Congratulations to Simon Pollon (2nd from R) on a successful PhD defence; (L-R) Kate Slaney (Psych), Martin Hahn, Endre Begby, Holly Andersen, Ingo Brigandt (U of Alberta remote via webex/screen), Simon Pollon, Evan Tiffany.


The Gnome Comes Home, and Other Important News from SFU Philosophy

November 25, 2019

It's not just research and conferences ....

PhD Defence

We are extremely pleased to announce that sessional instructor, Simon Pollon successfully defended his PhD thesis, “Agency in the Natural World”.

Abstract: Human agency, like our other traits, is likely continuous with that of other organisms that have evolved on this planet. However, Modern Action Theory has focused almost exclusively on the agency of human beings, so it is not obvious how agency should be understood as a more deeply and broadly distributed, or more basic, biological type.

The central aim of this thesis is to fill this gap by developing and defending an account of what I’ll call “Biologically Basic Agency.” In this work’s first chapter, I establish a preliminary set of adequacy conditions drawn from broad consensus in Modern Action Theory and the needs of biological categorization. These adequacy conditions are then amended and supplemented over the course of the subsequent three chapters via critical discussion of two accounts of Biologically Basic Agency attempting to meet the adequacy conditions developed in Chapter 1.

In Chapter 2, I show that Tyler Burge’s (2010) account of Primitive Agency cannot be empirically refuted and therefore is trivial. In the third chapter, I argue that Kim Sterelny’s (2003) account of the Detection System cannot serve as the evolutionary precursor to agency, because the kind of general evolutionary story Sterelny desires is empirically implausible. In the fourth Chapter, I continue my discussion of Sterelny’s Detection System, because his basic idea that the simplest adaptive behavioral systems are ‘”feature (or signal) specific” is deeply intuitive and popular amongst Philosophers and Cognitive Scientists.

Focusing on the behavior of simple model organisms, I argue that, contra Sterelny and this intuition, these organisms move themselves through their environments toward a best overall place to be within one’s environment relative to a number of (often competing) environmental features relevant to the biological needs of these organisms (typically utilizing sensory inputs corresponding with these various features of the environment). I call such behavior ‘Utopic Behavior.’

Finally, in Chapter 5, I defend Utopic Behavior as an account of Biologically Basic Agency, as it both meets the various adequacy conditions I have established and demonstrates a clear continuity between human agency and that of other organisms that have also evolved on this planet.

Conference News

Lauren Perry (MA grad program) presented her pro-paper (working title "Provocation's Patriarchal Past: Debunking the Concession to Human Frailty" – abstract here) at the Midwest SWIP (Society for Women in Philosophy) Annual Conference at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio at the beginning of the month.

In addition to getting some really helpful recommendations on how to strengthen part of her positive argument, Lauren also gained a lot from the keynote by speaker Serene Khader from CUNY.

“Her talk was about feminism and non-ideal theory: more specifically, how to engage the feminist political project in a context where feminist rhetoric is often used to justify colonialism/imperialism),’ describes Lauren. “It raised a lot of really interesting questions about intersectionality and feminist praxis.”

Lauren also found the conference diverse in terms of topics (the intersection of epistemology and ethics, social ontology, political philosophy, and phenomenology), noting that nine of the ten presenters were women or non-binary.

“Given that philosophy is still far from gender parity, it was really encouraging for me to see so many women doing excellent philosophy,” she concludes. “I would really encourage other women/non-binary students with relevant work (feminist/critical approaches to any area of philosophy) to apply to this conference in the future. I think they'll find it a helpful and supportive environment!”

Another bonus, of which Lauren was not aware before presenting, is that the Midwest SWIP annual conference invites three speakers to contribute to a group session at the Central APA. Lauren has been selected to present in Chicago in February 2020. Congratulations!

Assistant professor Chelsea Rosenthal gave a colloquium talk at the University of Victoria, entitled "Rights in an Uncertain World," and delivered a paper at the Normative Business Ethics Workshop at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, entitled "Disappearing Moral Responsibilities."


Somayeh Tohidi (MA grad program) will be presenting her paper at the International Conference for Philosophy of Science and Formal Methods in Philosophy 2019 at the University of Gdansk, Poland, in December. 

"There is More to Probabilities than Meets the Eyes: How Private Information can be Inferred from Announced Credences".
Abstract: "How should the fact that my friend has a different degree of belief towards a proposition affect me? Multiple strands of literature in epistemology dealing with this issue have recently attracted attention, most notably, the literature on the problem of updating on the credence of others and the problem of peer disagreement.

In this paper, I am going to introduce an adapted version of a framework borrowed from the economics literature on disagreement, i.e. syntactic probabilistic Aumann structures, that reveals a possibility for addressing these problems that has been largely ignored by philosophers. In this framework, agents can indirectly exchange private information simply by announcing their credence towards a certain sentence to each other. This possibility stems from the resources it has for distinguishing between the pieces of information that can be learned (with certainty) and other pieces of information. When such an indirect exchange of private information is possible, the computational complexity of conditionalizing on the credence of others can be avoided by simply conditionalizing on the new information that has been inferred from the announced credence. I will show the relevance of this result to the problem of peer disagreement by showing that agents with asymmetric information can be considered as peers according to the recent, less controversial notions of peerhood. In this literature, my result shows that sometimes peer disagreement is not higher-order evidence (HOE) and in fact some new first-order evidence can be inferred from it. In such occasions, evaluating the total evidence is straightforward.



(…and finally) The Gnome Comes Home

Philosophy was well represented at this year's Faculty Smackdown held earlier this month to support United Way fundraising. In a spirited interpretation of the art of debate, the Illiterati team including assistant professor Nic "The Renegade Logician" Fillion used a shark, juggling and a tuba to take on a crack team of literates keen to promote the superiority of the printed word over moving pictures. Admitting that his book would indeed be much better as a movie, Nic and Team Illiterati won resoundingly in support of the motion, “The Movie is Indeed Better than the Book”.

The department now has a gnome in residence.



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