Research statement

I examine an underexplored topic in philosophy of cognitive science, namely how humans can form beliefs in domains that are remote from everyday concerns, such as mathematics, theology, and science. I argue that these domains of higher cognition have precursors in nonhuman animals (e.g., we share a sense of numbers with other vertebrates), but that humans have expanded their conceptual toolkit by their reliance on other minds and on material culture. My overarching research project is to spell out the philosophical implications of this picture of human cognition.

My primary research program is to examine philosophical implications of what the cognitive sciences say about higher-order cognition. For example, I have argued that the best explanation for numerical cognition in animals is the existence of numbers in a realist sense (Philosopher's Imprint, 2016). In my monograph A natural history of Natural Theology (2015, MIT Press, co-authored with Johan De Smedt) I have examined the cognitive foundations of intuitions about the existence of God. It shows that although natural theological arguments can be very sophisticated, they are rooted in everyday intuitions about purpose, causation, agency, and morality. I ask whether knowing the origins of these intuitions could undermine or weaken these arguments. More recently, I have also examined the cognitive science of ritual and whether knowing about its origins (in particular, as a form of risk monitoring or trying to get control over the environment) would cast doubt on the efficacy of rituals (American Philosophical Quarterly, in press). My present research interest is meta-ethics and evolutionary explanations of morality. I intend to flesh out a form of moral realism where true moral statements correspond to facts about human cooperation. My distinctive contribution to this debate is to bring archaeological findings into the philosophical discussion, looking specifically at archaeological evidence for care for disabled individuals, for cooperative hunting and childcare, and for large-scale social security networks between hunter-gatherers bands as evidence for the ancient origins of a uniquely human morality.

My second research project looks at the influence of other minds on the philosophers' mind, by focusing on the cognitive foundations of philosophical reasoning and expertise. To this end, I have conducted a number of experimental philosophical investigations, for example, looking at how philosophers conceive of disagreement (Episteme, 2017) and how their religious beliefs influence their appraisal of natural theological arguments (Topoi, 2014). Next to this, in theoretical papers (e.g., Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 2015) I argue that philosophical intuitions have two origins: some, like Gettier-case intuitions, are developmentally early, and cross-culturally stable; others, such as the intuitions of a Kant scholar on the Kantian take on the refugee crisis, arise as a result of philosophical expertise. I am currently investigating the influence of irrelevant factors on philosophical opinion through experimental philosophical and conceptual investigations. There is a persistent worry that irrelevant influences, such as upbringing or life experiences, have a large influence on particular philosophical views (e.g., about religion or politics), and that these exert more weight than reasoned arguments. I am currently investigating whether beliefs that are largely shaped by irrelevant influences could be rational. I will work this out in a short monograph (under contract, Cambridge University Press).

My third research project aims to flesh out how products of human cognition come about as a result of interactions between human minds and their physical environment. I have looked at the role of material culture in the development of mathematical thinking (e.g., Synthese, 2012; Philosophical Psychology, 2008). My philosophical work also incorporate theories on the evolution of culture, for example, to explain why some numerical concepts are more successful than others (Evolution and Human Behavior, 2006) and to elucidate the development of evolutionary biology in the 18th and 19th centuries (Philosophical Studies, 2013). I am currently working on a paper that uses models of cultural group selection to explain how human-specific morality arose during the Pleistocene.

Finally, I am committed to the idea that philosophy can have a significant impact on the wider world, and that philosophers can increase their potential impact by doing things outside of the confines of traditional philosophy. For example, I have recently organized a writing workshop and a prize competition for philosophers. In the writing workshop, participating professional philosophers received training on how to write compelling fiction. The prize (funded by the American Philosophical Association) invited philosophers to submit short stories to win a cash prize and publication in a literary fiction journal. Next to this, I have interviewed philosophers who have successful non-academic careers, including Big Bang Theory writer Eric Kaplan, and I currently maintain a blog about professional careers of non-academic philosophers (https://doingthingswithphilosophy.tumblr.com/).

Education

I hold a PhD in philosophy (2011, University of Groningen, advisor Igor Douven) and a PhD in archaeology (2007, Free University of Brussels, advisor Jean Paul van Bendegem).

I started my academic career in archaeology at the Free University of Brussels. My research focused on human cognition in the Paleolithic, as exemplified in tallies and calendars of over 30,000 years old, such as the Ishango bone (Congo) and the Abri Blanchard antler (France). I examined why humans in the past made such artifacts, and connected this to cognitive science research on numerical cognition. My research suggests that humans share with other animals an evolved number sense that allows them to keep track of small collections of items, and to make rough estimations and calculations with larger collections. I defended my PhD in archaeology and art sciences in 2007.

Abri Blanchard Ishango

In July 2008, I started working at the University of Leuven in a multidisciplinary project in epistemology on the rationality of beliefs, headed by Igor Douven. Encouraged by Igor, began to work on a PhD in philosophy, which I went on to pursue at the University of Groningen, where Igor was offered an endowed chair. In 2010, I obtained a postdoctoral research fellowship of the Research Foundation Flanders, with a project entitled “Scientific knowledge acquisition: a cognitive approach” (2010-2013)

My PhD thesis in philosophy (2011, University of Groningen) is entitled Through a mind darkly: An empirically-informed philosophical perspective on systematic knowledge acquisition and cognitive limitations. It examines human cognitive processes underlying discovery in mathematics and the life sciences. I found that the effect of individual cognitive biases on reasoning was mitigated to a significant extent by social processes of knowledge transmission and by an effective use of the external environment. For example, by representing quantities symbolically, humans acquire proficiency with numerical concepts that would otherwise lie outside the scope of our evolved number sense.

Cover of my 2011 PhD

After completing my dissertation in philosophy, I worked on religious epistemology to examine the origins of intuitions that underlie natural theological arguments at the University of Oxford (2011-2012), a Templeton fellowship from the University of Oklahoma. One of the outputs of this fellowship is the monograph A natural history of natural theology (MIT Press, 2015).

My British Academy postdoctoral fellowship (2013-2014) continued this research, focusing on the social nature of religious belief. The reasonableness of religious beliefs is often couched in terms of individual reasoning processes, which does not correspond well with the social way in which religious beliefs are acquired. There is an intriguing isomorphism between the way we acquire scientific and religious beliefs: in both cases, most beliefs are acquired not through experience, but through testimony. We can rarely directly check scientific or religious claims (e.g. germs cause illness; humans continue to exist after death). This similarity between scientific and religious beliefs led me to hypothesize that their reasonableness not only depends on their content, but also on the social processes that underlie their transmission.