My research lies in the overlap between philosophy and several branches of psychology. My interests in this area are pretty broad, but I am especially interested in the nature of thought.
One part of my work focuses on the structure of thought. In my dissertation and subsequent papers, I argue that the minds of many animals, not just of those endowed with natural language, are syntactically structured. This explains a wealth of recent data, and it also suggests a strong psychological continuity between us and and least part of the rest of the animal world. As part of this project, I have worked on ways that syntactic structures in thought can differ between species, and on ways a mind might implement several kinds of mental representation (for example, language-like representations, and map-like ones) at the same time.
More recently, I have begun working on the structure of thought in human beings. I am interested in ways that our thoughts might integrate picture-like elements with language-like ones. Curious as this claim might seem, evidence for such integration looks to be emerging from the study of syntax in spoken and signed languages alike.
Another aspect of my work on thought focuses on its interface with cognitive processes. I am currently working through two research projects in this area:
(1) The science of belief: the mechanisms underlying belief formation, storage, and updating. I have a recent publication in this area, with Eric Mandelbaum, in which we survey the current state of the art of the cognitive science of belief. We argue it supports a suite of robust--if counterintuitive--generalizations about how beliefs are formed, stored, and changed. It also includes an ongoing experimental project on the mechanisms belief fixation with Eric Mandelbaum and Steve Young. We are interested in the illusory truth effect--coming to believe a sentence to be true just because you have seen more than once. We are specifically looking at whether it is mediated entirely by fluency, or if it is generated at least partly because we automatically believe the contents of sentences we come into contact with, even ones we know to be false.
(2) Human moral psychology concerning animals: How do reason morally about whether animals are deserving of our moral consideration, or morally responsible for their actions? What relation does this have to how we think about those animals, and their capacity for thought, pain and other mental states? My co-author, Gracie Reinecke, and I have an ongoing experimental project in this area. We are hoping to expand it to include the way that humans think about other humans, too, especially outgroup members.
My interests outside of the broad domain of the nature of thought are varied. The largest of these is my experimental work in semantics, in which I have applied tools from developmental cognition for the first time to the study of linguistic reference. In a recent paper, Michael Devitt and I report results of studies we designed and ran using these methods to test theories of reference for proper names. Besides being uniformly at odds with classical descriptivism, the results also raise serious methodological concerns for testing reference theories against intuitions--the dominant practice in experimental semantics.
A smaller but longstanding project focuses on the perception of pictures. In particular I have been interested in how we manage to see events, causal relations, and broad ("beyond-the-frame") ecological scenes when we look at static images. This project, which reaches back to some visual attention experiments I ran as part of my master's thesis, now involves both experimental and non-experimental projects.