A picture of the thinker statue beside a functional MRI of someone in the thinker pose.

A Dissertation About Reflective Reasoning in Philosophy, Morality, & Bias

One of the things that I worked on in 2018 was a dissertation about the roles of reflective reasoning in philosophy, morality, and bias. Pending a follow-up study for one chapter, every chapter is written and has enjoyed at least one round of comments—and some of the chapters are under review. As the chapters find homes in journals, I will be sure to post preprints and links to the online publication on my blog and in my social media feeds. So, ya know, follow those if you want more updates. In this post, I’ll give you drafts of the abstracts for each chapter, so that you can get a birds-eye view of the dissertation project.†

[Update: the introduction to the dissertation defense is now available.]

1. Explicating The Concept Of Reflection

Abstract. To understand how ‘reflection’ is used, I consider ordinary, philosophical, and scientific discourse. I find that ‘reflection’ seems to refer to reasoning that is deliberate and conscious, but not necessarily self-conscious. Then I offer an empirical explication of reflection’s conscious and deliberate features. These explications not only help explain how reflection can be detected; they also distinguish reflection from nearby concepts such as ruminative and reformative reasoning. After this, I find that reflection is not obviously limited to only practical or only theoretical reasoning. The chapter ends with reasons to prefer ‘unreflective’ and ‘reflective’ to dual process theorists’ labels about systems or types.

2. Bounded Reflectivism & Epistemic Identity

Abstract. Reflection features centrally in philosophy (e.g., Korsgaard, 1996; Rawls, 1971; Sosa, 1991) and psychology (e.g., Pennycook, 2018). Bounded reflectivism is an empirically adequate model of reflection that explains reflection’s capacity to either help or hinder reasoning—e.g., reflective equilibrium vs. reflective polarization (e.g., Kahan et al., 2017). One innovation of the model is epistemic identity: an identity that involves particular beliefs—e.g., religious and political identities. When we feel that our epistemic identity is threatened, we can reflectively defend its beliefs rather than update our beliefs according to the best arguments and evidence. The solution, I argue, is not to suppress epistemic identity but embrace it by appealing to shared, superordinate epistemic identities.

3. All Measures Are Not Created Equal

Abstract. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? “10 cents” comes to most people’s minds immediately. However, upon reflection, we can realize that “5 cents” is the correct answer. There are many reflection tests. Each has its limitations. Some reflection tests are mathematical—like the bat-and-ball problem (e.g., Frederick, 2005) and others are logical (e.g., Janis & Frick, 1943). So there are concerns that reflection tests track logical and mathematical competence rather than reflection per se. Also, some psychologists assume a priori that correct answers are reflective and lured answers are unreflective. New evidence raises concerns about the plausibility of these assumptions. I argue that think aloud protocols (Ericsson & Simon, 1998) and process dissociation (Jacoby, 1991) can assuage some of these concerns.

4. Great Minds Do Not Think Alike

Abstract.Two large studies (N = 1299), one pre-registered, found that many correlations between reflection and philosophical beliefs among non-philosophers replicated among philosophers. For example, less reflective philosophers preferred theism to atheism and utilitarian rather than deontological responses to the trolley problem (Hannikainen & Cova, in prep.; Pennycook et al., 2016; Reynolds, Byrd, & Conway, forthcoming). However, philosophical judgments were sometimes better predicted by factors like education, gender, and personality than by reflection test performance. So although some relationships between reflection and philosophy were robust, there is more to the link between reflection and philosophy. Normative implications are also discussed—e.g., how we can infer the quality of philosophical views from their correlations with reflective or unreflective reasoning.

5. What We Can (And Can’t) Infer About Implicit Bias

Published on Synthese website | On Google Scholar | Free Preprint

Abstract. The received view of implicit bias holds that it is associative and unreflective. Recently, the received view has been challenged. Some argue that implicit bias is not predicated on “any” associative process, but it is unreflective. These arguments rely, in part, on debiasing experiments. They proceed as follows. If implicit bias is associative and unreflective, then certain experimental manipulations cannot change implicitly biased behavior. In fact, these manipulations can change such behavior. So, implicit bias is not associative and unreflective. This paper finds philosophical and empirical problems with that argument. When the problems are solved, the conclusion is not quite right: implicit bias is not necessarily unreflective, but it seems to be associative. Further, the paper shows that even if legitimate non-associative interventions on implicit bias exist, then both the received view and its recent contender would be false. In their stead would be interactionism or minimalism about implicit bias.

Going Forward

Presenting these chapters at conferences has been fun. Admittedly, it has involved a great deal of travel. For instance, I have spent only 10 of the last 45 nights at home and I missed about one-third of my classes last semester. This semester, I’d like to focus more on getting the rest of these chapters (and other papers) submitted to journals than presenting the chapters at conferences.


† In principle, the content and order of the chapters could change. However, all of the chapters are written and most have received multiple rounds of comments, so I imagine that the penultimate outline of the dissertation chapters will be reasonably similar to what is above.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog