My research is currently split between two main projects. The first of these proposes an evolutionary account of human moral psychology and choice ascription. This project will form the foundation for my dissertation proposal (to be given in Fall 2023). The second is an ongoing history of science project elucidating Darwin's argumentative strategy in his most famous work. Summaries of these two projects are provided below. Paper drafts for either of these two projects are available upon request.
Explaining Folk Compatibilism: A Co-Evolutionary Account
Recent empirical work shows that folk intuitions lean towards moral compatibilism in certain contexts and moral incompatibilism in others. Moral compatibilism is the idea that moral responsibility is possible even in a deterministic universe. Cross-culturally, folk intuitions on this front depend on the ‘abstractness’ or ‘concreteness’ of the situation and on the moral valence of the situation. But on its face, this context-dependency of our intuitions about moral compatibilism is puzzling: metaphysical stances seemingly should be context-invariant. Why, then, are people’s intuitions on moral compatibilism context-dependent? I suggest an empirically-informed explanation for this folk contextualism, situated in the evolutionary history of human cognition.
Using results from experimental philosophy and developmental psychology, I first show that humans have two representational systems – mechanistic representation and mentalistic representation – that are differentially activated across contexts. Mentalistic representation leads us to perceive entities as agents, such as when we encounter our friends, our pets, and (sometimes) our digital technologies. A core feature of mentalistic representation is choice ascription: representing agents as being capable of intentionally selecting one action among many available to them. We feel, e.g., that a murderer’s actions result from his choice to commit murder. Mechanistic representation is employed whenever agential cues are absent, such as balls colliding or snow falling. Structurally, mechanistic representations exhibit causal closure: the principle that every effect has an immediate sufficient cause, meaning that phenomena are determined by their causal history. This principle conflicts with the choice ascriptions involved in mentalistic representation. I argue that differential activation of these two incompatible representational systems explains folk contextualism about moral compatibilism.
While mechanistic representation is engaged by many cue types, mentalistic representation is selectively activated by commonsense ‘agential’ cues, e.g., anthropomorphic shape/size/motion and contingent interaction with the environment. The scope of these cues explains why humans often ‘mentalize’ obviously non-mental entities. But choice ascription is especially persistent when representing other humans – I can admit that my Roomba does not really make choices, but I resist that possibility when applied to a murderer. Understanding why mentalistic representations are so persistent when representing humans requires us to consider the evolutionary history of human cognition.
Mentalistic representation likely evolved before moral psychology as a predictive tool for coordinating with other agents. But this, alone, cannot account for folk contextualism about moral compatibilism. Recall that such intuitions are modulated not only by cues relating to abstractness/concreteness (specifically, concrete ‘agential’ cues), but also cues pertaining to moral valence. I hypothesize that upon the emergence of human moral psychology, mentalistic representation – already operating as a predictive tool – was available as a means of localizing the causal source of moral behaviors. Choice ascription offered early humans a convenient representational link between an agent and their moral behavior, thus allowing our ancestors to efficiently direct their motivated behavioral responses to the moral actions of others and perform the complex reputational tracking needed for forming stable prosocial communities. In this way, mentalistic representation (via choice ascription) allowed our ancestors to enforce – and thus enjoy the fitness benefits of – our emerging moral norms.
I then show how the mutual adaptive dependence between choice ascription and moral norm psychology generated a co-evolutionary ‘ratchet,’ resulting in the cognitive entrenchment of choice ascription. My co-evolutionary hypothesis, in conjunction with empirical evidence for cuespecific activation of mentalistic representation, explains folk contextualism about moral compatibilism. Abstract deterministic scenarios lacking agential cues engage mechanistic representations, leading to incompatibilist judgments. Concrete descriptions of agents activate mentalistic representation, leading us to make moderately compatibilist judgments even absent moral valence. But when moral valence cues are also present, our motivational systems cause us to adhere persistently to these mentalistic representations and the choice ascriptions they carry, even in the face of stipulated determinism, leading to predominantly compatibilist judgements.
My account suggests that humans are neither compatibilists nor incompatibilists. Instead, we are contextualists with respect to the compatibility of moral responsibility and determinism. Our intuitions depend on whether a context presents concrete ‘agential’ cues and moral valence cues, since we ascribe choice only when such cues engage mentalistic representation, and moral responsibility is only considered apt if choice can be ascribed. Choice feels necessary for moral responsibility because it is so entrenched in cognition that we cannot imagine grounding moral responsibility judgments without it. But evolutionary history might have gone otherwise. It was not necessary that this means of enforcing moral norms was the one our lineage adopted.
How to View Darwin’s Analogical Argument in On the Origin of Species
In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin argued that natural selection produces new species analogously to how artificial selection produces new varieties. Several authors have discussed the type of evidence Darwin’s analogy supplies in support of his theory, but little has been said about how Darwin’s analogy generates this support. I show that Darwin’s analogical argument yields support for his theory only on what I call the ‘refined view’ of artificial selection; conversely, on the ‘received view’ of artificial selection the analogy instead undermines his theory. Accordingly, much of Darwin’s argumentation in the Origin is expressly aimed at modifying received view assumptions and replacing them with his refined view premises.
The writings of Darwin’s contemporaries (Sedgwick, Hopkins, Wagner, etc.) illustrate two principal premises of the received view of artificial selection: 1) strict reproductive control is required for the production of new varieties; and 2) once a stable new variety is produced, further “training” of the breed will diminish in the morphological/behavioral change it returns. On the received view, selection has limits — even when carried out perfectly and indefinitely. If these premises are taken as true, Darwin’s analogy refutes his hypothesis: if artificial selection can never produce a new species, why think that natural selection can?
Recognizing that these assumptions stood in the way of the success of his analogical argument, Darwin argued for two main refinements. The first was establishing the efficacy of “unconscious” artificial selection in producing new varieties. Unconscious selection does not require strict control over reproduction, like does breeders’ “methodical” selection. Even allowing free intercrossing, humans unconsciously create new breeds simply by preferring to keep more desirable individuals. This refinement allowed Darwin to relax the received view requirement of strict reproductive control; only differential reproductive success in a population is required for large evolutionary change.
The second refinement involved Darwin’s endorsement of an extreme version of Charles Lyell’s gradualist Uniformitarianism. Darwin’s view of Earth’s geological history highlighted the importance of the timescale differences between artificial and natural selection for their inefficacy and efficacy, respectively, in the production of new species. Further, gradualism offered Darwin grounds for positing the long, stable selective pressures required for speciation by natural selection. Darwin’s geological views let him explain away the superficial “limits of selection” assumed on the received view and guaranteed that the selective forces Darwin claimed are responsible for speciation must change slowly enough for incipient species to adapt. If one rejected Darwin’s geological views, the long periods of stable natural selection required for speciation would be rightly seen as dubious.
These two refinements allowed Darwin to use his analogical approach in support of his theory, despite widespread negative use of the same analogical strategy by Darwin’s opponents. Refining these premises was necessary to justify Darwin’s conclusions concerning the origin of species, even if his readers largely rejected his refinements. From within the conceptual walls of the Origin itself, Darwin’s modification of the received view to the refined view was crucial to enabling the success of his analogical argument.