Philosophy 560B: Philosophy of Science

Instructor: Christopher Stephens
Section: 002
Term: 2
Meets: Wednesdays 10:00am-1:00pm

Probability in Philosophy: everything philosophers wanted to know about probability but were afraid to ask*

“Probability is the very guide of life” – Cicero

With the dramatic developments in logic in the early 20th century, many mainstream philosophers reached for deductive logic as a tool for developing and clarifying their views in epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy science, philosophy of religion and ethics. It is consequently no surprise that we require our undergraduate majors to study deductive logic: besides its own intrinsic interest, it is difficult to understand much of the contemporary philosophical literature without at least a basic command of logic.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, however, more and more philosophers began to draw on
probability as a tool for articulating their views. Although probability is arguably less well understood than deductive logic, this has not stopped large numbers of philosophers from making use of it. (Perhaps it has even encouraged them.) And while it obvious that philosophers of science need to understand probability given its extensive use in science, in recent years appeals to probability have become fashionable in mainstream epistemology and philosophy of religion, and even in parts of metaphysics, philosophy of language, political philosophy and ethics.

The philosophy of probability is itself an interesting subject: what does probability mean? Should we interpret it as a frequency, a degree of belief, or what? While we will spend a bit of time on some of these issues, this is not primarily a course in philosophy of probability. Instead, this seminar will be a rather selective survey of some of the different areas of philosophy that make use of probability. The goal is to get students familiar with some of the strengths and weaknesses of probability as a tool in philosophy, as well as to provide students with the background to understand the literature that makes appeals to it.

We will spend some time at the very beginning of the course on the mathematical ABCs of probability. Although I will not presuppose prior familiarity with probability, students should have taken a basic course in logic (PHIL 220).

Click here for a PDF version of the course syllabus.

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