Psycho-Ontology is…

A Shalem Center conference which will take place at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem, on December 11-15, 2011. The conference has been organized by Jesse Prinz of CUNY Graduate Center and Yoram Hazony of the Shalem Center. Invited speakers for this conference are Lera Boroditsky (Stanford), David Chalmers (ANU and NYU), Eli Hirsch (Brandeis), Steven Horst (Wesleyan), Steven Pinker (Harvard), Susanna Siegel (Harvard), and Amie Thomasson (Miami).

Psycho-Ontology is…

Do the operations of the human mind have something to teach us about the fundamental structure of reality? Philosophers such as Hume, Kant, James, Bergson, Husserl, Kuhn, and Goodman have, in different ways, seemed to believe this question should be answered in the affirmative. Yet as disciplines, cognitive science and metaphysics are usually conducted without reference to one another.

“Psycho-ontology” can be defined as the investigation of the relationship between human cognition and features of reality: We do psycho-ontology when we study the way perception, thought, and emotion play a role in helping constitute the world we inhabit. But psycho-ontology can also move in the opposite direction: It can involve studying the fundamental features of reality in order to gain insight into how human cognitive processes work.

This conference will seek to answer questions such as:

1. Is psycho-ontology possible? Can the study of the human mind, including recent work in cognitive science, teach us anything about the fundamental character of reality? Conversely, can the study of the fundamental features of reality teach us anything about the character of the human mind?

2. Is the philosophical study of metaphysics actually the study of the nature of human cognition? Can metaphysics be conducted as a discipline independent of engaging with human psychology?

3. Does cognitive pluralism (i.e., psychological theories that emphasize use of diverse “frames,” “domains,” “models,” “modules,” or “metaphors”) imply an ontological pluralism? That is, can we infer ontological divisions from cognitive ones, and are such divisions discovered or projected? If that latter, how should we think about reality and truth?

4. Does linguistic labeling track the structure of the world, or does it also involve the imposition of boundaries that can differ across languages? Does this imply that the categories in some domains are psychological constructions?

5. Cognitive science has increasingly brought the emotions into the cognitive process. Does this mean that emotions can be seen as partially constitutive of reality? For example, do emotions play a constitutive role in evaluative properties (such as moral and aesthetic qualities)?

6. Normativity is ubiquitous in our understanding of reality. Are there cognitive mechanisms that underlie the perception of normativity across domains in our understanding of the world? Do normative facts hold independently of normative beliefs and practices?

7. Can an understanding of human cognition assist us in understanding how truth is pursued and attained in the sciences? Can it help in explaining the unity or disunity of the sciences? In science, is there a sharp distinction between fact and fiat? Do the cognitive processes involved in pursuing science have parallels in other areas, such as morals or aesthetics?

8. Philosophy has been deeply concerned with reduction and emergence as problems of ontology. Can reduction and emergence be understood as features of human cognition? For example, are the different levels of reality ultimately levels of description? And if so, do they exist apart from explanation?

9. Can the study of child development (e.g., object concepts, causal cognition, and theory construction in infancy) teach us about the nature of science or the ontological status of the categories that scientists and others use when describing the world?

10. To what extent is naturalism committed to a sharp separation between ontology and psychology?