Speaker Series Abstracts

Explaining Imagination: A Reductive Account

Peter Langland-Hassan

Apr 09, 2019

It is a truth universally acknowledged that imagination is a primitive mental state type, irreducible to other mental state types. This is, at least, “one of four basic claims about imagination that enjoy near universal agreement” (Kind, 2016). I will challenge this orthodox view, arguing that imagination can in fact be reduced to, and explained in terms of, one’s being other kinds of familiar folk psychological mental states. The full case for this account is developed in a book I am now completing. Today I simply aim to clear space for the approach by undermining the most commonly voiced—and seemingly most decisive—reasons for thinking that imagination is irreducible to other mental state types.

The Queer ‘Because’ for Expressivists

James Dreier

Feb 28, 2019

John Mackie famously wrote:
Another way of bringing out this queerness is to ask, about anything that is supposed to have some objective moral quality, how this is linked with its natural features. What is the connection between the natural fact that an action is a piece of deliberate cruelty—say, causing pain just for fun—and the moral fact that it is wrong? … The wrongness must somehow be ‘consequential’ or ‘supervenient’; it is wrong because it is a piece of deliberate cruelty. But just what in the world is signified by this ‘because’? 

Mackie's challenge is, of course, always taken to be a challenge for Nonnaturalist Moral Realism. For Expressivists, the question of what in the world is signified by the queer 'because' is misguided. But, it is surprisingly difficult to say, in Expressivist terms, what that queer 'because' does mean.

Rational Inference in Nonhuman Animals (Including Those without Cortex)

Cameron Buckner 

Feb 15, 2019

A surge of empirical research demonstrating flexible cognition in animals and young infants has raised interest in the possibility of rational decision-making in the absence of language. A venerable position, which I here call “Classical Inferentialism”, holds that nonlinguistic agents are incapable of rational inferences. In the first half of this talk, I argue against this position, defending a model of nonlinguistic inferences that shows how nonlinguistic agents could be practically rational. This model vindicates the Lockean idea that we can intuitively grasp rational connections between thoughts by developing the Davidsonian idea that practical inferences are at bottom categorization judgments. From this perspective, we can see how similarity-based categorization processes widely studied in human and animal psychology might count as practically rational. The solution involves a novel hybrid of internalism and externalism: intuitive inferences are psychologically rational (in the explanatory sense) given the intensional sensitivity of the similarity assessment to the internal structure of the agent’s reasons for acting, but epistemically rational (in the justificatory sense) given an ecological fit between the features matched by that assessment and the structure of the agent’s environment. A key insight is that many animals are sensitive to the strength of their intuitive hunches, and can exert executive control to inhibit responding to some options in favor of others that are more appropriate to their goals.

The second half of the talk explores the neural mechanisms that could implement these forms of sophisticated similarity-assessment and control, and how far they might be scaled up even without language. In mammals, it is argued that the neocortex possesses powerful mechanisms for learning even very highly abstract similarities common amongst members of a category, which grounds the ability of animals to display “insightful” causal or social inferences which appear independent of any specific stimulus associations.  The nature of this abstraction ability will be explained by reference to deep learning neural network models, whose architectures have been explicitly designed to model these forms of cortical processing.  A potential complication is that some of the most cognitively flexible animals are birds, which lack a neocortex entirely.  The talk will end with a discussion of the relevant differences between the neuroanatomy of mammals and birds, appealing to the latest findings in avian neuroscience to speculate how their brains might have arrived at a very spatial organization that achieves functionally similar processing under very different biophysical constraints--providing an interesting case study for traditional philosophical concerns about multiple realizability.

Are Concepts Always Before Language?

Jill de Villiers

Dec 7, 2018

I have been pursuing ideas about how language helps us think, a position compatible with Chomsky’s position that the major function of language in the species is a cognitive one. Although it is fairly obvious that language helps us scaffold long chains of reasoning – and writing does this even more – is there something more fundamental that language gives us? Is it just words, and therefore symbols, that do this, or does syntax have a role to play? I briefly review evidence from child development that the acquisition of language –any language- may change the way children think, considering work in domains of sortals, number, space, and causation. On the basis of my own empirical work with infants and children, and with adults in situations that interfere with their use of the language faculty, I suggest that syntax may provide us with fundamental new ways of encoding events, and therefore new kinds of concepts.

Motor Planning in Primates: Insights for Language Evolution?

Daniel Weiss

Nov 6, 2018

One of the primary differences between language production and nonhuman primate vocal production is that language conveys meaning through the hierarchical structuring of elements. A longstanding question concerns the evolutionary origin of the constraints on language sequencing, in particular because nonhuman primate vocal repertoires are largely fixed. In this talk, I present research from our lab and others that investigates sequential motor planning abilities in several primate species, including humans, in effort to explore whether this domain holds promise for understanding the origins of constraints on language production.

Statistical Learning of Multiple Inputs: The Role of Context and the Impact of Bilingualism

Daniel Weiss

Nov 5, 2018

Infant and adult learners possess a remarkable ability to track distributional regularities available in sensory input. Proficiency with statistical learning is important for the early stages of language acquisition and also correlates with second language learning outcomes in adults. However, much of the research in this field has implicitly assumed that the task of the learner is to acquire a single, uniform pattern. Given that real world learning affords far more variability, this simplifying assumption may obscure a significant problem confronting learners: determining how many underlying structures are generating the input. We have found that learners can track statistics in a contextually sensitive manner, and that their bias toward stationarity (i.e., expecting a single underlying structure) can be overcome. Nevertheless, there are both costs and benefits associated with being an efficient learner. In the second part of the talk, I will discuss the growing literature on bilingualism and statistical learning, arguing that experience with multiple languages may shape expectations, but does not alter core learning abilities.

Escape from Fraughtness: How Signaling Emerges as an Aspect of Coordination in a Cooperative Game among Humans

Whit Tabor

Oct 12, 2018

How do societal communication systems (like human languages) first get started? An interesting approach to this question, called experimental semiotics, involves running experiments in which groups of people are asked to engage in a cooperative task, and then seeing what kind of communication systems emerge. Most experiments in this domain set up a referential situation (e.g., try to get your partner to point to an object shown just to you from among a larger array that she can see) using a predefined communication channel (e.g., playing tunes on a pennywhistle). We note that this type of set-up presupposes that the idea of communication is already understood by community members and that they identify it as a goal. In the present work, we push on the question, “How might such social-cognitive conditions get established in the first place?” We describe an experiment with multiple participants engaging in a coordination task where, initially, participants are simply acting not talking. Because they can observe each other’s actions, they are immediately communicating in a very simple sense. Later, a particularly challenging situation (called fraughtness) arises. Under this condition, we find evidence that a slightly more complex type of action/communication emerges. This turns out to resemble a kind of communication that honeybees do when swarming. We argue that this is the kind of case we should focus on if the goal is to understand the origins of language.

The Evolution of Non-Natural Meaning

Josh Armstrong

May 4, 2018

 In this talk, I present an evolutionary challenge to a widely accepted cognitivist account of communication growing out of the work of H.P. Grice. This evolutionary challenge, as I shall develop it, turns on both comparative data on animal communication systems and on the kinds of selective pressures that would drive a population of agents to be capable of what Grice calls SPEAKER MEANING.  In the first half of the talk, I argue that this challenge is serious—affecting Grice’s original 1957 position, as well as subsequent refinements on Grice’s ideas such as the Relevance Theoretic framework of Deidre Wilson and Dan Sperber as well as the pragmatic framework of Robert Stalnaker. In the second half of the talk, I argue that the challenge is nonetheless surmountable. In particular, I develop a perspective on communication that centers on a primitive socio-cognitive relation that I call REPRESENTATIONAL COORDINATION. I argue that this socio-cognitive relation is well suited to understand the origins of communication in a psychologically distinctive sense, and I explore the ways in which the mechanisms supporting this relation have proliferated and changed over time.

Chrysippus’ Dog Reconsidered: On the Detection of Logical Reasoning in Nonhuman Animals

Jacob Beck

Mar 2, 2018

The ability to reason logically is often taken to be a sign of language-like or conceptual thought. One way to investigate whether animals are conceptual thinkers, or have a language of thought, is thus to investigate their ability to reason logically. The Greek Stoic philosopher Chrysipuss reported anecdotal evidence that dogs reason by way of the disjunctive syllogism. More recently, animal researchers have provided supporting evidence from controlled studies. But philosophers such as José Luis Bermúdez and Michael Rescorla have appealed to forms of “proto-logical” reasoning to ground alternative explanations of this evidence. These forms of proto-logical reasoning are so powerful that they generate a challenge: How, if at all, can genuine logical reasoning be detected and distinguished from its proto-logical rivals? My talk will offer some suggestions. 

Norms and Normality

Joshua Knobe

Jan 26, 2018

Researchers often distinguish between two kinds of norms. On one hand, there are purely statistical norms (which specify what most frequently happens). On the other, there are prescriptive norms (which specify what ought to happen). In this talk, I discuss a series of new studies we have conducted on people’s ordinary way of thinking about norms. These studies provide evidence that people actually integrate these two kinds of norms into a single undifferentiated notion of the “normal.” Subsequent studies have explored the implications of this idea for a number of different questions, including issues in semantics (e.g., intuitions about gradable adjectives) and issues in cognitive science (e.g., the way people ordinarily think about alternative possibilities).

Beyond Analogy: Understanding Pain in Animals

Paula Droege & Victoria Braithwaite

Mar 24, 2017

Pain is an enigma, we all know what it is, but nobody other than you can experience the pain you feel. Because animals cannot tell us their experiences, it is difficult to understand whether they experience pain and if they do, how they process it. To address this problem, we need to consider the mechanisms that underlie pain, and then investigate the capacity for these kinds of process to occur in different animals. Constructing lists of attributes that are normally associated with human pain – cognitive bias, plasticity of nociceptive response, long-term learning – is inadequate without a theory that shows how these attributes demonstrate the capacity for conscious pain. We believe the affective aspect of pain, the conscious feeling of aversion, is central to concerns about animal pain and welfare. While dissociable from the sensory aspect of pain, both are normally interconnected and adaptive. In our view, the felt emotion of pain aids the animal in flexibly responding to its environment and situations involving pain. Consciousness is necessary to determine a situation-appropriate response under novel conditions; to attend to and select relevant stimuli; and to tailor actions in pursuit of goals.

Animal Signals, Acquisition Conditions and the Explanation of Behavior

Ulrich Stegmann

Dec 12, 2016

Animal communication is usually understood in terms of signalling: Senders emit signals that convey some information to receivers. Since information transfer appears to play a central role in explaining animal behaviour, there has been some debate about the kind of information involved. In view of general philosophical theories of information and content, animal signals are thought to either convey a kind of natural information or a kind of representational content. Here I approach the topic from the point of view of the information contents that scientists actually attribute to animal signals. I will argue that actual content attributions often pick out the conditions under which receivers acquired their dispositions for signal- and situation-specific responses (‘acquisition conditions’). This yields a notion of receiver-dependent content that is explanatory and widely applicable.