Computer Simulation as “Core Philosophical Method”

“Modeling and computer simulations, we claim, should be considered core philosophical methods.”

So argue Conor Mayo-Wilson (University of Washington) and Kevin Zollman (Carnegie Mellon University) in a new paper, “The Computational Philosophy: Simulation as a core philosophical method“.

[Robert Kunec, “Thinker”]

More specifically, they argue for two main points:

First, philosophers should use simulations for many of the same reasons we currently use thought experiments. In fact, simulations are superior to thought experiments in achieving some philosophical goals… We describe six purposes of thought experiments… [and]  argue that, for five of the six purposes that we identify, simulations are sometimes more effective than thought experiments.


Second, devising and coding computational models instill good philosophical habits of mind. Our second argument explains what a modeler learns from the act of modeling; the first explains what everyone can learn from computational models… We describe several skills that philosophers prize: the ability to disambiguate claims, to recognize implicit assumptions in arguments, to assess logical validity, and more. We then explain how devising and programming computational models can foster those skills, even if one has no intent of using the simulation results in construction of the final published argument. Our claim is unusual in that it suggests that philosophers would benefit from using simulations privately as part of their argumentative development even if that doesn’t ultimately show up in the finished product.

They don’t think simulations are the only tool philosophers need:

Simulations can’t help address every philosophical problem. No simulation will tell us whether abortion is moral. Moreover, simulations almost never answer philosophical questions by themselves. So simulations should not supplant other philosophical methods. Rather, simulations should be a tool in the philosopher’s toolbox, to be used alongside thought experiments, careful analysis of arguments, symbolic logic, probability, empirical research, and many other methods. But for reasons we discuss below simulations are especially useful in several philosophical subfields, including social epistemology, social and political philosophy, and philosophy of science.

But they do think “training philosophers in computational methods should be more common” as “modeling and programming are two important formal tools that fit naturally with paradigmatic philosophical methods.”

Discussion welcome.

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