Episode 50 - Justin Garson
[Introduction; Interview begins at 6:03]
Nick: Dr. Justin Garson, welcome to SCI PHI podcast. How are you this Thursday morning?
Justin: I'm great, thanks so much for inviting me.
Nick: Thanks so much for coming on, thanks so much for taking the time. Yeah, where are you calling us from?
Justin: Well, I'm in New York now, my home in Queens. I go into work about 3 days a week so this is one of my days when I get to stay at home and do my research and teaching preparation and all that fun stuff.
Nick: Nice. Are you in favor of the home office?
Justin: Oh, I love it, I love it. Well, particularly, when you think about taking the subway and the bus in New York, it's kind of a stressful experience in its own right. So getting to avoid an hour and a half commute is a nice benefit of staying home.
Nick: Yeah, yeah, yeah. How are you feeling about the new news with Amazon headquarters coming in?
Justin: I don't know what to think of yet. Some people are worried that it's going to destroy the neighborhood and other people are excited for the new opportunities that they envision. So I'm just going to kind of wait it out and see how it goes.
Nick: Yeah, yeah, fair enough.
Justin: I'm not looking forward to another 10 or 20 thousand people fighting another 10 or 20 thousand people to get into the city and back, but maybe there'll be some good in it.
Nick: Cool, cool. So did you happen to go to the PSA this year?
Justin: I did.
Nick: Oh that's great. Before we jump in, how was your experience at the 2018 Philosophy of Science Association Conference?
Justin: Oh, I loved it. I love the PSA, I love the History of Science Society, too. I'm just disappointed that PSA and HSS have decided to go their own ways. But I love PSA, I love getting to see some of my old friends there, I love getting to meet new people so yeah, I mean, it's terrific. Yeah, I love it. It's my favorite conference, by far.
Nick: Great. Did you happen to present any papers or a poster?
Justin: I did. I gave the paper on my favorite topic which is biological functions and I argued that all of my opponents about functions are wrong in which they should stop presenting their false and backward views on functions.
Justin: I kind of did it but I'm kind of joking. But no, I gave a paper on biological functions. Just developing my point of view on it.
Nick: Okay. And is this paper kind of a further illustration or argument that comes out of the book, or is it sort of something additional?
Justin: No it was kind of a side thing to the book. So I just finished this book, What Biological Functions Are and Why They Matter. That's going to be coming out pretty soon
But you may know about this, but theories of biological function are usually divided up into the historical ones, in the “ahistorical” ones. So a historical theory of function is the Selected Effects Theory. It says that a trait’s function is just whatever it was selected for. And ahistorical theory is something like Christopher Bourse's Theory which says that a function of a trait is its present-day contribution to the organism's fitness.
So there's been this long-running dispute between the proponents of the historical theories, like me, and the proponents of the ahistorical theories. So I gave a paper called, “There are no ahistorical theories of function.” And I love the simple short titles like that. Simple, short, punchy.
But I argue that all of these mainstream ahistorical theories actually tacitly invoke history. And you just have to dig around a little bit and you'll find that the proponents of these theories are themselves referring to history. That doesn't mean their theories are wrong, they can stand perfectly well on their own but it does mean that we shouldn't divide theories up into the historical ones and the a-historical ones. They're all historical.
But it was interesting because I'd written the book and this was very much just a side thing. It was a paper that I had always kind of meant to write up and never had an opportunity to. And so this PSA was a good chance to.
Nick: Oh, fantastic. And my next question is, as a result of we shouldn't see them as either ahistorical or historical. What do you think is the main consequence then of that conclusion?
Justin: Well, a couple. So one, I think that they're all historical theories and so that I think there are better ways of dividing up theories of function then into historical and ahistorical. Well, there are a few consequences. I mean, one is just for classification. We need a different way of dividing up theories of function. I prefer to divide them up in terms of etiological and non-etiological.
Where an etiological theory of function; the idea is that when a biologist attributes a function to a trait, say the function of the heart is to pump blood. In part, they're trying to explain why people have hearts, and that's the basic intuition behind the etiological theory that function statements playing this crucial role as causal explanations.
So I say look, there are etiological theories, there are non-etiological theories. In other words, people who think that function statements are not or they're not primarily intended as causal explanations. But everybody's theory is a historical one. And then the second consequence is that one of the main motivations for these ahistorical theories is that the proponents of these theories believe that a good theory of function should be ahistorical; it shouldn't refer to history.
When a biologist attributes functions to traits they think, those biologists aren't invoking history, they're not referring to history, they're not citing history and so they're trying to respect what they see is this basic feature of biological usage. But my point is that well, if it turns out that there are ahistorical theories of function, then we really need to rethink, what exactly is the motivation for continuing to accept these theories if they don't actually do what they claim to do?
Nick: Very good points. Did you see any other great papers or any other stories from the PSA that you can recall that made this one particularly special?
Justin: Sure. The thing I liked the most, I moderated…Daniel Dennett was here at the PSA this year. He was organizing a symposium called, “Reconsidering the Memes-Eye point of view.” And he was giving them a pitch to the philosophers of science and the philosophers of biology why they should take this idea at meetings seriously, why they shouldn't brush it under the rug or ignore it and I thought it was a really fascinating perspective.
His point of view is that we think about different forms of cultural evolution and everybody has their pet theory of cultural evolution. But the idea is that what he calls Memetics, the study of memes is really a kind of umbrella theory for thinking about cultural evolution in general. So I think my two cents is that he is saying among other things; look. if you're a cultural evolutionist, if you think that cultural evolution is an important part of the cultural change, which many philosophers of biology do, then you're already committed to something like what he's calling a mean and so you should take the idea of a meme seriously.
So I thought it was interesting and I'm happy to give Dennett's viewpoint on memes a second look. And he just published a book, From Bacteria To Bach And Back. And he has a couple of chapters defending the idea of memes against common criticisms, and I do think it would be good for philosophers of biology to read it and think carefully about whether there's something here that we missed out on, that we should take more seriously than we have.
Nick: Yeah. I know I always consider Daniel working or he does a number of things but I never see him as a philosopher of biology and not paying so much attention to what he's doing but this is certainly a reason to do so.
Justin: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. It was nice to meet him, he was a very, very sweet guy. A very interesting person to hang out with.
Nick: Yeah, yeah. Well, so it all sounds like you had a good time. Sounds like you had a good paper, sounds great. I look forward to seeing it coming out in, I guess, the proceedings; whenever that comes out, I guess this fall or next fall or something like that?
Justin: Yeah it's up on my website, it's up online so if anyone wants to read it. It's floating around the internet at this point. And I thought you gave the poster a nice write up in the Daily Nous.
Justin: Congratulations on that.
Nick: Thank you, thank you. That was really great. It's folks like you who have come on and have taken the time to discuss their meta-theoretic or their meta-methodological views or concerning what are the challenges facing philosophy of science, and yeah, turned that into a bit of a qualitative study.
And I think if anything it just helped to start the conversation to think about it and--
Justin: Well, it's a very important conversation, I guess we'll come back to this later on. But given the job market for philosophers of science, we have to think seriously how we're going to position ourselves in relationship to the discipline as a whole so good job. Crucial significance for us philosophers of science.
Nick: Thank you. I very much appreciate that. Let's go ahead and take a step back and do the whole spiel and take a step back from the beginning, Justin. So tell us a little bit about your origin story, where did you grow up?
Justin: That's so cool. [Laughing] I didn't know I had an origin story. I grew up in Maryland, outside of Washington DC - Silver Spring, Maryland. So when I moved to New York about 7 years ago to start teaching at Hunter College, New York was a little bit bigger than what I was used to. But living in a big east coast city was pretty easy, it was a pretty easy transition.
Nick: Okay. What did your parents do growing up?
Justin: Well, they both worked in law. My mom was a Law Librarian and my dad was a Lawyer for the government. So they were both very educated and there was always this presumption that I would go to college and maybe even graduate school so that was always in the background of my thinking when I was growing up. And it probably had this impact on me that I always had this idea that I I didn't really need to figure out what I wanted to do. Because I would probably go through college. I would probably end up in graduate school, anyway. So it was a little bit freeing because when I was in college I think I had the idea that I would end up in graduate school somehow or another.
So I really took my time to just explore the things that I was interested in; literature, psychology, philosophy, and logic and science and I didn't feel the same pressure that I think some people feel to declare your major, get your credits and get out of here.
Nick: Okay. Was there anything in particular, especially in those formative years coming up, that you found it really interesting?
Justin: Not really. I didn't really develop any strong set of interests in philosophy really actually until about my senior year of college. That's when I thought: "Wow! Philosophy is really cool."
But before that, no, I just was interested in reading widely and just learning about what people who had written and thought.
Nick: So, yeah. So there weren't any other thoughts or other ideas of careers or things? It was mostly like: 'Probably I was going to just kind of learn generally as much as I can?"
Justin: Yeah. It was like just floating around in academia. Exploring various things that were interesting to me. So I went to an interesting school called the Evergreen State College out in Olympia, Washington. And it was perfect for me because this is a school that you don't get grades and they really emphasize academic freedom and probably the best thing for me is that you didn't have to declare a major.
So I thought: 'Well, this is the school that I want to be at. I can study what I like and I don't have to tell anybody what I'm majoring in."
So that was a perfect fit for me. And let's see; I think they have a trimester system and for two of those trimesters, we studied the works of Carol Jung, the psychologist, of all people. And we thought about Carol Jung’s relationship to psychology, his relationship to philosophy, his relationship to occultism.
So it was a blast. So that was the kind of school that I really needed to be at where I could just focus on these somewhat unconventional topics as a figured out what I wanted to do.
Nick: Now that you're an instructor in college, how does this experience that teaching at Hunter, and the way things work at Hunter, differ from this school in Washington?
Justin: Well, Hunter is in some ways a more conventional college system. Whereby the end of your sophomore year, you're asked to declare your major and I understand that. I understand that a lot of people don't have the privilege of floating around in college for 4-5 to 6-7 years. They've got to figure out what they want to do and they've got to get their degree and get out and get to the world and start bringing in some money. So I understand that and I respect that. I was very privileged not to have to make those choices right away.
But I still I really sympathize because just yesterday I had a student come in and she was in her sophomore year and she's going to have to declare major pretty soon. And she looked at me and said: "How do you figure out what you want to do?"
And I said: "That's a damn good question and best of luck to you."
I wish I could have told her: "Forget about declaring a major, just keep taking courses in a variety of fields. Eventually, you'll settle on something."
But I realize that advice is not everybody can follow that --- not everybody has the privilege of following that advice.
Nick: Yeah. I think that's really insightful to recognize that, yeah, where you were at the time and how that's circumstantial. Like it can be great for you maybe not for everybody or maybe not at the right time. Maybe there'll be another time in your life when you can kind of take things slowly as you go and sometimes you have to go forward and you have to do these kinds of things.
Justin: Right. And another thing, I always loved school. I mean, I love school and I think one reason I ended up as a professor is because it was the only way that I could just stay in the university setting for the rest of my life. Because eventually, I was going to get my undergraduate degree, they would kick me out and then I could go to graduate school but eventually, I would get my Ph.D. and they would kick me out.
So I thought well, as a professor, I can keep doing this forever. But I also really not everybody loves being in school.
Nick: Yeah. What do you think people don't like about being in school? I mean from your experience. Because I mean I talk to everyone who's on this show pretty much loves school in some way. Like if they weren't, they probably wouldn't be in the university system. But we meet plenty of students that do not like school. And I guess we can probably ask them but if you had to say, what would you say?
Justin: I have a little bit of insight here because my first college was the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. And I went there for a year and a half. And again, a conventional university, I took 5 courses per semester, having to take all kinds of courses that I didn't understand, didn't necessarily like.
In a sense, I just felt overwhelmed with the sheer workload. I wasn't that interested in what I was learning about so I was very fortunate. Because I remember there was one week when I wasn't very happy there at UNCG, I didn't know what I was going to do. And this one magical week, three different people, independently of one another, mentioned this Evergreen State College. So I thought: "Well, I'd better look at Evergreen State College." And that's exactly what I needed.
I needed a place where I was given the go-ahead to study what I liked and to really be able to forget about taking 5 courses a semester, just immerse yourself in something. It could be something weird, just immerse yourself in whatever you're interested in, it could be Carl Jung and the occult. And I realized that style of education does not work for everybody and some people need a little bit more structure, a little bit more discipline but for me, that really changed my perception of Academics. That was exactly the right fit that I needed.
So yeah, I was certainly somebody who did not like being in the university when I began and I was pretty unhappy and I took some time off after a year and a half. I just needed to find the school that was the right fit for my own intellectual orientation.
Nick: Yeah. That's a really good story. I appreciate you sharing that. I think that is really telling of a number of folks that we may all experience too in terms of our coming to find out what works for us.
Justin: Right, right. And one other thing about Evergreen, which is very cool, is that it is a public state school. So it's not one of the schools that you're showing out 30 or 40 or 50 thousand dollars a year. It was a school where I actually was able to pay my way through by working in the food industry; bussing tables and washing dishes and really waiting tables. So I did that while in Evergreen.
So unlike a lot of these alternative schools where they don't give grades and they give you a lot of academic freedom, Evergreen is one of the really special ones. In that, it is a public state school. So it's a very affordable education as well.
Justin: Evergreen State college.
Nick: Yeah, I'm going to look it up. I'm and very interested. I think before we go on, so I might say our connection is fairly strong with the internet. But we might want to--- what I'm going to try is we that we close our video and that might help to strengthen the connection. So I'm just going to click off video sometimes that frees up a little bandwidth. And if not, that's great. So there should be a little button on your Skype that you can just like press and then we can keep going.
Dr. Justin: Right, I've done it.
Nick: There we go. Yeah, I think that sounds a little bit better. I think sometimes the video just clogs things up. So at Evergreen State, it sounds like you managed to find your way into the senior year in philosophy. So how did that then translate to doing graduate work in philosophy?
Justin: Right. Well, so I took this course on Philosophy of Mind and it was called, Computability in Cognition and it was on Philosophy of Mind, Logic, AI, Number Theory. But I remember we were reading a lot of the---at that time in the early 90s, the contemporary Philosophy of Mind. We were reading people like John Searle and Patricia Churchland and Dan Dennett on whether or not consciousness could be reduced to the brain. And each of them had a different point of view on this. But the question that kept popping up in my mind is: "Well, what does it mean to reduce one thing to another thing?"
In general, what is it for one scientific theory to be successfully reduced to another scientific theory? And it seemed to me that until we got really clear on what a scientific reduction is, we couldn't make a lot of headway or a lot of progress on the specific question, 'whether consciousness can or cannot be reduced to the brain' and what it even means to ask that question. So I found myself gradually getting pulled into the philosophy of science because I realized that it was the philosophers of science who were really tackling this question of, what is a scientific reduction? What does it mean to reduce one thing to another thing? And they were looking at historical examples of reductions.
So I think that experience really kind of helped to get me interested in philosophy of science. So when I eventually did apply to graduate school I knew then, I didn't have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to study the philosophy of science. Because I thought that studying philosophy of science could help us make headway on some of these more traditional philosophical problems like the mind-body problem.
Nick: So people who do Philosophy of Science mention folks like Patricia Churchland and other people who are very engaged with the empirical work and doing this kind of being empirically engaged work. But at the time, you could also go and do empirically in the form of philosophy of mind, more focused on more traditional philosophy of mind. But what is it about philosophy of science that interest you or you saw as perhaps maybe a better fit?
Justin: I mean, I think part of it's just a historical accident. I might have ended up in a different program where suppose I had ended up somewhere else that I met a great potential Ph.D. Advisor who said: "Hey Justin, you ought to look into empirically informed Philosophy of Mind." And I might have gone that direction. But as it went, I ended up with a PhD Advisor who was a philosopher of biology and working with him, I came to find that philosophy of biology was something that I really wanted to pursue and the philosophy of biology could be my window onto these more general philosophical problems.
And what actually happened was when I got to graduate school, I was I was actually quite interested not only in philosophy of science but in philosophy of psychiatry and mental illness. And this whole question, of course, philosophers ask is: "Well, what is a mental illness? How do we decide which conditions qualify as mental illnesses and which ones are not mental illnesses?"
And one of the prominent viewpoint here is this notion called, the harmful dysfunction analysis. And the idea that in order for something to be a mental disorder, it has to stem from some kind of a dysfunction inside of you. Maybe a dysfunction in your brain or dysfunction in your mind.
Nick: Is this Wakefield?
Justin: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. Jerome Wakefield's view. And I actually recently had an opportunity to contribute to a volume called, “Jerome Wakefield and his Critics.” It's going to be coming out hopefully in the next year or two. So it’s fun to come back around full circle, the people that you read as a graduate student, then you move and you get a job and you get to criticize these people who print and engage with these people in more detail, so that's fun.
But at the time when I read about his point of view and I thought: "Well, that sounds really interesting," that mental disorders involve these inner dysfunctions. I guess now we just have to figure out, what is it for a brain — what is it for somebody's brain to functioning well, and what is it for somebody's brain to function poorly? How do we decide whose brain is functioning well and whose brain is functioning poorly?
And I realized that that took me directly to the philosophy of biology. There are a number of philosophers of biology, who for decades have been studying these problems of what are biological functions what are dysfunctions? Who gets to say what's functional and what's dysfunctional? And so my interest in psychiatry and mental illness, along with my advisor who is a philosopher biology, led to my taking up an interest in philosophy of biology. And then once you start studying biological functions, then you have to start thinking of natural selection; what is natural selection? What is natural selection explain and what role does natural selection play in evolutionary change relative to other mechanisms of evolutionary change like genetic drift? And then you're off to the races.
So that's what happened to me and I'm very happy as a philosopher of biology and I feel fortunate that I've been able to study these questions in the philosophy of biology but to continue to pursue these more traditional questions having to do with the human mind and mental illness.
Nick: Yeah. I'm interested to hear more about your---I'm looking at your historical book project related to mental illness and so perhaps we can chat about that a little bit when we get to talk about the books. But, yeah, just in my own curiosity since I myself in the part of the philosophy of psychiatry crowd. I've taken psychopathology courses and we've discussed these harmful dysfunction accounts. And according to the many psych-clinicians and clinical psychologist, for the most part, the harmful dysfunction account seems to be like somewhat problematic but probably the best thing that's working for us so far. But I want to get your opinion since you seem to be perhaps an expert in a number of these things. Because this is when the criticism is that adopting these concepts and ways of thinking from biology that if you're going to do that you need to get acquainted with the ways in which, what are functions, and when should we expect functions and can we assume functions and certain things? Should we be asking questions, what is the function of this trait? Or does this trait have a function? Like what kinds of questions?
So in terms of do you have any maybe some thoughts on just if we are in terms of defining mental illness, what do you think about the harmful dysfunction characterization? Is there anything better? Is there anything more nuanced we could go about thinking about? What do you think?
Justin: I mean, that's a great question. I don't accept the harmful dysfunction view and the reason for that---and it's a point that a lot of people have been making for some time. Is that I think if you look carefully at some of what we consider to be mental illnesses, it's hard to find any specific dysfunction underlying them. So if you take something like anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, there are some clinicians who believe that generalized anxiety disorder may be an adaptation. It may be something like an adaptive response to an early prenatal environment or early postnatal environment.
One idea is that people who are highly anxious tend to be more vigilant to potential threats in their environment. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not endorsing this adaptation's viewpoint and I realize that adaptations viewpoints are very controversial. But my point is that this is a plausible story. There's some empirical basis for it. And so if we admit that this is a plausible story, I don't think that we should accept Wakefield's view that mental disorders necessarily involve their dysfunction.
I think it is just plausible and certainly empirically plausible but some well-established mental disorders don't involve dysfunctions. Now I'm kind of trying to evade the question that you asked me, which is really hard question. Because well what's better, what's a better construal of mental illness, and I have no idea. And I have a chapter in my book, the book, and it's going to be coming out in January. I think it's in Chapter 11 and I talk about Wakefield and I talk about my problem with Wakefield. I developed my own version of this challenge to Wakefield's view. And I admit at the end, just as you said, Wakefield's view might be the best thing we have to go with.
Nick: It's like the lesser of several evils the lesser of you know sort of well, what else? Yeah, what else could it be? And I don't know if that's always the best reason to accept a view.
Justin: I don't think it's a good reason. And sometimes I think Elliot Sober calls this “the only game in town” argument. Where my view is the only game in town so it's got to be right. Clearly that's not right. We can admit that it may be as far as I know the best thing that we have going but maybe the better alternative is just to say: "Well, man — I guess we have no idea what the hell mental illness disorders are."
I mean that's another way to go. To just say: "Well, we don't know yet. Boy, I hope somebody figures it out soon." I mean, that’s a lame response, I know you were hoping for something more exciting.
Nick: No, no, no, no. I appreciate that further clarification. I was kind of under the commission or under the interpretation that there is this, I think there's this over review paper that kind of breaks down about 5 or 6 main points. And yeah there's problems with the harmful dysfunction and then the conclusion was, “well but it works for the most part.” Where it's: "Well, that's kind of what we're working with." And it's often what a lot of clinician, in clinical neuroscience are working on. They'll cite Wakefield or the ascribe thing in terms of dysfunction or harm because it captures both--- Well, I guess the idea is that it captures the potentially an etiological point or an account that we can find some kind of dysfunction or cause or reason, and but then also define the---basically combine the fact of value distinction. We can combine--
Justin: And I love that about his view and that's one of the motives behind it. We want to say when we decide at certain condition, say, alcoholism is a mental disorder, first there are some biological facts there's underlying factual judgments that we're making and we're making a value judgment that it's harmful. And I do admire the way that he tries to pull together. Look, mental disorder classification is based both on facts and on values, I like that part.
I guess my main concern with the emphasis on dysfunction is that it potentially blinds researchers to ways that mental illnesses or certain aspects of mental illnesses might be functional or might be adaptable or might be serving some kind of a purpose that we don't entirely understand. Another example of this, there are some researchers who look at schizophrenia and particularly the so-called positive symptoms of hallucinations and delusions. And one idea that's been floating around is this idea that perhaps it's like this; perhaps some subtypes of schizophrenia stem from some kind of an underlying dysfunction that gives rise to these abnormal perceptual experiences.
So there is a dysfunction. But then perhaps the delusions come about as a way as a person's best attempt to make sense of what's going on in their perceptual experience. And so if that's right, even if the hallucinations or the abnormal perceptual experiences might involve some kind of a dysfunction, the delusions, that's actually serving a purpose. That has a functional adaptive role. It may actually be helping some of these individuals navigate their experience and kind of make sense of their experience. And so the reason I don't like the Wakefield's approach is that I think when we use the dysfunction label, I worry that we're blinded to, again either an entire mental illness like a generalized anxiety disorder or even a component of a mental illness, like the delusions of some kinds of schizophrenia. I worry that it blinds us to the way those might be useful to us. Maybe misguiding our research or misguiding our therapy.
Because if their theory of delusion is right, then you think, well, if you're treating somebody who has this kind of schizophrenia you don't necessarily want to go after the delusions as if that's the main problem this person is having. You want to go after the perceptual experiences, the delusions, you want to leave those alone. Because they're actually doing some good here.
Nick: Right. The underlying theory or what we're working with can lead to a misplaced focus is what I'm hearing and our misplaced focus or under appreciation of certain qualities of experience.
Justin: That's right, that's the concern. I admire a lot about his view.
Nick: Of course, of course. I am looking forward to this criticism, this work that's coming out. So, well thank you for going on that tangent back to-- well, not necessarily a tangent but into the philosophy of psychiatry. So I know a lot of your work though has been centered more generally and in specifically in philosophy of biology and so is that the kind of work that you really came out of your PhD program?
Justin: So yes. Well, even though the dissertation was mainly about--- I mean, the bigger point of the dissertation was to talk about mental illness but a lot of it was about biological dysfunctions and biological functions. And as I said that's what I've been mainly writing about for the last 10 years or so. But one of the reasons I got so interested in biological functions was because--- so I made my way into functions from the philosophy of psychiatry but then I realized that the biological functions debate feeds into so many interesting debates that scientists are having, that philosophers are having.
So I found that there is just so much to write about, not only writing about what our biological functions and what our dysfunctions but the biological functions debate plays into debates in philosophy of mind about the nature of meaning, teleosemantics, some people think that mental representation should be understood in terms of biological functions. And I found that I had things to contribute to debate and, of course, as we've been talking about it plays very heavily to debates in the philosophy of medicine and the philosophy of psychiatry, about the nature of the disease. I think it plays into debates about mechanism and mechanism explanation.
And then a couple years ago, a funny thing happened. A group of geneticists started having this very major debate with one another about, what proportion of the human genome is functional? There is one side of the debate back in about 2012 there was a bunch of papers published by a group called Encode. And the Encode people were arguing that about 80 percent of the human genome is functional. And then you had some other biologists the junk DNA theorists or the traditional junk DNA theorists. And they were arguing that at most 10 percent of the human genome; 5 to 15 percent of the human genome is functional and the rest of it is just junk DNA. And one of the junk DNA theorist, his name is Ford Doolittle and I just had a chance to meet him very recently. He started arguing that the only way you could claim that 80 per cent of the human genome is functional is if you're just conflating very different notions of biological function. And he started citing the philosophers of biology, he even cited my own work. And he said, look, the philosophers of biology all agree that you Encode people are using the notion of function in a totally incoherent way.
And so it was really exciting to see my work getting drawn into this debate between geneticists about the nature of the genome functions. And it was funny because everybody, all the geneticists working on it, even Doolittle's opponents, agree that that the debate in many ways does come down to, what exactly do we mean by biological function, and how exactly should we assess whether a stretch of D.N.A. is functional or not functional? About 3 weeks ago I was actually in a conference that Ford Dolittle and a philosopher, Stephan Linquist, organized up in Halifax. It was really cool. It brought together about 6 philosophers of science and about 6 geneticists to really hash through this issue about, what are biological functions? What are genome functions? How do we figure out what proportion of the human genome is functional? So it was a really fun and interesting way to bring the biological functions debate to bear on a very lively debate that geneticist are having with one another. So the biological functions topic has kind of led me into some very interesting and I guess surprising new lines of research.
Nick: That's great. So did you attend this conference? Did you take part in this at the Halifax workshop?
Justin: Yes I did. I gave a talk there. So I spent the summer -this is what I did all summer- I studied transposable elements and these are segments of D.N.A. that can move about from place to place on the genome. And a lot of the biologists here were interested in studying the dynamics of these transposed elements. And some of them treat these transposable elements. They refer to them as bits of selfish DNA, they don't do anything for the organism. They might even hurt our fitness a little bit. But they think of transposable elements as kind of having their own evolutionary agendas if you’ll allow the metaphor. And so I spend the summer studying transposable element so that I could say something intelligent to this group, this group of philosophers and geneticists who knew more about the subject than I did. So, yeah, it was fun.
A year ago if you'd asked me what I thought I would be doing this summer, I definitely would have said: "I'm going to be buckling down, reading everything I can get my hands on on transposable element so that I can talk to these geneticists about how to think about their functions." But it was fun and it and it opened up some new research for me and it's going to lead to some new papers that are going to be coming out pretty soon. And the greatest thing about it is that it's contributing to it a live debate, it's contributing to a real fight that they're having with one another that could potentially — I mean, wow, for philosophers of science to really be able to weigh into these live debates between scientists is really fun and it's fun and it kind of helps us, I think it helps me to see that our work really does have a bigger impact on science. That I think we sometimes don't appreciate that our work does have a real impact on science.
Nick: Yes. Would you mind referring, what was the name of the conference or the workshop?
Justin: Oh, I have to look it up.
Nick: Okay, no problem, maybe we can do it after. I'm really curious. I just never, it's just really cool to hear.
Justin: Oh man, Stephan and Ford are going to kill me for this. Something like Transposable elements, the science and the philosophy.” And it was at Halifax. And we're talking about putting together some kind of maybe a special issue of philosophy journal devoted to papers on the topic. So there's going to be more coming out pretty soon on this area. But, yeah, I think that was it.
Nick: Okay. I just find this fascinating. And the fact that almost an even display of both philosophers of science and scientist, I think is really worthwhile and really interesting. So I know I have to follow up with you about this. This is fascinating to me.
But also in the interest of time actually why don't we chat a little bit about, tell us a little bit about your new book that will be coming out?
Justin: Right, thank you. So well, I just finished this book, What Biological Functions Are And Why They Matter. It's coming out with Cambridge in January or February. And it was it was really fun to write so I'll give you just the short version. A couple years ago I wrote a short book called, A Critical Overview of Biological Functions. And the point of that was just to give a---it was a short textbook and a survey. Here's what everybody has had to say about biological functions for the last 80 years or so.
So I just wrote it to be an up to date textbook on the biological functions debate. And so when I started writing this new book it was a blast because I didn't have to talk about anybody else's view except my own. I could say: "If you want to know about the causal role theory or Christopher Boorse's bio statistical theory read this other book." This new book with Cambridge you're not going to read a whole lot about other people's theories. I just get to develop my own theory, I try to convince you that my theory on biological function is right. And then I spend a lot of time developing the implications of my view of biological function for these diverse areas; for thinking about the nature of mental representation, for thinking about nature of mental illness, for thinking about mechanisms and mechanistic explanation and a little bit about thinking about this issue and genetics, about genome function.
So one of the goals of the book, in addition to trying to convince people that I'm right, is to really show the significance of the biological functions debate to a lot of different areas in philosophy of mind, philosophy of medicine, philosophy of biology and even biology itself. So it was very fun to write and it was kind of nice not to have to spend a lot of time kind of rehashing other people's point of view. I just got to give the strongest case I could for my own view without having to try to trash everybody else's opinion on the matter.
Nick: Right. So yeah. Your view is a generalized selected effects theory “which seamlessly integrates evo-devo on functions…”
Justin: That's right.
Nick: I'm interested to hear, okay.
Justin: Yeah. Well let me give you the 30 seconds version, I can do this in 30 seconds. So the selected effects theory, of course, is that the function of a trait is whatever it's been selected for by natural selection or some corresponding, some comparable kind of selection process. But a lot of philosophers of biology have interpreted that to mean that in order for a trait to have a function, it has to have been selected for by natural selection, specifically operating over in evolutionary time scale. However, there have been plenty of theorists like Ruth Millikan, for example, or Paul Griffiths or others, who've pointed out that selection can be a much more general process. It could report for things like trial and error learning. And so there is no reason that a selected effects theorist has to limit functions to traits that evolved over an evolutionary time scale by natural selection. There are other kinds of selection processes that take place over the lifetime of the individual and that can give rise to new functions, too.
But I think the way that people like Millikan and Griffiths were going about doing it was mistaken. And it was mistaken in a way that really handicapped this, what I call the generalized selected effects theory of function. So I take the core idea, I show how to do it right and then I show how it leads to a lot of I think interesting innovations. Not only in the functions debate but in corresponding literature and philosophy of psychiatry, philosophy of mind, philosophy of medicine, and so on.
Nick: Oh, sounds super interesting. It sounds like a great model for---have you ever thought about teaching a course on biological functions or is that something you do at Hunter?
Justin: I don't know if we could get enrollment to do a course in biological functions. But I am going to be teaching it, perhaps, at CUNY Graduate Center, in the spring I'll do a philosophy of biology course. And I certainly hope that the students want to hear about biological functions and if so maybe we'll do a few weeks on that topic.
Nick: Fantastic. Well, I appreciate you giving the pitch and can we expect it out next year?
Justin: January, February.
Nick: Oh, wow! Okay.
Justin: January, February. The preorder stuff is on Amazon so you can bookmark it and you don't have to buy it but just say you're a member. The information's up there online. And hopefully in another year or 2, a couple years, from now I'll have a book where I finally explain what mental illnesses really are. That's my next big project.
Nick: But this book, Madness as Dysfunction and as Strategy, right?
Justin: Yes, yeah, yeah, that's right.
Nick: okay. Yeah, so that will be good. So you said in a year or two, we'll have some work on that potentially. And is that like an HPS project or is a more like a history of science project?
Justin: Yeah. Well, I'm going on sabbatical next year so I could really just focus on writing this book about mental illness. My provisional title, Madness as Dysfunction and as Strategy. And it's going to show these two main perspectives in psychiatry that I think have co-existed and you could go back even 300 years and you see these two perspectives.
One, is that mental illnesses generally stem from some kind of a dysfunction in the mind or in the brain. And another which sees mental disorders as having some kind of an adaptive or functional quality. And I think that this is not a recent debate, I think it's been going on for centuries. And so one of my projects here is to kind of rewrite the history of psychiatry through the lens of this debate between these two perspectives which I'm calling, Madness is a Dysfunction and Madness as a Strategy. And then draw out implications for some of the more contemporary discussions. For example, Wakefield's view on mental illness and more contemporary philosophical problems.
So yeah, it's very much going to merge the history and philosophy of science.
Nick: Fantastic. I am very much looking forward to this book. Please let me know, please e-mail and let me know when you're making some headway on it, I'll certainly follow up with you about it. Let's conclude with the question we've been asking our guests, what do you take to be the greatest challenge facing philosophy of science today?
Justin: That's a great question and you know I'm kind of embarrassed because I know that you know way more about this topic than I do. I mean, you've been writing on this topic so I really don't have anything very terrific to say about it except to just my own observation. As you know and everybody know, the job market has been pretty brutal for us philosophers of science, for us philosophers of biology at least since about 2010 or maybe before that.
And so I think part of this question of whether philosophers of science---I think you put it this way, does philosophy of science need to have more science in it or does it need to have more philosophy to be in it? And I think for better or for worse that's a question that's partly going to be dictated by the law of supply and demand. What we need to do to sell ourselves in a very tight job market? I would think offhand without, again, without having the relevant expertise that in order for philosophers of science and philosophers of biology, in order for us to sell ourselves in a rough job market, we've got to convince people that this stuff is really interesting. That it pertains to traditional philosophical problems of the mind or of human nature of metaphysics or epistemology.
And so my sense now is that given the reality of the job market that we've got to sell ourselves again to philosophers at large and show why the work that we're doing really does fill a significant gap in traditional philosophical problems; metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind in essence. I think we've got to appeal to our colleagues who are doing these more traditional philosophical pursuits and maybe 20 years from now that'll be different. Maybe 20 years from now philosophy of science will be so hot that we will just be able to focus more on the science, more on the scientists, but my sense is that we got to sell ourselves a little bit to our colleagues.
Nick: Well, perhaps your book could be a starting point for that, given that in terms of the way in which you develop some of your implications of your particular view of function and its implications for mental representation, philosophy of mind, just more contemporary debates in these other more general philosophy of science areas, I don't know.
Justin: Yeah, I certainly hope so. That was one of my goals for sure.
Nick: Okay. All right Justin, it's been a pleasure chatting with you and getting to know a little bit more about your work and what you're up to. It seems like, yeah, this is some really important really front line stuff that you've got going on. Is there anything else you'd like to mention or say before we go?
Justin: No, that's it. I think we've covered everything and again thank you so much for inviting me to be on your podcast. It was a real pleasure talking to you.
Nick: It was a pleasure talking with you. Well, enjoy the rest of your Thursday and, yeah, we'll be in touch soon.
Justin: Okay, good. Thanks so much.
Nick: All right, take care Justin, bye.