Professor fuses philosophy, technology for answers

It’s a matter of looking at old questions by way of new technologies. That’s how David Bourget describes the Centre for Digital Philosophy, a new initiative he started within Western’s Department of Philosophy.

Bourget, who joined the department in July, saw an opportunity while completing his PhD to combine his philosophical interests with technology. Since, his brainchild has been helping hundreds of thousands of philosophers.

“I have two distinct interests, one being philosophy of mind – what I was trained in. I’m interested in consciousness and how it arises in the brain. There are some big mysteries there. But I am also interested in what I call digital philosophy, which is really about helping us answer philosophical questions, or better understand them through technology,” he said.

With a mission of advancing philosophical research through technology, the Centre for Digital Philosophy,, with Bourget at the helm, maintains and develops online tools and services that are widely used by philosophers, including PhilPapers.

“PhilPapers, the main site I’ve been working on for 10 years, is a search index for papers in philosophy. It’s also a big bibliography in the field with thousands of topics. There are thousands of volunteers who contribute to classifying papers,” Bourget explained.

“I created (the centre) as a place where we can try to help people solve philosophical problems through technology. I think we need to organize the information we have better, to avoid repeating mistakes of the past. We need to improve how we discuss and exchange research findings in philosophy. If we make progress there, we will get better at solving philosophical questions – traditional questions like, ‘How does the mind relate to the body?’ ‘What is justice?’ ‘What is free will?’”

Philosophical questions are interconnected, Bourget continued, and difficult for one person, or in some cases, one subset in the field, to tackle alone. Because the questions are interconnected, writing and cataloguing traditional papers in a traditional sense isn’t enough. PhilPapers brings everything together, creating a collaborative environment that looks at philosophical questions from all angles in the field.

“There are different initiatives we’re working on. PhilSurvey is going to be a big survey of philosophers’ views on philosophical questions. It will ask people for their views on relations between these questions and can help us understand, like one theory is incompatible with another theory, or in this domain. Once we have this information, we’re going to have a big map of all the key issues in philosophy and how they’re related,” Bourget explained.

“We will see all the points – the hot spots – where debate needs to happen, where we need to clarify things. I think this will be very useful in facilitating dialogue and helping us move forward and keep in mind a big picture, to avoid making mistakes of the past and keep going in circles.”

The answer to one philosophical question can have an impact across the field, which makes these kinds of online tools necessary for philosophy, he continued.

“Philosophy is peculiar. The field is, by and large, structured around questions we’ve never answered. And they’re the same questions. Some people have changed the questions, but by and large, we have these things we can’t agree on.”

Because there’s no consensus, it’s important to know what other philosophers think, what they’ve already said and ruled out, before tackling a question again. This is why something like PhilPapers is useful for philosophy.

“The (tools) are somewhat discipline specific. Philosophy is more interconnected – you’re interested in philosophy of mind but very quickly you find you have to know metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of language. That’s part of why this is so useful. We need to be able to keep track of the bigger picture as we work on some corner of it,” Bourget said.

Originally from Quebec City, Bourget came to Western by way of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London, where he directed the Centre for Computing in Philosophy.

With startup funding from the Faculty of Arts & Humanities and the Rotman Institute of Philosophy, Bourget hopes to see the centre and its funding base grow.

“It would be good for people to realize there are many things we do that could be carried over to other fields. Many people want a site like PhilPapers for their discipline and there’s interest for that.”

David Chalmers, Bourget’s thesis supervisor from the Australian National University, is the associate director for the centre; staff includes Western students and postdoctoral fellows, as well as professional programmers.