Justin C. Fisher – Research

Book Ideas.

I have written a book manuscript, several papers, and my dissertation arguing that we should think of our shared concepts as having whatever application conditions they would need to have in order best to deliver benefits in the ways they have regularly delivered benefits in the past. This view combines naturally with a philosophical methodology for discovering the correct application conditions of our concepts, the methodology that I call Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis. In my book manuscript, I articulate and defend this methodology, and show how it may fruitfully be applied to various philosophical problems.

I also have several other book ideas that I hope someday to pursue:

  • I would like to write a book On the Nature and Explanatory Power of Cognitive Norms, which would join together my work on scientific explanation, biological function, and teleo-functionalism about philosophy of mind.
  • I have had good experience teaching mid-level philosophy of science from a "memetic" or "cultural evolutionary" perspective. Such a perspective helps to give students important science-related knowledge, including an understanding of biological evolution and of current attempts to understand cultural evolution. Furthermore, taking this perspective helps me to frame many difficult debates in the Philosophy of Science in a way that engages the interest of many students (something that is not always an easy task). I would like someday to compile this into a philosophy of science text, tentatively entitled Philosophy of Science from a Memetic Perspective.

Book Manuscript:


Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis.

It's probably not wise to post this manuscript online, but if you'd like to request a copy -- and especially if you're willing to offer helpful feedback -- please email me.

Alternatively, you can read the following stand-alone papers which overlap with Chapters 2, 5, and 4&7:

A central challenge of human life is conceptual engineering - how may we engineer our shared conceptual frameworks so that they will be effective and well-coordinated? Much everyday cognition is geared towards small-scale conceptual engineering, and much work by scientists and philosophers is geared towards finding conceptual engineering solutions for whole communities.

I propose that a good way to do conceptual engineering is by doing conceptual reverse engineering. To engineer a shared conceptual framework that works well, we should begin with an existing framework that works pretty well, do an empirical analysis of how it works as well as it does, and then design a framework that will do these good things more consistently. I call this way of doing conceptual engineering Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis.

Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis is much more than just a good way of fixing up existing conceptual frameworks. It is a useful tool for revealing the correct application conditions that our concepts already have; it is a good model for understanding what is going on in normal scientific practice; and it sheds new light on vexing philosophical issues, including questions about why we should accept the guidance of normative concepts like morality or rationality.

In Chapter 1, I lay out a general framework for understanding our use of shared concepts. This yields a picture of many people each making their own contributions to a complex network of practices involving their shared concepts, usually with no one in a position to know exactly how all this is working. I propose Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis as a methodology for reverse-engineering such a complex network of conceptual practices to determine how it might be made to work even better. In Chapter 2, I argue that this methodology compares favorably against three competing ways of doing conceptual engineering: free-standing theory construction, intuitive conceptual analysis, and naturalized analysis. In Chapter 3, I consider challenges and objections that arise in spelling out and applying Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis.

The over-arching goal of the next three chapters is to show that Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis does what many have hoped philosophical analysis would do - it gives clear articulations of the meanings (or correct application conditions) that our shared concepts already have. To reach this conclusion, I use what I call a ‘bootstrapping argument’ to establish that Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis has two important virtues. The first phase of this argument establishes that Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis has normative authority – it reveals explications that we have practical and epistemic reason to adopt, whether we take these explications to be semantically revisionary or not. This normative authority licenses using Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis, in the second phase, to explicate our shared concept of concept-meaning. This yields the conclusion that we have practical and epistemic reason to adopt the notion of pragmatic meaning as our explication of ‘concept-meaning’. Having explicated our concept in this way, we see that Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis also has descriptive authority – it is a semantically conservative tool that reveals concept-meaning, thus explicated.

Chapter 5 explores the connections between Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis and Experimental Philosophy. I outline a new positive program for experimental philosophers, which I call Pragmatic Experimental Philosophy, and demonstrate how this experimental methodology can be used to develop a detailed account of what we should count as a good explanation. Chapter 6 then draws upon this account to argue that, in order best to explain people's behavioral successes, we'll need to employ a broadly pragmatic understanding of representational content in general, which bolsters the conclusion of our bootstrapping argument.

In Chapter 7, I consider several objections and hard cases, and argue that Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis weathers these storms in good shape.


Philosophy of Mind.

I think of human minds as biological systems, the histories of which determine normal operating principles which are theoretically, explanatorily, and predictively useful. This approach is fully naturalistic - it envisions our theories of mind as scientific theories, developed in close conjunction with our scientific theories of other phenomena. It is also appropriately normative - it gives central importance to the idea that there are principles within which a mind is supposed to operate in accordance. Philosophical puzzles involving misrepresentation, ‘mad’-phenomenal states, contradictory beliefs, irrationality, and reliably produced beliefs that fail to be knowledge may all be well understood as involving occasions where a cognitive system has failed (in some specifiable way) to operate in accordance with such principles.

One challenge is to motivate pursuing this approach, even in the face of objections and technical difficulties. For example, my paper in Noûs attempts to show that an organism's mental features are determined in part by its history, and not just by the current state of what's in its head. A second challenge is to show what useful work this approach allows us to do. For example, my first paper in Philosophical Psychology applies this general approach to break new ground in the debate about whether and how people might use simulation to attribute mental states to one another. Much of my other work may be construed as helping, in one way or another, to meet these two challenges.

In addition to the work described below, my book manuscript on Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis also contains much work in philosophy of mind.



Why Nothing Mental is Just in the Head. Download

Fisher, Justin. (2007) “Why Nothing Mental is Just in the Head.” Noûs 41: 318-34.

Selected by Philosophers Annual as one of the ten best philosophy papers published in 2007.

Abstract: Mental internalists hold that an individual’s mental features at a given time supervene upon what is in that individual’s head at that time. While many people reject mental internalism about content and justification, mental internalism is commonly accepted regarding such other mental features as rationality, emotion-types, propositional-attitude-types, moral character, and phenomenology. I construct a counter-example to mental internalism regarding all these features. My counter-example involves two creatures: a human and an alien from ‘Pulse World’. These creatures’ environments, behavioral dispositions and histories are such that it is intuitively clear that they are mentally quite different, even while they are, for a moment, exactly alike with respect to what’s in their heads. I offer positive reasons for thinking that the case I describe is indeed possible. I then consider ways in which mental internalists might attempt to account for this case, but conclude that the only plausible option is to reject mental internalism and to adopt a particular externalist alternative - a history-oriented version of teleo-functionalism.

Presented at the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (2003), the Society for Philosophy and Psychology (2003), the University of Arizona's Consciousness Discussion Forum (2002), and the U of A undergraduate Consciousness Club (2003).


Pragmatic Experimental Philosophy. Download

Fisher, Justin. (forthcoming) “Pragmatic Experimental Philosophy” Philosophical Psychology.

Abstract: This paper considers three package deals combining views in Philosophy of Mind, Meta-Philosophy, and Experimental Philosophy. The most familiar of these packages gives center-stage to pumping intuitions about fanciful cases, but that package involves problematic commitments both to a controversial descriptivist theory of reference and to intuitions that ‘negative’ experimental philosophers have shown to be suspiciously variable and context-sensitive. In light of these difficulties, it would be good for future-minded experimental philosophers to align themselves with a different package deal. This paper suggests two alternatives. Experimentalists might help fans of “Naturalized” approaches discover what natural kinds have been playing an appropriate role in causing us to use concepts as we do. Or, better still, experimentalists might instead help pragmatists and teleo-semanticists discover how our concept usage regularly yields beneficial outcomes, so that we can then craft philosophical analyses that will enable us to yield such beneficial outcomes more consistently. Using free will and explanation as instructive examples, this paper offers concrete guidance and suggestions for how experimental philosophers can pursue new positive projects that will be both pragmatically and philosophically useful.

I am grateful to helpful comments from many people, including Shaun Nichols, Ron Mallon, Joshua Knobe and other participants at the 2009 NEH summer institute on experimental philosophy and the 2011 bootcamp on experimental philosophy of free will. I am also grateful for helpful feedback from my colleagues at SMU, and audiences at the Eastern APA (including helpful commentary from Thomas Nadelhoffer), the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and Florida International University.


Meanings And Methodologies. Download

Fisher, Justin. (2007) “Meanings and Methodologies” in New Waves in Philosophy of Mind. Mark Sprevak and Jesper Kallestrup, editors. Palgrave MacMillan. 2014. Chap 4.

Excerpt from introduction: This paper charts relations between (a) views in philosophy of mind and language regarding the correct application conditions, or ‘meanings’, of our words and concepts and (b) methodologies that people have proposed for doing philosophy, especially methodologies that have aimed to uncover the meanings of philosophical concepts like knowledge, freedom and justice. I identify three broad classes of theories of concept meaning. Two of these, descriptivist and causal/informational classes of theories, correspond closely to familiar philosophical methodologies – intuitive conceptual analysis and ‘naturalized’ analysis. A third, the teleo/pragmatic class, has many adherents in philosophy of mind but does not yet have a well-known corresponding philosophical methodology. To fill this gap, I describe a general methodology that I call Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis. I offer some examples of this methodology and argue that this methodology enjoys distinct advantages over more familiar philosophical methodologies.

I am indebted to more people than I can name for helpful comments but especially Terry Horgan, David Chalmers, Joseph Tolliver, Chris Maloney and my colleagues at SMU, as well as audiences at the AAPA, the eastern APA, the SPP, the SSPP, the WCPA, many other combinations of letters, Florida International University and the Universities of Arizona, British Columbia and St Andrews. I am also grateful for helpful comments from other contributors to the New Waves volume in which this appears.


Does Simulation Theory Really Involve Simulation? Download

Fisher, Justin. (2006) “Does Simulation Theory Really Involve Simulation?” Philosophical Psychology 19: 417-32.

Introduction: This paper contributes to an ongoing debate regarding the cognitive processes involved when one person predicts a target person’s behavior and/or attributes a mental state to that target person. According to one popular position in this debate, Simulation Theory, a person typically performs these tasks by employing some part of her brain as a simulation of what is going on in a corresponding part of the brain of the target person.1 One conclusion of this paper is that, surprisingly, a large number of cases that Simulation Theorists have counted as intuitive cases of simulation turn out, under closer inspection, not actually to involve simulation, after all.

To reach this surprising conclusion, I begin by proposing a general intuitive analysis of what simulation means. Simulation is a particular way of using one process to acquire knowledge about another process. What distinguishes simulation from other ways of acquiring knowledge is that simulation requires, for its non-accidental success, that the simulating process reflect significant aspects of the simulated process. My analysis of simulation is intuitively satisfying, and that it is roughly what Simulation Theorists, at least in some instances, have thought simulation to be. This conceptual work is of independent philosophical interest, but it also enables me to argue for two conclusions that are of great significance to the debate about mental Simulation Theory. First, I argue that, in order to stake a non-trivial claim, Simulation Theory must hold that mental simulation involves what I call concretely similar processes. Second, I argue for the surprising conclusion mentioned above - that a significant class of cases that Simulation Theorists have claimed as intuitive cases of simulation do not actually involve simulation, after all. I will close by sketching an alternate account that might handle these problematic cases.

Winner of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology's 2004 William James Prize for best graduate student paper in philosophy. Also presented at the Society for Exact Philosophy.


Critical Notice for The Bounds of Cognition Download

Fisher, Justin. (2008) Critical Notice for The Bounds of Cognition. Journal of Mind and Behavior 29: 345-57.

This long (7200 word) critical notice rebuts arguments that Fred Adams and Kenneth Aizawa make against the Extended Mind Thesis, the view that human cognitive processing is carried out, in part, by external devices like cell phones, notebooks, and scrabble tiles. However, I argue that ultimately the debate about the Extended Mind Thesis is merely terminological: there are useful understandings of 'cognitive processing' that count some of our external devices as doing cognitive processing, and other useful understandings that don't, with no deep fact of the matter about which of these is right.

Presented at the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology.


Review of Contemporary Debates in Cognitive Science and Computational Modeling Download

Fisher, Justin. (2006) Review of Contemporary Debates in Cognitive Science. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, November 2006.

This is a review (2900 words) of a Blackwell volume containing 18 new papers in the philosophy of cognitive science. I critically respond to a fair number of the papers, as well as the organization of the volume.

Work In Preparation:


The Authority of Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis full paper

Abstract. This paper defends Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis, a proposed empirical methodology for explicating philosophical concepts. This methodology attributes to our shared concepts whatever application conditions they would need to have in order best to continue delivering benefits in the ways they have regularly delivered benefits in the past. In the first stage of my argument I argue that Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis has what I call normative authority: we have practical and epistemic reason to adopt the explications that it delivers even if we think doing so requires stipulative revisions in the meanings of our concepts. I then use this normative authority to argue that Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis also has what I call descriptive authority: when we understand concept-meaning in the way we ought to understand it (in the way licensed by the normative authority of Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis) we see that, rather than being revisionary, Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis is a semantically conservative tool that uncovers (what we should think of as being) the meanings our concepts already have.

Presented at the Australasian Association of Philosophy, the University of Arizona, the Online Philosophy Conference, the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, the Western Canadian Philosophical Association, the University of British Columbia and Southern Methodist University.


Pragmatic Experimental Philosophy full paper

Abstract. This paper considers three package deals combining views in Philosophy of Mind, Meta-Philosophy, and Experimental Philosophy. The most familiar of these packages gives center-stage to pumping intuitions about fanciful cases, but that package involves problematic commitments both to a controversial descriptivist theory of reference and to intuitions that 'negative' experimental philosophers have shown to be suspiciously variable and context-sensitive. In light of these difficulties, it would be good for future-minded experimental philosophers to align themselves with a different package deal. This paper suggests two alternatives. Experimentalists might help fans of "Naturalized" approaches discover what natural kinds have been playing an appropriate role in causing us to use concepts as we do. Or-better still-experimentalists might instead help pragmatists and teleo-semanticists discover how our concept usage regularly yields beneficial outcomes, so that we can then craft philosophical analyses that will enable us to yield such beneficial outcomes more consistently. Using free will and explanation as instructive examples, this paper offers concrete guidance and suggestions for how experimental philosophers can pursue new positive projects that will be both pragmatically and philosophically useful.

Presented at NEH Summer Seminar on Experimental Philosophy, the SSPP, and the Eastern APA.


Meta-Semantic Arguments against Skepticism powerpoint full paper

Abstract. This paper uses recent work in philosophy of mind and language to provide a unified resolution to a variety of skeptical arguments raised in different areas of philosophy. I argue for a meta-semantic principle which holds that, so long as we have a track record of appropriate causal interaction with things or kinds in the world, our terms and concepts will semantically latch onto these referents. From this principle, several corollaries follow, including that certain sorts of systematic error are impossible. This provides a unified resolution to skeptical arguments involving the Matrix, long-term envatment, van Fraassen's argument for scientific anti-realism, eliminativism, hard determinism, error theory about color, moral queerness, evolutionary arguments for moral skepticism, and Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism. I close by considering the limitations of this approach. This is no panacea against all forms of skepticism, but it does help resolve multiple debates that have received much recent philosophical attention.

Presented at the Purdue Summer Seminar on Perceptual, Religious and Moral Skepticism, the Dallas Philosophers Forum, and (soon) at the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology.


Representational Content and the Keys to Success full paper

Abstract. I consider the question of whether success-linked theories of content – theories like those of Ramsey (1927), Millikan (1984) and Blackburn (2005) which take there to be a definitional link between representational content and behavioral success – are consistent with the plausible claim that we can use content-attributions to explain behavioral success. Peter Godfrey-Smith (1996) argues that success-linked theories of content are too closely linked to success to be able to explain it. Against this, I present a plausible account of how content-attributions make available good explanations of behavioral success, and argue that if we want our content-attributions to be able to do this explanatory work, then we actually need to embrace a success-linked theory of content.

Presented at the Pacific APA (2005) and the Australian National University (mental representation group) (2005).


Color Representations as Hash Values full paper

Abstract. The goal of this paper is to answer the following question: When we have mental states that represent certain things as being colored, what properties are our mental states representing these things as having? I first state three presumptions about the notion of representation presupposed in this question. I then present a simple overview of potential answers to this question. In that presentation, several puzzles arise that any successful theory of color must solve. With these puzzles in mind, I present the position that I favor. I argue that color representation systems work upon the same basic principles as hashing schemes employed by computer scientists, and I explain how this observation enables us to answer the question with which we began and to solve the puzzles that face other approaches.

Presented at the Central APA (2005) and the Society for Philosophy & Psychology (2005).


Don’t Know Much About Qualia...Or Do We? powerpoint

Excerpt from Introduction. On the face of it, we seem to be in a rather unusual epistemic position with respect to the phenomenal qualities of our experience. We seem to be directly aware that these so-called qualia exist, and yet we seem doomed to be forever in the dark regarding what relations these qualia might actually bear to the physical world that scientists study. Such observations have underwritten a number of well-known arguments for the conclusion that qualia are not physical properties (e.g., Jackson 1982, Chalmers 1996, 2003). [...] I pose a dilemma for the would-be anti-physicalist: either we can’t know much about qualia or else we can. If we can’t know much about qualia, then, I will argue, we must have insufficient evidence for many of our common attributions of qualia both to our past selves, and to others. I will argue that the resulting view would be intuitively unpalatable and a scientific non-starter. Furthermore, I will argue, even if we overlook these serious failings, this view still can’t compel us to an anti-physicalist conclusion. On the other horn, the anti-physicalist may admit that we can have substantive knowledge about the relations between qualia and other properties. I believe that such an admission is strongly consistent with common intuitions and that it may serve as the basis of a fruitful scientific research program. But, I will argue, this admission undercuts the anti-physicalist arguments mentioned above, and leaves open the possibility that qualia may turn out to be wholly physical afterall. Hence, whether or not we can know much about qualia, we don’t yet have compelling reason to reject physicalism.

Winner of a Best Poster prize at Toward a Science of Consciousness 2004. Also presented at the University of Arizona.


Emotions as Modes of Cognition. full paper

Excerpts from introduction. Common parlance often depicts emotions as demons which take up residence within a subject and which alter the ways in which she thinks and acts. I think that there is much to be gained by attending to this metaphor as we attempt to develop a good theory of the emotions. I will propose that the central feature of emotions is the fact that they normally modulate the ways in which processes of ordinary epistemic and practical reasoning – processes which I will call ‘ratiocination’ – are performed. On this proposal, emotions really are like demons that possess us and alter the mode of our cognition. Like the hypothetical demons, emotions draw our attention to certain things; they set priorities for us (whether we would ratiocinatively choose those priorities or not); and they introduce compelling urges in us to do various things. The goal of this paper is to spell out this ‘Modes of Cognition proposal’ and to give reasons for thinking that it is preferable to alternative understandings of the emotions.

Presented at the University of North Carolina (2004).

“Scientific Explanation and Evolutionary Theories of Representation” Abstract. There has been much recent debate regarding evolutionary theories of representation – theories that attempt to provide a philosophical account in naturalistic evolutionary terms of how particular neural states of an organism might represent (or misrepresent) certain states of affairs in the world.  One serious obstacle facing the development of such a theory is that the best-spelled-out of the candidate theories, the one proposed by Ruth Millikan, involves a crucial appeal to an as-yet unanalyzed notion of ‘explanation’.  This paper begins with the account of scientific explanation proposed in my (in preparation) “A Covering-Model Account of Scientific Explanation” and shows how this account of explanation might be adapted to fit the needs of an evolutionary theory of representation. On this understanding, a scientific explanation shows how a particular phenomenon is appropriately fit by a model generated by a covering abstraction which, itself, satisfies four important constraints:  general applicability, cohesiveness, relevance, and completeness.  I argue that a workable understanding of these four constraints will allow us to spell out an evolutionary theory of representation which is immune to certain objections that have been raised against such accounts.

Philosophy of Science (especially Biology).

I am interested in questions about how good explanations work. In particular, I'm interested in questions about how explanations using mental-state attributions work, and I think the best way to answer these is by asking how explanations in terms of biological function work. I am also interested in what's going on when we, as a group of biological/cultural organisms, do science. What sorts of conclusions might this sort of process justify regarding our world? And what is it about this sort of process that justifies those conclusions?

My biological approach to Philosophy of Mind leads naturally to strong interests in the Philosophy of Biology, including questions about whether and how we might draw upon evolutionary theory to define useful theoretical notions of natural purposes, normal operating conditions, or proper functions.

I am also interested in potential ways of defining general notions of evolutionary processes which may include the dynamics of cultural (or memetic) evolution, in addition to the more familiar cases of genetic evolution. My dissertation proposes that we think of shared concepts as dynamically changing cultural entities, and I have other work arguing that there is much to be gained by thinking of languages in this way too.



On Higher-Order and Free-Floating Chances. Download

Fisher, Justin. (2006) “On Higher-Order and Free-Floating Chances.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57: 691-707.

Abstract: Marc Lange (forthcoming) considers what I call free-floating chances - objective chances that obtain at a given time despite the fact that their values are not determined by the laws of nature together with the full history of non-chancy facts up to that time. I offer an intuitive example of this phenomenon, and use it to argue that free-floating chances are indeed possible. Their possibility violates three quite widely held principles about chances: the lawful magnitude principle, the principle that chances evolve by conditionalization, and a version of David Lewis' principal principle. I argue that we should reject common formulations of each of these principles, though I offer revised understandings of each which retain much of the intuitive attractiveness of the originals and are consistent with the possibility of free-floating chances. I conclude by arguing that, while considerations of free-floating chances are important, they won't sustain the extravagant conclusions Lange attempts to draw from them.

Presented at the North Carolina ‘Triangle Ellipse’ (2005) and the Society for Exact Philosophy (2005).


What Can Game Theory Tell us About Humans? Download

Fisher, Justin. (forthcoming) “What Can Game Theory Tell us About Humans?” to appear in Evolution, Games and God. Sarah Coakley and Martin Nowak, editors. Harvard University Press.

Introduction (excerpts): The preceding chapters have offered various game theoretic models of cooperation, and have suggested that such models can help to shed light on patterns of human behavior. One natural response to these models is to grant that they might help us to understand computers and simple animals, but to be skeptical about how much these models might tell us about humans. In this chapter, I examine three potential reasons for such skepticism. Each of these potential reasons involves a feature that many people suppose sets humans apart from simpler creatures […] My conclusion will be cautiously optimistic: game theory is compatible with all plausible positions regarding dualism and free will, and, while there is much room for game theoretic models to improve with respect to the complexities of human cognition, these are improvements that we may expect game theorists eventually to make.

Work In Preparation:


Why Ask Why? What Good Explanations Deliver and How They Deliver It. powerpoint

Description. There are various jobs that explanations are supposed to do for us - various things that explanations have had to deliver quite often in order for them to have continued to be worth using. My goal in this paper is to offer an account of what an explanation would have to be like in order to successfully perform these jobs. I propose that good explanations are supposed to provide certain sorts of accurate information, and that they are supposed to organize this information in a particularly useful way. To do this work, a good explanation prominently displays its explanandum as an instance of a general pattern, while providing unobtrusive hyperlinks to relevant practical and theoretical information.

This is derived from Chapter 4 of my dissertation and employs the methodology defended there, Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis.

Presented at the Australian National University (2005) and Northern Arizona University (2005).


Abstract Cultural Replicators. full paper

Brief Introduction. In recent years meme-theoretic approaches to understanding cultural change have received an increasing amount of popular attention. These approaches propose that we might understand cultural change as being driven, at least in large part, by a competition between socially transmitted self-replicating entities called ‘memes’. One outspoken critic of these approaches is the anthropologist Dan Sperber. In this paper, I defend a general meme-theoretic approach against several criticisms that Sperber raises. This defense helps bring to light some ways in which a defensible meme theory could (and perhaps should) be developed.


Philosophy of Language and Linguistics.

My primary interests in this area involve understanding languages as dynamically changing cultural entities, and considering the relation between language so-conceived and mind.

I describe some of my work on language below (scroll down), but I also have put related work in other categories:

  • My dissertation deals directly with the question of what our concepts mean, but this is closely related to debates about linguistic meaning.
  • I am working on two neural-net modeling projects involving language, described in my section on research in Cognitive Science.

Work In Preparation:


How Smart Languages Learn to Teach Themselves to Stupid Children powerpoint full paper

Excerpt from Introduction. In what follows, I will first attempt to isolate the target that I am arguing against. I state clearly what is held by the Linguistic Nativist, and then I give textual evidence illustrating that Linguistic Nativism is widely held. After making clear what exactly is at issue, I will carefully consider a large number of arguments that have been mustered in favor of Linguistic Nativism. I will argue that each of these traditional arguments fails to provide any conclusive reason to accept Linguistic Nativism, especially in the face of competition from dynamical explanations like the one mentioned above. In the course of this discussion, I will do much to develop this dynamical explanatory approach into a strong new alternative to Linguistic Nativism. I will call this new alternative Symbiotic Developmentalism, for, as I will argue below, I think we can profit by thinking of ‘language acquisition’ as involving the simultaneous development of two symbiotic ‘organisms’ – metaphorically, a cactus and a living plot of soil – literally, a language and a homo sapiens child. In the concluding section, I will argue that Symbiotic Developmentalism will open promising new avenues for linguistic research, avenues which are not readily available within a nativist framework.

Presented at the University of North Carolina (2005), and to the UBC Linguistics department (2007).


Cognitive Science and Computational Modeling.

My approach to questions about mind and language is closely related to traditional cognitive science enterprises whose goals are to discover/describe/explain how cognition works, and to build working models which reflect our best theories of cognition.

I worked for three years as a member of John Pollock's OSCAR research group, the goal of which is to develop an artificial agent (an AI computer program) which is capable of sophisticated defeasible reasoning. My work on this project involved a fair amount of programming, and a great deal of theoretical development which is a necessary precursor to any implementation.

I also work in my spare time several computational modeling projects of my own, described below.

Work In Preparation:


ObjArray: Better Integrating Python Objects with NumPy Arrays project page

There are many well-known benefits of Object Oriented Programming (OOP), including allowing hierarchically classed objects to possess and inherit diverse attributes and methods. There are also well-known benefits of Numeric Python (NumPy) arrays, including speed, a vast library of powerful functions, and flexible indexing. Before now, it was quite cumbersome for Python users to enjoy both sorts of benefits at the same time. Python’s objects offer excellent OOP, but could not easily be used with Numpy. NumPy’s structured and record arrays offer NumPy virtues but only a pale approximation of OOP. NumPy also allows arrays of Python objects, but these provide only fancy indexing, not straightforward access to OOP attributes or methods, nor direct access to the vast library of fast NumPy functions. Instead, coders who want to enjoy both OOP and NumPy have needed to write many manual loops/mappings/comprehensions to copy arrayed objects’ attributes into NumPy arrays and vice versa. My free library, ObjArray, offers a solution to this problem, providing NumPy users clean natural access to OOP attributes and methods – for example, people[ people.age >= 18 ].height does exactly what you would intuitively expect it should do, namely return a Numpy array of the height attributes of all the people over age 18 – all while providing full access to the speed, power, and flexible indexing of NumPy.


I am working on modeling the ways in which a language-like communication system evolves in a community of neural networks, where young members of the community learn the language from older members who eventually die off. The goal of this model is to illustrate that many interesting syntactic features of language may arise purely as a consequence of the natural dynamics of language change, and not because these features are innately encoded in each individual speaker. This is intended to be a demonstrative existence proof for claims made in my “Smart Languages” paper.

Presented at the Duke conference on the evolution of cognition (2005).

I am working on building a model which might do the central work of prediction, regurgitation (reproducing a recently-heard sentence), verbal-thinking, and speech production, and which might learn to do this without any significant innate syntactic knowledge.

Presented at the University of Arizona (2003).



My undergraduate honors thesis defended the view that all that really exists is some realizer of the basic microphysical structure of our world, and that this structure serves as an indirect truthmaker (or appropriateness-maker) for various claims involving ordinary (and other macro-level) entities. I still hold (some suitably qualified form of) this thesis, and now have novel arguments for it using Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis.

I am also interested in many of the particular metaphysical questions that arise especially in discussions of philosophy of mind and science, including questions about time, modality, causation, counterfactuals, chances, and dispositions.

Scroll down to see my work in pure metaphysics. The following papers listed in other categories are also closely related to metaphysics:



Dispositions, Conditionals and Auspicious Circumstances full paper powerpoint

Fisher, Justin. (forthcoming) “Dispositions, Conditionals, and Auspicious Circumstances.” Philosophical Studies.

Abstract. Several recent papers suggest that a conditional analysis of dispositions must take roughly the following form:

Something X is disposed to produce response R to stimulus S just in case, if X were exposed to S and surrounding circumstances were auspicious, then X would produce R.

The great challenge is cashing out the relevant notion of 'auspicious circumstances'. I argue that there is no satisfactory way to define 'auspicious circumstances' just in terms of S, R, and X, and that we should instead conclude that the auspicious circumstances C for the manifestation of a disposition constitute a third irreducible element of that disposition, and that to pick out (or to 'individuate') that disposition one must specify C along with S and R. This enables a modified conditional analysis of dispositions that gives intuitively satisfying answers in cases that pose problems for other approaches.

Presented at the Central APA (2005) and at the University of North Carolina (2005).


Epistemology & Decision Theory.

I think that it is practically impossible to address epistemological questions like “What probability ought I assign to claim P” independently of other questions like “How ought I to use probabilities in making decisions?”. An answer to either sort of question can be good only if it connects seamlessly to good answers to the other sort of question. Hence, if I had my way, I would consolidate Epistemology and Decision Theory under the single heading 'Rationality Theory', which I would construe quite broadly as the study of ideally rational cognition, and of the various pathologies that might plague actual cognition.

My recent work in these areas has involved questions about what an agent should believe and/or choose in puzzling scenarios like Newcomb's problem (I'm a proud one-boxer) or the Sleeping Beauty problem (I say P(HEADS) = ½). However, I am also interested in more general questions regarding the nature of cognitive norms, and the relation between the norms of ideal rationality and the norms of (teleological) 'proper' cognitive functioning. I believe that proper attention to this relationship may help us to redefine and/or to solve many traditional epistemological puzzles regarding our notions of knowledge and justification.

The following paper is hard to classify, but could have been listed under Epistemology:

Work In Preparation:


In Defense of a Disposition-Based Decision Theory powerpoint full paper

Abstract. I develop and defend a version of what I call Disposition-Based Decision Theory (or DBDT). I point out important problems in David Gauthier's (1985, 1986) formulation of DBDT, and carefully develop a more defensible formulation. I then compare my version of DBDT to the currently most widely accepted decision theory, Causal Decision Theory (CDT). Traditional intuition-based arguments fail to give us any strong reason to prefer either theory over the other, but I propose an alternative strategy for resolving this debate. I argue that we should embrace DBDT because it does better than CDT at the work that we, as a matter of empirical fact, commonly call upon a notion of rationality to do.

This is an early application of the methodology, Pragmatic Conceptual Analysis, that I articulate and defend in my dissertation.

Presented at the Arizona Summer Workshop in Philosophy (2002), the Fourth Tucson Interdisciplinary Workshop on Decision-Making (2004), and the Australian National University (2005).


Sleeping Beauty and Two Theories of Probability” (with Sarah A. Wright) powerpoint full paper

Abstract. There has been much recent debate regarding Adam Elga’s Sleeping Beauty problem. In what follows, we argue that each side of this debate has a defensible position, with corresponding commitments regarding a number of related topics. We carefully develop these two competing positions, showing the ways in which they differ, and the many ways in which they converge. We also discuss potential reasons for favoring one of these positions over the other, and conclude there is some reason to prefer one of these two positions – a ‘halfer’ postion akin to the one defended by David Lewis and strongly opposed to the ‘thirder’ position defended by Adam Elga (2000), Cian Dorr, Terry Horgan (forthcoming), and Christopher Hitchcock (forthcoming).

Presented at the Konstanz Summer School in Philosophy, Probability, and the Special Sciences (2003), the Kirchberg Wittgenstein Symposium (2003), the Arizona Summer Workshop in Philosophy (2003), and the Australian National University (2005).


The Java Problem: Another Puzzle about Self-Locating Belief powerpoint full paper

Abstract. I present what I call the Java problem - an everyday case that raises many of the same interesting issues that are raised by the recently much-discussed Sleeping Beauty problem. Java has recently drunk a cup of coffee that may or may not - depending on a fair coin-flip - have contained thought-accelerating caffeine, and she is wondering what probability she should assign to the claim that her coffee did indeed contain caffeine. The intuitively correct answer to give in the Java problem is clearly 1/2, even though most arguments that have been mustered for the 1/3 answer in the Sleeping Beauty problem have analogs that point to the clearly wrong 1/3 answer in the Java problem. This, I argue, is good reason to call these 'thirder' arguments into question, and to embrace the 1/2 answer in both cases.

Presented at the Austalian National University (2005).


Last updated 2005.11.14, by Justin C. Fisher. fisher@smu.edu