COGITO Glasgow Has Teamed Up with NASA to Answer the Question of What Makes a Rocket Saf

Project: The Philosophy of Safety Engineering
PIs: Neil McDonnell (COGITO) and C. Michael Holloway (NASA)
CIs: Adam Carter, Chris Kelp, Stephan Leuenberger, Mona Simion (COGITO)



In 2017 COGITO's Neil McDonnell visited the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a visiting researcher on the Software Assurance and Formal Methods programme. The purpose of the visit was to explore the potential overlaps between work conducted in epistemology and metaphysics (especially causation) in philosophy, and the issues that arise in Safety Engineering - the domain of those who investigate accidents (looking back) and, through development of regulation and testing procedures, try and minimise the risk of them in the future (looking forward). Neil was generously hosted by C. Michael Holloway.
The visit demonstrated that there is clear overlap, and thus significant potential for collaborative work in this area. It is our ambition to establish a sustainable and fruitful connection between philosophers and safety engineers. See below for more information regarding each strand of activity.

The Safety Engineering Reading Group (SERG)

The Safety Engineering Reading Group meets to review papers from the Safety Engineering literature that appear to have an important philosophical component. Common topics include the nature of evidence and justification, and what makes for a good 'safety case'.
After each session we jointly author a report that goes to our collaborators at NASA.

Research Themes

  • The causal and explanatory frameworks being deployed in accident investigations.
  • The model of what a 'safety argument' should be.
  • The nature of justification and evidence used in 'safety cases'.

Doctoral Projects

The University of Glasgow has teamed up with NASA to offer a joint PhD to answer the question of what makes a rocket safe, it was announced today (27 November 2018)
The Philosophy of Safety Engineering PhD will provide funding for a student to look at a variety of philosophical questions on the issue of the safety of aeronautics, including space travel, and how do we establish that a complex system is safe.

The project is co-supervised by University of Glasgow philosophers Dr Neil McDonnell and Dr Adam Carter, along with NASA researcher C. Michael Holloway.

Dr McDonnell said: “Philosophers study the way that we think about causation and evidence, and how we communicate to each other about it. This project will bring that understanding to the high-stakes domain of safety engineering. This is a fantastic opportunity for philosophers and engineers to find common ground, and to advance a worthy cause.”

Safety engineering and philosophy may sound like an odd mixture, but the project reflects the notion that any subject studied to sufficient depth will enter the realm of philosophical questions.
Classic successes of safety engineering include airbags and seatbelts in cars along with airborne collision avoidance systems (ACAS) in aircraft. It is easy to see that these developments improved the safety of the systems in questions as they mitigate known risks but do they establish that the cars or aircraft are now safe enough?

This is what the PhD student research will explore in this project, by looking at accident investigations and ‘safety cases’ – the evidence provided to show that a new system/component is safe.
The work will involve analysing the case history of accident investigations, and a range of such ‘safety cases’, with the aim of identifying, and defending ways to improve upon, the philosophical assumptions about causation and evidence that are being deployed at present.
The end goal is to make complex systems, in any sphere, safer.

COGITO and Therme Group Work Together​ to Further Well-Being Through Architecture

Project: Dimensions of Well-Being: Cognitive, Moral, EmotionalPicture
​PI: Mona Simion (COGITO)
CIs: Adam Carter, Christoph Kelp (COGITO)
Impact Partner: Ar. Patricia Popescu (Head of Architecture, Therme Group)

Therme Group is a multinational wellness company, whose principal projects include large-scale, high-tech and environmentally informed holiday parks. Everything from the architecture to the carefully controlled ambient temperature and lighting is informed by Therme’s overarching philosophical mission—viz., to utilise modern technology in a way that enhances and promotes experiences of overall physical and mental wellbeing.
In 2018, COGITO launched a large-scale collaboration with Therme Group on two research strands:

STAGE 1. Well-Being Through Architecture: Intellectual, Moral, Emotional
COGITO research results show that the etiological function of the practice of architecture is to design spaces that reliably generate well-being.According to a popular view in the philosophy of well-being that has been around since Aristotle, the latter is a multi-dimensional: human flourishing requires that one realises one's potential along several dimensions: cognitive, emotional, physical, moral, social.
If all this is the case, though, function fulfilment in the case of architectural products will be a much more complicated affair than one might have thought: it requires success along all said dimensions.  
Together with our partners at Therme Group, we are venturing to implement these results in the design of Therme facilities around the world.
STAGE 2. Nature, Technological Enhancements and Well-being
One of the most timely interdisciplinary research areas in contemporary philosophy—one that spans ethics, epistemology, the philosophy of mind and perception, medicine, and technology—is that of human ehancement. Unlike traditional therapeutic medical improvements, which aim to restore individuals to normal healthy levels of functioning (e.g., following injury or disease), human enhancement takes advantage of the latest science and medicine to bring individuals beyond normal healthy levels of functioning in order to gain various kinds of advantages, including intellectual, moral, and emotional advantages.
There are broadly three key strands of human enhancement that have been of special interest to philosophers in so far as each aims, in a distinctive way, to improve the quality of our lives by improving (different aspects of) our minds: these are (i) moral enhancement (ii) cognitive enhancement and (iii) emotional enhancement.
Unfortunately, moral enhancement, cognitive enhancement and emotional enhancement have been woefully underexplored in connection with each other, and this is due to the fact that these topics are so often pursued in relative isolation, by bioethicists interested in ethics, epistemology and the philosophy of emotion, respectively, but not jointly. And consequently, there is as of yet no substantial work that investigates how these three varieties of enhancement contribute jointly, as opposed to merely separately, to overall human well-being and flourishing.  
The second stage in the collaboration between COGITO and Therme Group will aim to (1) supply this lack by furthering research into this question, and (2) investigate how the results of this research can be implemented in the Therme facilities.
Dimensions of Well-Being Conference Series

COGITO and Therme Group co-organise a series of high-profile interdisciplinary conferences on wellbeing, featuring contributions by world-leading researchers. The first such interdisciplinary event will take place on April 8th 2019 at Glasgow. More details under Public Engagement & Knowledge Exchange.

Public Engagement & ​Knowledge Exchange

PUBLIC EVENT: Dimensions of Well-Being: Intellectual, Moral and Emotional

Photo by Artem Bali on Unsplash8 April, 2019, Humanities Lecture Theatre, UoG

COGITO Glasgow in collaboration with Therme Group

  • Dr. Luca Barlassina (Philosophy&Cognitive Science, University of Sheffield)
  • Dr. Jane Clossik (Urban Design, London Metropolitan University) & Dr. Ben Colburn (Philosophy, University of Glasgow)
  • COGITO Team (Philosophy, University of Glasgow) & Ar. Patricia Popescu (Architecture, Therme Group)
  • Dr. Emma Gordon (Philosophy, University of Edinburgh)
  • Prof. Antti Kaupinnen (Philosophy, University of Helsinki)
  • Dr. Esther Papies (Psychology, University of Glasgow)
  • Prof. Glen Pettigrove (Philosophy, University of Glasgow)
  • Dr. Johanna Schnurr (Philosophy, University of Oxford)

PUBLIC EVENT: The Philosophy of Forgiveness

photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

December 11, 2019

K3.25, John Anderson Building, University of Strathclyde

COGITO Glasgow & The Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow

Royal Society of Edinburgh Grant, PI: Jessica Brown (St Andrews)

Confirmed Speakers

  • Miranda Fricker (CUNY), Glen Pettigrove (Glasgow)