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From Filmmaking to the Philosophy of Science

An interview with philosopher, modeler, and feminist Cailin O'Connor.

This is the third in a series of interviews on “Science and Philosophy" featuring influential scientists and philosophers of science. Click here for Part 1 on the rise of fake news.

Cailin O'Connor
Source: Twitter

Cailin O'Connor is a philosopher of biology and behavioral sciences, philosopher of science, and evolutionary game theorist. She is Associate Professor in the Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science, and a member of the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Science at the Univerity of California, Irvine.

Walter Veit: What was your path towards philosophy?

Cailin O'Connor: I took an extremely odd route. As an undergraduate, I started as a biology major. But after too many off-putting interactions with pre-meds and the annoyed biologists teaching them, I switched my major to filmmaking. For several years I worked on documentary films, as a digital media director, and doing various odd jobs. (Once I was Cyndi Lauper's stand-in for a music video.) At some point I decided to go back to graduate school, planning to study the biology behind aesthetic preference. My now-husband was studying philosophy of science, which sounded like a decent way to marry my interests in the sciences and humanities. I hadn't ever studied philosophy, so I started hanging around his department sitting in on seminars until I could put together a grad school application.

Walter Veit: What is the role of philosophy in science?

Cailin O'Connor: I don't think there should be a strict divide between philosophy and science. Many scientists are interested in questions related to methodology, the way their work fits into a bigger picture, and the impacts of science on society. At the same time, many philosophers use the best methods of science—modeling and experimentation—to answer traditional philosophical questions. On this picture, there are all sorts of ways that philosophy can benefit the sciences, and science can benefit philosophy.

Walter Veit: You are a philosopher who uses models to explore philosophical questions. Have you ever received criticism from within the philosophical community towards this particular style of doing philosophy?

Cailin O'Connor: There are, of course, philosophers out there who think that modeling work, or empirical work, can't be proper philosophy. I've also had pushback about using models and mathematics to address feminist philosophy. To me, it makes sense to use all the best epistemic tools available when doing research. Many of these tools were developed in the sciences. There is no good reason to do philosophy with one hand tied behind your back.

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