I write and lecture on the foundations of the exact sciences, as much in their methodological and conceptual aspects as in their more mathematical ones. I also serve as an advisor to the Canadian government on data strategy. Here I give only an overview of my work in the former area. I might once have regarded such a website as shameless self-indulgence, but it is now useful to have a “front page” since I work beyond the university walls.
While my interests span the foundations of the exact sciences, much of my research has focused on the foundations of the theories of Newton and Einstein: it examines their articulation of a number of basic concepts; it examines the accounts of space, time, motion, and causality that they motivate; it examines their significance for the theory of theories. All of these interests, though motivated by concerns peculiar to the exact sciences, form part of a broader interest in the analysis and revision of our most basic concepts and the place of philosophy in this task.
This work is driven by a few basic questions: how do we know what we know about space, time, motion, and causality? How is this knowledge possible? What is its source? In my approach to these questions, I contend that to understand space, time, motion, and causality, the methodological analysis of physical theories is a surer guide than metaphysical principles according to which these theories have been, and continue to be, judged. In this regard, my work urges a stricter empiricism. (As for my particular stake in the debates, I argue that, despite appearances and a large literature to the contrary, Newton and Einstein proposed the very same kind of theory.)
My current research program spans two subfields in the foundations of the exact sciences – the foundations of physics and the foundations of mathematics – and shows how they can inform one another. The project at the heart of this program examines a family of problems, all of which concern the notion of a criterion of identity. The notion at issue is the one that we find in Frege’s analysis of the natural numbers. I am interested in the methodological character of the criterion of identity. This study aims to rehabilitate the original notion found in Frege’s work and to show that it has far greater significance than the recent versions that have all but replaced it. I show that it has something to offer both the foundations of space-time theories and the theory of theories.
The kind of foundational work I am interested in does not stand apart – as a recent, jargon-dense, and largely unphilosophical specialism – but is continuous with philosophical enquiry in the most ancient sense. And my research and teaching combine not only philosophical perspectives but also socio-historical, mathematical, and indeed theological ones as needed. I bring all these to bear on the analysis of the sciences and to our understanding of the place of such analysis in intellectual history.
Currently I wear several hats and divide my time between several places. I am an associate member of the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, where previously I lectured in the programs in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (“PPE”) and Physics and Philosophy (“PhysPhil”). I also provide advice to the Canadian government on data strategy, which amounts to a swirl of economics, econometrics, methodology, research design, and strategy consulting. And this is not such an odd proposition for someone with an interest in the relation between theory and evidence.