Graduate Student in Logic & Philosophy of Science
(Current as of 7-24-03)
Dissertation: Recent work in cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience has produced some surprising results that provide the materials for an empirical theory of concept acquisition which departs in significant ways from both radical nativism and classical empiricism. I am developing a theory of how pre-linguistic infants acquire the capacity to construct causal concepts in the period from 7 to 18 months of age. In humans the sophisticated modular capacity of the mammalian nervous system to track conditional frequencies of biologically significant environmental variables feeds a higher system that detects causal properties. Human infants can perceptually discriminate some of these properties by 3 months of age. Joint attention and the other social cognitive capacities they develop in the second half of their first year provide the context in which babies develop their first true concepts. These require a degree of self-consciousness not required for perceptual categorization. Early concepts are causal and theoretical, providing powerful tools for induction. Their encoding, use, and updating may be facilitated by the special properties of causal Bayes net type architectures. It is as true of the baby’s first concepts as of the complex concepts of a mature discipline that conceptual content is not read off from sensory experience. I attempt to show how a concept the content of which is underdetermined by sensory experience can nonetheless be empirically derived, in a process that endows it with normative semantic properties.
In a side-project I’ve taken up since 9/11, I’m exploring the possibility of extending John Rawls’ social-contract conception of a Law of Peoples (1999) to relations among the world’s monotheistic religions. The proposal is that there should be formed a global Society of Peoples of Faith, on the basis of a political conception of right and justice which I call the “Law of Peoples of Faith”. The Law of Peoples of Faith would set out the general principles that can be and ought to be accepted by member faith communities as the standard for regulating their behavior toward one another. Formation of a Society of Peoples of Faith on the basis of a social contract of this type would have three principal aims: to institutionalize the rule of law amongst the religious communities of the world; to require, teach and encourage the use of what Rawls calls “public reason” in relations between faith communities at every level; and to be an ongoing stimulus toward the internal liberalization of member faith traditions in accordance with their own theologies. I will be presenting a paper on this proposal at Oxford in August, at which time I hope to explore the obvious practical questions, the possibility of extending the idea to include the non-monotheistic religions, the merits of the original Rawlsian project, and in particular some ethical and epistemological questions surrounding the idea of public reason.
My CV, a selection of papers, and a description of my other research interests are available on my website:URL: http://kleene.ss.uci.edu/~skrenes