Tim Maudlin is a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. He is the author of "Quantum Non-Locality and Relativity," "Truth and Paradox," and "The Metaphysics within Physics," as well as many articles on the foundations of physics, logic, and the philosophy of science. His main areas of study pertain to the ways that physics intersects with philosophy.
Question: Where do cognitive science and philosophy interact?
Tim Maudlin: The question, "By what principles do we reason?" has been in philosophy forever. One of the thoughts about logic is that logic is the theory of how we think, how we infer, how we get from some set of predeces to some conclusion. Now actual human behavior turns out not to be very good valid, logical thinking. I mean, there are lots of choices where there are sort of cognitive illusions, or you can show that people don’t think demonstrably in a way that makes a lot of sense. For example, Kottman and Tversky famously gave these examples. You’re going into a store to buy to items. One costs $100 the other costs $15 and you find out that across town, the $100 item is on sale for $95. Do you bother to go across town to buy it? And people say, “Naw, probably not.” You go into a store, you’re going to buy an item for $100 and another one for $15, you find out the $15 item is on sale across town for $10, do you bother to go across town to buy it? And they’re much more likely to say, yes. Even though in each case they’re paying the same amount of money for the same two items, but in your mind you think, “Oh, it’s a big sale!” on the $15 item. I mean, that’s a third off. And the sale on the $100 item, $5 off, that’s really, you know, that’s just change. You know, round it up it doesn’t matter. So the actual process of coming to a decision there is demonstrably irrational.
There’s an interesting question that anybody would have is, well what’s the mind doing? I mean, I gave a little sketch, a kind of obvious looking sketch of the way it’s thinking and you can sort of see it’s thinking isn’t really coherent, or doesn’t work well. So again, insofar as philosophers have been – anybody’s been interested in how the mind works, and philosophers have been interested in that forever, they would be interested in cognitive science because it’s just a more systematized way of asking those questions and subjecting them, hopefully to experimental tests to check the answers properly.
It’s changed philosophy of mind in a simple way that as cognitive science discovers things about the way the mind works that anybody doing philosophy of mind has to take account of that. If they’re trying to give an account of the human mind, you have to take account of what’s been discovered about the human mind. And if you’ve been thinking about the structure of the human mind, you might come up with questions that you’d like the cognitive scientist to look into. That maybe they hadn’t thought of. You might, as a philosopher again, thinking in a more general way about how the mind is organized, say “How could I tell – How could I decide between this account of the organization of the mind and that account?” Well, here’s a situation where, if it’s organized this way you’d expect people to behave this way and if it’s organized the other way you’d expect them to behave the other way. And then you have to go to your colleagues on the experimental side and ask them, would you please run an experiment and see which way it goes.
Now the particular details, well, there’s obviously a sense in which, for example, nowadays; there’s a lot of interest in emotion. There was a focus on, as it were, pure cold, calculative reasoning because you can give a cleaner looking, formal account of that, but as soon as you start looking at how people actually reason, you find that they’re systematically affected by their emotional state. And I would say that the demonstration of that forces philosophers of mind to think much more clearly about to what extent emotion and affect play a role in our cognitive economy, and probably it’s easier to ignore that question if there aren’t a lot of cognitive scientists running experiments and pointing out that, in fact, emotions play a bit role in how we think.
Recorded September 17, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman