Agnoiology, the seedy cousin of epistemology (Spring Grad Seminar Syllabus)

Agnoiology--the study of ignorance--hasn't quite caught on as epistemology has. Epistemology has been one of the main pillars of philosophy, whereas pretty much no one has worked seriously of agnoiology (also rebranded as 'agnotology'). But that is what we'll do here. The reading list is on the syllabus from the last post. If you're auditing, come on the first day and I'll add you to the dropbox account.

Ignorance and Stupidity Seminar

Here's the syllabus for the course on Ignorance. For course auditors, email me and I'll send you the readings. Here's the course description:

When explaining behavior, we are often caught between two uncomfortable poles: interpreting the actors as either stupid or evil. Although ascribing actions to evil may come easier (and is more satisfying), the safe bet is on stupidity. What might first look like a vast conspiracy turns outs to be due to bungling bureaucrats and diffusion of responsibility. What appear to be the worst-laid plans turn out to be no plans at all. One cannot underestimate the vast idiocy of the human psyche.

And yet the notion of ubiquitous idiocy is in deep tension with the core of cognitive science: Chomsky has forever been pointing out how deeply creative people are, instantly and effortlessly generating and parsing novel sentences; Bayesians are constantly stressing how accurate our judgments of probabilities are and how excellent we are at using scant information; perceptual psychologists’ main job is uncovering unconscious mechanisms that allow perception to automatically solve terribly difficult problems. How can we, as Rationalists like Chomsky suggest, be (innately and unconsciously) sensitive to formal and logical aspects of reasoning and yet also display such striking irrationality?

Reconciling base stupidity with our impressive problem-solving faculties will be a goal of the course. Along the way we’ll try to understand exactly what ignorance and stupidity are, as well as why we think we are smarter and less biased than others, why we think groups we belong to are better than groups we don’t, why we are so bad at telling when we are being daft, why we fall for propaganda so easily, why flowery nonsense often sounds profound, why people believe in the supernatural and paranormal, why people believe they have more free will than others do, why we double check to see if we locked the door even when we know it’s locked, and why we ignore probabilities and base rates. In sum, we will look at our reasoning capacities as well as our metacognitive capacities, touching on the traditional philosophical topics of belief and rationality.

There are more educated people now than ever before, and yet we live in the dumbest of times. This especially stupid time demands reflection; hence, this course on the cognitive science of ignorance and stupidity.

In essence, we’ll start out work on ‘agnoiology’ —the study of ignorance. Agnoiology (also rebranded as ‘agnotology’) was coined as the dual to epistemology. It has, to put it lightly, not caught on like epistemology. But it is at least as important. What we’re doing here is trying to set the foundation for a serious study of ignorance. As it is there is just no real trail for us to follow, so we’ll make it up as we go along.


Cognitive Architecture Graduate Seminar Fall 2016

In Fall 2016 Ned Block and I will be reprising our act from two years ago and coteaching a seminar. This time it's on Cognitive Architecture proper, and not just perception. Overall the focus is somewhat similar (e.g., we didn't stop caring about the perception/cognition border), but the class will be completely different. A quick description appears below; a more thorough description and syllabus is here: . It'll meet M7-9 at NYU. Please do drop me a line if you're interested in attending but cannot register. Last time we taught the course it was uncomfortably packed and knowing how many people will attend will help us know how (and where) to pitch it.

Title: Topics in the Philosophy of Mind: Cognitive Architecture

Broadly speaking, this course will cover theories of cognitive architecture. It will proceed from perception to the perception cognition border, through cognition. Issues discussed will include modularity, evolutionary psychology, fragmentation of cognition, Bayesian models of the mind, models of the structure of thought, and the nature of belief. Guest speakers include Susan Carey, Shaun Nichols, Andy Egan, Eric Schwitzgebel, Jesse Prinz, and Chaz Firestone. Readings will come from philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. 

Advice for Undergraduates

Advice for Undergraduate Students

Sometimes I teach in a business school, and I hear the question "Why should I study philosophy" or "Why should I study cognitive science"? I'm not much inclined to answer--people should do whatever they want. But I also teach many students who come from immigrant families or are immigrants themselves and have to worry about making money. I had the same worries, from a similar background. The fact is only a very few things one can study can come close to providing a straightforward path to a middle-class existence. If you find these things interesting--say engineering, or accounting--then OK, do that. Still when you're in college, you are given an opportunity you rarely get anywhere else--to be able to think about whatever you'd like and expose yourself to things you wouldn't otherwise get exposure to. Thus regardless of what one majors in I'd recommend taking classes outside of your comfort zone and knowledge base (whether in philosophy, psychology or art history or geology--you never know what will catch your attention). You'll be exposed to a broader array of subjects in college than at any other time in your life--take advantage of the opportunity.

Most people don't know what they want to do, and most people who do something very interesting with their life didn't get their by following a straightforward path. Even if you take a rather straightforward path--say you go to law school--you aren't guaranteed any job, and you are most likely to have huge loans (also I know many lawyers, but very few happy lawyers). Skills are what matters. I'd recommend getting statistical or programming skills, as they are useful in a host of fields. Equally useful is thinking clearly and not being a moron--that is eminently transferrable (except in politics). I think that's a pretty good reason to study philosophy, but I see no reason to be dogmatic about it. But I'm sort of pained to add: philosophy students do better than most other majors on many metrics people deem important. I won't rehash the data here, but see Dan Kelly's page where he walks you through a bunch of links and data to this effect.

Lastly, I cannot help but add this thoroughly unoriginal opinion: I find David Foster Wallace's advice in his commencement speech (republished as This is Water) heartbreakingly accurate. Evolutionarily speaking, negativity biases make sense: it's more important to be sensitive to negative stimuli than an equally arousing positive one [in absolute value terms]. But this makes one's instinctual dispositions lead to an awfully sad existence. Being self-centered is bad for one's own flourishing, but not being self-focused is hard work. Figuring out how to keep these dispositions at bay by giving yourself other things to think about is a central part of staving off the misery that plagues so many of us. DFW's insight--that we all worship regardless of whether we have made a conscious choice about what we are worshipping--is one I find insightful and empowering. At its best education allows us to consider step back and consider why we are worshipping what we are, and opens up other options. I'll leave you with his words, since they are weapons-grade eloquent:

“And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”