Interview: “Masses of formal philosophy”

I came to philosophy as a refugee from mathematics and statistics. I was impressed by their power at codifying and precisifying antecedently understood but rather nebulous concepts, and at clarifying and exploring their interrelations. I enjoyed learning many of the great theorems of probability theory—equations rich in ‘P’s of this and of that. But I wondered what is this ‘P’? What do statements of probability mean? When I asked one of my professors, he looked at me like I needed medication. That medication was provided by philosophy, and I found it first during my Masters at the University of Western Ontario, working with Bill Harper, and then during my Ph.D. at Princeton, working with Bas van Fraassen, David Lewis, and Richard Jeffrey—all deft practitioners of formal methods. I found that philosophers had been asking my question about ‘P’ since about 1650, but they were still struggling to find definitive answers. I was also introduced to a host of other philosophical problems, and it became clear to me within nanoseconds of arriving at U.W.O. that I wanted to spend my life pursuing some of them. But I kept being drawn back to the formal methods of mathematics, and in particular of probability theory. It may be worthwhile to pause for a moment and to ask “What are formal methods?” Of course, it’s easy to come up with examples: the use of various logical systems, computational algorithms, causal graphs, information theory, probability theory and mathematics more generally. What do they have in common? They are all abstract representational systems. Sometimes the systems are studied in their own..
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