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Zero Chance is Not the Same as Impossible

PhD defence Sylvia Wenmackers and Lecture Tim Williamson on Probability
29 april 2011

On May 2, Sylvia Wenmackers will defend her PhD thesis, entitled Philosophy of Probability. (see also "Toeval bepaalt ons leven" and "De kans was nul maar het gebeurde toch" (in Dutch), on Sylvia Wenmackers' thesis)

Professor Timothy Williamson, from the University of Oxford, one of today's most influential philosophers and a member of Wenmackers’ reading committee, will give a lecture on May 3 under the title Very Improbable Knowledge. Both events take place within the ‘Formal Epistemology Project’. The leader of this project is the holder of the Endowed Chair, Professor Igor Douven, who is also Wenmackers’ thesis supervisor.

Sylvia Wenmackers already holds a PhD in physics, awarded to her in 2008 by the University of Hasselt (Belgium). After that she developed an interest in the philosophy of science, and she wrote her second thesis in record time, this time in philosophy.

Wenmackers is especially interested in the foundations of probability. She states:

“Standard calculations in probability have a strange feature. Some events are assigned probability zero, even though they can occur.For example, imagine a fair lottery with an infinite number of tickets. The chance that a particular ticket will win is zero. But nevertheless one ticket will win. So zero chance is clearly not the same as ‘impossible’. I found it strange that nobody had thought of an alternative.”

The alternative that Wenmackers proposes in her thesis makes use of so-called nonstandard analysis. It amounts to assigning to each ticket an infinitely small chance of winning. This approach turns out to have many interesting consequences for the theory of knowledge.

For people who deem it futile to worry about lotteries with an infinite number of tickets, Wenmackers has another example. At the time of your birth, what was the chance that your life would develop just as it did? That chance would be zero, but it happened, so it was clearly not impossible.

Wenmackers will stay in Groningen for another two years, in which she will be a postdoc researcher in Professor Douven’s ‘Formal Epistemology Project’.

Laatst gewijzigd:23 maart 2018 16:16

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