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Philosopher by accident

Michael Baumgartner is the mind behind the method Coincidence Analysis. Fittingly, coincidence played a major role when he chose his career in philosophy.

Michael Baumgartner
A METHOD OF COINCIDENCE: Michael Baumgartner's Coincidence Analysis method shows the interactions and alternative aspects that can be causal as to why something occurs. Thanks to Bergen Research Foundation's programme "Toppforsk", he will be a professor at the University of Bergen.
Photo:
Jan von Holleben, UiB

“Coincidence Analysis is a method to measure the interplay of different causes and to identify their role in complex causal structures. There is seldom only one cause, but complex structures with multiple alternative paths are responsible for typical outcomes in the world we live in,” says Professor of philosophy Michael Baumgartner, whose main focus of research is on the philosophy of science and the philosophy of logic, and in particular on causation and logical formalization.

Minarets and causal methods

The idea leading up to the method of Coincidence Analysis (CNA) evolved while Baumgartner was working on his PhD. After finishing his PhD and working in Geneva, he has developed the method further, and is currently in the process of developing computer software based on his theories.

Baumgartner believes there are many uses for the method.

“For example, we have done studies on voting results,” says Baumgartner pointing to an example from Switzerland.

In a 2009 referendum, the Swiss voted to ban the construction of new minarets in the country. A constitutional amendment was approved by 57.5 per cent of the population. The result of the referendum surprised the political elite. There were four minarets in the country in 2009.

“The political elite thought it was a joke, but the majority voted for a ban. We applied the method to find the causes of the surprising outcome,” Baumgartner says.

By measuring several possible causes and categorising them, Baumgartner found that an interaction between weak left parties, the traditional economic sector and the share of Muslim population contributed to the acceptance of the minaret ban in Switzerland.

“Though people in the cities largely opposed the ban, supporters of non-left parties and people in the agrarian parts of Switzerland supported it. Most methods used to understand these kinds of political problems are designed to quantify the impact of single causes on scrutinized outcomes. Coincidence Analysis, on the other hand, does not focus on isolated cause-effect pairs, but shows the interactions and alternative aspects that can be causal,” Baumgartner explains.

He is of the opinion that Coincidence Analysis can be applied to many fields, social and political science, biology and medicine being some examples.

“Any field that does not focus solely on net effects, but is interested in the interplay of multiple different causal factors can apply the method,” the philosophy professor says.

Fascinated by logic

Baumgartner found his path into logic and philosophy by chance.

“I tried my hand at many different fields: musicology, literature, linguistics. It did not really suit me. It was when I attended a seminar on logic that I found something that fascinated me. The other fields had substantive subjective elements that were based on personal tastes, at least that is how it seemed to me. In logic, you start from explicit assumptions, and via regimented inferential steps you reach a conclusion. There was something objective to it that I found fascinating.”

Though enjoying studying philosophy, Baumgartner did not quite find his direction, until he met a professor in the Philosophy of Science.

“He became my professor by chance, since he was filling in for someone else. In a course on causality, he basically told me: “This is what you are going to do”, says Baumgartner.

Expanding his scope

Baumgartner looks forward to coming to Bergen.

“I know that the Department of Philosophy is quite large. Due to Examen Philosophicum there are a lot of teachers of philosophy at UiB. I applied for research positions in different locations, but Bergen caught my attention,” he says.

During his stay, he plans to expand the scope of his research, and of Coincidence Analysis in particular.

“I need a collaborator from one of the disciplines I want to expand to, for example from  biology or medicine,” he says, and is excited about the strong emphasis on interdisciplinary research and collaboration at UiB.

In addition to collaborations, the method needs to have software with new functionalities.

“I cannot develop this myself. One of the problems is to reduce model ambiguity: the more models fit the data, the less informative our conclusions can be,” he explains.

Out of the armchair

Baumgartner’s long-time goal is to make his method applied widely and by many fields, and convince potential end users that it will help them answer their questions.

“I do not want to be an armchair philosopher. I want to make a scientific contribution, across a wide range. If a scientific method is not applied, it is not interesting to me,” Michael Baumgartner concludes.