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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

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Even More Revealing

Ever wonder where you can read or here about what I’ve been recently pondering? No? Well, now you can here!

Summer Talks!

  • Little Shallows in the Depths: Indeterminacy in Quantum Theory (with David E. Taylor) @ Quantum Indeterminacy Workshop (Dartmouth), July 12–13
  • The Topology of Intertheoretic Reduction @ BSPS 2019 (Durham), July 17–19
  • The Topology of Intertheoretic Reduction @ CLMPST 2019 (Prague), August 5–10
  • The Role of Replication in Psychological Science @ EPSA 2019 (Geneva), September 11–14


You can now download new syllabuses here for Space and Time (F18), Computability and Logic (S19), and my graduate seminar (S19): Physical Perspectives on Computation, Computational Perspectives on Physics.

Research & Writing!

I’ve updated my research and publications pages, the latter with the following. If you can’t access something linked there, let me know: I’ll be happy to send it to you, especially these new ones:

“Extending List’s Levels.” In Marek Kus and Bartłomiej Skowron, eds. Category Theory in Physics, Mathematics, and Philosophy. Springer. (With Neil Dewar and Laurenz Hudetz.)

“Approximate Local Poincaré Spacetime Symmetry in General Relativity,” in Claus Beisbart, Tilman Sauer, and Christian Wüthrich, eds. Thinking about Space and Time. Einstein Studies, vol. 15. Birkhäuser.

“Similarity Structure on Scientific Theories.” In Bartłomiej Skowron, ed. Topological Philosophy. de Gruyter.

“Which Worldlines Represent Possible Particle Histories?” Foundations of Physics. (Check out the published version or a read-only version thereof.)

“On the Reduction of General Relativity to Newtonian Gravitation.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics. (Check out the published version.)

“Counterfactual Reasoning within Physical Theories.” Synthese.  (Check out the published version or a read-only version thereof.)

“On Representational Capacities, with an Application to General Relativity.” Foundations of Physics. (Check out the published version or a read-only version thereof.)

“Evidence Amalgamation in the Sciences: An Introduction. Synthese. (With Jürgen Landes and Roland Poellinger. Check out the published version or a read-only version thereof.)

“Infinite Idealizations in Science: An Introduction.” Synthese 196(5): 1657–1669.  (With Patricia Palacios, Laura Ruetsche, and Elay Shech. Check out the published version or a read-only version thereof.)

“Stopping Rules as Experimental Design.” European Journal for Philosophy of Science 9: 29. (Check out the published version.)

“Global Spacetime Similarity.” Journal of Mathematical Physics 59(11): 112501. (Check out the published version.)

“Computers in Abstraction/Representation Theory.” Minds & Machines: 8(3): 445–463. (Check out the published version, or a read-only version thereof.)

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Revealed Preferences

If you had asked me in a survey about my preferences for organizing my sock drawers and updating my website, it would not have revealed the preferences that my actions over the past year have! Instead of a languorous narrative, here are some high points for the concretely minded.


Updated syllabuses available here.


Check out the updated research and papers publications pages, especially these:

“Minimal Approximations and Norton’s Dome.” 2018. Synthese: forthcoming. (Check out the published version, a read-only version thereof, or a preprint.)

“Would Two Dimensions be World Enough for Spacetime?” 2018. Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics: forthcoming. (With J. B. Manchak, Mike D. Schneider, and James Owen Weatherall. Check out the published version or a preprint.)

“Indeterminism, Gravitation, and Spacetime Theory.” 2017. In Gábor Hofer-Szabó and Leszek Wroński, eds. Making It Formally Explicit: Probability, Causality and Indeterminism. Springer, pp. 179–191. (Check out the published version or an pre-copyedited preprint.)


It’s finally coming out! I’ll be teaching a graduate seminar in Spring, 2019 on my book edited with Mike Cuffaro,  Physical Perspectives on Computation, Computational Perspectives on Physics, due out in May, 2018 with Cambridge University Press. In addition to our introduction, there are twelve commissioned chapters evenly divided among four thematic parts:

  1. The Computability of Physical Systems and Physical Systems as Computers
  2. The Implementation of Computation in Physical Systems
  3. Physical Perspectives on Computer Science
  4. Computational Perspectives on Physical Theory

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New Year, New World

The Past: Fall Semester, 2016

Besides teaching again Scientific Thought, our department’s philosophy of science survey course, I taught as well for the first time a seminar on Space and Time. One notable aspect of the course was the final project format: working in pairs, students had to devise and present their own novel space-time model. Many of my colleagues expressed skepticism that this would be a feasible capstone project, but it was in fact a resounding success! Each of the groups, with my guidance, constructed something genuinely novel and presented on it well. I’ll certainly keep the project when I teach Space and Time again.

In my efforts to be more of a homebody, I only spoke at one conference this semester, the 32nd Boulder Conference on the History and Philosophy of Science, whose topic this year—Gravity: Its History and Philosophy—I couldn’t pass up. It was great to meet up with many friends and colleagues there.

In terms of research work, this semester was a bit more fecund that some past ones (in part for reasons I explore in the next section). I added one more editorial project, another special issue of Synthese on “Infinite Idealizations in Science,” which I am co-editing with Patricia PalaciosLaura Ruetsche, and Elay Shech, with likely publication in 2018. (It’s based in part on the very successful workshop that Patricia and I ran in Munich last summer.) The paper that Ben Feintzeig and I wrote on non-contextual hidden variable theories for quantum mechanics, building on some of Ben’s earlier work, was accepted at Foundations of Physics just before the spring semester started. Lastly, a substantial essay review of Tim Maudlin’s New Foundations for Physical Geometry (2014, OUP) on which I had long been working is now forthcoming at Philosophy of Science. It’s curated from a much longer essay that I will post as soon as its parts begin to find their official homes.

The Present: Spring Semester, 2017

Last semester, the University of Minnesota become an institutional member in the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, an independent professional development program focused on “supporting academics in making successful transitions throughout their careers.” Now, as a perpetually transitioning scholar striving to balance his professional and personal commitments, this support seemed like it could be useful, so in November, I participated in their two-week Writing Challenge. I got a lot done! So, this semester, I’ve signed up for their Faculty Success Program, which is like a faculty boot camp for “increasing your research productivity, getting control of your time, and living a full and healthy life beyond your campus.” I’m only two weeks in (out of twelve) at this point, but I’m already starting to see some changes in my work habits and feelings of balance.

The Future: Summer, 2017, and beyond

At the end of the semester, after the 21st Seven Pines Symposium on “Black Holes in the Spotlight,” I’ll be traveling to Geneva for a week, May 22–29, to visit the Space and Time after Quantum Gravity project run there by Chris Wüthrich. I’ll be giving a talk on a possible new approach to causal set theory’s Hauptvermutung through some theoretical work originally undertaken in the ’90s in computer science concerning digital images. Then I’ll be heading to Munich, where I’ll be based at the MCMP until December 15 thanks to the remainder of my Marie Curie Fellowship and the support of a College of Liberal Arts Faculty Development Leave from the University of Minnesota.

While in Munich, along with Lavinia Picollo, Marianna Antonutti Marfori, and Gil Sagi, I’ll be running the Fourth Summer School on Mathematical Philosophy for Female Students July 30–August 5, whose main lecture streams in philosophy of logic, mathematics, and language will be as follows:

  • Semantic Paradoxes and Self-Reference (Roy Cook, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities)
  • The Model Theory of Logical and Mathematical Concepts (Juliette Kennedy, University of Helsinki)
  • Conditional Sentences and Causal Reasoning (Katrin Schulz, University of Amsterdam)

If you know of any female students interested in these topics, please encourage them to apply! Based on our experiences with the past summer schools, we believe this can really be a formative event.

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Jubilant Return

After a 14-month hiatus in which I moved from Munich to Minneapolis (via a road trip from Southern California), started and completed my first academic year as an Assistant Professor, and returned to Europe for the summer, I’m ready to update again! There’s much to be said, of course, but I’ll try to keep it brief, focusing on travel, teaching, and event organization. For those more interested in the future than the past, scroll down to the “Future” section for upcoming events I’ll be organizing, volumes I’ll be editing, and classes I’ll be teaching.

Fall Semester 2015

In early October I saw many friends and colleagues in Pittsburgh, where I was giving a presentation at the conference on Effective Theories, Scale Modeling, and Emergence at the Pitt Center for Philosophy of Science.  A month later, I drove down to Iowa State University on a beautiful November Saturday morning to talk at the 2015 meeting of the Iowa Philosophical Society. I was really impressed with the quality of talks and organization—done by a colleague and friend. Late that month I took advantage of some family travel to visit another colleague and friend and deliver a talk at the George Washington University.

All this was happening, of course, while I taught my weekly graduate seminar on Philosophy of Statistics. I was flattered and honored to have participants—most of them faculty—from philosophy, physics, statistics, psychology, economics, public health, neuroscience, and occasionally more! It was truly a vanguard research seminar, spawned some new research ideas and even some invitations to visit other departments at the U. Where am I going to find the time to explore all those great ideas?

Winter Break 2015/6

Certainly not during winter break! In early January I traveled to Santiago de Chile for the first time to deliver a talk at the workshop on Reduction in Physics and Biology at the Institute of Philosophy and Complexity Sciences. Afterwards I took the most amazing vacation with a group of colleagues and friends from the workshop to the Atacama Desert, where we saw geysersvicuñas, flamingos, and the ALMA observatory at 5,000 meters! I was giddy (and not just from the altitude). If you spend some time on my website, you’ll see many banner photos from this trip.

Spring Semester 2016

February saw me take two international trips, the first on an invitation to a conference in Warsaw on Topological Philosophy—really the application of topological ideas and methods in philosophy—before which I took a quick stop in Krakow to give a talk for friends and colleagues at the Epistemology Department of the Jagiellonian University. Just a week or so later I was heading southward instead of eastward, to Bogotá for Philogica IV. I can recommend the bandeja paisa and chocolate completo. Finally in March I gave three colloquium talks, but all close to home: a joint physics/philosophy one at Macalaster College in St. Paul, and two on philosophy of statistics at the School of Statistics and the Division of Health Policy and Management at the School of Public Health at the U—the latter two thanks to my seminar from the previous semester.

No seminar to teach this semester! Instead, two lecture courses for undergraduates: a big one, Introduction to Logic, and a moderately large one, Scientific Thought, a philosophy of science survey (predictably). I had good experiences using Bergmann, Moor, and Nelson’s The Logic Book and Godfrey-Smith’s Theory and Reality, respectively.

Summer 2016

The beginning of the summer is a treat, in part because of the Seven Pines Symposium. This years the topic was the “big questions” in physics. One theme that consistently emerged was what we demand be represented in our physical theories.  Is consciousness or a flow of time superfluous? Is a direction of time or definite outcomes of experiments necessary? I continue to think about these issues even now.

Immediately afterward I flew to Europe and went to a string of conferences: Doorn, the Netherlands, then Budapest, then Istanbul, then Varna, Bulgaria, before returning to Munich, my summer home. There, the MCMP had a  5 Years celebratory conference, focusing not on the past but on the future of mathematical philosophy by inviting current or recently graduated PhD students to give short talks on their work. After that at the MCMP, and between the Semantics of Theories conference in June and the econophysics and complexity theory workshop in July, I found myself in the Basque Country, Lausanne, Cardiff, and London (x2) for talks, in addition to a pair of back-to-back conferences on Infinite Idealizations and First Principles in Science, the former actually organized by myself and Patrica Palacios.

The biggest event of the summer, though, was the Third Summer School on Mathematical Philosophy for Female Students at the MCMP, which I co-organized along with Milena Ivanova and Karolina Krzyżanowska. 47 students studying in 17 countries and originating from 23 across 6 continents converged for an intense week of three courses of lectures:

It was a resounding success!

The Future

As the Summer School in Mathematical Philosophy for Female Students continues to be a success, another is being planned for 2017—the topics being philosophy of logic, language, and mathematics—by myself, Gil Sagi, Lavinia Picollo, and Marianna Antonutti Marfori. I’ll post more information about the summer school later this year.

Also coming next year are two editing projects. The first is a book contract with Cambridge University Press entitled Physical Perspectives on Computation, Computational Perspectives on Physics, which I am editing along with Mike Cuffaro. We expect to have 13 chapters by philosophers, physicists, and computer scientists investigating perspectives on each other’s discipline and exploring their foundational implications in print by the end of 2017. The second is a special issue of Synthese on “Amalgamating Evidence in the Sciences,” which I am editing with Jürgen Landes and Roland Poellinger, with likely publication in 2018. (Click the title link for more information!)

Lastly, I have a full year of teaching ahead: Scientific Thought and Introduction to Logic in the fall and spring, respectively, but two new courses as well, a cross-listed undergraduate/graduate seminar on Space and Time in the fall and graduate-level Computability in the spring.  I’ll post more information about these in the teaching section in due time.

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