Workshop: Rethinking Formal Methods in Philosophy

When & Where?

  • September 20–21, 2019
  • 215 Humphrey (Wilkins Room), University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
  • Registration is free.
  • Workshop dinner at 7 PM, Sept. 20, at Republic. Cost is $30 for graduate students and $40 for non-student workshop attendees. Registrants who indicate an interest in attending the dinner will receive information via email regarding payment methods.

What & How?

With which methods should a competent, contemporary philosopher be familiar? Argumentation, analysis, and creative synthesis have always been in the philosopher’s toolkit, but there is a rising confluence between the methods of contemporary philosophy and those formal methods more traditionally associated with the sciences. While “logic” has been essentially synonymous with “formal methods” in philosophy for many decades, increasingly philosophers are using probability and decision theory, statistics, and even experimental design and computer simulation. This two-day workshop on this new conception of philosophical method will bring together diverse philosophers into conversation about the present and future status of formal and mathematical methods in philosophy, their institutionalization in graduate (and undergraduate) pedagogy, and how these changes now reflect and will engender evolving relationships between philosophy and other disciplines.
Two special features of this workshop:

Who? (Speakers)

Ray Briggs (Stanford)
Helen De Cruz (St. Louis)
Catarina Dutilh Novaes (VU Amsterdam)*
Branden Fitelson (Northeastern)*
Joshua Knobe (Yale)*
Conor Mayo-Wilson (Washington)
Cailin O’Connor (UC Irvine)
Eric Steinhart (William Patterson)
Greg Wheeler (Frankfurt School)
*via videoconferencing

More on When (Program)

Friday, 20 September 2019

Time Event
9:30–10:30 Joshua Knobe: Which Formal Methods are Most Used in Philosophy?
10:30–10:45 Coffee Break
10:45–11:45 Helen De Cruz: Reflections on Teaching Experimental Philosophy to Undergraduates
11:45–12:00 Coffee Break
12:00–1:00 Eric Steinhart: Can Mathematics Save Philosophy?
1:00–2:30 Lunch Break
2:30–3:30 Ray Briggs: Baby Logic?
3:30–3:45 Coffee Break
3:45–4:45 Gregory Wheeler: Too Boole for School
4:45–5:00 Coffee Break
5:00–6:00 Conor Mayo-Wilson: Is TMTOWTDI When We Train Philosophers in Formal Methods?
7:00 Workshop Dinner

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Time Event
9:30–10:30 Branden Fitelson: How to Model the Epistemic Probabilities of Conditionals
10:30–10:45 Coffee Break
10:45–11:45 Cailin O’Connor: Synthesizing Formal and Empirical Methods in Philosophy: Testing the Red King
11:45–12:00 Coffee Break
12:00–1:00 Catarina Dutilh Novaes: Carnapian Explication and Ameliorative Analysis: A Systematic Comparison
1:00–2:30 Lunch Break
2:30–3:30 Jonathan Livengood: TBA
3:30–3:45 Coffee Break
3:45–5:00 Roundtable Discussion, moderated by Liam Kofi Bright

More on What (Abstracts)

Ray Briggs: Baby Logic?

Familiarity with formal methods can be helpful for students who don’t intend to focus on formal fields. What are the most important skills and methods for students to focus on? I map out some values and options, and discuss how Stanford’s Introduction to Formal Methods course (developed by Jennifer Wang, Thomas Icard, and me) addresses this teaching challenge.

Helen De Cruz: Reflections on Teaching Experimental Philosophy to Undergraduates

This paper offers a reflection on an experimental philosophy course for undergraduates I designed and taught. Particularly, I examine what teaching experimental philosophy can reveal about broader metaphilosophical issues, such as the role of intuitions in philosophy, and the practice of philosophy in a pluralistic and global context. The students taking this course were third-year philosophy majors at a UK university. The course involved both practice and theory. The practical part involved students performing two replications (Joshua Knobe’s side effect effect and Shaun Nichols’ Genealogy of norms). The theoretical part focused on probability theory, the replication crisis in cognitive science, and various topics in experimental philosophy (e.g., moral luck, trolley problems). Students found that experimental philosophy provides them with useful, marketable quantitative skills, as well as valuable insights in probability and the possibilities and limits of empirical research. Throughout the course, students also saw how philosophical intuitions are variable across individuals and show cross-cultural variability. This helped them to gain some insight into how philosophical armchair reflection (such as the use of intuitions elicited by cases) fits within the broader picture of human thinking.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes: Carnapian Explication and Ameliorative Analysis: A Systematic Comparison

A distinction often drawn is one between conservative versus revisionary conceptions of philosophical analysis with respect to commonsensical beliefs and intuitions. This paper offers a comparative investigation of two revisionary methods: Carnapian explication and ameliorative analysis as developed by S. Haslanger. It is argued that they have a number of common features, and in particular that they share a crucial political dimension: they both have the potential to serve as instrument for social reform. Indeed, they may produce improved versions of key concepts of everyday life, for example those pertaining to social categories such as gender and race (among others), which in turn may lead to social change. The systematic comparison of these two frameworks offered here, where similarities as well as differences are discussed, is likely to provide useful guidance to practitioners of both approaches, as it will highlight important aspects of each of them that tend to remain implicit and under-theorized in existing applications of these methodologies to specific questions.

Branden Fitelson: How to Model the Epistemic Probabilities of Conditionals

David Lewis’s (1976) triviality results had a profound effect on the trajectory of several research programs in epistemology, the philosophy of language, and linguistics. Specifically, it led people to reject a prima facie plausible thesis advanced by Adams and Stalnaker (and suggested by earlier remarks of Ramsey). That thesis is called The Equation, and it asserts that the degree of credence a rational agent ought (initially) to assign to a (simple) indicative conditional of the form “If P, then Q” is the conditional probability of its consequent given its antecedent — i.e., Pr(P → Q) = Pr(Q | P). Interestingly, Lewis (four years later, in his 1980 paper on chance) rejects a parallel formal argument against the Principle Principal (another putative rational constraint on initial credence). Moreover, Lewis’s strategy for responding to the analogous formal argument against the Principle Principal can be applied straightforwardly to his own triviality-based argument against The Equation. The result seems to be not only a plausible rational (epistemic) constraint on initial credence; but, also an (empirical) linguistic constraint, which seems to be borne out by the existing data involving the use of indicative conditionals. This case study contains various important lessons regarding the proper role of formal results (esp. triviality results) and arguments in epistemology, as well as in linguistics and the philosophy of language. Some of these lessons will be extracted and explained in the lecture.

Joshua Knobe: Which Formal Methods are Most Used in Philosophy?

Which formal methods are most frequently used in contemporary philosophy? I will be reporting results from a quantitative study of recent philosophy papers that provides at least some preliminary evidence regarding this question. The results indicate that the vast majority of philosophy papers using formal methods fit squarely within one of two broad families. One family involves methods that are closely related to logic (formal semantics, set theory, etc.); the other involves methods that in some way rely on probability theory (formal epistemology, statistics, etc.). The talk will provide more detailed quantitative information about research within each of these families, as well as some tentative thoughts about how the results might bear on questions regarding graduate education.

Jonathan Livengood: TBA

Abstract: TBA

Conor Mayo-Wilson: Is TMTOWTDI When We Train Philosophers in Formal Methods?

For most of the second half of the twentieth century, philosophy Ph.D. programs in the Anglo-American world required students to learn first-order logic and some meta-theory. Recently however, many Ph.D. programs have replaced their logic requirement with courses in other “formal methods”, which typically include probability theory, decision theory, and other frameworks that have become increasingly important in science. Is there some set of formal methods that all graduate students in philosophy ought to learn? Or should Ph.D. programs diversify? I discuss some arguments for and against standardization, and I draw a few lessons about what philosophy has lost from the decline of the centrality of logic in graduate education.

Cailin O’Connor: Synthesizing Formal and Empirical Methods in Philosophy: Testing the Red King

Formal methods, including social modeling, have gained in popularity in philosophy, as have empirical methods. In this talk, I discuss how these two approaches, in tandem, can be allow for particularly powerful methods of inquiry in philosophy. Models are often criticized as too simple to inform the real world. But one thing they can do is direct empirical inquiry in non-obvious and potentially fruitful ways. I will illustrate this point by discussing work I’ve done with collaborators on the cultural red king hypothesis which predicts that differentials in group size can lead to inequitable bargaining outcomes for minority groups even in the absence of explicit or implicit bias.

Eric Steinhart: Can Mathematics Save Philosophy?

Philosophy programs at many schools face serious financial and legislative challenges. Departments are closing. Can mathematics help save philosophy? Formal philosophy integrates philosophy with the formal sciences (logic, mathematics, computer science). It promises many benefits. It provides philosophers with a shared system of standard methods, models, and problems. It helps overcome the “great man” approach to philosophy. It makes it easier for philosophers to collaborate. It provides portable structures for philosophy courses. It helps integrate philosophy with other departments in the university. It helps administrators and legislators make sense out of philosophy. It promises to make philosophy students more employable. Philosophy programs will expand. But there are risks and disadvantages. To see what works and what fails, we need to try formalized versions of traditional courses as well as new courses. We need course materials, like syllabi, reading lists, textbooks, software packages, and so on. We need new majors and minors in formal philosophy. And we need to do self-studies, and to gather data about the practice and outcomes of teaching philosophy.

Gregory Wheeler: Too Boole for School

Logic, for all its beauty, is limited in what it can do for you. Hoping and pretending otherwise is what killed logical AI (1956–2012), and the failure to absorb the accumulated results from the last century concerning the limits of applying Boolean algebras — rather than rehearsing them without reflection over again as “puzzles” and “paradoxes” — will deliver to philosophy a fate even worse than death: irrelevance. Or so we believe, and have acted on this belief at the Frankfurt School by devising curricula for two new stand-alone undergraduate programs, one in Management, Philosophy & Economics and another in Computational Data Science, and launched a new Master’s degree program in Applied Data Science in the fall of 2018. This talk will describe all three programs, and how philosophy is an integral part of each one.


Funding provided by:

  • The Department of Philosophy, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
  • The Office of the Vice President for Research, University of Minnesota
  • The American Philosophical Association


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  1. Pingback: Formal Methods in Philosophy: Initial Thoughts and an Interactive Event (guest post by Liam Kofi Bright) - Daily Nous