Thank you to Marcus Arvan for providing me with the opportunity to discuss some ongoing research. My work is mainly in philosophy of cognitive science, and I'm interested in domains of higher cognition, especially how cognition and culture interact. I examine what underlies our ability to formulate ideas that seem arcane and remote from everyday life, such as in mathematics, science and theology.
For this series of blogposts, I am going to investigate skilled epistemic practices, by which I mean practices that require a great degree of skill and that are use to acquire knowledge within a given domain. For instance, birders can discriminate species of birds on the basis of subtle cues such as size, shape, colors, and habitat. Art appraisers can tell genuine artworks from fakes and place them within a chronological framework. Primatologists can see complex interactions between primates, including dominance hierarchies and aggressive and submissive behavior. Can we explain what is going on in such instances of skilled practice?
The apparent effortlessness with which experts can use their skills in specialized domains has made it seem as if experts possess extraordinary, innate mental capacities for memory and attention to detail, epitomized by fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes.
However, an accumulating body of research on expertise, particularly in the domains of music, sports, chess and writing indicates that these superior capacities are restricted to the domain in which one is an expert, and do not transfer to other domains. For example, chess players have a better recall and wider visual span of chess positions, but their superior performance does not transfer to other domains of memory or visual attention. Experts are subject to the same cognitive limitations (including working memory) compared to other people; they process their domain of expertise more efficiently, for instance by chunking it in more manageable bits. Also, except for body size and height in some sports (such as basket ball and wrestling), innate capacities do not play a significant role in the development of expertise. You become an expert through the extensive learning period, not by some innate gift.
Presently, the cognitive science of expertise is quite narrowly focused on what cognitive factors, such as deliberate practice, contribute to expertise. I’d like to take a step back and look at the broader picture, of how skilled epistemic practices can be characterized as a uniquely human way of acquiring knowledge. A better understanding of skilled epistemic practices has ramifications for philosophy of science (given that such practices are important in science) and metaphilosophy (given that philosophy also depends on skilled epistemic practices).
There are three puzzles about skilled epistemic practices that I aim to address in particular:
- Unique phenomenology: Although they are hard and take a lot of practice to get a reasonable level of proficiency, skilled practice has a phenomenological sense of "naturalness". An art appraiser just "sees" that, say, an etching can't be an original Rembrandt, because it just doesn't look like Rembrandt's light-and-dark use. Yet this naturalness is not the same as automaticity, as experts retain high-level control on their skills. There is sometimes a peculiar sense of absorption, termed flow or recently, by Carolyn Dicey Jennings, conscious entrainment, that accompanies skilled (epistemic) practices. How do we explain this unique phenomenology?
- Cross-cultural variability: Skilled epistemic practices differ substantially between cultures, in contrast to ordinary epistemic practices, such as using our senses in an everyday way, which are much more cross-culturally stable*?
- Prima facie justification: It seems plausible that when the art appraiser thinks she does not see a Rembrandt etching, or the primatologist sees dominance hierarchies, they have some prima facie justification for these beliefs. From where does this derive?
In a next blogpost I'll examine the general case of skilled epistemic practices, and offer a unified cognitive account that can account for these three questions. I'll then look at how these practices operate in philosophical thinking, and finally, I'll write about how they play a role in religious experiences.
*There are some exceptions, such as susceptibility to visual illusions like the Müller-Lyer illusion