Humanistic Computer Simulations

Computer simulations are used in the study of literature, history, anthropology, and philosophy, among others.  I'll illustrate basic concepts of "agent-based" simulations using NetLogo and my own POPCO software, and suggest that simulations can incorporate insights from traditional humanistic research.

Agent-based simulations are computer programs in which many instances of simple software components ("agents") interact to produce an overall pattern of behavior.  For example, in many simulations, each agent is viewed as an abstract representation of a person.  The goal of such a simulation is to develop insights about changes in groups of real people when they repeatedly interact in ways very roughly like ways that the simulation's agents are allowed to interact.  I'll explain why such simulations can complement both traditional humanities research and common kinds of digital humanities research.  I believe that new kinds of simulations such those I've been developing may provide new ways of meshing traditional and digital humanities projects.

I'll describe the process of developing simulations using POPCO, which is intended to help illuminate the influence of analogy, metaphor, and other "symbolic" cultural interactions on how culture spreads through a population.  For example, past POPCO simulations have been based on research showing that Americans' attitudes about crime can be influenced by whether crime is described, metaphorically, as a "virus" or a "beast", and on anthropological research suggesting cultural links between sex roles, food gathering practices, and stories about human origins.

Though this session won't try to provide participants with all of the tools to develop their own simulations, I'll provide information on how to get started on simulation research for those interested.

Categories: Session Proposals, Session: Teach |
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About Marshall Abrams

I'm an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. My current research is interdisciplinary, but lies primarily within philosophy of science (especially philosophy of biology and philosophy of probability, and more recently, philosophy of social sciences). I focus on teasing out what's implied about natural processes by scientific practices, especially by ways that biologists and social scientists use models; on developing and applying new ideas about probability to biological and social sciences; and on exploring new roles for humanistic conceptions of culture in scientific research—for example, with new computer models inspired by cognitive science and evolutionary theory. I have also done research on philosophical questions concerning mental representation and biological functions, and have collaborated on purely scientific research looking for evidence of natural selection in the human genome.