Science Visions

The Newsletter of the PSA Women's Caucus

Vol. 2, No. 4.


  1. Caucus Announcements: Senior Co-chair Election and Seeking Newsletter Staff
  2. Highlighted Philosop-Her of Science: Orly Shenker
  3. Feature: Interview with Samantha Brennan

Caucus Announcements

  1. As co-chairs, we would like to extend our deepest gratitude to Karen Zwier, our long-time webmistress, who will be stepping down from the position. Our new webmistress, Areins Pelayo, will continue to update and manage both the listserv and the PSA-WC website. Welcome, Areins!
  2. It is time to vote for our next Senior Co-chair. Please cast your votes prior to December 1st at noon EST. Please use the link here.
  3. The PSA Women‘s Caucus and the Science Visions‘ editorial office would like to thank Kino Zhao, the former managing editor of the sectionWhat We Wish We'd Known, for her contribution to Science Visions!. 
  4. We need a new section manager! If you are interested in the position or have any questions, please email Haomiao Yu at

Highlighted Philosop-Her of Science: Orly Shenker

We are currently looking for nominees for HPH! All nominations are welcome, but we especially encourage nominations that promote diversity and early career scholars. To nominate, please contact Maria at <> or use the nomination form.

Orly Shenker holds the Eleanor Roosevelt chair of History and Philosophy of Science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After completing a degree in law in Tel Aviv, she pursued a second degree in physics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It was rather the metaphysical questions that drew her to physics, which she views as a metaphysical project. She graduated from the doctoral program in philosophy of physics from the same university with a thesis on Maxwell‘s demon.  

Orly‘s research interests lie in the philosophy of physics and the philosophy of mind, considering both to be parts of her project of developing a theory of reductive physicalism. Her physicalist theory is inspired by her work on the foundations of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics: in her view, the thermodynamic laws reflect the way physical observers experience their environment; a physical account of the mind is thus an essential part of physics itself. One result of her reductive physicalist project has been to explain the psychological arrow of time from fundamental physics without assuming the second law of thermodynamics (which she has challenged). Another result of Orly‘s physicalist theory has been a proof that the computational theory of mind is a form of mind-body dualism; and she proposes to replace it with a thoroughly physical account of the mind. Much of her work is the result of collaboration (mostly with her colleague Meir Hemmo), on which she places a high value.  

Orly is also credited for her service to the community. From her position as director of the Sidney M. Edelstein Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine in Jerusalem she has organized international events and promoted collaboration with research centers abroad. As international collaboration and friendship are of utmost importance to her, she takes pride in being president of The Pond: a network of philosophers of science around the Mediterranean, and she looks forward to contributing as a member of the International Relations Committee in the PSA. In 2018, she founded a book series with Springer, Jerusalem Studies in Philosophy and History of Science, taking on the mission to increase visibility of the Israeli research and its international collaborations. 

As to being a woman philosopher in Israel, Orly recalls the dominance of women in history and philosophy of science that were her role models during her formative years as a PhD student in Jerusalem. The strong awareness of the benefits of gender equality, and the ensuing measures currently implemented in her university, bring about considerable improvement in that respect in recent years. While there is still a long way ahead, as long as we don‘t lose focus and awareness there is room for cautious optimism, she says.  

Interview with Samantha Brennan: Ethics in the Time of Covid-19

Samantha BrennanSamantha Brennan is the Dean of the College of Arts and a faculty member in the Department of Philosophy, University of Guelph. Professor Brennan's main research interests lie in the area of contemporary normative ethics, applied ethics, and feminist philosophy. Science Visions interviewed her to learn more about the class Ethics in the Time of Covid-19 she is teaching this fall.

Good afternoon, Professor Brennan. Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. You are teaching the class Ethics in the Time of Covid-19 at the University of Guelph this fall. This is really a timely topic. 

Would you give us a description of the class?  What topics are you exploring in the class?

The class is on pandemic ethics, broadly construed. The idea is to take up a wide range of questions in ethics, social philosophy, and political philosophy connected to the COVID-19 pandemic. I didn‘t want to teach a narrow class in medical ethics. That‘s not my area of expertise and it‘s not really what interests me. Instead, I‘m intrigued by a wide range of issues in social and political philosophy that are highlighted by the current global health crisis. Some topics include the limits of justifiable state power and stay at home orders, justice and the funding of health care, basic minimum income, harm reduction, vaccination and trust in public health, the nature of epidemiological expertise, old age and care homes,intergenerational justice, racism, disability and vulnerability, collective responsibility, immunity passports, privacy and tracking apps. There‘s a lot we won‘t get to! My long list of topics included climate change, the environment, and the treatment of non-human animals, the just division of work in the home, and city design and access to green space!

Are there any topics that you like particularly?

Here are four ways in which the seminar is connected to other topics in ethics I‘ve worked on.
  1. I‘m interested in the application of harm reduction thinking to the pandemic. In particular, I‘m interested in the limits of harm reduction. How does harm reduction fit in with consequentialist thinking more generally? How do the consequentialist elements of harm reduction meet up with our deontological commitments?
  2. I‘m also interested in the just division of work in the home and the ways in which the pandemic might have set women‘s careers back. Here I‘m interested not just in women with white-collar jobs, juggling working from home while caring for children, but also women who are front-line workers who also care for elderly relatives. There‘s a lot of extra caring, cooking, and cleaning in the pandemic and my sense is that women are doing a lot of it.
  3. Have children paid an unfair price in the pandemic? Lots of the policies we‘ve adopted constrain children‘s lives in various ways and the cost to children doesn‘t seem to be counted. I‘m not saying those policies aren‘t justified but I do think we need to pay attention to the ways in which children‘s wellbeing is set back differentially when we keep bars open but stop children‘s sports, for example.
  4. Finally, what counts as a family and why do romantic/sexual relations get the primacy they do in our public policy? Lots of talk about forming pandemic bubbles seemed pretty clearly based on the nuclear family as a model and I think that raises all sorts of interesting questions about the variety of ways in which we make lives with other people.

When did you start thinking about a class on the pandemic?

I have people in my life who saw the pandemic coming from a long way back. It felt like watching a very slow moving train wreck that would eventually upend my life. At the beginning when I started making plans--cancelling trips, for example--I think everyone thought I was exaggerating about the significance of the pandemic. For a time I couldn‘t think about much of anything else. Lots of my own work started to feel irrelevant. It was only by seeing the connection between my work in ethics and social philosophy and the pandemic that my work started to seem important again. I‘m also a Dean and I don‘t have to teach at all. But as I started to watch my colleagues move their teaching online I started to think I should help out. I thought I‘d be a better leader through the pandemic if I was also learning how to use Teams/Zoom etc. for teaching. I came to the role of Dean with some experience in blended learning and online teaching and I wanted to see how fully online but with synchronous video conferencing worked. That‘s how our class came to be.

Have there been any challenges in getting the class going?

I wanted to meet with the class and have the students meet one another before we moved all of our interactions online. That was challenging because not everybody is in Guelph right now. I think it takes a bit longer to feel comfortable with one another when there isn‘t the before class small talk or the time at break to chat about our lives. I think it‘s also harder to talk with one another in the virtual format. There isn‘t the natural flow between speakers. But we are managing and I do get the sense that we are all in this together doing our best to make it work.

Now we are half-way through the fall semester, how are the students liking the class?

If you judge a class by the kinds of outside class engagement you have with students, it‘s going very well. Quite a few people have come to my outdoors office hours on campus. I bought a set of school colour lawn chairs for the dean‘s office and we‘ve been putting them to good use. Their paper topics are, so far, all engaging and deal with difficult issues in the pandemic and related difficult issues in ethical theory. One person is working on whether and when it‘s appropriate to reproach others for not following public health guidelines. Another student is working on some of the issues related to harm reduction approaches and weighing and balancing goods. A third is working on differences between Anti-Asian and Anti-Black racism and how these are playing out in the pandemic. I‘m really looking forward to reading their papers. We‘ve all been enjoying having visitors to our class. Each week we‘ve had an author whose work we‘ve read attend virtually and answer questions. That‘s been a lot of fun. I also think people like recording their presentations and posting them rather than giving them live. It allows people to time them well and get used to the technology without doing it in front of the class.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your research and teaching?

I‘ve been Dean of the College from my rec room/bike room for more than 220 days. Guelph moved very quickly to a policy of work from home if you can. We think about people on campus as a precious resource and we‘re working hard to keep our campus open for essential research and teaching that needs to be in person. Communication is a challenge. I really miss people. I miss all the fun parts of my job. I‘m also, like everyone else, anxious and stressed. I seem to be able to do small research things--read a paper, referee a journal submission--but the big things are hard to focus on. I‘m looking forward to being on the other side of this, in however long that takes. I‘ll also be interested to see which of the pandemic changes stay with us in the future. I‘m all for keeping the virtual guests!

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