Papers

Here are some of my papers. If you'd like to see a draft that's not here, let me know!

Peer Reviewed Publications

"Evidence in Default: Rejecting Default Models of Animal Minds" Forthcoming in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.

Abstract: Comparative psychology experiments typically test a null statistical hypothesis against an alternative. Coupled with Morgan’s Canon, this is often taken to imply that the model positing the simpler psychological capacity should be treated as a ‘default’ that must be ruled out before any other model can be accepted. It has been objected that this practice neglects evidence. I argue that the problem is deeper, including the way it structures the evaluation of evidence that is considered; it frames model choice around the acceptance or rejection of a default. I oppose this default framing in all its forms and develop an evidentialist alternative. Default framing fails to respect the difference between experimental statistical hypotheses and substantive hypotheses such as models. It is not actually supported by the use of null hypothesis significance testing (which I retain), it distorts the weighting of evidence, and it systematically biases practice.

"Association and Mechanisms of Priming" (2019) Journal of Cognitive Science. 20, 3: 281-321.

Abstract: In psychology, increasing interest in priming has brought with it a revival of associationist views. Association seems a natural explanation for priming: simple associative links carry subcritical levels of activation from representations of the prime stimulus to representations of the target stimulus. This then facilitates use of the representation of the target. I argue that the processes responsible for priming are not associative; they are more complex. Even so, associative models do get something right about how these processes behave. As a result, I argue, we should reconsider how we interpret associative models, taking them to identify regularities in the sequence of representational states in any kind of process, rather than as denoting a particular kind of process.

Manuscript PDF

Link to Journal

"Simplicity and the Meaning of Mental Association." (2019) Erkenntnis, 84 (6): 1207-1228.

Abstract: Some thoughts just come to mind together. This is usually thought to happen because they are connected by associations, which the mind follows. Such an explanation assumes that there is a particular kind of simple psychological process responsible. This view has encountered criticism recently. In response, this paper aims to characterize a general understanding of associative simplicity, which might support the distinction between associative processing and alternatives. I argue that there are two kinds of simplicity that are treated as characteristic of association, and as a result three possible versions of associative processing. This provides a framework that informs our understanding of association as a current and historical concept, including how various specific versions in different parts of psychology relate to one another. This framework can also guide debates over normative evaluations of actions produced by processes thought to be associative.

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"The Paper Topic Machine: Creativity, Credit, and the Unconscious." (2018) Analysis, 78, 4: 614–622.

Abstract: It is commonly thought that unconscious processes cannot produce actions deserving praise or blame. I present a thought experiment designed to generate a contradicting intuition: at least in this case, we do give credit for the product of an unconscious process. The target is creativity. Many instances of creative thought begin with a step that unconsciously generates a new idea by combining existing ideas. The resulting ideas are selected and developed by later processing. This first step could be replaced with a simple machine that randomly pairs concepts. Now, imagine a philosopher, Liberty, who gets all of his paper ideas from this machine. Compare him to another philosopher, Libertad, who comes up with all the same papers using her own mind. If you share the intuition that Liberty’s work deserves less credit for creativity, you are giving credit for the product of an unconscious process.

I made a mock-up of the paper topic machine

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"Anthropomorphism as Cognitive Bias." (2017) Philosophy of Science, 84, no. 4: 1152-1164.

Abstract: Philosophers and psychologists have long worried that a human tendency to anthropomorphize leads us to err in our understanding of nonhuman minds. This tendency, which I call intuitive anthropomorphism, is a heuristic used by our unconscious folk psychology to understand the behavior of nonhuman animals. I argue that the dominant understanding of intuitive anthropomorphism underestimates its complexity. It does often lead us to err, but not always. And the errors it produces are not all overestimations of nonhuman intelligence. If we want to understand and control intuitive anthropomorphism, we must treat is as a cognitive bias, and look to the empirical evidence. The literature on controlling implicit social biases is particularly helpful. That literature suggests that the most common control for intuitive anthropomorphism, Morgan’s Canon, should be rejected, while others are incomplete. It also suggests new approaches.

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"The Varieties of Parsimony in Psychology." (2016), Mind & Language, 31: 414–437.

Abstract: Philosophers and psychologists make many different, seemingly incompatible parsimony claims in support of competing models of cognition in nonhuman animals. This variety of parsimony claims is problematic. Firstly, it is difficult to justify each specific variety. This problem is especially salient for Morgan’s Canon, perhaps the most important variety of parsimony claimed. Secondly, there is no systematic way of adjudicating between particular claims when they conflict. I argue for a view of parsimony in comparative psychology that solves these problems, based on Sober’s (1994) view that parsimony claims are claims that one model is more plausible given background theory.

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"Rethinking Associations in Psychology" (2016). Synthese. 1-24

Abstract: I challenge the dominant understanding of what it means to say two thoughts are associated. The two views that dominate the current literature treat association as a kind of mechanism that drives sequences of thought (often implicitly treating them so). The first, which I call reductive associationism, treats association as a kind of neural mechanism. The second treats association as a feature of the kind of psychological mechanism associative processing. Both of these views are inadequate. I argue that association should instead be seen as a highly abstract filler term, standing in for causal relations between representational states in a system. Associations, so viewed, could be implemented by many different mechanisms. I outline the role that this view gives associative models as part of a top-down characterization of psychological processes of any kind and of any complexity.

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"Associationism without associative links: Thomas Brown and the Associationist Project" (2015). Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 54, pp. 31-40.

Abstract: There are two roles that association played in 18th–19th century associationism. The first dominates modern understanding of the history of the concept: association is a causal link posited to explain why ideas come in the sequence they do. The second has been ignored: association is merely regularity in the trains of thought, and the target of explanation. The view of association as regularity arose in several forms throughout the tradition, but Thomas Brown (1778–1820) makes the distinction explicit. He argues that there is no associative link, and association is mere sequence. I trace this view of association through the tradition, and consider its implications: Brown's views, in particular, motivate a rethinking of the associationist tradition in psychology. Associationism was a project united by a shared explanandum phenomenon, rather than a theory united by a shared theoretical posit.

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Invited Publications

"Associationism in the Philosophy of Mind." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published August 2020.

A survey of historical views on the nature and role of association from John Locke to the present.

Encyclopedia link

"Parsimony." (2018) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, Zeigler-Hill, Virgil, Shackelford, Todd K. (Eds.).

A review of different interpretations and justifications of parsimony, with an emphasis on how they might apply in personality psychology.

Encyclopedia link

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"A New View of Association and Associative Models." (2017) in The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Animal Minds. K. Andrews & J. Beck (Eds.).

In this chapter, I describe my view of association, discussing its historical precursors and its benefits over existing views.

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"Reference" (2016) in A Companion to Experimental Philosophy. J. Sytsma & W. Buckwalter (Eds.). Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell. Dacey & Mallon

An opinionated review of experimental philosophical work on reference, including work on the reference of both names of individuals and of kinds.

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Works in Progress

"Of a Different Mind: Challenges to the science of animal minds" Book project

The scientific study of the mind is difficult. Minds are not observable, and it is often unclear what inferences one can make about the mind based on behavioral or neurological evidence. This is especially difficult with animal minds that may seem alien to our own. And yet, there are many reasons we might want to know what animals are thinking. Put more precisely in the language of philosophy of science, the core task of the science of animal minds is to understand the psychological or cognitive mechanisms that are operating as an animal behaves. What external factors are animals responding to, what information are they encoding about those factors, and how do they use that information? This book will discuss seven specific challenges that make the science of nonhuman minds so difficult. The seven challenges are:

1. Underdetermination of theory by data

2. Anthropomorphic bias

3. The difficulty of precisely modelling cognitive processes

4. Small experimental sample sizes

5. Ecological validity

6. Integrating findings and models from across related fields

7. Animal sentience

These are challenges that are, for various reasons, intrinsic to the subject of study. The goal of the book is to argue for a characterization of each that will illuminate the way forward (sketched below). Although I do not solve these problems, I present a way of thinking about them that makes them solvable. Each of the first seven substantive chapters will address one of the challenge. I intend these to be more-or-less modular, in that one could get something of value out of reading one or two chapters alone (or assigning them in an advanced undergraduate or graduate course). Even so, there is a unifying viewpoint behind all of them, which I develop more systematically in the final concluding chapter.

The overall viewpoint is one of modesty about what any individual experimental finding or individual model can tell us about the mind in question. Each is severely limited in ways that are not always appreciated. I articulate ways of thinking about models and experimental findings that helps ensure the right sort of modesty, which will support productive debates, and ultimately, a way forward.

"paper under review"

Abstract: Experiments in comparative (animal) psychology typically aim to test a default model against an alternative. For instance, Morgan’s Canon dictates that researchers prefer models that posit the simplest processes. This is often interpreted by analogy to null hypothesis statistical testing (NHST), the dominant statistical method in psychology: the “simpler” model should be the default. Morgan’s Canon has faced considerable criticism lately, and the two proposed replacements in the literature set up the central tension of this paper. One replacement, contextual null choice (Mikhalevich 2015, Mikhalevich, Powell, & Logan 2017), accepts the general default model framing while choosing nulls/defaults case by case. The other, evidentialism (Sober 2005, Fitzpatrick 2008, 2017), rejects defaults altogether in favor of a more holistic inference to the best explanation. I argue for a version of evidentialism over the default model framing (even if one wishes to retain Morgan’s Canon in a weaker form). We should never treat one model as the null or default. First, I attack the analogy that supports the default model framing: The analogy between default models and NHST fails to respect the difference between statistical hypotheses and substantive hypotheses. Statistical hypotheses specify a distribution of a certain feature (the thing to be measured); substantive hypotheses are models of the target system that motivate the statistical hypotheses and, potentially, explain them. The inferential gap between statistical and substantive hypotheses looms large in comparative psychology, because in comparative work any model can be consistent with many possible specific experimental outcomes. In such cases, the failure of any statistical hypothesis does not entail the failure of any substantive hypothesis. This argument undermines motivation for the default model framing. I then attack the default model framing directly, by arguing that it distorts the weighting of evidence, and systematically biases experimental practices.

Ongoing Empirical Research with Jen Coane and the Memory and Language Lab at Colby College:

We have been developing a paradigm intended to study the human tendency to anthropomorphize without assuming that anthropomorphism is always an error of inflating perceived intelligence of animals (inspired by ideas in my paper "Anthropomorphism as Cognitive Bias"). We are using an affective priming task to see if people automatically attribute mental states like happiness to animals that look like they are smiling, even those that do not signal happiness by smiling. Our preliminary work has been presented at the 2018 Cognitive Aging Conference in Atlanta Georgia, and the 2018 Varieties of Mind Conference at Cambridge University.