Phil 325: Risk, choice and rationality — course description (Winter 2018)

Phil 325:   Risk, choice and rationality   —   Winter term (2018)

Decision theory addresses an issue — namely, making decisions — that everybody faces multiple times a day.  Sometimes decisions are made by a collection of people such as a parliament or a congress.  In thinking about decisions, the (expected) results of the decisions have to be considered, and perhaps, evaluated and compared.  Modern decision theory, which uses some mathematical tools to analyze decision problems and to underpin choices, emerged in the 20th century.

Some of the basic concepts in decision theory are states, actions and outcomes.  A way to compare outcomes is to impose a preference order on potential outcomes.  Some actions may lead to a certain outcome in a very direct fashion (with negligible uncertainty about the connection between the action and its outcome), whereas other actions are more or less likely to yield a particular result.  In the latter case, we might be able to assign probabilities to various outcomes and to compute expected values and expected utilities for the various actions.

A concept that plays an important role in decision problems is information.  The availability or the absence of information pertains to epistemic aspects of a situation and can fundamentally alter which choice is optimal.  Another complication in some situations is that there are several agents, whose preferences have to be considered or whose actions have explicit or hidden dependencies.

The course will incorporate elements of utility theory, probability theory and game theory to sharpen the formulations and the solutions of a range of decision problems.  The course will not only enhance your knowledge about decision theory, but it will allow you to make better decisions — if you heed the recommendations of the theory.  (There is no official prerequisite for this course.  The mathematical concepts and tools used in this course are “not-all-that-complicated” and elementary.)

Time:   M, W, F  11:00 am – 11:50 am