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Grad Research Award 2020

August 04, 2020
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Congratulations to MA program students, Yan Chen and Kesavan Thangopal on winning the Grad Research Award this year. Their essays “Methodological Individualism and Agent-Based Modeling in Social Sciences” (Yan Chen) and "On the Nature of Hobbes’ Theory of Obligation" (Kesavan Thanagopol) gathered top marks and commendation from the judging panel.

Usually there is only one winner—it’s unusual to have a tie. According to grad chair, Holly Andersen, this year was especially competitive and the judges found it difficult to narrow down to a shortlist of 4 or 5. The award recognizes great graduate scholarship and original research. Each graduate student chooses a term paper to submit, polishing it by themselves and with feedback from peers.

“It is a very student-driven award, where they get to nominate their own best work—work that they feel proud of,’ explains Andersen. “It is a wonderful way to celebrate students who did especially well on a term paper.”

And this often turns out to be someone writing on an area outside their usual area of research. The essays are a great insight into what goes on in the SFU Philosophy MA program. Usually the professors only see papers for the courses they themselves are teaching, so it’s great way for faculty members to see how much amazing work is done by our MA students in other courses.

Yan and Kesavan agreed to share some thoughts on the process, how it fits in with their studies and also how it translates into the world around us.

Yan Chen

Methodological Individualism and Agent-Based Modeling in Social Sciences

Abstract How should we explain social phenomena? Methodological individualism claims that social scientific  explanations should privilege micro individualistic properties as explanantia, and provide bottom up explanations to social phenomena. Agent-Based Modeling (ABM) is believed to be one successful implementation of methodological individualism. In this paper, I cast doubts on methodological individualism by showing this picture of ABM to be ultimately inadequate because it does not answer a crucial explanatory question that I identify. To answer this explanatory question, I propose a new interpretation of ABM explanations as minimal model explanations. I believe this new picture does not commit to methodological individualism, and gives a novel answer to the methodological question about social scientific explanations.

What does winning the Grad Research Award this year mean to you?

I’m very honored to receive it. It’s an encouragement for me to continue improving my work.

Can you give a brief summary of your paper?

My paper discusses how social scientific models explain social phenomena. Many social scientists claim that their models explain macroscale social phenomena by finding out their causes, especially their “root causes” that lie at the individual scale. For example, agent-based modeling is a widely used tool to model the effects of individual interactions in complex systems, and it seems that they effectively show how individuals together “cause” the social phenomenon to occur. But I believe this would be an oversimplification of these models, and would lead to many methodological questions if taken seriously. I ultimately propose another way to understand these models and their theoretical commitments as providing a kind of non-causal explanation.

Can you explain where your paper fits in with everyday life? 

I think of this paper as being closely connected to our social scientific practices. For one thing, if we intend to use these models to provide actual explanations instead of merely “how-possible explanations”, we ought to be more aware of the claims that we are committed to when using them. For another, social scientific explanations often have the pragmatic aim of informing policy-making. This implies that if we are able to understand a model in a new way, it might provide us with new ideas about exerting control over social properties. For example, we often think that causal models are especially apt to do this - you can control the effect by manipulating its cause. But sometimes it’s hard to put this strategy into use for various theoretical and practical reasons. The new interpretation that I propose here would yield alternative and sometimes even more effective strategies for policy intervention (I attempted to illustrate this point in another paper).

How does your subject fit in with your grad program plans or onward research intentions?

This paper reflects my interests in the philosophy of science in general, especially the methodological and epistemological issues that come with scientific practices. They are partly about how to do better science, and partly about how to better understand scientific inquiries as a unique epistemic endeavor. I’m currently working on a paper that is related to the latter topic, and I’m excited about continuing to follow these lines of thought to see where they lead me.

Kesavan Thangopal

On The Nature of Hobbes' Theory of Obligation

Abstract: Just how Thomas Hobbes intended one to understand his theory of obligation has been a subject of contention among Hobbes scholars for some time. On the one hand, the explicit definition that Hobbes provides in his Leviathan seems to advocate for an individualist, contractual interpretation of the term, with obligations arising only because of some self-imposed, voluntary human activity of entering into a legitimate contract. On the other hand, by constantly referring to the laws of nature as being “immutable and eternal” (XV.38.79), Hobbes appears to be espousing a voluntarist position instead, with obligations seemingly arising from divine command itself. While some have cited the “deviant uses” of theword‘obligation’throughoutHobbes’expositionsasabasisforrejectingtheindividualist position in favour of the voluntarist view, this paper aims to come to the defence of the self-imposition thesis by outlining a dual sorts framework under which one could appropriately discern the notion of the term ‘obligation’. This paper contends that such a framework is not only consistent with, and complementary to, the definition of obligation as provided in the Leviathan, and correspondingly, consonant with the self-imposition thesis, but that it is, furthermore, compatible with the various “deviant uses” of the word throughout his treatises. While this paper does not necessarily attack the voluntarist position head-on, by investigating the potential implications of adopting such a dual sorts framework into our understanding of Hobbes’ theory of obligation, this paper attempts to offer a viable alternative account of obligation that remains in line with much of the actual written texts of Hobbes without having to completely abandon his explicit and unequivocal definition of the term ‘obligation’.

What does winning the Grad Research Award this year mean to you?

I'm still rather surprised that my paper received such positive response from the faculty, but I'm certainly grateful for that! As someone "transitioning" into reading philosophy full-time, given my academic background has been in mathematics and not philosophy, it's certainly an honor to have received this award. It also definitely provides me with some validation that I am doing something in the right direction, so I'll continue to work towards producing papers of similar quality going forward!

Can you give a brief summary of your paper?

In our daily life, we may claim that we have obligations to our parents or to our children; we may even claim that we have obligations to follow the law and so on, but have we really wondered where such obligations come from? Thomas Hobbes sure did, and he wrote about it in his 1651 treatise, Leviathan. Just how Hobbes intended one to understand his theory of obligation, however, has been a subject of contention among Hobbes scholars for some time. On the one hand, Hobbes provides an explicit definition of the term in Chapter XIV of his Leviathan, that suggests that obligations arise only because of some self-imposed, voluntary human activity of entering into a legitimate contract (we'll call this the self-imposition thesis). On the other hand, by constantly referring to the laws of nature as being "immutable and eternal" (XV.38.79), Hobbes appears to also be espousing the idea that obligations are always present (so, contrary to his definition, you do not actually have to voluntarily enter into any legitimate contract); obligations, under this interpretation, seemingly arise from divine command itself. Some Hobbes scholars have cited some "deviant uses" of the term 'obligation' in Hobbes' work to reject the self-imposition thesis in favour of the "divine command" view. In my paper, I attempt to come to the defence of the self-imposition thesis by outlining a dual sorts framework under which one could appropriately discern the notion of the term 'obligation'. I contend that such a framework is not only consistent with, and complementary to, the definition of obligation as provided in the Leviathan, and correspondingly, consonant with the self-imposition thesis, but that it is, furthermore, compatible with the various "deviant uses" of the word throughout Hobbes' treatises. I also attempt to justify that such a framework could have been what Hobbes had in his mind when he was writing his work some 350 years ago!

Can you explain where your paper fits in with everyday life? 

I think two questions really stand out when we think about obligations: 

(1) What are obligations? Are obligations commands or are they merely counsel? Do we have to do something that we are obliged to do, or are we just strongly recommended to do what we are obliged to do? and 

(2) How do obligations come about? 

As mentioned earlier, while we may be so casual in our colloquial use of the term, we hardly ever stop to think about these really crucial matters. These two questions are certainly related, and answering one of them might provide some insight into the answer of the other. But why should either of these questions matter? For one, I believe that these questions help us understand some of our own motivations for why we do the things that we do -- why do we feel the need to take care of our parents or our kids, why do we feel the need to abide by the law, or even abide by simple rules when we play games? And wouldn't getting to know a bit more about yourself be a good enough reason to pursue such questions?

How does your subject fit in with your grad program plans or onward research intentions?

I intend to pursue philosophy at a higher academic level going forward, and I feel that having a decent understanding of "classic" texts like the Leviathan would definitely come in handy -- I do find myself returning to the works of Hobbes or Hume from time to time, even when I am working on more "modern" areas like strategic voting and self-censorship, which just speaks to the "richness" of these classics. There is, indeed, a lot to be learnt from such classics and I hope to find further inspiration for any future work in them by reading and appreciating them from a "modern" perspective.