Theoretical work

ORCID: 0000-0002-6523-5471

Normative cognition

My Ph.D. thesis focused on the evolution of human norm psychology under Professor Kim Sterelny’s supervision. Much of my research continue focusing primarily on this topic. I investigate the motivational and cognitive underpinnings of this particular form of normative thinking as well as their emergence in ontogeny (i.e., how this capacity develops throughout the human life cycle) and phylogeny (i.e., how this capacity evolved in the human lineage). More precisely, my research goal is to provide a lineage explanation of this capacity. A lineage explanation is a sequence of changes that explains how agents with a great ape-like baseline capacity for social cognition could have evolved into agents with a human-like social norm psychology. For this purpose, I have argued for a model of human social cognition that is less aggressive and hierarchical than what has been claimed by previous models. This view is consistent with the available comparative and paleoanthropological evidence. This alternative model not only does not support long-held views of human origins but also has important consequences for descriptive and normative theories of ethics (1). This research largely builds upon a particular account of great ape and human cooperation that has been developed over the last two decades of psychological research within the theoretical framework of shared intentionality (2). I combine traditional conceptual analysis and empirical data to argue that human social norm psychology is closely linked to the biological lineage of our shared intentional psychology and that this capacity ramifies into different kinds of moral judgments through a process of cultural evolution. On this account, human norm psychology is a metacognitive capacity which purpose is to control shared intentional states.

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Causal cognition

I also carry out theoretical work on causal cognition. Most of my research relies on contrasting human social norm psychology with other forms of seemingly distinctive human thinking such as causal cognition. We argue that even when it could be the case that nonhumans animals lack the capacity to form linguistic representations they are able to represent causal relationships in cognitively rich ways that resemble the human capacity for causal understanding. These representations go beyond tracking stable correlations between different environmental states. They are not representations of mere correlations, but on the contrary, they fit nicely with the so-called ‘interventionists accounts of causation’ (3,4). In our view, nonhuman animals may be able to represent causal relationships when they have a decoupled representation of them, i.e., representations that are not closely linked to specific behavioral responses. These decoupled representations are implemented by internal models of control that are common in the neurocomputational literature (5,6). These models have a rich internal structure that is compositional and belief-like, without being necessarily linguistic. They are counterfactually structured, i.e., they represent the transition between different states of the environment contingent on other states being the case. Moreover, they are able to represent causal relationships when the model is such that there is only one hypothetical intervention on a variable of the model that leads to the desired transition. More generally, this framework fits comfortably within functional approaches to causal cognition in the philosophical literature, which understands causation and causal reasoning in terms of the goals and purposes of causal thinking, as opposed to accounts based on metaphysical considerations or on reconstruction of ‘intuitions’ (7).

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1. I. Gonzalez-Cabrera, On social tolerance and the evolution of human normative guidance. Br. J. Philos. Sci. 70, 523–549 (2017). 2. M. Tomasello, I. Gonzalez-Cabrera, The role of ontogeny in the evolution of human cooperation. Hum. Nat. 28, 274–288 (2017). 3. J. Pearl, Causality. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000). 4. J. Woodward, Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003). 5. P. Dayan, How to set the switches on this thing. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 22, 1068–1074 (2012). 6. K. Wunderlich, P. Dayan, R. J. Dolan, Mapping value based planning and extensively trained choice in the human brain. Nat. Neurosci. 15, 786–791 (2012). 7. J. Woodward, A Functional Account of Causation; or, A Defense of the Legitimacy of Causal Thinking by Reference to the Only Standard That Matters—Usefulness (as Opposed to Metaphysics or Agreement with Intuitive Judgment). Philos. Sci., 81, 691–713 (2014).