Skip to main content

Matthew J. Barker, PhD

Associate Professor, Philosophy

Serving as Graduate Program Director (GPD) until May 31st 2023

Matthew J. Barker, PhD

Research Biography: Much of his research uncovers and answers philosophical questions about scientific categories. Some of these questions focus on specific categories, such as species and individual in biology, and well-being and humility in psychology. Others zoom out to ask, e.g., about how categories can vary in their objectivity, and how norms of scientific reasoning influence conclusions drawn about categories. He also works on related topics, such as ethical issues in biotechnology and the environment, the roles that values must and should play in science, and how to infer probabilities of hypotheses from existing data. His primary research areas are philosophy of biology, general philosophy of science, and philosophy of psychology; secondarily he sometimes works on virtue ethics and applied ethics, and the history of the philosophy of science. His teaching also focuses on all those areas. He has published in The Journal of Philosophy, Mind, The Stanford Encyclopedia 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, Philosophy Theory and Practice in Biology, and other scholarly venues.


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)

View current CV.


Samples of published work

Published or forthcoming articles

  • We are Nearly Ready to Begin the Species Problem. In John S. Wilkins, Frank E. Zachos & Ya Igor Pavlinov (eds.), Species Problems and Beyond: Contemporary Issues in Philosophy and Practice, Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group. forthcoming.
    This paper isolates a hard, long-standing species problem: developing a comprehensive and exacting theory about the constitutive conditions of the species category, one that is accurate for most of the living world, and which vindicates the widespread view that the species category is of more theoretical import than categories such as genus, sub-species, paradivision, and stirp. The paper then uncovers flaws in several views that imply we have either already solved that hard species problem or d…Read more
  • Biological Individuals. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 1 (1). 2019. With Robert A. Wilson.
    The impressive variation amongst biological individuals generates many complexities in addressing the simple-sounding question what is a biological individual? A distinction between evolutionary and physiological individuals is useful in thinking about biological individuals, as is attention to the kinds of groups, such as superorganisms and species, that have sometimes been thought of as biological individuals. More fully understanding the conceptual space that biological individuals occupy als…Read more
  • Species and Other Evolving Lineages as Feedback Systems. Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology 11. 2019.
    This paper proposes a new and testable view about the nature of species and other evolving lineages, according to which they are feedback systems. On this view, it is a mistake to think gene flow, niche sharing, and trait frequency similarities between populations are among variables that interact to cause some further downstream variable that distinguishes evolving lineages from each other, some sort of “species cohesion” for example. Instead, gene flow, niche sharing, similarities between popu…Read more
  • Well-being, Disability, and Choosing Children. Mind 128 (510): 305-328. 2019. With Robert A. Wilson.
    The view that it is better for life to be created free of disability is pervasive in both common sense and philosophy. We cast doubt on this view by focusing on an influential line of thinking that manifests it. That thinking begins with a widely-discussed principle, Procreative Beneficence, and draws conclusions about parental choice and disability. After reconstructing two versions of this argument, we critique the first by exploring the relationship between different understandings of well…Read more
  • Eliminative Pluralism and Integrative Alternatives: The Case of Species. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 70 (3): 657-681. 2019.
    Pluralisms of various sorts are popular in philosophy of science, including those that imply some scientific concept x should be eliminated from science in favour of a plurality of concepts x1, x2, … xn. This article focuses on influential and representative arguments for such eliminative pluralism about the concept species. The main conclusions are that these arguments fail, that all other extant arguments also fail, and that this reveals a quite general dilemma, one that poses a defeasible pre…Read more
  • Environmentally Virtuous Agriculture: How and When External Goods and Humility Ethically Constrain (or Favour) Technology Use. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 30 (2): 287-309. 2017. With Alana Lettner.
    This paper concerns virtue-based ethical principles that bear upon agricultural uses of technologies, such as GM crops and CRISPR crops. It does three things. First, it argues for a new type of virtue ethics approach to such cases. Typical virtue ethics principles are vague and unspecific. These are sometimes useful, but we show how to supplement them with more specific virtue ethics principles that are useful to people working in specific applied domains, where morally relevant domain-specific …Read more
  • Connecting Applied and Theoretical Bayesian Epistemology: Data Relevance, Pragmatics, and the Legal Case of Sally Clark. Journal of Applied Philosophy 34 (2): 242-262. 2017.
    In this article applied and theoretical epistemologies benefit each other in a study of the British legal case of R. vs. Clark. Clark's first infant died at 11 weeks of age, in December 1996. About a year later, Clark had a second child. After that child died at eight weeks of age, Clark was tried for murdering both infants. Statisticians and philosophers have disputed how to apply Bayesian analyses to this case, and thereby arrived at different judgments about it. By dwelling on this applied ca…Read more
  • Connecting Applied and Theoretical Bayesian Epistemology: Data Relevance, Pragmatics, and the Legal Case of Sally Clark. Journal of Applied Philosophy 34 (2): 242-262. 2017.
    In this article applied and theoretical epistemologies benefit each other in a study of the British legal case of R. vs. Clark. Clark's first infant died at 11 weeks of age, in December 1996. About a year later, Clark had a second child. After that child died at eight weeks of age, Clark was tried for murdering both infants. Statisticians and philosophers have disputed how to apply Bayesian analyses to this case, and thereby arrived at different judgments about it. By dwelling on this applied ca…Read more
  • Science and Values. Eugenics Archive. 2015.
    This short paper, written for a wide audience, introduces "science and values" topics as they have arisen in the context of eugenics. The paper especially focuses on the context of 20th century eugenics in western Canada, where eugenic legislation in two provinces was not repealed until the 1970s and thousands of people were sterilized without their consent. A framework for understanding science-value relationships within this context is discussed, and so too is recent relevant work in philosoph…Read more
  • Deep Conventionalism about Evolutionary Groups. Philosophy of Science 80 (5): 971-982. 2013. With Joel D. Velasco.
    We argue for a new conventionalism about many kinds of evolutionary groups, including clades, cohesive units, and populations. This rejects a consensus, which says that given any one of the many legitimate grouping concepts, only objective biological facts determine whether a collection is such a group. Surprisingly, being any one kind of evolutionary group typically depends on which of many incompatible values are taken by suppressed variables. This is a novel pluralism underlying most any one …Read more
  • The Biological Notion of Individual. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2013. With Robert A. Wilson.
    Individuals are a prominent part of the biological world. Although biologists and philosophers of biology draw freely on the concept of an individual in articulating both widely accepted and more controversial claims, there has been little explicit work devoted to the biological notion of an individual itself. How should we think about biological individuals? What are the roles that biological individuals play in processes such as natural selection (are genes and groups also units of selection?)…Read more
  • Essentialism. In Byron Kaldis (ed.), Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Social Sciences, . 2013.
    This ~4000 word essay introduces topics of essentialism, as they arise in social sciences. It distinguishes empirical (e.g., psychological) from philosophical studies of essentialisms, and both metaphysical and scientific essentialisms within philosophy. Essentialism issues in social science are shown to be more subtle and complex than often presumed.
  • Biological explanations, realism, ontology, and categories. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (4): 617-622. 2013.
    This is an extended review of John Dupré's _Processes of Life_, a collection of essays. It clarifies Dupré's concepts of reductionism and anti-reductionism, and critically examines his associated discussions of downward causation, and both the context sensitivity and multiple realization of categories. It reviews his naturalistic monism, and critically distinguishes between his realism about categories and constructivism about classification. Challenges to his process ontology are presented, as …Read more
  • Specious intrinsicalism. Philosophy of Science 77 (1): 73-91. 2010.
    Over the last 2,300 years or so, many philosophers have believed that species are individuated by essences that are at least in part intrinsic. Psychologists tell us most folks also believe this view. But most philosophers of biology have abandoned the view, in light of evolutionary conceptions of species. In defiance, Michael Devitt has attempted in this journal to resurrect a version of the view, which he calls Intrinsic Biological Essentialism. I show that his arguments for the resurrection f…Read more
  • From Cognition's Location to the Epistemology of its Nature. Cognitive Systems Research 11 (357): 366. 2010.
    One of the liveliest debates about cognition concerns whether our cognition sometimes extends beyond our brains and bodies. One party says Yes, another No. This paper shows that debate between these parties has been epistemologically confused and requires reorienting. Both parties frequently appeal to empirical considerations and to extra-empirical theoretical virtues to support claims about where cognition is. These things should constrain their claims, but cannot do all the work hoped. This is…Read more
  • Cohesion, Gene flow, and the Nature of Species. Journal of Philosophy 107 (2): 59-77. 2010. With Robert A. Wilson.
    A far-reaching and influential view in evolutionary biology claims that species are cohesive units held together by gene flow. Biologists have recognized empirical problems facing this view; after sharpening the expression of the view, we present novel conceptual problems for it. At the heart of these problems is a distinction between two importantly different concepts of cohesion, what we call integrative and response cohesion. Acknowledging the distinction problematizes both the explanandum…Read more
  • When Traditional Essentialism Fails: Biological Natural Kinds. Philosophical Topics 35 (1-2): 189-215. 2007. With Robert A. Wilson and Ingo Brigandt.
    Essentialism is widely regarded as a mistaken view of biological kinds, such as species. After recounting why (sections 2-3), we provide a brief survey of the chief responses to the “death of essentialism” in the philosophy of biology (section 4). We then develop one of these responses, the claim that biological kinds are homeostatic property clusters (sections 5-6) illustrating this view with several novel examples (section 7). Although this view was first expressed 20 years ago, and has receiv…Read more
  • The empirical inadequacy of species cohesion by Gene flow. Philosophy of Science 74 (5): 654-665. 2007.
    This paper brings needed clarity to the influential view that species are cohesive entities held together by gene flow, and then develops an empirical argument against that view: Neglected data suggest gene flow is neither necessary nor sufficient for species cohesion. Implications are discussed. ‡I'm grateful to Rob Wilson, Alex Rueger and Lindley Darden for important comments on earlier drafts, and to Joseph Nagel, Heather Proctor, Ken Bond, members of the DC History and Philosophy of Biology …Read more

Book reviews

In progress / unpublished

Research activities

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. 

Recently completed projects:

1.    Conservation biology and its values: Main aims of conservation biology include recommending good conservation strategies and policies. And what counts as good obviously depends on both empirical discoveries and what has or is deemed to have conservation value. But how should empirical matters and matters of value relate within the arguments that conservation biology proposes? Recently, Dylan Fraser and I discovered and documented different ways in which these matters are often misrelated within conservation arguments. We also recommended ways to help solve this problem, in order to strengthen conservation science and its arguments.

2.   Beginning the species problem: Biology is often thought to have suffered the so-called "species problem" for a long time, perhaps centuries or even millennia. The problem is that the nature of the species category remains unclear. Many have thought this has urgent importance for both biological practice (e.g., taxonomy and species conservation) and theory (e.g., theories about evolution). But recently many species experts have instead suggested that the species problem has been either solved or dissolved, allowing us to move on from this impasse. In this recently completed project, to appear in a new volume of papers by species experts, I showed there is actually little reason to think the problem has been solved or dissolved, and that instead there are important senses in which we are just now beginning the problem in earnest. This is an optimistic take on the species problem, in contrast to the usual cynical ones.

3.   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.)

4.   Environmental virtue ethics and humility: One strand of 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. Another strand of this work asked: 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? Alana Friend Letter and I 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. 

5.   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.

6.    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.    More on conservation biology and its values: Dylan Fraser and I recently uncovered and detailed the Unravelled Rope Problem in conservation biology. This means arguments in conservation often misrelate empirical matters and matters of value, so that the arguments don't support their conclusions as planned. In the future we plan to quantify the ways in which this problem arises, to document a more exacting account of the problem and inform how to overcome it.

2.    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)

3.   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.

4.    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.

5.    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.

Online presentations and commentaries

Presentation about CRISPR and editing the human germ line, as part of a panel on these topics. 

Commentary on Mark Vellend's presentation about values and bias in conservation biology. 

Commentary on Elliott Sober's presentation on the topic of "science and values". 

Research Networks:

Centre de Recherche en Éthique (CRÉ), member from 2019 and member of affiliated Group de recherche en éthique environmentale et animale (GRÉEA)

Loyola Sustainability Research Centre (LSRC), research fellow from 2012

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):

James Luong 2018-19

Graduate students supervised:

Laura Gallivan, MA in philosophy completed 2018; title of Master's Research Paper: "An Experiential, Inclusive Approach to Hope" (co-supervised with David Morris)
  • 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."

Mehdi Najafi, MA in philosophy completed 2018; title of Master's Research Paper: "Sharon Street and Debunking of Morality"

Sean Boivin, MA in philosophy completed 2018; title of Master's Research Paper: "The Likelihood Principle: Objectivity and the Values and Science Debate".
  • 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."

Louise Sheils, MA in Hispanic studies completed 2017; title of work: Inesperadas trangresiones y continuades en"Axolotl" de Julio Cortázar (Unexpected Transgressions and Continuain Julio Cortázar's "Axolotl")
  • 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."

Catalina Peralta, PhD in Humanities completed 2017; title of Dissertation: "Commissioning Truth: An Exploration and Assessment of an Alternative Approach to the Production of Truth in the Aftermath of Violence" (I was a co-supervisor; lead supervisor was David Howes)

Anthony Gavin, MA in philosophy completed 2016; title of Master's Research Paper: "Schizophrenic Bodies: Towards a Radical Biopolitical Ontology of Schizophrenia"

Edward Taylor, MA in philosophy completed 2016; title of Master's Research Paper: "The Importance of Humility for the Teaching of Critical Thinking"

Dan Atack, MA in philosophy completed 2016; title of Master's Research Paper: "A Vice-Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics"
  • 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"

Sarah Azzarello, MA in philosophy completed 2014; title of Master's Research Paper: "Race: A Plurality of Concepts" (co-supervised with Justin Smith)

Fred Comeau, MA in philosophy completed 2014; title of Master's Research Paper: "A Phenomenological Critique of Wheeler's Action-Oriented Representation" (co-supervised with David Morris)
  • 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"

Undergraduate student research supervised:

James Luong, Concordia Undergraduate Student Research Award (CUSRA) project, 2019

John Nenniger, Concordia University Student Research Award (CUSRA) project, 2015

Alana Friend Lettner, Concordia University Student Research Award (CUSRA) project, 2015

Louis-Robert Bart, Concordia University Student Research Award (CUSRA) project, 2014

Michèle Martin, Concordia University Student Research Award (CUSRA) project, 2014

Michèle Martin, Concordia University Student Research Award (CUSRA) project, 2013

Laura Boyd-Clowes, Research Assistant, 2012

Back to top

© Concordia University