Education and Research

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.

Currently, I am working on experimental philosophy of religion, including research on how untutored intuitions underlie the theology of afterlife beliefs (2015, small grant on the immortality project). I also have work in progress on mathematical realism and mathematical cognition.