Stats Courses For Philosophers (guest post by Joshua Knobe)


The following is a guest post* by Joshua Knobe, professor of philosophy and psychology at Yale University. It first appeared at The Brains Blog, and follows up on post from a year ago by Knobe here at Daily Nous, “Formal Methods Training for Philosophy Graduate Students.”


[Randall Munroe, xkcd]

Stats Courses For Philosophers
by Joshua Knobe

Back when I was in graduate school, all students were required to take a course in logic. People had a vague understanding that there were also various other formal methods that used in philosophy – probability theory, decision theory, game theory, statistics – but courses in those topics did not fulfill the requirement, and students only rarely took them. At the time, this approach was widely regarded as a very reasonable one. Logic seemed to be more important to the discipline than all of these other formal methods put together.

But over the past decade or so, things have clearly changed. These days, philosophers are using all sorts of different formal methods. There are still lots of philosophers using logic, but it is no longer the case that logic eclipses all other formal methods.There are now tons of philosophers using probability theory (e.g., in formal epistemology), even more drawing on work that uses statistics (in everything from philosophy of mind to moral psychology to feminist philosophy), and a whole lot of other formal methods on the rise as well (causal Bayes nets, machine learning, Monte Carlo simulation).

The result has been a growing recognition that we need to make some important change in the requirements governing philosophical education. In one way or another, we need to make sure that students get a chance to master the formal methods that they will actually need to use in their subsequent research.

I am not sure precisely which approach would be best, but just to get the conversation started, I thought it might be helpful to mention a few approaches that specific departments have adopted. (Most of these involve changes that were made in the past few years.)

  • Yale just replaced its traditional logic requirement with a broader formal methods requirement. Students can fulfill this new requirement by taking a course in logic, but they can also fulfill it by taking a course in any other formal method that plays a role in their philosophical research (probability, game theory, statistics, etc.).
  • Michigan now allows students to fulfill the logic requirement by taking a broad survey course in formal methods (logic, probability, decision theory).
  • Arizona has a ‘formal requirement,’ which can be fulfilled by taking a logic course but also by taking a course in statistics (in the psychology department) or machine learning (in the computer science department).
  • Stanford recently introduced at the undergraduate level a broad course on formal methods, which includes logic, probability, decision period, and statistics.
  • Utah replaced its previous logic requirement with a requirement to take a course in formal methods, which can be fulfilled by a course in logic, probability theory, decision theory or statistics.
  • Carnegie Mellon has a required course in formal methods, which provides a broad survey of ideas from statistics, decision theory, game theory, and formal learning theory.
  • Northeastern just replaced its traditional undergraduate course in logic with a course that introduces students to both logic and probability theory.
  • Edinburgh has a formal methods course for undergraduates and masters students that includes logic, probability, and more empirically-oriented models coming out of psychology about how human beings actually make decisions.
  • Waterloo eliminated its logic requirement. Students are now required to conduct two “research areas.” When mastery of a formal method would serve a student’s research interests, the faculty can make that method a component of a research area.
  • Matthew Mandelkern (now moving to Oxford) has a formal methods syllabus that includes logic, game theory and quantum mechanics.
  • The Munich program in Logic and Philosophy of Science features courses on logic (obviously) but now includes also a two-seminar sequence on formal methods that familiarizes students with agent-based modeling and computer simulation.
  • Similarly, the UCI Logic and Philosophy of Science program has a requirement in logic (again, obviously) but also has a requirement in ‘Tools of Research,’ which can be satisfied through courses that involve other formal methods.
  • Toronto has a very minimal requirement in logic (which can be satisfied by taking baby logic as an undergrad) and then a ‘research tool’ requirement, which can be satisfied by taking a more serious logic course but also by taking a statistics course in the psychology department.

I would love to hear from others about which of these approaches seem especially helpful or whether there is some further thing we should be doing to help address this issue.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions you may have!

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