US Air Force asks philosopher to examine complex causes

24 Feb 2011 13:45:00.000

PA 66/11

What causes change in complex systems? The US Air Force has enlisted Stephen Mumford, Professor of Metaphysics at The University of Nottingham, to join engineers, economists, defence contractors, physicists, lawyers and cognitive scientists in its search for answers.

Professor Mumford, who is Head of Humanities at Nottingham, flew to a special invitation-only interdisciplinary workshop in Brisbane, Australia last week to begin this research project on complex causal systems, initiated and run by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR).

It may seem rare for the military to consult a philosopher on such abstract matters as the nature of causation, but AFOSR has for many years funded blue-skies thinking. Real applications of great benefit to science, understanding and technological development have emerged. In its time, the organisation has supported 55 Nobel Laureates, an average of ten years before they were awarded the prize.
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It would be of clear benefit if we understood complex systems and were better able to predict the effects of our interventions. These often produce unintended consequences when we change policy within a society or business organisation and philosophers, along with the participants from other backgrounds, will be working together to explain this.

“Dr Rani Lill Anjum and I have just finished writing a book for Oxford University Press, due to be published soon, called Getting Causes from Powers,” said Stephen Mumford. “Its subject is closely related to this new project, called Understanding and Influencing the Causality of Change in Complex Socio-Technical Systems.

“Unlike most other philosophical theories of causality, complexity and context-sensitivity are at the heart of our theory. It’s a basic starting point of many theories of causality that if one factor is a cause of another, then the first should always be followed by the second. Rani and I argue that this ignores the complex phenomena that occur when multiple causes combine.

“A factor that in one context can cause a certain effect might in another have the opposite effect,” he says. “In medicine, for instance, drugs that tend to produce a health benefit can do the opposite when combined in certain ways. We should not understand causal production in isolated chunks but as interrelated and holistic.

“Engineers, economists and physicists all come across these problems. They want to know what it is about a complex system that allows them to happen.”

Mumford is Professor of Metaphysics and Head of Humanities at The University of Nottingham. He is also Visiting Professor on Anjum’s new Causation in Science project at the Norwegian University of Life Science (UMB) at Ås in Akershus, near Oslo.

Dr Rani Lill Anjum is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UMB and Project Leader of CauSci. She recently completed a Norwegian Research Council (NFR) postdoctoral fellowship and spent almost three years at Nottingham working with Professor Mumford.

The conference is being organised by AOARD, (Asian Office of Aerospace Research and Development) the Tokyo office of AFOSR, and is supported by the US Office of Naval Research and NICTA (National Information and Communications Technology Australia). The results will be published in a book and journal, but the project should also initiate new collaborations as well.

— Ends — 

Notes to editors:

The University of Nottingham
, described by The Sunday Times University Guide 2011 as “the embodiment of the modern international university”, has award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK’s Top Ten and the world’s Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings. It was named ‘Europe’s greenest university’ in the UI GreenMetric World University Ranking, a league table of the world’s most environmentally-friendly higher education institutions, which ranked Nottingham second in the world overall.

The University is committed to providing a truly international education for its 40,000 students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around its campuses in the UK and Asia.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranked the University 7th in the UK by research power. The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health.

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The US Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) mission is to identify and establish productive relationships with top scientists across the world. More information can be found at

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More information is available from Professor Stephen Mumford at or on +44 (0)7955 147656.
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