The Cognitive Science of Philosophical Thought

By: Fabio Cabrera '23, 
October 8, 2021

Shaun Nichols, Professor at the Sage School of Philosophy and Director of the Cognitive Sciences program at Cornell, has always been puzzled by timeless problems in philosophy. “In general, I’ve been interested in almost the entire range of philosophy – the basic questions of free will, self, and the nature of morality and knowledge” says Nichols.  Nichols’ current projects explore issues that range from the origin of moral learning to our understanding of property, and his methodological approaches to these problems range from developmental studies with children to cross-cultural studies. 

For Nichols, the method used to solve a philosophical problem is a matter of utmost importance, since new methods can be brought to bear on old problems. He describes the process of choosing how to solve a philosophical problem as key to his research: “I walk around with all these problems that I have been worried about since I was in college. I think it’s hard to make advances on the problems of philosophy(…), so when I come across a method that I think will be useful to illuminate them, I use it.”

Nichols’ 2018 Mind and Language paper, “Skepticism and the Acquisition of Language” (co-authored with Ángel Pinillos of Arizona State University), illustrates his methodological eclecticism. According to Nichols, “the biggest problem in epistemology is skepticism.”  A popular formulation of this problem takes the form of the “evil-deceiver” challenge: it seems like we know all kinds of things about the world, but this is threatened by the possibility that an evil demon is massively deceiving us about the world. Part of the challenge comes from the fact that we seem to treat knowledge as infallible. That is, you don't really know something if it’s possible that you are mistaken about it. Since it’s possible you’re mistaken about the evil demon, you don’t really have knowledge of the world. But, Nichols asks, “how could you end up with an infallibilist notion of knowledge which is so demanding that it would mean that you didn’t know almost anything?” Nichols and Pinillos used learning theory to answer this question, drawing on a learning theory account of how we learn the meanings of words. The insight from learning theory that allowed him to answer this question is the concept of “suspicious coincidence.”

To illustrate this idea, Nichols gave me a simple example: “imagine somebody is teaching you a new word and shows you a picture of a Dalmatian and says ‘this is a fep,’ and then they show you a picture of a Greyhound and say ‘this is also a fep’, and then they show you a picture of a dachshund and say ‘this is a fep as well’. What do you think the word means? You think it means dog. Why don’t you think it means mammal? Because if ‘fep’ meant mammal, it would be a suspicious coincidence that all of the examples were dogs.  if it meant mammal you would’ve expected a cat or a goat or some other mammal to show up in the examples.” Nichols pointed out that children seem to rely on this principle of avoiding suspicious coincidences when they learn the meanings of words. So a child learning the word ‘fep’ in the above example would infer that the word meant dog rather than mammal, again because it would be a suspicious coincidence that all of the examples were dogs if the meaning of the word were mammal.

Shaun Nichols - Rational Rules

To understand how children learn the meaning of the word “know”, Nichols and Pinillos looked at child-directed speech databases and realized that no one says to children “I know that, but I am not sure,” whereas it is common for adults to say, “I think so, but I’m not sure” or “I think that, but maybe I’m wrong.” This would help explain why we end up with a notion of knowledge as infallible.”

“Children never hear ‘know’ applied in a qualified way,” Nichols says. “If ‘I know’ really meant ‘I’m almost certain but I could be wrong’, then it would be a suspicious coincidence that they never hear that kind of qualified use of the word. To think that ‘know’ meant something fallible would be like thinking ‘fep’ means mammal.”

Such methodological openness has allowed Nichols to move between many branches of philosophy, working along experts in fields as varied as political philosophy, moral psychology, and philosophy of mind. According to him, “we’ve been doing philosophy by a priori reasoning for centuries. But I think we might make greater advances by taking advantages of the methods available in interdisciplinary research.” Indeed, one of the lessons of Nichols’ work is that ultimately, there is no set way of answering a philosophical problem.  At the very least, it should be a matter of discussion how we approach these questions and why.

Professor Shaun Nichols