Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University
Steven Sloman received his Ph.D.from Stanford University in cognitive psychology and did his postdoctoral work at the University of Michigan. He is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the Eastern Psychological Association. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Cognition, one of cognitive science’s premier journals. His research concerns causal reasoning,
decision making, and other higher-level cognitive processes.
Co-author of book titled “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone”
Q1) How did you get interested in the research that you love doing?
As a teenager, I found the critical open question that was left unanswered in so much of what I read was “how does the mind work?” Questions about why people did certain things, how conflict originated, what the nature of experience was, and how we should lead our lives, all led me down the same road. They all seemed to require an understanding of what made people think one thing as opposed to another. When I discovered computer science, I realized it was a field that offered a tool to answer the question. The mind might just be a sophisticated computer program, we just had to figure out the program. I no longer believe that the answer to the question can be found in computer science, but that was the beginning of my pursuits.
Q2) What are the major take-home messages that your research has highlighted?
There are a number of them. I’ll list the 4 that I consider most central: We should think of higher-level cognition in terms of two co-operative systems of representation and process that operate independently, an intuitive one and a deliberative one. The intuitive one does not make use of representations that have classical structure. For one, it does not represent class-inclusion hierarchies. It may however represent causal structure. The deliberative one will learn any inferential system that it is taught. It is particularly attuned to making causal inferences. The take-home message of my most recent work is that thinking takes place within a community of knowledge.
Q3) What are few important things we have known about causal understanding and what are some directions ahead?
Causal understanding is the most natural way for people to think. Causal inferences are far from perfect, but every functional individual is capable of reasoning about cause and effect within the constraints of a concrete situation. We are not very good at learning causal relations merely from data; we always need to impose some explanatory inference to make sense of the data in order to learn. We’re much better at learning causal structure from temporal information and from instruction. We know to incorporate theories of cause and effect that other people communicate to us. A big question for the future is how much causal structure is represented in the intuitive system? Are our most basic, automatic inferences guided by causal knowledge or by associative knowledge?
Q4) How would you like to see the development of cognitive science shape in the next decade?
My answer to this is mostly methodological. Cognitive scientists are too wedded to their methodologies. At the highest level, experimentalists tend to focus exclusively on experimental results. Some pick out interesting phenomena but they don’t spend enough time relating them to other phenomena. Computationalists tend to focus only on their modeling ideas. They might try to fit data, but often the data they address are not terribly interesting. We need more synergy. We need the two approaches to make more contact with one another. We need experimentalists to run experiments that distinguish interesting possibilities and we need models that explain things that are important. This requires getting beyond the micro-worlds that cognitive scientists are so fond of and trying to explain real human behavior in rigorous ways.
Q5) Could you share some of your experiences working at Brown University which has one of the oldest cognitive science departments in the world?
One nice aspect of working in my department at Brown is that we attract some graduate students with interesting backgrounds, students who want to do interdisciplinary work. But I don’t think a school needs a cognitive science department to attract such students. They just need to have the phrase “cognitive science” in their advertising so that a Google search will pick it up and then have a program that allows students the option of crossing intellectual boundaries if they so desire.
Q6) What would be your message for the younger minds?
First get the question you want to ask clear. Then choose a methodology that addresses the question. As you proceed, keep checking that you’re actually addressing the question. It’s fine to change the question, but you should always know what the question is and you should always feel secure that the work you’re doing speaks to it.
A video on his idea about what we know, a community of knowledge and ways we reason