Research /


Manuscripts at the Revise & Resubmit stage

“We understand by attending”

We only understand, say, the position on a chessboard, if that position is intelligible, or makes sense to us. And, often enough, there is something it is like to grasp the patterns on the board. The question I tackle is how the epistemic and phenomenal aspects of understanding are related to each other. In order to address this question, we need preliminary accounts in the epistemology and phenomenology of understanding. However, lest conscious experiences met the epistemic norms of understanding merely by coincidence, we would seem to also need to answer the question of why epistemic and phenomenal aspects of understanding are related the way they are. In this text, I argue that we seem to lack the evidence needed to adequately support the claim that there is a metaphysically necessary relation between what it is like to experience understanding, on the one hand, and meeting the epistemic norms of understanding, on the other hand.

“Understanding, explanation and models”

What is understanding? Following recent developments in the literature, I advocate a model-based view of understanding. My contribution is not to further articulate the view, but to offer an argument in its favor. The argument I offer is that a model-based view of understanding captures the central insights advanced by its major theoretical competitors, offering a more flexible and encompassing conception of understanding.

“Insight, attention, and understanding”

A puzzle arises about understanding. The following are jointly inconsistent:
(1) We are responsible for our understanding.
(2) Understanding is identified in terms of episodes of coming to understand.
(3) Episodes of coming to understand are conscious in moments of insight.
(4) We are responsible for no moments of insight.
I’ll argue for rejecting (1), (4), or both. En route, I’ll explore the role attending plays in insight. The guiding thought is that if directing attention is a mental act, we can be responsible for the insight that involves it. I’ll conclude there may be distinct varieties of insight and understanding, one evincing our responsibility as thinkers in conceptual articulations of implicit knowledge, the other primarily manifesting the spontaneity of creative insight in discovery.

“The truth in understanding”

Can felicitous falsehoods ever constitute our understanding of something? Catherine Elgin (2004, 2017) argues that they often do, invoking the role that idealizations play in the theories and models we use to understand the world around us. In contrast, for Strevens (2013), we only understand what we “grasp a correct explanation” of. Explanation is factive and model-based, hence so is the understanding it provides. Strevens argues that idealizations can be eliminated from models by which we understand phenomena of interest because the role of idealizations is heuristic, identifying factors that causally make a difference to the phenomena theorized. Departing from both Elgin and Strevens, I distinguish between our conceptions – the stuff of thought – and the cultural artifacts we use as props for thinking: our models and theories. And I argue that we have no way of telling whether idealizations (be they in-principle eliminable or not) are in fact cognitively represented by scientists conceiving of the phenomena thus idealized. I conclude that we in-principle have no basis to settle the issue of whether understanding is factive or not, for understanding is ineliminably cognitive.

“Common sensibles and Molyneux's problem”

Molyneux asked Locke (1979; Essay II.IX.VIII) if a person hitherto blind, and able to recognize cubes and spheres by touch, would also be able to recognize them on first sight. It is customarily thought (Degenaar 1996) the problem was about either how sensations of sight and touch relate, or about how concepts of shape apply in experience. In §1, I propose an alternative: Molyneux’s problem is about nonconceptual perceptual representations. Perceptual representations originate in the sense modalities, and are usually (Martin 1992) thought to be modally-specific and coordinated by thinking. This is the Berkeleyan assumption that the senses are heterogeneous (§2), which I will challenge by proposing, in §3, a common-sensible approach to Molyneux’s problem. I argue (in §4) that Locke could have endorsed this approach. Common sensible ideas are conscious, crossmodal, perceptual representations. This approach is more theoretically parsimonious than Berkeley’s (§5), and should be preferred.

“A multilevel approach to the extended mind”

Does the mind extend beyond the organism into its environment? Clark and Chalmers (1998) argue that it does, illustrating it with the system formed by a memory-impaired patient Otto and his compensating notebook. In what follows, I will undermine the support they provide for the extended mind hypothesis. A functionalist analysis of standing (or dispositional) beliefs could specify functional roles more coarsely or more finely. I argue that a coarser specification (as per Clark 2010) is insufficient, and that a multilevel specification involving finer functional roles is needed if verdicts of extended mentation are to be justified. Suppose, however, that a multilevel specification of functional roles is achieved. Then the question of whether organism and environment form soft assemblies (Clark 2010) to support mentation will vary with which computational levels interface is made at, preventing all-or-nothing verdicts of whether the mind extends, in some respect, at all computational levels or not. The result is a principled skepticism with respect to verdicts of extended mentation.

“Why are practitioners not realists about animal models of depression and anxiety?”

Researchers and practitioners rarely take on a realist attitude about animal models in psychiatry. Why does this happen? I will argue that even the best among current models fail to satisfy two requirements that demand care in balancing them one against the other: the psychological construct requirement, and the mechanistic requirement. Failure to satisfy them explains why researchers do not believe in them. I conclude by arguing that, if one were to be a realist about animal models in psychiatry, interventionist and representational aspects of that attitude would be inextricably mixed.


“The structure and dynamics argument against materialism revisited”

Alter (2016) elaborates and defends an ambitious argument advanced by Chalmers (2002) against physicalism. As Alter notes, the argument is valid. But I will argue that not all its premises are true. In particular, it is false that all physical truths are purely structural. In denying this, I focus not on the objects of pure physical theory but on the homely, macroscopic objects of our daily lives.

“No unconscious appearances”

In elaborating and defending phenomenal conservatism, Michael Huemer has articulated a notion of appearance on which there is nothing it is like to undergo some appearances. For Huemer, some conscious experiences are qualia-free. He discusses three kinds of cases: proprioceptive phenomenology, what blindsight patients may experience, and the phenomenology of intellectual intuitions. Contra Huemer, I argue that either, in the cases he invokes, experiences exhibit qualia, or the episodes in question are not experiential at all. My defense is in support of the traditional notion of appearance on which all appearances are conscious states. This more traditional notion, I argue, is also much closer to common sense than Huemer’s alternative, and better serves the purposes of phenomenal conservatism itself.

“And why not first philosophy too?”

I question the second-philosophical project Penelope Maddy substantiates in her recent book, Defending the Axioms. I focus on one counterexample to her chosen methodology: the Axiom of Choice and its implications concerning the nature of sets. Following suggestions made by Thoralf Skolem, I argue that first-philosophical questions concerning what sets are and whether they exist do occur often in the mathematical practice of the founding figures of set theory, and should continue to do so for today’s practitioners. In particular, I suggest that Maddy cannot properly distinguish the thin realism she argues for from arealism unless her account of objective mathematical depth includes metaphysical considerations typical of first philosophy.

“Miller’s paradox regained”

In what follows I discuss a paradox, sometimes construed as being about information, sometimes about probabilities, and sometimes about second-order probabilities. What is striking is that this paradox seems to have been somewhat abandoned, or neglected, despite not having any finally convincing solutions. And its morals for probabilities seems to be ignored without any good rationale for setting it aside. The paradox was initially proposed by David Miller in 1966. Its convoluted history is inessential as long as the paradox remains ultimately unsolved. This is why, in the rest of the manuscript, I focus on a recent and sophisticated solution to the paradox – really two solutions packaged as one – proposed by Bryan Skyrms. I will argue, however, that Skyrms’ solutions, while they may amount to the best tries so far, fail to ultimately solve Miller’s paradox. We have an important puzzle on our hands, unsolved to date.

“A virtue epistemology for rules of deduction”

Lynch (2012) argues that traditional epistemologies fail to provide good accounts of what justifies rules of deduction. Instead, he opts for a “practical” approach on which our social practices of reasoning play a constitutive role in to justifying the rules of deduction we use in making an argument. By analogy with Rawls (1971), Lynch argues that rules of deduction are justified in much the same way that a basic institutional arrangement of rights and duties is set up: by a contract between epistemic agents in an original position, under a veil of ignorance with respect to which rules should be chosen. While I share Lynch’s import of ethics into epistemology, I criticize his contractarian approach to justification. Instead, I argue in favor of a virtue epistemology for rules of deduction. It is the thinker’s own intellectual virtues and skills that matter in ascertaining whether their particular use of a rule of deduction is – or isn’t – justified. This isn’t to say that logical rules are sometimes justified and sometimes not. Rather, it is to do justice to the fact that some propositions are worth inquiring into and arguing for, and some aren’t, in specific contexts and for specific agents.