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Twentyone arguments against propensity analyses of probability
Erkenntnis 60 (3):371–416 (2004)
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ABSTRACTIn Darwinian Population and Natural Selection, Peter GodfreySmith brought the topic of natural selection back to the forefront of philosophy of biology, highlighting different issues surro... 

Though almost forty years have elapsed since its first publication, it is a testament to the philosophical acumen of its author that 'The Matter of Chance' contains much that is of continued interest to the philosopher of science. Mellor advances a sophisticated propensity theory of chance, arguing that this theory makes better sense than its rivals (in particular subjectivist, frequentist, logical and classical theories) of ‘what professional usage shows to be thought true of chance’ (p. xi) – in particular ‘that (...) 

Can there be deterministic chance? That is, can there be objective chance values other than 0 or 1, in a deterministic world? I will argue that the answer is no. In a deterministic world, the only function that can play the role of chance is one that outputs just Os and 1s. The role of chance involves connections from chance to credence, possibility, time, intrinsicness, lawhood, and causation. These connections do not allow for deterministic chance. 

The recent proliferation of new data and technologies enables increasingly finer personalization of products and prices in every domain. In insurance, this revives and enlarges old debates around fairness that have never been completely settled. We will argue that the commonly accepted “actuarial fairness” as based on the “individual cost of risk” derives in fact from a conflation: while it indicates the average cost for a group of insureds from the perspective of an insurance company—and is therefore sound from a (...) 



One of Julian Barbour’s main aims is to solve the problem of time that appears in quantum geometrodynamics (QG). QG involves the application of canonical quantization procedure to the Hamiltonian formulation of General Relativity. The problem of time arises because the quantization of the Hamiltonian constraint results in an equation that has no explicit time parameter. Thus, it appears that the resulting equation, as apparently timeless, cannot describe evolution of quantum states. Barbour attempts to resolve the problem by allegedly eliminating (...) 

Drift is often characterized in statistical terms. Yet such a purely statistical characterization is ambiguous for it can accept multiple physical interpretations. Because of this ambiguity it is important to distinguish what sorts of processes can lead to this statistical phenomenon. After presenting a physical interpretation of drift originating from the most popular interpretation of fitness, namely the propensity interpretation, I propose a different one starting from an analysis of the concept of drift made by GodfreySmith. Further on, I show (...) 

Some physicists seem to believe that quantum information theory requires a new concept of information , Introduction to Quantum Computation and Information, World Scientific, Singapore, ; Deutsch & Hayden, 1999, Information flow in entangled quantum subsystems, preprint quantph/9906007). I will argue that no new concept is necessary. Shannon's concept of information is sufficient for quantum information theory. Properties that are cited to contrast quantum information and classical information actually point to differences in our ability to manipulate, access, and transfer information (...) 

Sewall Wright ’s FST is a mathematical test widely used in empirical applications to characterize genetic and other diﬀerences between subpopulations, and to identify causes of those diﬀerences. Cockerham and Weir’s popular approach to statistical estimation of FST is based on an assumption sometimes formulated as a claim that actual populations tested are sampled from. 

Recent debate on the nature of probabilities in evolutionary biology has focused largely on the propensity interpretation of fitness (PIF), which defines fitness in terms of a conception of probability known as “propensity”. However, proponents of this conception of fitness have misconceived the role of probability in the constitution of fitness. First, discussions of probability and fitness have almost always focused on organism effect probability, the probability that an organism and its environment cause effects. I argue that much of the (...) 

One controversy about the existence of so called evolutionary forces such as natural selection and random genetic drift concerns the sense in which such “forces” can be said to interact. In this paper I explain how natural selection and random drift can interact. In particular, I show how populationlevel probabilities can be derived from individuallevel probabilities, and explain the sense in which natural selection and drift are embodied in these populationlevel probabilities. I argue that whatever causal character the individuallevel probabilities (...) 

Entropy is ubiquitous in physics, and it plays important roles in numerous other disciplines ranging from logic and statistics to biology and economics. However, a closer look reveals a complicated picture: entropy is defined differently in different contexts, and even within the same domain different notions of entropy are at work. Some of these are defined in terms of probabilities, others are not. The aim of this chapter is to arrive at an understanding of some of the most important notions (...) 

An essay review of Richard Johns "A Theory of Physical Probability" (University of Toronto Press, 2002). Forthcoming in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. 

In this paper I argue against the claim, recently put forward by some philosophers of biology and evolutionary biologists, that there can be two or more ontologically distinct levels of selection. I show by comparing the fitness of individuals with that of collectives of individuals in the same environment and over the same period of time – as required to decide if one or more levels of selection is acting in a population – that the selection of collectives is a (...) 

In October 2009 I decided to stop doing philosophy. This meant, in particular, stopping work on the book that I was writing on the nature of probability. At that time, I had no intention of making my unﬁnished draft available to others. However, I recently noticed how many people are reading the lecture notes and articles on my web site. Since this draft book contains some important improvements on those materials, I decided to make it available to anyone who wants (...) 

The paper provides a new critical perspective on the propensity interpretation of fitness, by investigating its relationship to the propensity interpretation of probability. Two main conclusions are drawn. First, the claim that fitness is a propensity cannot be understood properly: fitness is not a propensity in the sense prescribed by the propensity interpretation of probability. Second, this interpretation of probability is inessential for explanations proposed by the PIF in evolutionary biology. Consequently, interpreting the probabilistic dimension of fitness in terms of (...) 

In what follows, I suggest that it makes good sense to think of the truth of the probabilistic generalizations made in the life sciences as metaphysically grounded in stochastic mechanisms in the world. To further understand these stochastic mechanisms, I take the general characterization of mechanism offered by MDC :1–25, 2000) and explore how it fits with several of the going philosophical accounts of chance: subjectivism, frequentism, Lewisian bestsystems, and propensity. I argue that neither subjectivism, frequentism, nor a bestsystemstyle interpretation (...) 

A proposal for an objective interpretation of probability is introduced and discussed: probabilities as deriving from ranges in suitably structured initialstate spaces. Roughly, the probability of an event on a chance trial is the proportion of initial states that lead to the event in question within the space of all possible initial states associated with this type of experiment, provided that the proportion is approximately the same in any not too small subregion of the space. This I would like to (...) 

Singlecase and longrun propensity theories are among the main objective interpretations of probability. There have been various objections to these theories, e.g. that it is difficult to explain why propensities should satisfy the probability axioms and, worse, that propensities are at odds with these axioms, that the explication of propensities is circular and accordingly not informative, and that singlecase propensities are metaphysical and accordingly nonscientific. We consider various propensity theories of probability and their prospects in light of these objections. We (...) 

This volume focuses on various questions concerning the interpretation of probability and probabilistic reasoning in biology and physics. It is inspired by the idea that philosophers of biology and philosophers of physics who work on the foundations of their disciplines encounter similar questions and problems concerning the role and application of probability, and that interaction between the two communities will be both interesting and fruitful. In this introduction we present the background to the main questions that the volume focuses on (...) 

I define a concept of causal probability and apply it to questions about the role of probability in evolutionary processes. Causal probability is defined in terms of manipulation of patterns in empirical outcomes by manipulating properties that realize objective probabilities. The concept of causal probability allows us see how probabilities characterized by different interpretations of probability can share a similar causal character, and does so in such way as to allow new inferences about relationships between probabilities realized in different chance (...) 

In order to comprehend the world around us and construct explaining theories for this purpose, we need a conception of physical probability, since we come across many (apparently) probabilistic phenomena in our world. But how should we understand objective probability claims? Since pure frequency approaches of probability are not appropriate, we have to use a single case propensity interpretation. Unfortunately, many philosophers believe that this understanding of probability is burdened with significant difficulties. My main aim is to show that we (...) 

Abstract Recent criticisms of intuition from experimental philosophy and elsewhere have helped undermine the authority of traditional conceptual analysis. As the product of more empirically informed philosophical methodology, this result is compelling and philosophically salutary. But the negative critiques rarely suggest a positive alternative. In particular, a normative account of concept determination—how concepts should be characterized—is strikingly absent from such work. Carnap's underappreciated theory of explication provides such a theory. Analyses of complex concepts in empirical sciences illustrates and supports this (...) 

Some have argued that chance and determinism are compatible in order to account for the objectivity of probabilities in theories that are compatible with determinism, like Classical Statistical Mechanics (CSM) and Evolutionary Theory (ET). Contrarily, some have argued that chance and determinism are incompatible, and so such probabilities are subjective. In this paper, I argue that both of these positions are unsatisfactory. I argue that the probabilities of theories like CSM and ET are not chances, but also that they are (...) 

I describe a realist, ontologically objective interpretation of probability, "farflung frequency (FFF) mechanistic probability". FFF mechanistic probability is defined in terms of facts about the causal structure of devices and certain sets of frequencies in the actual world. Though defined partly in terms of frequencies, FFF mechanistic probability avoids many drawbacks of wellknown frequency theories and helps causally explain stable frequencies, which will usually be close to the values of mechanistic probabilities. I also argue that it's a virtue rather than (...) 

How can formal methods be applied to philosophical problems that involve informal concepts of ordinary language? Carnap answered this question by describing a methodology that he called “explication." Strawson objected that explication changes the subject and does not address the original philosophical problem; this paper shows that Carnap’s response to that objection was inadequate and offers a better response. More recent criticisms of explication by Boniolo and Eagle are shown to rest on misunderstandings of the nature of explication. It is (...) 



It has been argued that biological fitness cannot be defined as expected number of offspring in all contexts. Some authors argue that fitness therefore merely satisfies a common schema or that no unified mathematical characterization of fitness is possible. I argue that comparative fitness must be relativized to an evolutionary effect; thus relativized, fitness can be given a unitary mathematical characterization in terms of probabilities of producing offspring and other effects. Such fitnesses will sometimes be defined in terms of probabilities (...) 

Objective interpretations of probability are usually discussed in two varieties: frequency and propensity accounts. But there is a third, neglected possibility, namely, probabilities as deriving from ranges in suitably structured initial state spaces. Roughly, the probability of an event is the proportion of initial states that lead to this event in the space of all possible initial states, provided that this proportion is approximately the same in any not too small interval of the initial state space. This idea can also (...) 



One finds intertwined with ideas at the core of evolutionary theory claims about frequencies in counterfactual and infinitely large populations of organisms, as well as in sets of populations of organisms. One also finds claims about frequencies in counterfactual and infinitely large populations—of events—at the core of an answer to a question concerning the foundations of evolutionary theory. The question is this: To what do the numerical probabilities found throughout evolutionary theory correspond? The answer in question says that evolutionary probabilities (...) 

This article explores the connection between objective chance and the randomness of a sequence of outcomes. Discussion is focussed around the claim that something happens by chance iff it is random. This claim is subject to many objections. Attempts to save it by providing alternative theories of chance and randomness, involving indeterminism, unpredictability, and reductionism about chance, are canvassed. The article is largely expository, with particular attention being paid to the details of algorithmic randomness, a topic relatively unfamiliar to philosophers. 