Matthew Barker, PhD
Associate Professor, Philosophy
Department Chair, August 2018 - July 2021
Matthew Barker is Department Chair, August 2018 - July 2021. He specializes in philosophy of biology and connects this with his work in general philosophy of science, philosophy of psychology, virtue ethics and applied ethics and value theory, and history of the philosophy of science. He attempts to clarify the nature of scientific categories such as "species", and "evolving group", and "individual" in biology, and "well-being", "humility", and "cognitive system" in psychology; he also studies epistemic and ethical issues associated with such categories, especially in connection with biotechnology and the interplay between data, evidence and human values. His work has appeared in The Journal of Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Philosophical Topics, Cognitive Systems Research, The Journal of Applied Philosophy, The Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, and other scholarly venues.
Ph.D. ,University of Wisconsin-Madison (2010)
MA, University of Wisconsin-Madison (2009)
MA, University of Alberta (2005)
BA, Lakehead University (2003)
BSc, Lakehead University (1998)
Current research projects:
1. The Norms of scientific classification: Must we, at least tacitly, draw upon norms and conventions when developing and defending theories about scientific categories, such as the categories species, planet, and skin cancer? With the help of several RAs, this work is revealing the answer to be Yes. A comprehensive catalogue of discovered norms is being developed, and in collaboration with Matthew Slater we are investigating how the norms influence the epistemic rationality and pragmatic rationality of theories about scientific categories.
2. Species as feedback systems: It is common in biology and philosophy of biology to say that species are evolving lineages. Yet it remains unclear what this means more exactly, and so also unclear how strong the evidence for it is. I clarify how we should understand it to mean that each species is a particular kind of feedback system, then show how this compares to existing species concepts, and how to decide between these using empirical evidence and pragmatic considerations.
3. Startling implications about species: You are almost surely human, but is it possible that you may one day become something else, not human, and yet still be you? Do our best evolutionary theories about species even tell us what it is to be distinctively human? Is it possible that one and the same group of organisms could belong to two or more species at once? Humans recognized different species long before science began, so did later scientific theories clarify and improve upon the pre-scientific ones? Those four questions get very surprising answers, as this project uncovers overlooked implications of our best biological theories about species.
4. The nature of humility. Since ancient times people have written about and praised the character trait of humility, but what is it exactly? This project develops a hypothesis about humility's nature, one that integrates recent empirical studies. The hypothesis is that humility is the interaction of two dispositions: being disposed to and motivated by unabsorbed and reasonable views of yourself, and being disposed to selflessly take the bigger picture of things into account. This project outlines means of empirically testing this hypothesis and argues that if the hypothesis is correct, then we should think humility is a virtue that strengthens rather than weakens people.
5. Environmental virtue ethics: Have we been given good reason to believe that it is impossible to flourish as humans without routinely acting virtuously for the sake of the environment and its other living things? I show we have not yet been given such a reason, but I am attempting to fill this gap.
Recently completed projects:
1. Well-being and disability: When people are planning to have a child and can select between different embryos, does the future well-being of the human species give them a significant moral reason to select against embryos that are predicted to develop into children with recognized disabilities? It is common to answer Yes, but we analyzed different types of well-being in order to show that the prevailing case for such selection against disability is mistaken, and reflects an overlooked kind of hubris that tacitly privileges lives that are most like our own. (With Rob Wilson.)
2. Humility, biotechnology, and the environment: Can an approach to ethics based on virtuous human character traits and well-being offer clear and specific principles for deciding how to use biotechnology in agriculture? We are constructing the argument that it can, by generating principles based in both humility and ecosystem sustainability. We are illustrating the use of these principles by applying them to different rice technologies. (With Alana Friend Lettner.)
3. Integrating pluralism about species and science: Rather than there being just one legitimate theory about the nature of species that we could discover, is there a plurality of theories that are equally legitimate even though they contradict each other? For several years it has been very fashionable to answer Yes, and to use this as an example of how such happy, ecumenical pluralism is common in the sciences. Authors have drawn upon this to help argue for sweeping conclusions about how science should be governed and organized. My project is challenging the main case for species pluralism, and arguing that this should motivate us to revise some fundamental beliefs about scientific categories and taxonomies.
4. Bayesian epistemology and the Sally Clark double murder case: How can theoretical and applied philosophy inform each other? To elaborate interesting ways in which the two are reinforcing, this work joined debate about applying Bayesian epistemology to the famous legal case of Sally Clark. When Clark’s first baby died, this was blamed on SIDS. But when she had another baby and it also died, Clark was charged with double murder. In the now famous ensuing court case, a statistician testified that the probability of double SIDS was astronomically low. Others have disagreed and claimed that the chance of double murder was even lower. By drawing on theoretical Bayesianism, my work reached the applied conclusion that both sides are mistaken – the two probabilities are roughly equal, and the relevance of post-partum psychosis in this case has been overlooked. The work also reached a more theoretical conclusion – it generated a new general principle for how to infer prior probabilities from frequency data in a wide variety of cases.
5. Canadian eugenics and its science and values: Unknown to many people, obvious and disturbing forms of eugenics were enshrined in provincial legislation and practiced repeatedly in Canada until very recently. What roles did science play in this? What roles did human values play? What can this teach us about how science and values should interact, and how they sometimes must? I argue for some answers to these questions in a short and accessible article: http://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/encyclopedia/53d82bed4c879d0000000003.
6. Explanation and the natures of things: Are there some biological phenomena that could never be adequately explained by chemistry and physics – that can only be explained within biology itself? Can different biological explanations for the same phenomenon sometimes both be adequate? What is more fundamental to the living world, the biological individuals in it or instead the processes in which they participate? This project provided answers to these and related questions, by critically examining the important work of philosopher of biology John Dupré.
7. Evolution and conventionalism: What counts as an evolving group, such as a population or species or clade? Can facts alone always determine the answer to this question, or do some of our human conventions and values play a necessary role in determining what counts as an evolving group? We argue for the necessity of conventions, based on reasons particular to evolutionary theory rather than based on more sweeping forms of conventionalism. (With Joel D. Velasco.)
Planned future projects:
1. Conservation biology and its values: How do presuppositions about what is valuable operate tacitly within conservation biology, and can we further improve the already impressive work in conservation biology by bringing these presuppositions about value out into the open? Drawing on the growing literature on science and values, we will conduct a meta-analysis that helps answer these questions. (With Dylan Fraser.)
2. Robert Boyle’s metaphysics of science: Was the 17th century scientist Robert Boyle the archetypal reductionist and mechanist that historians and others often describe? I plan to show he was not, that his views about the nature of matter and explanation were more nuanced than has been appreciated, and that we have much to learn from this today.
3. Race, realism, and Bayesian genetics: Should we believe that data analysis using the Bayesian computer program STRUCTURE provides evidence that human races are biologically real, as many authors have recently claimed when criticizing decades of anti-realism about race? I plan to show that such analysis has yet to provide the claimed evidence, and clarify more generally what type of race realisms we could get evidence about.
4. History of species: Were taxonomists prior to Darwin as mistaken in their views of species and other taxa as many traditional historians have long claimed, or were their views much closer to our contemporary ones, as some history revisionists have recently argued? I plan to show that both the traditionalists and revisionists are partly correct and partly incorrect – that it has been a mistake to couch the debate in terms of “species essentialism” and that upon getting more fine-grained in our comparisons of pre- and post-Darwinian taxonomy, we see more clearly how some things have changed and how others have stayed the same.
5. Concepts and methods for studying prosocial development: How do children develop prosocial behaviors, like tending to help and share? Before answering such questions, what concepts of prosocial behavior should we start with and how does this starting point inform the methods and measures we should use? We plan to answer these questions in our search team consisting of philosophers, developmental psychologists and neuroscientists.
Typical teaching schedule
- Introduction to Philosophy of Science, PHIL 220, annually in fall with some exceptions
- Philosophy of Biology, PHIL 318, annually in winter with some exceptions
- Advanced Philosophy of Science, PHIL 420/644, about every second winter
- Philosophy of Social Sciences, PHIL 324, now and then
- Philosophical Foundations of Biology, PHIL 441/641 & BIOL 421 (cross-listed in the Department of Biology), first offered in winter 2019 -- see provisional syllabus here.