Contemporary debates about the nature of semantic reference have tended to focus on two competing approaches: theories which emphasize the importance of descriptive information associated with a referring term, and those which emphasize causal facts about the conditions under which the use of the term originated and was passed on. Recent empirical work by Machery and colleagues suggests that both causal and descriptive information can play a role in judgments about the reference of proper names, with findings of cross-cultural variation in judgments that imply differences between individuals with respect to whether they favor causal or descriptive information in making reference judgments. We extend this theoretical and empirical line of inquiry to views of the reference of natural and nominal kind concepts, which face similar challenges to those concerning the reference of proper names. In two experiments, we find evidence that both descriptive and causal factors contribute to judgments of concept reference, with no reliable differences between natural and nominal kinds. Moreover, we find evidence that the same individuals’ judgments can rely on both descriptive and causal information, such that variation between individuals cannot be explained by appeal to a mixed population of “pure descriptive theorists” and “pure causal theorists.” These findings suggest that the contrast between descriptive and causal theories of reference may be inappropriate; intuitions may instead support a hybrid theory of reference that includes both causal and descriptive factors. We propose that future research should focus on the relationship between these factors, and describe several possible frameworks for pursuing these issues. Our findings have implications for theories of semantic reference, as well as for theories of conceptual structure.
The hazards of explanation: overgeneralization in the face of exceptions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General , 142 (4), 1006-14. 10.1037/a0030996Abstract(2013).
Seeking explanations is central to science, education, and everyday thinking, and prompting learners to explain is often beneficial. Nonetheless, in 2 category learning experiments across artifact and social domains, we demonstrate that the very properties of explanation that support learning can impair learning by fostering overgeneralizations. We find that explaining encourages learners to seek broad patterns, hindering learning when patterns involve exceptions. By revealing how effects of explanation depend on the structure of what is being learned, these experiments simultaneously demonstrate the hazards of explaining and provide evidence for why explaining is so often beneficial. For better or for worse, explaining recruits the remarkable human capacity to seek underlying patterns that go beyond individual observations.
Review: Evolution challenges – Integrating research and practice in teaching and learning about evolution. Reports of the National Center for Science Education , 33 (5).(2013).
Explanation and prior knowledge interact to guide learning. Cognitive Psychology , 66 (1), 55-84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2012.09.002Abstract(2013).
How do explaining and prior knowledge contribute to learning? Four experiments explored the relationship between explanation and prior knowledge in category learning. The experiments independently manipulated whether participants were prompted to explain the category membership of study observations and whether category labels were informative in allowing participants to relate prior knowledge to patterns underlying category membership. The experiments revealed a superadditive interaction between explanation and informative labels, with explainers who received informative labels most likely to discover (Experiments 1 and 2) and generalize (Experiments 3 and 4) a pattern consistent with prior knowledge. However, explainers were no more likely than controls to discover multiple patterns (Experiments 1 and 2), indicating that effects of explanation are relatively targeted. We suggest that explanation recruits prior knowledge to assess whether candidate patterns are likely to have broad scope (i.e., to generalize within and beyond study observations). This interpretation is supported by the finding that effects of explanation on prior knowledge were attenuated when learners believed prior knowledge was irrelevant to generalizing category membership (Experiment 4). This research provides evidence that explanation can serve as a mechanism for deploying prior knowledge to assess the scope of observed patterns.
Occam's rattle: children's use of simplicity and probability to constrain inference. Developmental Psychology , 48 (4), 1156-64. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026471Abstract(2012).
A growing literature suggests that generating and evaluating explanations is a key mechanism for learning and inference, but little is known about how children generate and select competing explanations. This study investigates whether young children prefer explanations that are simple, where simplicity is quantified as the number of causes invoked in an explanation, and how this preference is reconciled with probability information. Both preschool-aged children and adults were asked to explain an event that could be generated by 1 or 2 causes, where the probabilities of the causes varied across conditions. In 2 experiments, it was found that children preferred explanations involving 1 cause over 2 but were also sensitive to the probability of competing explanations. Adults, in contrast, responded on the basis of probability alone. These data suggest that children employ a principle of parsimony like Occam's razor as an inductive constraint and that this constraint is employed when more reliable bases for inference are unavailable.
Concept possession, experimental semantics, and hybrid theories of reference. Philosophical Psychology , 25 (5), 717–742. https://doi.org/10.1080/09515089.2011.627538Abstract(2012).
Functions in biological kind classification. Cognitive Psychology , 65 (4), 457-485. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2012.06.002Abstract(2012).
Biological traits that serve functions, such as a zebra's coloration (for camouflage) or a kangaroo's tail (for balance), seem to have a special role in conceptual representations for biological kinds. In five experiments, we investigate whether and why functional features are privileged in biological kind classification. Experiment 1 experimentally manipulates whether a feature serves a function and finds that functional features are judged more diagnostic of category membership as well as more likely to have a deep evolutionary history, be frequent in the current population, and persist in future populations. Experiments 2-5 reveal that these inferences about history, frequency, and persistence account for nearly all the effect of function on classification. We conclude that functional features are privileged because their relationship with the kind is viewed as stable over time and thus as especially well suited for establishing category membership, with implications for theories of classification and folk biological understanding.
The instrumental value of explanations. Philosophy Compass , 6 (8), 539–551. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-9991.2011.00413.xAbstract(2011).
Scientific and ‘intuitive’ or ‘folk’ theories are typically characterized as serving three critical functions: prediction, explanation, and control. While prediction and control have clear instrumental value, the value of explanation is less transparent. This paper reviews an emerging body of research from the cognitive sciences suggesting that the process of seeking, generating, and evaluating explanations in fact contributes to future prediction and control, albeit indirectly by facilitating the discovery and confirmation of instrumentally valuable theories. Theoretical and empirical considerations also suggest why explanations may nonetheless feel intrinsically valuable. The paper concludes by considering some implications of the psychology of explanation for a naturalized philosophy of explanation.
The campaign for concepts. Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review/Revue canadienne de philosophie , 50 (1), 165–177. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0012217311000175Abstract(2011).
In his book Doing Without Concepts, Edouard Machery argues that cognitive scientists should reject the concept of “concept” as a natural, psychological kind. I review and critique several of Machery’s arguments, focusing on his definition of “concept” and on claims against the possibility and utility of a unified account of concepts. In particular, I suggest ways in which prototype, exemplar, and theory-theory approaches to concepts might be integrated.
Causal-explanatory pluralism: How intentions, functions, and mechanisms influence causal ascriptions. Cognitive Psychology , 61 (4), 303-32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2010.05.002Abstract(2010).
Both philosophers and psychologists have argued for the existence of distinct kinds of explanations, including teleological explanations that cite functions or goals, and mechanistic explanations that cite causal mechanisms. Theories of causation, in contrast, have generally been unitary, with dominant theories focusing either on counterfactual dependence or on physical connections. This paper argues that both approaches to causation are psychologically real, with different modes of explanation promoting judgments more or less consistent with each approach. Two sets of experiments isolate the contributions of counterfactual dependence and physical connections in causal ascriptions involving events with people, artifacts, or biological traits, and manipulate whether the events are construed teleologically or mechanistically. The findings suggest that when events are construed teleologically, causal ascriptions are sensitive to counterfactual dependence and relatively insensitive to the presence of physical connections, but when events are construed mechanistically, causal ascriptions are sensitive to both counterfactual dependence and physical connections. The conclusion introduces an account of causation, an "exportable dependence theory," that provides a way to understand the contributions of physical connections and teleology in terms of the functions of causal ascriptions.
Putting normativity in its proper place [Peer commentary on the paper "Person as Scientist, Person as Moralist" by J. Knobe]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences , 33 (4), 344–345. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X10001810Abstract(2010).
Knobe considers two explanations for the influence of moral considerations on “non-moral” cognitive systems: the “person as moralist” position, and the “person as [biased] scientist” position. We suggest that this dichotomy conflates questions at computational and algorithmic levels, and suggest that distinguishing the issues at these levels reveals a third, viable option, which we call the “rational scientist” position.
From conceptual representations to explanatory relations [Peer commentary on the paper "Précis of Doing without Concepts" by E. Machery]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences , 33 (2-3), 218-219. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X10000415Abstract(2010).
Machery emphasizes the centrality of explanation for theory-based approaches to concepts. I endorse Machery's emphasis on explanation and consider recent advances in psychology that point to the "heterogeneity" of explanation, with consequences for Machery's heterogeneity hypothesis about concepts.
Norms inform mental state ascriptions: A rational explanation for the side-effect effect. Cognition , 116 (1), 87-100. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2010.04.003Abstract(2010).
Theory of mind, the capacity to understand and ascribe mental states, has traditionally been conceptualized as analogous to a scientific theory. However, recent work in philosophy and psychology has documented a "side-effect effect" suggesting that moral evaluations influence mental state ascriptions, and in particular whether a behavior is described as having been performed 'intentionally.' This evidence challenges the idea that theory of mind is analogous to scientific psychology in serving the function of predicting and explaining, rather than evaluating, behavior. In three experiments, we demonstrate that moral evaluations do inform ascriptions of intentional action, but that this relationship arises because behavior that conforms to norms (moral or otherwise) is less informative about underlying mental states than is behavior that violates norms. This analysis preserves the traditional understanding of theory of mind as a tool for predicting and explaining behavior, but also suggests the importance of normative considerations in social cognition.
The role of explanation in discovery and generalization: evidence from category learning. Cognitive Science , 34 (5), 776-806. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01113.xAbstract(2010).
Research in education and cognitive development suggests that explaining plays a key role in learning and generalization: When learners provide explanations-even to themselves-they learn more effectively and generalize more readily to novel situations. This paper proposes and tests a subsumptive constraints account of this effect. Motivated by philosophical theories of explanation, this account predicts that explaining guides learners to interpret what they are learning in terms of unifying patterns or regularities, which promotes the discovery of broad generalizations. Three experiments provide evidence for the subsumptive constraints account: prompting participants to explain while learning artificial categories promotes the induction of a broad generalization underlying category membership, relative to describing items (Exp. 1), thinking aloud (Exp. 2), or free study (Exp. 3). Although explaining facilitates discovery, Experiment 1 finds that description is more beneficial for learning item details. Experiment 2 additionally suggests that explaining anomalous observations may play a special role in belief revision. The findings provide insight into explanation's role in discovery and generalization.