Rotman Graduate Student Conference: Complexity and Explanation

May 15, 2021 - May 16, 2021

This event is online

Keynote speakers:

CUNY Graduate Center
Duke University

Topic areas

Talks at this conference

Add a talk


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.

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.

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

Supporting material

Add supporting material (slides, programs, etc.)

This is a student event (e.g. a graduate conference).




May 15, 2021, 11:45pm EST

External Site

Who is attending?

2 people are attending:

University of Western Ontario

See all

Will you attend this event?

Let us know so we can notify you of any change of plan.

RSVPing on PhilEvents is not sufficient to register for this event.