Over at Cosmic Variance, organizer Sean Carroll gives his take on the “Moving Naturalism Forward” workship that both Massimo Pigliucci and I reported on this week (Sean gives all links to our posts). In his post, “Nudging naturalism just a bit forward,” Sean gives an honest take on the organization of the meeting, and says there are three more posts to come on the substance.
As I’ve hinted, I think the conference suffered a bit from the dominance of the philosophers over the scientists, perhaps because most of the philosophers seemed unable (at least to me) to say anything in less than 15 minutes of monologue. That was off-putting to several of us scientists, who are used to having rapid, give-and-take conversations. And, if I can add another personal take, the philosophers seemed far more entrenched in their views than did the scientists (the exception was Steve Weinberg, who seemed pretty sure of himself, but I didn’t mind that since he seemed pretty correct in his views—except about free will!).
Another problem is that scientists like me are intimidated by philosophical jargon, and hence didn’t interrupt the monologues to ask for clarification for fear of looking stupid. I therefore spent a fair amount of time Googling stuff like “epistemology” and “ontology” (I can never get those terms straight since I rarely use them). Perhaps it would have been better had I been more willing to interrupt and ask for clarification, or if the moderators had asked people to explain what they were saying with less jargon. I think the jargon will be a problem when the discussions are finally put up on YouTube (they will be). As Sean said in his post:
We proceeded in the style of a family having a boisterous dinner together, with everyone speaking up whenever they had something to say. It worked quite well, but it might have worked even better if the course of the dialogue had funneled through a central person. Janna Levin, who also recognized this tendency, served as the moderator for the very last session, and I thought it was the best-run of them all.
I agree with that; Janna did a great job.
The last session of Day Two involved a discussion of representation and “aboutness” (what it means for one thing to be about something else, and how in the world such a thing can come into existence naturally). It was the only time, I think, when a subgroup of the table ran off into a technical area and left others behind; in particular, the philosophers were hashing out issues of extreme importance to them. As a result, several of the philosophers said that it was their favorite part of the workshop, while most of the scientists were lost. Maybe it’s okay to allow that more focused kind of discussion as a rare event, but I would have liked to wrangle it in such a way that everyone was equally present.
Yes, I didn’t understand a word of that discussion and eventually tuned out.
But, as I’ve said, the meeting enabled all of us to make contacts—indeed, friends—with lots of intellectual confrères, and that, in the end, may be the most valuable thing of all, for those contacts will, I’m confident, move naturalism forward.