Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Randomness: Computational and Philosophical Approaches

CS 57N

Is it ever reasonable to make a decision randomly? For example, would you ever let an important choice depend on the flip of a coin? Can randomness help us answer difficult questions more accurately or more efficiently? What is randomness anyway? Can an object be random? Are there genuinely random processes in the world, and if so, how can we tell? In this seminar, we will explore these questions through the lenses of philosophy and computation. By the end of the quarter students should have an appreciation of the many roles that randomness plays in both humanities and sciences, as well as a grasp of some of the key analytical tools used to study the concept. The course will be self-contained, and no prior experience with randomness or probability is necessary.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Thomas Icard

"Hello! My name is Thomas Icard, and I work in the philosophy department. Most of my research is on the application of formal and computational ideas to philosophical problems, and I also work on formal methods themselves (especially logic and probability). Recently I’ve been drawn to topics such as decision making, causal reasoning, and natural language inference. Perhaps surprisingly, randomness and randomization come up in each of these domains, although their role is sometimes controversial. For example, a longstanding controversy is the role of randomization in drawing valid causal inferences (statements about whether, and to what degree, something causes something else). Some have argued that randomization is at best a useful "heuristic" while others insist it is essential. And this debate is only the tip of the iceberg. A general interest of mine is whether (and presuming so, how) foundational philosophical questions can be informed by ideas and results in the theory of computation. Computational work on randomness offers numerous suggestions and possibilities. I’m very excited to co-teach this seminar with Professor Wootters!"

Mary Wootters

"Hi!  My name is Mary Wootters, and I'm an assistant professor in computer science and electrical engineering. In my research I study both randomized algorithms and pseudorandomness. That is, I study questions such as: how can we take advantage of randomness to design more efficient algorithms? And how can we efficiently simulate something random, even if we don't have access to very much "real" randomness? As these questions suggest, I tend to view randomness through a computational lens: how can we use and manipulate randomness efficiently? But once I started talking with Professor Icard (a philosopher) about randomness, I realized that looking at randomness through a philosophical lens offers a different and complementary approach! I'm really excited to co-teach this seminar, so that together as a class we can look through these two lenses at the same time and explore how they interact."