Is behavioural flexibility evidence of cognitive complexity? How evolution can inform comparative cognition
Journal of the Royal Society Interface Focus (2017) (with Russell Powell & Corina Logan)
Behavioural flexibility is often treated as the gold standard of evidence for more sophisticated or complex forms of animal cognition, such as planning, metacognition, and mindreading. However, the evidential link between behavioural flexibility and complex cognition has not been explicitly or systematically defended. Such a defense is particularly pressing because observed flexible behaviours can frequently be explained by putatively simpler cognitive mechanisms. This leaves complex cognition hypotheses open to ‘deflationary’ challenges that are accorded greater evidential weight precisely because they offer putatively simpler explanations of equal explanatory power. This paper challenges the blanket preference for simpler explanations, and shows that once this preference is dispensed with, and the full spectrum of evidence—including evolutionary, ecological and phylogenetic data—is accorded its proper weight, an argument in support of the prevailing assumption that behavioural flexibility can serve as evidence for complex cognitive mechanisms may begin to take shape. An adaptive model of cognitive-behavioural evolution is proposed, according to which the existence of convergent trait-environment clusters in phylogenetically disparate lineages may serve as evidence for the same trait-environment clusters in other lineages. This, in turn, could permit inferences of cognitive complexity in cases of experimental underdetermination, thereby placing the common view that behavioural flexibility can serve as evidence for complex cognition on firmer grounds.
Simplicity and cognitive modeling: avoiding old mistakes in new experimental contexts
in Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Animal Minds (forthcoming)
Descriptions of cognitive mechanisms and explanations of animal behavior in comparative cognition are framed by a simplicity heuristic that recommends opting for the simplest explanation or description barring compelling evidence to the contrary. This heuristic is common and commonly accepted despite the fact that its theoretical basis has not been adequately established. In this paper, I examine how the simplicity heuristic affects a relatively new tool in experimental comparative cognition: cognitive models. I show how the simplicity heuristic directs disproportionate intellectual resources into the development and refinement of putatively simple cognitive models, which in turn directs experimenters to develop tests to rule out these models. The result is a state of affairs in comparative cognition wherein putatively simple models appear more successful than less simple ones, not in virtue of their epistemic superiority, but rather because a disproportionate amount of resources have been devoted to their development and evaluation. This has, in turn, adversely affected the design and direction of behavioral experimentation aimed at describing cognitive processes in animals, shutting down alternative research programs. I conclude that moving toward a more quantitative science of animal minds is likely to improve the explanatory and predictive power of animal cognition research, but only if these models do not fall prey to existing biases such as the simplicity heuristic.
Experiment and animal minds: why the choice of the null hypothesis matters
Philosophy of Science (2015)
In guarding against inferential mistakes, experimental comparative cognition errs on the side of underattributing sophisticated cognition to animals, or what I refer to as the underattribution bias. I propose eliminating this bias by altering the method of choosing the default, or null, hypothesis. Rather than choosing the most parsimonious null hypothesis, as is current practice, I argue for choosing the best-evidenced hypothesis. Doing so at once preserves the risk-controlling structure of the current statistical paradigm and introduces a sensitivity to probability-conferring empirical and theoretical information. This analysis illustrates how values like parsimony can covertly shape statistical-experimental design and inference.
A critique of the principle of cognitive simplicity in comparative cognition
Biology & Philosophy (2014)
A widespread assumption in experimental comparative (animal) cognition is that, barring compelling evidence to the contrary, the default hypothesis should postulate the simplest cognitive ontology (mechanism, process, or structure) consistent with the animal’s behavior. I call this assumption the principle of cognitive simplicity (PoCS). In this essay, I show that PoCS is pervasive but unjustified: a blanket preference for the simplest cognitive ontology is not justified by any of the available arguments. Moreover, without a clear sense of how cognitive ontologies are to be carved up at the joints—and which tools are appropriate for the job—PoCS rests on shaky conceptual ground.
Honor among (the beneficiaries of) thieves
Ethical Theory and Moral Practice (2014)
Traditional accounts of the fair play principle suggest that, under appropriate conditions, those who benefit from the cooperative labor of others acquire an obligation of repayment. However, these accounts have had little to say about the nature of such obligations within morally or legally problematic cooperative schemes, taking the matter to be either straightforward or unimportant. It is neither. The question of what sorts of fair play obligations obtain for those who benefit from illicit cooperative activity is a matter of great complexity and consequence with implications for, inter alia, global economic justice. In this essay, I explore the nature of this obligation within illicit cooperative schemes, specifically those with so-called negative externalities, or deleterious effects on non-members of the scheme. I conclude that the willing beneficiaries of such schemes acquire a fair-play obligation to recognize and respond to their culpability. This reconceptualization of the fair play principle opens up new avenues for exploring the obligations of those who benefit from acts of collective wrongdoing.