Elizabeth Nelson
Elizabeth Nelson

Philosophy on Main Street

by Jackie Swift

Imagine you go out into a wilderness and spend hours picking wild blueberries. Are those berries your property because of the effort you put into gathering them? Do you have a moral right to the berries you picked? Suppose you live in a society where all property is seen as belonging to the whole community. Would that make it okay for someone from your community to take the berries away from you?

Questions like these intrigue Shaun B. Nichols, Philosophy. “Among one group of philosophers, property rights are considered moral rights,” he explains. “When you acquire something, it is wrong to take it from you, and that is not dependent on society or on any kind of institution or agreement. But another group of philosophers says it’s only wrong to take something from you when society has conventions of property, when people have somehow decided to have that convention.”

Nichols is in the midst of a project exploring whether people treat property rights as moral or as conventional rights. So far, his experiments seem to show that people treat the right to property as a conventional right that can change as the rules change.

“If the rules were different, people think it would be okay to take what someone else worked for,” he says. “This is very different from morality. People don’t say, ‘If the rules were different, it would be all right for Johnny to hit Billy.’ They say, ‘It’s always wrong for Johnny to hit Billy; it doesn’t matter what the rules are.’ So far, it doesn’t look like property is treated in that same moral way.”

Psychological Origins of Philosophical Problems

Nichols investigates the psychological foundations of philosophical thought through the lens of cognitive science, which uses aspects of psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and computer modeling to understand the human mind. In his philosophical research, he has employed standard survey experiments as well as techniques from developmental and cross-cultural psychology, and lately he has been especially inspired by learning theory.

“Big questions of philosophy, such as morality, free will, and self-knowledge, have been investigated for centuries using the standard tools of philosophy, like logical analysis and argument,” he says. “As a result, it can seem like the prospects for further illumination along these lines is limited. So back when I was in graduate school, I thought that I might make a bigger contribution to the field if I use the techniques of cognitive science to understand the psychological origins of philosophical problems.”

“These problems weren’t invented at Oxford or Harvard...I’m more interested in what ordinary people think about free will, because the problem starts with ordinary people.”

Nichols was also determined to bring philosophy back down to earth. Rather than relying on the rarified ideas of renowned philosophers, his research revolves around how average people perceive these philosophical questions. “These problems weren’t invented at Oxford or Harvard,” he says. “They are usually problems where common sense seems to produce conflicting answers. We can talk about what some fancy philosopher thought free will was, but I’m more interested in what ordinary people think about free will, because the problem starts with ordinary people.”

Free Will and Four-Year-Olds

In one study on free will, Nichols investigated whether four-year-old children thought of the world as determined, where everything that happens is inevitable given what happened before it. He found that even at that young age, children see choice evident in the world around them.

“The kids think, ‘Yeah, that person wanted that, did that, but they could have done something else,’” Nichols says. “They don’t think that about physical processes. For example, if you ask them similar questions about water coming to a boil, they will say things like, ‘Well, the heat is very high, so the water had to boil.’ There are complexities to the child’s understanding of this, but it’s really striking that four-year-olds already are thinking about the world in this way, appreciating something that seems to be at the core of one of these philosophical issues.”

The Self and the Fear of Death

More recently, Nichols and his colleagues carried out a cross-cultural study of the concept of self and death. They surveyed members of four religious traditions in two countries—Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists in India, and Christians and atheists in the United States—to identify their beliefs regarding the concept of self. As the researchers expected, Buddhists maintained that there was no such thing as self and, thus, no possibility of the self persisting after death. The Christians and Hindus, on the other hand, believed in the existence of a self that would continue on after death, and the atheists believed in a self but did not believe in an afterlife.

Then the researchers asked the participants about their fear of death. “Shockingly, the Buddhists were much more afraid of death than anyone else, including the atheists,” Nichols says. “That was very surprising to us because the Buddhist tradition says that death is not anything to worry about because there is no self to persist. We had expected to show that Buddhist monks were less afraid of death because of this view. That’s what philosophical tradition has always said.”

Nichols still isn’t sure why the Buddhists had more fear of death than the other study participants did, but he has some ideas. “Part of it is that it looks like it’s just very hard to internalize the view that there is no self to continue after death,” he says. “The belief in self appears to be so deeply ingrained in us that it’s hard to overturn it to obtain these philosophical therapy effects, such as easing the fear of death.”

Mind As Processor

Along with his philosophical studies, Nichols also serves as the director of the Cornell Cognitive Science Program. In 2022, the university will offer a cognitive science major for the first time, and Nichols says it is particularly appropriate, given that the first neural network capable of learning was invented at Cornell in 1958 by Frank Rosenblatt, Neurobiology and Behavior.

“Rosenblatt had a brilliant idea about how to get a collection of artificial neurons to learn something,” Nichols explains. “His perceptron was the blueprint for neural networks to this day and also had impact on other approaches to learning. It revolutionized the way people think about these things.”

Cognitive science sees the human mind as an information-processing device, he continues. “We want to understand how the mind processes information, whether it does it in different ways for different types of abilities,” he says. “How do we understand language? How do we see? How do we make rational decisions? The most readily understandable answer is that the mind is a kind of computer—or perhaps multiple kinds of computers—and that’s why it can do these things. That’s one of the foundational ideas in cognitive science, and it has made an enormous contribution to our understanding of ourselves.”

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