increase spontaneously in the absence of natural selection and other forces. In evolution, complexity is easy. (And simplicity is hard.) … A second book, The Missing Two Thirds of Evolutionary Theory is due out in 2020.

2) Teleology (purpose, goal directedness): A common physical structure underlies all goal-directed systems, from acorns turning into oak trees to homing torpedoes to human passions and purposes. All of these are hierarchically structured, consisting a small thing nested within a large thing, more precisely, a goal-directed entity moving within a larger directing field. For the homing torpedo, the directed entity is the torpedo itself, and the directing field is the sound field emanating from a target ship. In us, the directed entities are thoughts and behaviors, and the larger fields are motivations, in other words, wants, preferences, and cares. According to this view (and consistent with David Hume’s centuries-old argument), it is not reason that powers and directs purposeful behavior, but our passions, both calm and strong.

An announcement regarding the schedule of student presentations will be posted on the Rotman Institute of Philosophy's website in the coming days ( Keep an eye out, and we hope to see you at the conference! 

2021 RGSC Committee

Outlook/ vCalendar/ Google:
Click on the icon next to the date(s) to add to your calendar:
5/15/2021 - 5/16/2021