Philosophy and Psychology of Decision-Making

This course presents a state-of-the-art discussion of research on judgment and decision-making. Decisions large and small are part of everyday life. What should I have for lunch? Should I go running? Should I pursue a relationship with this person? Will this job make me happy? Should I have this lump removed? Should I save more for a comfortable retirement? Usually, we don't make the best decisions, even when we have the best information. But the quality of our decision-strategies depends upon factors in economics, philosophy, and psychology.

Philosophy contributes its canon of literature on inductive and deductive reasoning, and its focus on prescriptive questions about the purpose of good reasoning. Psychology offers experimental evidence of human capability in the area of judgment, and delineates the processing mechanisms that produce good decisions. As the science of policy, Economics describes the structural conditions that promote good decision-making, and tracks the utilities, costs and benefits (both to individuals and societies) of those decisions.

The course examines the philosophical and psychological foundations of decision-making. It considers philosophical issues relating to inductive and deductive reasoning, issues such as rationality, truth, and the improvement of reasoning. In addition, we will look at existing psychological research on decision-making, and discuss the impact of psychological biases on personal decisions and public policies. It will treat such issues as: psychological models of deliberate vs. automatic processes, intergenerational aspects of decision-making, and the scientific findings on happiness and well-being. All of these goals contribute to the improvement of reasoning, and an understanding of the sources of our errors. Accordingly, the course will examine the merits of individual and social planning as a way of compensating for the psychological biases that otherwise spontaneously control us.

We will use two texts for this course:

Gilovich, T. 1991. How We Know What Isn't So. New York: Free Press.

Trout, J.D. 2010. Why Empathy Matters: The Science and Psychology of Better Judgment. New York: Penguin.

Interested students may want to look at the websites of the Association for Psychological Science and the Society for Judgment and Decision-Making, two excellent organizations whose work is well-represented in this course.

There will also be about 20 articles of various lengths posted on Blackboard.

Philosophy of Mind

This course examines contemporary philosophical and psychological work on the nature of the mind. We will discuss work by philosophers on the topics of internalism and externalism, the nature of mental content, and of consciousness. We will also look at foundational work in psychology and linguistics, and ask what those disciplines, too, can reveal about the mind. We will explore arguments for externalism from the integration of cross-modal information, arguments for nativism from the poverty of the stimulus (and recent empirical work in language processing that addresses the limitations of the traditional argument), and pragmatic features of language designed to manipulate and illuminate. Readings will be from, among others, Chomsky, Fodor, Grice, Burge, Chalmers, and Devitt. Psychological readings will draw on research on spoken language processing, with plenty of in-class demonstrations of jarring psycholinguistic phenomena.  This unique combination of readings aims to display the tight connection, and natural continuity, between philosophical treatments of issues of mind, and foundational arguments in psychology about the nature of mental processes.

I have taught this course at different levels. Undergraduates write 3 short papers, devise thought experiments and propose actual experiments designed to adjudicate theoretical disputes. Graduate students present material with feedback and write a term paper. 

Philosophy of Science: Explanation and Wonder

This graduate course will explore the nature of explanation, and will examine the role that the sense of understanding, and radical epistemic contingency, play in the best explanation for theoretical progress in science. We will discuss current work on explanation (by philosophers like Hempel, Strevens, and Woodward,  and psychologists like Keil, Lombrozo, Skolnick-Weisberg, Rottman, and Shtulman) and on dominant systematic approaches in the philosophy of science (realism, empiricism, social constructivism, etc.).  Readings will include philosophically influential issues in the psychology of explanation and the history of science. There will be a final term paper in the course.

TOPICS IN PHILOSOPHY OF SOCIAL SCIENCE: Philosophical Foundations of Narrative and Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences

In light of the growing philosophical interest in social science -- itself spawned by philosophical concerns regarding social theory and critique -- it will be necessary for informed philosophers to understand the methods of social research before subjecting the s of that research to epistemic evaluation. In this course, we will provide the philosophical tools for this analysis, and no technical background will be presupposed.

We will apply Verstehen approaches as well as statistical techniques, in the examination of such research fields as narrative history, psychoanalysis, and the relation between race and electoral participation in political science. Given the widespread success of, and adherence to, these inductive methods, we will examine the resulting influence on philosophical conceptions of rationality. Throughout, we will assess themes of realist and antirealist accounts of contemporary social and psychological science.

Epistemology: Rationality, Reasoning, and Judgment

A fundamental goal of psychology is to describe how humans reason. A fundamental goal of epistemology -- the theory of knowledge -- is to set out how humans ought to reason, and so to acquire knowledge. There is no responsible way of answering the second question without accurately answering the first. So, how do humans reason? Once we have a psychological description of how we reason, it is natural to ask a normative question: How well do we reason? If our reasoning is suboptimal, what can we do, if anything, to improve?

Various philosophers and psychologists have offered quite different answers to this question. By considering some of their views, we will explore some central issues about the evaluation of human reasoning: On what basis do we evaluate certain reasoning as good or bad, rational or irrational? On what basis do we evaluate certain beliefs as justified or unjustified? Along the way, we will explore decision aids, the nature of biases, accounts of knowledge in other cultures, and the prospects for philosophical naturalism regarding knowledge.

The Philosophy of Science

The separation of science and philosophy is a relatively recent phenomenon. Historically, the term "philosophy" or "natural philosophy" named the enterprise that attempted to understand the nature of the world and our knowledge of it. In this course, we will explore the relation between science and philosophy, using evidence from the subject matter and practice of science to address enduring philosophical issues concerning knowledge and reality. The lectures and discussions will engage questions such as the following: What is a theory? Is physics the only genuine science?

Does science have a special purchase on claims to rationality? Are technological advances good evidence of that rationality? In what does scientific expertise consist? Can a theory be useful without being true? In order to address these questions, we will have to explore traditional philosophical themes in metaphysics and epistemology, having to do with the role of observation in the production of knowledge, the nature of causation, the confirmation of laws, the social character of knowledge, and so on.