Mariam Thalos, philosopher
m |dot| thalos |at| gmail |dot| com
Postal Address: 801 McClung Tower, Volunteer Blvd, Knoxville TN 37996-0480
A podcast interview with Elucidations host Matt Teichman
Think essay--in search of a little joy in a dark time: A philosopher works from home
Welcome to my personal web page!
I am a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. After earning my Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1993, I taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and then at the University of Utah, before joining the faculty of the University of Tennessee Department of Philosophy in 2018.
I am primarily a Philosopher of Science, focusing on physical, decisional and human sciences, including formal decision and game theories, and now moving into adopting network models of human interaction. But I am also active on philosophical topics around practical reasoning, including action theory, phenomenology and theories of freedom. There is no one single key or unifying element to my work, but there is in it a general concern for resisting a tendency (in philosophy and elsewhere) to oversimplify via reductionist agendas.
I conceive of the antithesis to reductionism as a positive view about the plurality of scales at which entities interact in the universe. This is the major theme of my monograph Without Hierarchy; The Scale Freedom of the Universe, (Oxford, 2013).
It’s simply not true, as I argue in that monograph, that all “activity” (as I call it) transpires at the most minute spatial scale (if there is even such a thing). The antithesis of reductionism is assertion of the scale freedom of the universe, the assertion that the universe is active at every size scale, which has a consequence that interactions of macro entities are emphatically not to be viewed under a cipher or code that “interprets” or otherwise “translates” for beasts who live at our size scale the putatively “true” interactions of the universe—the “causal” interactions among the micro entities. Throughout my work I have criticized (by invoking findings represented by features of our best-confirmed quantum theories) causal theories that are committed to the conception of the universe as active only at the most minute size scales; I have advanced work on scientific explanation that resists reduction; I have articulated a notion of fundamentality as a genus term, embracing the many disciplines of social science (including economics) in a democratic rather than hierarchically organized scientific enterprise; and when it comes to causation, I have offered a positive account of it that is compatible with a nonreductive framework.
My second book, A Social Theory of Freedom (Routledge, 2016), offers a new answer to the timeless philosophical question of human freedom, one that engages with social science but repulses the relevance of questions around determinism, biological and otherwise. It advances the cause of an existential theory of freedom in new ways—and it does so without denying the relevance of science, especially social science, for illuminating human agency. For a non-specialist conversation about my conception of freedom, listen to interview with Matt Teichman here: https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/elucidations/2018/09/14/episode-108-mariam-thalos-discusses-freedom/
I apply as much of my findings as I can to issues of public policy. I have been funded by the NSF to study precautionary decision making in relation to catastrophic risk, especially in public contexts. The ultimate aim is a prescriptive theory of precaution (an account of how best to proceed in the context of both known and unknown unknowns when there is a great deal at stake) that does more than simply endorse aversion to risk.
I’ve authored numerous articles on causation, explanation and how relations between micro and macro are handled by a range of scientific theories; as well as articles in political philosophy, action theory, metaphysics, epistemology, logical paradox and feminism. My work has won the Royal Institute of Philosophy inaugural Essay Prize (2012), and again in 2013, and the American Philosophical Assn’s Kavka Prize (1999). I’m a former fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Advanced Studies of the Australian National University, the Tanner Humanities Center, the University of Sydney Center for Foundations of Science, and the Institute of Philosophy, University of London.
At my site on Academia.edu, you will find (among other things) pieces and chapters of my work in progress. Here you will find electronic copies of some of my publications. And here’s a more traditional CV.
Currently I am working simultaneously on two interconnected book projects bearing on foundational issues in economics. The first concerns a specifically decision-theoretic project, and the second more broadly targets the topic of human judgment.
Economic reasoning rests on certain fundamental aspects of good judgement. This much is surely unassailable. But which aspects, and how are they combined? It has been taken for granted in neoclassical economics that the foundation of economic reasoning is instrumental reasoning conceived as a form of maximization—what is sometimes referred to as expectational reasoning. There are plenty of reasons (from non-expected formulations of decision theory and elsewhere) for being skeptical of the expectational formalism, reasons that are themselves founded in skepticism about the standard picture of instrumental reasoning. These add up to a large (and unmet) challenge to the standard construal of instrumental reasoning itself. I find this challenge convincing.
To move forward on the topic of instrumental reasoning, we must appreciate why this challenge succeeds, for it will shed light on what must be done to articulate a new theory of decision that can provide better foundations for economic reasoning and theorizing. Economic theorizing has to employ principles of aggregation: it has to move from acceptable tradeoff reasoning in non-exceptional contexts to reasoning that embraces also “outliers” where large stakes, uncushioned resources (a concept of my own devising) and irreversible processes are in play; and it must also move from acceptable reasoning for individuals to acceptable reasoning where any number of agents are involved—where their reasoning as well as their interests interact and potentially produce either negative or positive feedback effects. Some of these considerations are given attention in game theory, but in the end the treatment in game theory is (as I’m convinced) inadequate.
My diagnosis of the impasse: the reason that the challenge succeeds (against the expectational construal of instrumental reasoning) is simply that instrumental reasoning intersects at important (and predictable) junctures with other—quite relevant and legitimate—forms of reasoning that also have an impact on the result of instrumental reasoning, but which are not recognized as relevant in standard decision theory. Among the most impactful of these I refer to as precautionary reasoning. (I am convinced by recent work by Daniel Friedman et al. that the notion of a stable “risk aversion index” that has absorbed so much research efforts is a profound error that has resulted in a monumental goose chase. Much of what is now viewed as “stable settings” on a form of reasoning is instead a prompt from one or more separate and very powerful but largely subconscious reasoning process(es) that result/s in redirection of more overt reasoning processes—an idea that resonates well with the work of Ray Jackendoff.)
This project therefore aims to articulate the intersecting forms of reasoning, so as to expose the structure of the reasoning processes, as well as to inquire into the rationales in favor of the precautionary and aggregative forms.
This is a very large project on the topic of judgment, a topic that has been in the wheelhouse of the European phenomenological tradition now for over a century. While Anglo-American philosophy takes for granted that judgment is aimed at knowledge of the world (hence Bernard Williams’ assertion without argument that belief aims at truth), the phenomenological tradition understands judgment as a natural phenomenon, and as such serving—of necessity—many aims. The former attitude fetishizes knowledge, assuming that judgement is directed properly and in the first instance at a mind-independent truth, and only secondarily (and hence in some sense more optionally) at other aims (the less elevated aims of living). However this represents an enormous fallacy. For example, judgment regarding the consciousness of others (as well as what they’re conscious of) serves not only as a means to our knowledge of others, but also as a means to every form of relationship with them. And more importantly still: the latter are in no way subordinate to the former. (There is indeed a relationship among the aims here described; but it is much more subtle and intricate than the hierarchical ones suggested in the notions of “primary” and “secondary”.) European phenomenologists have consistently emphasized the fact that different aims are being served by judgment in substantially different ways—judgments “construct” different aspects of our social-material world; and existential philosophy (especially in the guises of Sartre, Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty) has been the beneficiary of this important insight.
The reality is that judgment serves many imperatives to which human beings are subject: we need to trust, to promise, to love, to aspire and to prophecy (both for ourselves and for others); judgment serves all these ends. Human judgment is directed not only at grasping our environment, but also—and perhaps more importantly and at the same time—at changing it, and ourselves in the bargain. In Anglo-American philosophy today, and because of the fetishizing of knowledge in the modern period, judgment is now (and I believe, fallaciously) divided into two categories (a) belief formation, which is knowledge-directed and subject to Reasoning, and (b, “discovered” later) intention, which is action-directed and subject to minimal rational constraints (such as means-ends strictures). This can’t be right. The strictures of reasoning range considerably more widely. The following too are served by reasoning, as well as by the strictures attaching thereto: aspiring, trusting, promising, courageous self-ascription of a derogated label (“Jew”, “Negro”, “homosexual”) as well as ordinary self-attributions of aspirational traits; and these are only in the most attenuated ways related to knowledge. (Consider the proposition “I am an honest person” or the giant headline on September 12, 2001, the day after 9/11, in the French newspaper Le Monde: “We Are All Americans Now.” For each of these, evidence of their truth is only in the most attenuated way properly relevant to their assertion. True assertion is not the point.)
Taken together, judgments are related only by being forms of thought served by reasoning—not by being aimed at truth. We would be well served, therefore, by a thorough philosophical investigation of the less assertion-like forms of judgment, as well as with good ties to the disciplines that study these as empirical phenomena (among them Psychology, especially Social Psychology; Anthropology; Primatology; Cognitive Sciences; and Sociology).
This project breaks into two volumes, providing:
I. An account of judgment that ties certain reasoning forms to exercises of free agency by a social Self (this is my monograph A Social Theory of Freedom, Routledge 2016); in it I identify two related forms of reasoning: aspirational reasoning and prophetic reasoning; these are forms that enable persons to take courageous, expectation-shattering action.
II. A broad taxonomy of reasoning forms that embraces also theoretical reasoning, clarifying the relations among them.
Are you looking for a thesis supervisor?
If you are, I am happy to talk with you about the possibility of serving as your supervisor. If you already have a topic in mind, simply contact me. If you are also looking for a topic on which to work, and you might be interested in topics I have worked on or am currently working on, please have a look here before contacting me.