My primary research interests are in philosophy of science and epistemology. My goal is to contribute to a deeper understanding of some of the most fundamental features of science, but I am also convinced that philosophy of science should be socially engaged. Consequently my research programme has both a theoretical and a more applied dimension.
Weighing Evidence Reliably
My main research project investigates how we should take appropriate account of the reliability of our sources of information. This work is funded by a Veni grant from the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO). We learn from what others tell us all the time, yet others are not always reliable. The aim of the project is to determine how we should factor considerations about the reliability of our sources of information into our overall procedures for weighing evidence.
The project analyses this basic epistemological problem in the context of two specific practical case studies, as well as in the theoretical context of discussions of scientific realism. The first case study concerns taking account of the reliability of eyewitnesses in courtrooms, and the second concerns taking account of the reliability of scientific experts on climate change. The work in this project will inform efforts to evaluate and improve current procedures for evidence assessment in scientific and legal domains. Interfacing with practitioners in these areas will be facilitated by involvement in the Kenniscentrum Filosofie Groningen, which has worked with the legal profession in the Groningen area, the Society for Risk Analysis and Glocomnet, a network with a focus on dealing with uncertainty in decision-making in a complex world.
In the context of scientific realism, the role of reliability is central to the issue of whether the debate should be conducted at a local or a global level (Henderson, forthcoming 2018).
Frameworks in science
Scientific theories can be regarded as organised into hierarchies, with higher levels sometimes called ‘paradigms’ or ‘frameworks’, and lower levels encoding more specific or concrete hypotheses. Together with cognitive scientists Josh Tenenbaum and Noah Goodman, and the philosopher of science Jim Woodward, I showed how this hierarchical picture of theories can be integrated with a Bayesian approach to confirmation. In Henderson et al. 2010, we argued that the evaluation of frameworks can be evidence-driven, despite claims to the contrary by authors such as Thomas Kuhn.
Building on this work, I have argued for a new way of understanding the evidential basis for Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) based on hierarchical Bayesian models (Henderson 2013, Henderson 2017). The main message is that IBE is firmly based on rational procedures for evaluating evidence. This new picture of the relationship between IBE and evidential support has important implications for arguments for scientific realism. This is the subject of my ongoing research in this area.
Philosophy of physics
Prior to pursuing a career in philosophy, I did a PhD and a post-doc in quantum information theory (see my publications in this area here). Quantum information theory is a new cross-disciplinary field which brings together theoretical and experimental quantum physics with computer science, logic and information theory. I have ongoing research interests in what we can learn from quantum information theory about traditional foundational problems in quantum mechanics. In particular, I have looked at what implications the ongoing efforts to reformulate the foundations of quantum mechanics in terms of information-theoretic principles have for interpretation of the theory (Henderson, submitted). This forms part of a general interest in the conceptual implications of reformulation or reaxiomatisation of existing physical theories (Henderson 2014 discusses the case of thermodynamics).
The problem of induction
I have just written a new version of the Stanford encyclopedia article on Hume’s Problem of Induction.
I recently co-supervised the now completed PhD dissertation of Max Bialek, ‘Relative and objective, on balance: detailing the Best Systems account of laws’ (jointly with Jan-Willem Romeijn and Aidan Lyon).