Matthew Barker, PhD
Associate Professor, Philosophy
On research sabbatical, January 1st 2022 - June 30th 2022
PhD in philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison, with Elliott Sober (2007-2010)
MA in philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison (2007-2009)
MA in philosophy, University of Alberta, with Robert A. Wilson (2003-2005)
BA in philosophy, Lakehead University (1994-1998, 2003)
BSc in biology, Lakehead University (1994-1998)
Samples of published work
Current research projects:
1. Norms of scientific classification: Are there ways in which we must, and others in which we should, draw upon norms rather than just data when defending theories about scientific categories--such as the categories species, planet, and skin cancer? With the help of RAs, Matt Slater and I are showing how the answer to these questions is 'yes'. And this helps steer us away from disagreements about whether scientific categories are objective, towards questions about which category claims are rational and in which ways. Work presented at CLMPS 2019 in Prague, and ISH 2019 in Oslo
2. Species and other evolving lineages as feedback systems: Having recently proposed that species and other evolving lineages are special kinds of feedback systems, I am now further developing this proposal, and its implications for many issues related to species, lineages, systematics, classification, and the philosophy of these. For a project proposal about applying the feedback model to prokaryotic species, in collaboration with microbial biologist Henrik Christensen and others, see here.
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? People 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 theories about evolutionary groups.
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 one's self, 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. (Work presented with James Luong at a May 2019 CRÉ/GREE conference)
Recently completed projects:
1. Well-being and disability: When people are planning to have a child and can select between different embryos, do they have a significant moral reason (one to weigh up against their other reasons) 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. Environmental virtue ethics: This work showed that, on one hand, environment-regarding character traits are not strictly required for human flourishing, but then, on the other hand, examined the links between diversity of environments and diversity of human populations to show that some environment-regarding character traits are nonetheless of great ethical importance for human flourishing.
3. 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 argued that it can, by generating principles based in both humility and ecosystem sustainability, also illustrating the use of these principles in GMO and CRISPR crop cases. (With Alana Friend Lettner.)
4. Integrating pluralism about species and other scientific categories: Rather than there being just one legitimate theory about the nature of species, 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 a 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 challenged the main case for eliminative species pluralism, and argued that a dilemma faces such pluralism in many cases of scientific categories.
5. 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.
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 Bayesian statistical software provides evidence that human races are biologically real, as many authors have claimed when criticizing decades of anti-realism about race? I plan to clarify the potential and limits of such analyses, and improve debate about the biological reality of races and other groups.
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.
Teaching and supervision activities
Courses taught (undergraduate and graduate level):
- Philosophical Foundations of Biology, PHIL 441/641 & BIOL 421 (cross-listed in the Department of Biology), recently offered once/year; a past syllabus (outline)
- Advanced Philosophy of Science, PHIL 420/644, offered about every other year; a past syllabus (outline)
- Philosophy of Biology, PHIL 318, offered in many years; a past syllabus (outline)
- Philosophy of Social Sciences, PHIL 324, offered now and then; a past syllabus (outline)
- Introduction to Philosophy of Science, PHIL 220, usually offered once/year; a past syllabus (outline)
Current or Recent Research Assistant(s):
Graduate students supervised:
Some comments from Laura on her time in the MA program: "In addition to being a kind and supportive presence, Matt is an organized and careful supervisor. His feedback on my MRP helped me to think more deeply and pressed me to refine my points in ways that facilitated my learning while improving the clarity of my work. Matt’s guidance has helped me become more precise with language, which has ultimately allowed me to communicate more effectively with others. The refinement of my communication skills through my work with Matt has become particularly useful for me as I am currently beginning graduate studies in Counselling Psychology at McGill University."
- Some comments from Sean from his time in the MA program: "Dr. Matt Barker’s expertise and insights were invaluable to me when deciding what topic in philosophy of science to write on. He demonstrated unparalleled support for me as his graduate student by continuing to provide weekly feedback on drafts of my research paper, while being away on parental leave. Additionally, he arranged introductions for me with members within his academic circle. For example, he introduced me to Dr. Ingo Brigandt, who agreed to review a draft of my paper and provide detailed comments. This greatly benefited not only my final research paper, but also my future potential research opportunities. Incidentally, during this time, I was able to secure a research stay in Edmonton, Alberta, under Dr. Brigandt’s supervision, and expand my own academic networks while receiving additional feedback and comments, further strengthening the final version of my research paper."
Some comments from Louise from her time in the MA program: "Professor Barker's spontaneous enthusiasm for the fantastic short story "Axolotl" and his recognition of its potential for an analytic enquiry encouraged me to pursue the rather nebulous goal of using philosophy of science to foster cooperation between the hard sciences and the humanities. His persistent and perfectly orchestrated crescendo of questions over three years enabled me to grow from a well-intentioned sympathiser of things philosophical in general to a dedicated student of personal identity and metaphysical boundaries. His sustained guidance and personalised involvement throughout this lengthy process have given me a unique sense of accomplishment and the impetus to pursue further studies in philosophy. I am currently researching the ethical facets of end of life situations including MAiD."
- Some comments from Dan on his time in the MA program: "In addition to the knowledge I developed about my subject area (environmental virtue ethics), I would say that the most lasting and important lessons I learned from studying with Dr. Barker were less directly related to my specific area of study, and more applicable to my writing and critical thinking skills in general. I learned to be a far more disciplined writer than I was before, and this was very valuable in the workplace, where I found myself in a management role where clear and concise communications skills are paramount. Additionally, Dr. Barker's thoroughly analytical approach to philosophy taught me how to break down problems in order to solve them once piece at a time... Surprisingly, what works for a graduate research paper also works surprisingly well for nearly any other planning exercise, and getting through my studies with Dr. Barker gave me confidence to work on large organizational projects when I joined the work force"
- Some comments from Fred on his time in the MA program: "My work with Drs. Barker and Morris at Concordia helped me align and clarify my thoughts on cognitive science, and helped prepare me to undertake (and get admitted for) an interdisciplinary Ph.D. at the University of Manitoba"