Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy
MIT Dept. of Linguistics and Philosophy, bskow [at] mit.edu, rm 32-D930.
I grew up in California, got a BA in English and Philosophy from Oberlin College, an MA from the University of Sydney, and a PhD from New York University. Before coming to MIT I taught for two years at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
In my first book Objective Becoming I defended the "Block Universe Theory" of time, mainly against the objection that it "leaves out" the passage of time. But in the spirit of generosity I spent a lot of the book trying to show that The Moving Spotlight Theory of Time is in much better shape than people tend to think. My second book Reasons Why urges philosophers of science to re-frame the debate about what an expanation is as the debate over what it is for one fact to be a reason why another fact obtains. I defend the view that every reason why something happened is either a cause or a ground of its happening. My third book will pick up some threads from the second and spin them together with some ideas about the "metaphysics of aspect," that is, ideas about what the metaphysical signficance is of the distinction between stative and non-stative verbs.
Causation, Explanation, and the Metaphysics of Aspect.
Symposia: Analysis, Philosophical Studies.
Summary of Objective Becoming, and replies to Cameron, Wilson, and Leininger. For a symposium in Analysis.
Of Strawberries and Energy Conservation. Metascience, 2018. For a symposium on Marc Lange's book Because Without Cause.
Thoughts on Experiencing Time by Simon Prosser. Inquiry, 2018.
Philosophy of Science / Physics
Against Understanding (as a Condition on Explanation). In Making Sense of the World: New Essays on the Philosophy of Understanding, Stephen Grimm, ed., Oxford University Press, 2017. Argues that there is no interpretation of the commonly-accepted idea that "explanation is that which produces understanding" on which it is of any use for finding what philosophers looking for a theory of explanation have been after. Contains a close examination of a couple of philosophers' attempts to use this idea for that purpose.
Levels of Reasons and Causal Explanation. Philosophy of Science (PSA 2016 Proceedings), 2017. To answer the question why some event E occurred one must provide reasons why E occurred. So the idea that all explanations of events are causal can be understood as the theory that the reasons why some event occurred are its causes. My main thesis in this paper is that many "counterexamples" to this theory turn on confusing two levels of reasons. We should distinguish the reasons why an event occurred ("first-level reasons") from the reasons why those reasons are reasons ("second-level reasons"). An example that treats a second-level reason as a first-level reason will look like a counterexample if that second-level reason is not a cause. But second-level reasons need not be first-level reasons; nor (on my theory) need they be causes. Along the way I use the distinction between levels to diagnose the appeal of, and one main flaw in, the DN model of explanation. (These ideas are developed in much more detail in Reasons Why.)
What are we asking when we ask why? Oxford University Press blog, 5 November 2016.
Are There Genuine Physical Explanations of Mathematical Phenomena? The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 2015. Defends the yes answer, through detailed examination of a particular example.
Are There Non-Causal Explanations (of Particular Events)? The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 2014. Surveys a collection of alleged non-causal explanations, including Nerlich's examples of geometrical explanation, and the Railton/Lewis stellar collapse example, and argues that they fail. (Note: I now think that the approach to this question that I take in Reasons Why is superior to the one I took in this paper.)
The Role of Chance in Explanation. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 2014. Argues that certain explanations that work by showing that the event being explained had a very high chance of occurring are causal explanations.
Does Temperature have a Metric Structure? Philosophy of Science, 2011. Argues that it does, but that we did not have sufficient reason to accept this until the development of statistical mechanics.
On a Symmetry Argument for the Guidance Equation in Bohmian Mechanics. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 2010. Drawing morals from a symmetry argument for Newton's first law, argues that the symmetry argument for the guidance equation cannot justify accepting that equation over alternatives.
Local and Global Relativity Principles. The Philosophers Imprint, 2008. Argues that a global version of the principle of relativity entails a local version, and explains away an apparent counterexample to the entailment.
Sklar's Maneuver. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 2007. Argues that Lawrence Sklar's attempt to save relationalism about space and time by saying that absolute accelerations are intrinsic properties fails.
Earman and Roberts on Empiricism about Laws. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 2007. Defends the standard definition of empiricism about laws as the thesis that the laws supervene on the non-nomic facts, against an argument by Earman and Roberts.
The Metaphysics of Quantities and Their Dimensions. Oxford Studies in Metaphysics Volume 10, 2017. Quantities have dimensions; the dimension of speed is (length)/(time). This paper argues that the dimension of a quantity does not just tell us something about how the numbers assigned to that quantity change when we change our scale of measurement, but also tells us something about its metaphysical nature.
"One Second Per Second." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 2012. Some argue that time cannot pass at one second per second, because one second per second is one second divided by one second, which is one, which is not a rate. But one second per second is not one second divided by one second; "one second per second," like "one meter per second," names a value of a quantity, not a number; the "per" indicates something about the dimension function for this quantity.
Why Does Time Pass? Nous, 2012. Presents a new version of the moving spotlight theory of time. In the theory it is not just a brute fact that time passes; instead the passage of time is explained by the need for the universe to change.
Notes on the Grandfather Paradox. Unpublished. Argues that a distinction between narrow and wide abilities defuses the grandfather paradox. (After writing this I discovered that Kadri Vihvelin had already made this argument.) Also argues that David Lewis's contextualist solution to the grandfather paradox fails.
Experience and the Passage of Time. Philosophical Perspectives, 2011. Rebuts three "arguments from experience" for the reality of the passage of time.
On the Meaning of the Question "How Fast Does Time Pass?" Philosophical Studies, 2011. Argues that the moving spotlight theory can give a coherent answer to the question of how fast time passes.
More on Haecceitism and Possible Worlds. Analytic Philosophy, 2011. Reply to a response to "Haecceitism, Anti-Haecceitism, and Possible Worlds."
Extrinsic Temporal Metrics. Oxford Studies in Metaphysics, 2011. An extrinsic temporal metric is one according to which the temporal distance between two times depends on something external, for example the number of times the earth rotates between them. The paper argues that the thesis that the metric is extrinsic does not entail conventionalism. Along the way it isolates an interesting and non-trivial sense of "conventionalism," on which conventionalism does not follow from the fact that the meaning of every word is a matter of convention.
Deep Metaphysical Indeterminacy. The Philosophical Quarterly, 2010. The Barnes and Williams model of metaphysical indeterminacy says that there is metaphysical indeterminacy whenever there are multiple complete precisifications of reality. But consideration of quantum mechanics shows that we should make room for a deeper kind of metaphysical indeterminacy. When that kind exists, reality cannot be completely precisified.
The Dynamics of Non-Being. The Philosophers Imprint, 2010. Canvasses several interpretations of Robert Nozick's suggestion that there is something rather than nothing because the nothingness force acted on itself, producing something. The interpretations take the form of mathematical equations governing both material reality's degree of existence and the strength of the nothingness force. The equations show that we can make sense of Nozick's suggestion without reifying the nothingness force.
Relativity and the Moving Spotlight. The Journal of Philosophy, 2009. Suggests that the moving spotlight theory of time can be made consistent with special relativity by assuming that the present is infinitessimal, rather than infinite, in spatial extent.
Haecceitism, Anti-Haecceitism, and Possible Worlds. The Philosophical Quarterly, 2008. Argues that stating haecceitism using possible-worlds talk has confused the debate. Presents a statement of haecceitism that eschews possible-worlds talk. Argues that David Lewis was an haecceitist, even though he labeled himself an anti-haecceitist.
What Makes Time Different From Space? Nous, 2007. Argues that what makes time different is the role it plays in the laws of nature.
Are Shapes Intrinsic? Philosophical Studies, 2007. Argues that the most plausible theories of shape properties make them extrinsic.
How to Adjust Utility for Desert. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 2012. Suppose it is good when people live lives high in welfare, and also good when people get what they deserve. Is there a best way to assign numbers measuring the intrinsic values of situations, given the numbers that measure welfare levels and desert levels? This paper uses dimensional analysis to argue that there is.
A Solution to the Problem of Indeterminate Desert. Mind, 2012. If one ought to give people what they deserve, and what one deserve depends on whether one does what one ought, then paradox and indeterminacy threaten. Shelley Kagan concludes that what one deserves does not depend on whether one does what one ought, but I show how that a moral theory incorporating this principle can be consistent and determinate.
Preferentism and the Paradox of Desire. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, 2009. The theory that someone's life goes well to the extent that she gets what she wants looks inconsistent, since someone could want their live not to go well. I show that this theory can be made consistent by saying that the satisfaction of a desire can come in degrees.
Book Reviews / Symposia / Handbook Articles
Some Questions about The Moving Spotlight. For a symposium on Ross Cameron's book. Analysis, 2017.
Scientific Explanation. The Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Science (Paul Humphreys, ed.), 2016. Survey article. Contains a new argument against unificationist theories of explanation.
Desert. With Fred Feldman. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015.
Review of The Geometry of Desert by Shelly Kagan. Ethics, 2014.
Review of Physical Relativity by Harvey Brown. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 2006.
Once Upon a Spacetime.
Be True to Your School
You know about Oberlin College's importance to the history of jazz, its leadership in environmental studies, its influence on football, and of course its role in opening higher education to women and African-Americans and in starting the civil war. But did you know that it has also produced a lot of philosophers?
Versions of my papers posted here may not match the published versions word for word.