Philosophy at St Andrews

Scots Centennial Fellow Seminar

Tue 9th December 2008 11:00

Edgecliffe Room G03

Dr Catarina Dutilh Novaes (University of Amsterdam)


Formal methods as a counterbalance to intuitions in philosophy
 
Recent debates on the role of intuitions in philosophical methodology have generally opposed proponents of fairly radical skepticism towards intuitions as reliable sources of philosophical insight to zealous defendants of their epistemic value for philosophy. Now, as is so often the case, the right place for intuitions within philosophical investigation might be somewhere in between these two positions: intuitions do have a role to play in philosophical investigations, but they must be neither the unique kind of raw material taken as a starting point, nor the single ultimate test for the accuracy of a philosophical theory. In other words, philosophical theorizing must have some degree of autonomy vis-à-vis intuitions.
What kind of methodology can ensure this relative autonomy of theories with respect to intuitions? In this talk, I suggest that formal methods are particularly suitable to counterbalance the weight of intuitions in philosophical investigations. This is because at the very heart of the epistemology of formal methods lies the idea of inferential moves not requiring any insight or ingenuity, but which can be iterated to form very long arguments, the conclusions of which are often not to be foreseen by intuition alone. That is to say, formal methods used in philosophy can take us to ‘hidden truths’ that might otherwise be inaccessible.
In order to argue for this view, I present a brief analysis of the role formal methods play for the methodology of physics, and in particular of the interplay between experimental data and (formal-mathematical) theories, by means of two case-studies: Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism and Einstein’s special theory of relativity. In both cases, the use of the mathematical formalism yielded predictions that were at first highly counterintuitive, but which were eventually confirmed experimentally. I submit that an analogy between the methodology of physics thus described and philosophical methodology can shed light on the interplay between intuitions and formal methods in philosophy, suggesting a model of philosophical investigation that may be seen as a sophisticated version of the old but still topical idea of a reflective equilibrium.


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