Conference 2012

Second Annual Alumni Conference, Simon Fraser University

Saturday, March 31, 2012 at 10:00 am, Halpern Centre Room 114, Burnaby Campus 


Tristram McPherson (Virgina Tech), "From Experimental Philosophy to Normative Ethics?"

Commentator: Daisy Laforce (MA, SFU)

Philosophers have strikingly divided views about the significance of experimental philosophy for normative ethics. The most ambitious proponents appear to think that such work has already borne fruit, suggesting substantive normative implications. Others appear to believe that the very idea of such implications misunderstands what normative ethics is. I argue for two claims: first, the question of whether experimental work has implications for normative ethics depends crucially on the correct conception of the goal of normative ethical theorizing. I suggest that, on an attractive schematic conception of that goal, the possibility and nature of the normative significance of experimental work depends in turn on which metaethical theory is correct. Second, I argue that the relevant potential implications of competing metaethical theories are various and complex, suggesting that a great deal of philosophical work would be required to vindicate either of the ambitious views mentioned above.


Clare Batty (U. Kentucky), "Olfactory Objects"

Commentator: Chris Spiker (MA program, SFU)

Much of the philosophical work on perception has focused on vision. Recently, however, philosophers have begun to correct this ‘tunnel vision’ by considering other modalities. Nevertheless, relatively little has been written about the chemical senses—olfaction and gustation. The focus of this paper is olfaction. In light of new physiological and psychophysical research on olfaction, I consider whether olfactory experience is object-based.

The object-based model of perception underlies much of the perceptual literature on vision and,more recently, has come to occupy much of the recent discussion of audition in the philosophy of perception. Underlying this model are widely accepted principles of perceptual organization that allow for object individuation and recognition. Mere feature-extraction is not enough for object perception. Object individuation involves grouping of perceptual features. An experience that presents objects parses the scene before the perceiver, providing information about the edges or boundaries of sensory individuals. In turn, perceptual grouping allows for figure-ground segregation and the ability for a perceiver to distinguish objects not only from each other, but also from their background. Object recognition draws on features of object individuation and involves principles of tracking, persistence and amodal completion. Sensory individuals can be tracked across space and time, survive change to their apparent properties and are perceived to continue uninterrupted behind other occluding objects. Vision and audition each meet these conditions on object individuation and object recognition, albeit along different dimensions. Visual features are packaged in space, and we are able to individuate and recognize visual objects due to their spatial characteristics.

Audible features, while presented in space, are parsed largely in terms of their temporal characteristics. Olfactory experience, in contrast, does not seem overtly object-based. Unlike visual experience, olfactory experience doesn’t seem to present individuals that correspond to ordinary material objects. Like the auditory case, olfactory features seem disengaged from ordinary material objects; yet, unlike auditory experience these features are not obviously presented in space, nor do they appear to have temporal boundaries. Despite this, olfactory scientists have begun to favor an object-based approach to analyzing olfactory perception. Driving this approach is dissatisfaction with the traditional stimulus-response model of olfactory processing. On this approach, olfactory processing involves mere feature extraction and, in turn, an analysis of olfactory experience involves uncovering how the particular features of a chemical stimulus are represented in experience. But many researchers now hold that olfactory experience is largely synthetic—i.e., the various properties of the stimulus produce an irreducible experience, one in which the various features of the stimulus are not distinguishable. Much of what we encounter with our noses are chemical mixtures. The stimulus that gives rise to the experience of what we call the coffee smell, for example, is such a mixture. As we know, sniffing coffee provides us with a unique kind of olfactory experience; but it is not one where we are able to discriminate the over 800 compounds that constitute the coffee odor. As a result, it is now thought that our resulting experience is a function of the pattern of receptor output definitive of that odorant stimulus. These patterns of stimulation constitute “olfactory objects”. On the emerging object-recognition model of olfaction, then, our olfactory experience presents the odor object “coffee”.

In this paper, I explore the claim that these odor objects constitute sensory individuals. It isn’t obvious—at least at the outset—whether they meet the widely accepted principles of object individuation and recognition at work in the visual and auditory cases. Among the general issues I consider, then, is whether these traditional principles form necessary, or simply sufficient, conditions on object perception. As we see, at the very least, considering the object-recognition model of olfaction challenges us to look more closely at well-entrenched models of object perception. But the payoff of doing so is high. We not only learn something about a modality that philosophers have historically neglected; by asking new questions and challenging old assumptions, we also further our understanding of perception in general.


Stefan Linquist (U. Guelph), "How Models Lacking a Determinate Construal Can Inform Theory in Ecology"

Commentator: Tiernan Armstrong-Ingram (MA program, SFU)

When the renowned ecologist Daniel Simberloff compared the practice of ecological modelling to faith healing, he was expressing a long tradition of pessimism about the use of simple models to understand complex ecosystems. Other well known critics in this tradition include E.F. Haskell (1940), R.H. Peters (1991), Shcrader-Freshette & McCoy (1993), and M. Sagoff (2003). Since the terms in many ecological models lack determinate content, it is argued, these models fail to predict or explain. In this paper I draw a parallel between the theory of models presupposed by this critical tradition and the one recently developed by Michael Weisberg. These thinkers share the view that a model’s meaning is determined by the ways that modellers project it onto the world, or, in what Weisberg (2007) describes as a model’s construal. Models with indeterminate construals pose a challenge for this account: without a specific mapping onto any target system, such models should be ecologically uninteresting. Yet, drawing primarily on Robert May’s influential model of ecosystem stability, I argue that ecological models with indeterminate construals can be informative. Their value lies not in prediction or explanation, but rather in their capacity to inform theory. The paper presents the beginnings of an account of what it means for a model to be theoretically informative in this sense, and considers some implications for Weisberg’s account of model semantics.