Part 1 : Determinism

Jarom Hulet
Towards Data Science
Philosophy and Data Science —Thinking deeply about data | by Jarom Hulet | Nov, 2023 - image  on
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Data science is a very technical, in-the-weeds type of work. We are often laser focused on very specific problems — which is good. We add most of our value by combining our focused attention and our skills to solve problems. But, I think it is a good practice to occasionally step back and try to take in the bigger picture.

Studying philosophy is a tool that I have found to be quite effective in helping me think deeply about data science. As a casual student of philosophy, I’ve observed that some fields of philosophical thinking are nicely intertwined with data science. Specifically, I’ve found that metaphysics, causality and epistemology have a lot of theories that are very applicable.

This is the first installment of a multi-part series that discuss various philosophical viewpoints and their implications on data and data science. I’m going to start with the fascinating metaphysical theory of determinism.

Determinism is a philosophical theory about the nature of our universe. There are multiple different nuanced versions of determinism¹, but the overarching idea is that there is no randomness in our universe. Every event has a set of causes which entirely explain the event, and these causes themselves have a set of causes. The chain of causes is unbroken from the beginning of universe (or maybe there is no beginning of universe²?).

Below is a quote from Laplace that encapsulates a deterministic viewpoint on the physical world:

“We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”

Pierre-Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1814)

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