John Henry Beatty

Professor

Relevant Degree Programs

 

Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision (Jan 2008 - May 2019)
Thomas Henry Huxley's agnostic philosophy of science (2017)

This dissertation examines Thomas Henry Huxley’s notion of agnosticism and its bearings on his conception of science. Although agnosticism is commonly regarded as a position that recognizes the limits of human knowledge, Huxley – who coined the term “agnostic” – characterized it as more than a theory of ignorance or limits. I argue that Huxley intended his agnosticism to be a guide to knowledge that can work regardless of our ignorance or limits. To this end, I draw attention to Huxley’s less famous philosophical works. I examine his discussions of Descartes to show that he had an epistemological project and to clarify the structure of agnosticism; I analyze his Hume to illuminate the reasoning behind his claim that verification is the only justificatory method and to highlight his reasons for situating agnosticism within what he called “modern critical philosophy”; I investigate his other essays to argue that his agnosticism concerns a claim to knowledge and should not be understood as ethics of belief. Based on his epistemological inquiry, Huxley offered a quick guide to knowledge, consisting of an account of legitimate evidence and an ethics of knowing: agnosticism. It can be summarized as follows. Propositions concerning anything beyond phenomena lack evidential value; verified propositions have evidential value; if one wishes to make a claim about the knowledge status of a proposition, one should evaluate the evidence and be honest about the result without further pretension. Huxley discussed the realm of ignorance to show its lack of justificatory value. The signature remark of Huxleyan agnostics is “Show me evidence,” rather than “I don’t know.” This interpretation undermines the widely accepted view that Huxley’s endorsement of agnosticism poses philosophical obstacles to his larger project of promoting science in Victorian society. His intention behind agnosticism was to establish and maintain epistemic merit of science without any unknowable, metaphysical or theological, apparatus. Science is the practice of agnosticism, and for this reason, our best way to knowledge. Our understandings of his life-long project and of the growth of science’s autonomy during the 19th century would remain incomplete without due appreciation of this notion of agnosticism.

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Denaturing nature : philosophical and historical reflections on the artificial-natural distinction in the life sciences (2014)

The philosopher Georges Canguilhem observed that the “physician’s thought and activity are incomprehensible without the concepts of the normal and the pathological.” I argue similarly regarding the biologist, only it is “the artificial” and “the natural” that are indispensable. Whether it is their objects of study, the methods used to investigate those objects, or even fellow researchers, biologists have habitually classified aspects of their discipline in a way that reflects the artificial-natural distinction. Why this way of classifying? What purpose does it serve? What principles guide its application? With what repercussions?Tracing the transformation of these concepts through a series of historical episodes, I explore the reasons why biologists use this distinction and how it has influenced the practices and directions of certain biological fields—specifically evolutionary biology and ecology. The argument of this dissertation is that in biology decisions concerning the choice and evaluation of experimental and evidential practices, objects of study, and even assessments of scientific personas betray the artificial-natural distinction. Invocations of this distinction, like the normal-pathological, code normative contentions about proper biological practice. “The natural,” I argue, often functions as an epistemic authority.The methodology I employ in this dissertation is conceptual and historical. The arguments marshalled are supported by conceptual-philosophical analysis, close readings of primary texts, and archival work. In the end I aim to problematize a set of widely invoked, but heterogeneously used, biological concepts. My arguments undermine a commonplace view according to which the collapse of the artificial-natural distinction is a prerequisite for contemporary science. This distinction is not, I argue, an outdated, pernicious relic; it has continued to exert a significant influence on scientific practice, and should not be ignored.


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The Narrative structure of scientific theorizing (2014)

I argue that many scientific theories and explanations are irreducibly narrative in character. To this end I propose an account of a generalized narrative, which goes against the widespread view that narratives are by definition particularized. On my account, generalized narratives are sequences of causally connected event-types in the duration of a system, with a beginning, middle and end (whereas particularized narratives are causally connected sequences of event-tokens). Many important scientific theories have a narrative structure that is not reducible to the kinds of formal statements typically identified with theory formulations, i.e., equations and “if-then” conditionals. Similarly, some scientific explanations have a narrative structure that is not reducible to the structure of an “argument” with premises and a conclusion. Narratives, generalized or particularized, play a threefold role in theorizing: heuristic, structural, and explanatory: 1) Through narratives, scientists explore imaginative scenarios where possible causal connections and outcomes are explored before a mathematical or otherwise formal framework is in place; 2) Narratives constitute the core of some theories, and can embed formal elements in them; 3) The causal order of event-types or event-tokens forms the basis of explanations. Throughout, I motivate and illustrate my proposal with examples from evolutionary biology and physics.

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The persistence question of the species problem (2011)

The species problem is the longstanding puzzle in biology regarding the nature of the species category or how to correctly define `species.' Although biologists and philosophers have grappled with it for quite some time, they have thus far failed to reach a general consensus on the matter. My dissertation explores the question of why this problem persists —— why biologists and philosophers remain bothered by the species problem, and have found no solution to it. I call this the persistence question of the species problem.This dissertation aims to answer this persistence question. My strategy is to divide this question into several sub-questions and to answer them. Those questions include:(a) Why does no definition command universal support?(b) How could biologists conduct their research concerning species without a unanimously accepted solution?For question (a), I put forward the argument from interest-relativity. The premises are: (I) biologists have different interests in species, (R) under some interest, biologists erect a set of species criteria and accept only the definition(s) that best satisfy them, and (N) a taxon satisfying one criterion often fails to satisfy another. It follows that there will be very few unanimously accepted definitions of species, because one definition under one interest will fail to satisfy criteria provoked by others. For the question (b), I pointed out two factors. First, when there is no unanimously accepted definition of species, biologists may fail to communicate effectively about species, because the definition of ‘species’ may vary among biologists.But biologists often agree regarding the reference of `species' and species names (like `Homo sapiens'), and we see that this has enabled them to avoid the possible communication breakdown in the history of biology. Second, the way in which biologists represent the notion of species is also relevant. There is a tendency in biologists to represent the species category with its prototype, good species and infer various attributes of the former from those of the latter. When biologists make this attribute substitution, they tend to ignore the complexities of the species problem and do their research without being bothered by them.

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Historicity in biology (2009)

Biology is often characterized as an historical science. Why and to what extent does history matter in biology? Overall, this analysis shows that biology is deeply historical. Using examples from various fields (evolution, ecology and development), I develop a theory of biological historicity starting from the idea that the most fundamental property of historical processes is their capacity to retain information from the past, which ultimately depends on the existence of divergent outcomes and a causal dependence between a process’ outcome and its past. Yet the conditions generating divergent outcomes and information preserving processes are numerous and can be illustrated in various ways. These are developed and clarified through the notions of historical contingency, path dependence, irreversibility, and generative entrenchment.

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Master's Student Supervision (2010 - 2018)
No science, no democracy : environmental knowledge and scientific activism in Canada (2015)

“No Science, No Evidence, No Truth, No Democracy”: this phrase has appeared on signs and has been chanted at protests across Canada since the “Death of Evidence” protests in 2012. It marked the emergence of a number of pro-science organizations that have sought to protect the role of science in Canada’s democracy in the face of substantial changes to science governance in Canada. Arguing against funding cuts to environmental research and libraries, much of the protest has been centred on the emergence of a “wilful ignorance” or “war on science” in Canada. This thesis takes these pro-science activists seriously as part of an emerging social movement working towards changing how federal science is governed and how politics influences its governance. By tracking their modes of resistance, this thesis aims to understand how federal scientists conceive of their role and that of science in democratic governance since the sweeping changes of Bill C-38 and affiliated policies which have been accused of gutting environmental protections and blocking environmental knowledge. I argue that these changes reflect an institutional power shift and have generated a tension between different models of scientific practice within federal institutions. Differing conceptions of scientists as public servants have fuelled the protests, which have focused in particular on the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a freshwater institute in Kenora, Ontario, a freshwater research station previously managed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and now by the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Using the ELA as my case study, I analyze how different conceptions of politics and governance have been articulated using discourse analysis as my primary method of study. Adding to current Science & Technology Studies (STS) discussions on the tension between expertise and democratic decision-making, I question the role of federal governance and perceptions of political interference in producing environmental knowledge.

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Knowledge translation in action : cancer biology and systems pharmacology at the National Center for Advancing Translational Science (2014)

The need for novel diagnostic and therapeutic drugs with the potential to combat increasingly prevalent or particularly insidious diseases has grown in recent years. Concurrently, the issue of translating scientific knowledge from “bench to bedside” has become increasingly salient. In 2011, the U.S. National Institutes of Health created the National Center for Advancing Translational Science in an effort to remedy the recalcitrant gaps between fundamental laboratory research and late-stage clinical trial, thereby dramatically reducing the amount of time and expense needed to develop efficacious pharmaceutical prototypes for a range of emerging, re-emerging, and chronic diseases. However, the realities of pharmaceutical development are incongruous with the expectations of the lay public that even the most fundamental scientific research yield results with immediate social and commercial value. Traditional linear models of progress overlook both the epistemic nature of scientific innovation and the significance of the socio-economic supply and demand factors driving research endeavours. The aim of this dissertation is to underline the epistemic and socio-economic characteristics of translational science – specifically in the context of research targeting novel oncology therapeutics and diagnostics – through the lens of Science and Technology Studies. In focusing on research in cancer biology funded by the National Center for Advancing Translational Science, this thesis highlights the significance of Mode 2 or “post-academic” science, and by extension the roles of interdisciplinarity and applicability, and the commodification of scientific knowledge, that arise in the process of translating scientific knowledge.

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