Current research

My research is at the intersection of the philosophies of science and technology, with a focus on understanding scientific change. Broadly speaking, I have been developing a new materialist theory of scientific progress built on a novel characterization of scientific work and an analysis of progress appropriate to it. My dissertation work sought to understand how science makes progress, focusing on the history of chemistry and the 17th-century Scientific Revolution. Technology plays an active role in scientific progress, yet this role has been underappreciated by philosophers of science, who tend to reduce it to merely extending the senses. I argue that technology initiates a positive feedback loop between the production of new knowledge and instrument construction. Careful examination of the role of technology in science challenges received notions of scientific progress, of scientific revolution, of the mechanisms of scientific change, and of the relations of science to its broader social context.

My current projects extend these ideas to the study of the historical sciences and scientific innovation. I am also completing a project, in the philosophy of the social sciences, concerning technology, capitalism, and economic theory. 

Studying the Deep Past

There has been increasing philosophical interest in the role of technological progress in the historical sciences. Geochronology is the field of geology devoted to the measurement of geologic time. It experienced an explosion of its research boundaries in the 20th century. I explain this productivity by analyzing the ontology implicit in geochronological techniques. The immediate object of inquiry of geochronological measurement is the ‘apparent age’ of a sample. This concept is not intrinsic to the geological domain, but to the measurement method, and its adoption allowed the measurement of geologic time to be detached from specific geologic processes. The application of the concept presupposes a mereological decomposition of geologic samples into their constituents. I argue that mereological relations introduce a further dimension in our understanding of the methodology of the historical sciences, in addition to on-going debates over the role of experiment and information destruction in those sciences.

 

The Instrumental Revolution in Geochemistry

During the mid-20th century, geochemistry—one of the core Earth sciences—underwent a spectacular transformation as a result of the introduction of electronic instruments based on physical principles. In this process, mass spectrometry became the workhorse analytical technique in isotope geochemistry. This project concerns the dynamic relationship between discoveries of isotope systems and the variations in their relative abundances, on the one hand—discoveries that became the foundation of isotope geology—and the development of mass spectrometry, on the other. In this context, I have become interested in the career of physicist and instrument-builder Alfred O. C. Nier, who was based at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Nier’s mass spectrometer design of 1940 endowed the instrument with powerful new capabilities, as well as facilitated its adoption outside the nuclear physics community. In the course of developing and applying the instrument, Nier also made important discoveries about the relative abundances of isotopes that paved the way for geochemical research on the deep past. My thesis is that Nier’s early career, spanning the 1930s and ‘40s, illustrates a dynamic relationship in which science and technology co-evolved synergistically. This pattern of research spread beyond Nier—who largely moved on from this research after the 1940s—to develop into a research tradition, initially based at the University of Chicago’s Institute for Nuclear Studies and then spreading to other institutions, notably Caltech and the University of California, San Diego. This tradition made crucial contributions to historical geology, including paleoclimate, solar system history, and the tectonics revolution.

Instrumental rationality in science

The projects above are part of an overarching project on instrumental rationality in science. Although philosophers of science have largely been interested in theoretical rationality--i.e., the rationality of theory choice--instrumental rationality, the adequation of means and ends, has played a massive but philosophically underappreciated role in the history of science. The dynamics of technical change (i.e., change in methods) in science differ markedly from those of theory change. The question of continuity or discontinuity at the level of technical change must be posed differently than at the level of theoretical change. For example, theories can be falsified while the methods used to produce them remain valid. Instrumental rationality also challenges the traditional distinction between science and its applications, insofar as scientific methods are themselves applications of prior science.

Automation and the foundations

of political economy

Is a "fully automated" capitalism possible? According to Marx’s labor theory of value (LTV)  and the theory of surplus-value derived from it, a fully automated economy cannot be profitable. To refute the theory, critics have put forth various thought experiments claiming to show that a fully automated but profitable capitalist economy is conceivable. I argue that the thought experiments fail to demonstrate conceivability, because they misunderstand the role of labor in a commodity economy. In the latter, labor is a means for acquiring the property of others, and so it cannot be eliminated so long as the economy is based on the commodity form. Quite apart from issues of technical feasibility, then, the idea of a fully automated commodity economy is conceptually incoherent. The ineliminability of labor reflects the limits to the socialization of production imposed by the commodity form.