A Short Interview With Timothy McGrew, Ph.D.
1. What are your HPS research interests?
My main HPS research interests are historical and epistemological. On the historical side, I find the development of both astronomy and dynamics to be endlessly fascinating and a rich source of methodological material crying out for reflective and historically informed philosophical analysis. On the epistemological side, I am deeply engaged in the analysis of uncertain inference and its employment in the sciences. Some of my recent papers have engaged with issues such as the compatibility of Jeffrey conditioning with strong foundationalism, the role of countable additivity in fine-tuning arguments, and the use of symmetry principles in inductive inference.
2. What are your HPS teaching interests?
At the undergraduate level, I teach the standard upper level courses in formal logic and scientific reasoning as well as the philosophy of science course that I created when I first came to Western. I also teach a two-semester sequence (usually in the honors college) in the history and philosophy of science that runs from Democritus through the 20th century. At the graduate level, I teach a similar sequence in the history and philosophy of science as well as seminars in epistemology, the philosophical applications of symbolic logic, and the philosophical applications of probability theory.
3. What do you think are some of the most important questions in HPS today?
This one’s wide open! There are so many unanswered questions in almost all areas that it is really hard to make a choice. There are hot issues in the philosophy of biology, and there are deep, unresolved problems in the philosophy of physics, even aside from the astonishing problems posed by the interpretation of quantum theory. (That crazy problem of entropy and the direction of time, for example, seems to rise from the grave every time you think you’ve pounded a stake through its heart.) And there are some amazing recent developments in philosophy of probability and confirmation theory that have widened rather than narrowed the possibilities of exploration in this field.
4. How did you become interested in HPS?
My introduction to the philosophy of science occurred when I stumbled upon a copy of Karl Popper’s / Conjectures and Refutations/. No one had ever told me that it was possible to be interested in these issues! That book and /The Logic of Scientific Discovery/ opened whole new worlds of scholarship to me. For a time, I was an avid Popperian; now I’m a card-carrying inductivist with a strong interest in the probability calculus. Popper would no doubt be grieved. But one must follow the evidence wherever it leads.
5. What are your goals and/or expectations for WMU HPS?
We have the potential here at Western to develop a first-rate HPS Center with international prominence. Both in our department and in other departments across campus we have some tremendous talent -- and I mean graduate students as well as faculty. We have the talent, the enthusiasm, and the ideas; what remains is to bring it all together. And that is what WMU HPS is all about.
6. Why do you think that HPS is important?
There are several ways to understand this question. From an educational standpoint, HPS is the ideal subject for bridging the gap between C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” -- the sciences and the humanities. I’ve seen repeatedly how students who think of themselves as belonging to one group or the other have started to grow and branch out intellectually once they are exposed to HPS, and that is very exciting to watch. From the standpoint of scholarly intererst, it’s hard for me to understand how anyone could /not/ be interested in HPS. Science is one of the greatest human achievements, spanning literally millennia yet still ongoing, and its achievements have shaped our lives radically. To understand that achievement, even in part, is as worthy a scholarly activity as any I can think of.
7. What advice would you have for students (undergraduate or graduate) who are interested in pursuing HPS studies?
If you’re standing on the edge dunking toes, just dive in and take a course or read some good books! It’s hard to tell what might catch your interest until you give it a try. If you become interested enough to pursue HPS in a serious way, make sure you acquire a basic grounding in mathematics and the relevant sciences. If you do this at the outset, you will find that you can use your time more efficiently later.
If you plan on working on the historical side, try to pick up a foreign language related to your studies -- be it Greek for work on early science, Latin for medieval and early modern works, Italian for reading Galileo, French for working through Descartes and Huygens, or German for poring over Leibniz. Serious scholarly work in the history of science often requires paleography as well as sheer facility in the language, but if you have a grip on a language first then the learning curve won’t be so steep.
If you’re interested in epistemological issues, you simply must make some study of probability and statistical reasoning. This is where the discipline has gone in the past few decades, and one must acquire at least some facility with the mathematics of probability in order to do respectable work there. Besides, it’s not too hard to learn the basics, and this also opens a window on the methodological controversies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the question of the role of probability in scientific reasoning was vigorously discussed.