Semester Roundup

Are we seriously in the last week of classes already? This semester has flown by. I have had quite a bit going on in addition to writing my honors thesis—applying to grad school in particular comes to mind—but these are all good things.

Once school started back up again in August, I finished up some statistical analyses of results from an experiment I had run at the end of the summer and got to work figuring out what, if any, philosophical implications these results might have. Fortunately, the results lend some support to my hypothesis, which in turn lends some support to the error theory I’m developing in my thesis for non-consequentialist intuitions about punishment and moral responsibility.  Much of the rest of the semester has been spent spelling out exactly the form this error theory should take. While I spent a lot of my time over the summer exploring a number of forms this error theory could take, I realized early in the semester that most of these wouldn’t ultimately work. However, throughout the semester I was able to finally formulate a theory that I think has a fairly decent chance of succeeding, should the empirical data continue to turn out the way I predict.

Spelling out this error theory has been a very delicate (and difficult) task, and I am still working on finding the most plausible way of articulating it. In doing so, I have had to delve into some literature in the philosophy of mind about the limits of introspection and the existence of nonconscious mental states, much of which is itself very new (and very controversial). Consequently, I have had to tread very lightly over this research while still finding a way to effectively put it to use in my error theory. Fortunately, the challenge of integrating all these ideas from diverse areas of philosophy and psychology has been even more exhilarating than it has been nerve-racking. And that’s saying something, because it’s been pretty nerve-racking!

As you may recall from one of my summer posts, I have also thought a lot about evolution with respect to developing an error theory for people’s non-consequentialist intuitions about blame an punishment. I have come to the conclusion that a direct evolutionary debunking story won’t work (at least, not without discounting the consequentialist intuitions I do want to make use of!), but the error theory I have developed relies heavily on an evolutionary account of the psychological processes underlying people’s judgments about what constitutes justifiable blame and punishment. The role of evolutionary thinking in my error theory is not one that has direct philosophical import (i.e., I’m not saying, “Look! There’s an evolutionary explanation for why we have these intuitions, therefore we have reason to doubt that they are reliable guides to the moral truth!”), but it does help generate (testable!) hypotheses about how people do in fact go about making the judgments they do. Thinking towards grad school, this process has inspired me to continue making use of evolutionary thinking as a heuristic for generating hypotheses that can then be tested and (very carefully) integrated into philosophical theorizing.

The rest of this semester involves a few papers, exams, and finishing up these grad school applications. After that, I’ll be preparing for a poster presentation I’ll be giving at the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division Meeting at the end of December. Hopefully I’ll get some good feedback not only on my experiments, but also on the general philosophical position I am using it to defend. So, needless to say, I’m looking forward to the semester break, but mostly because of the additional time it will allow me for working on my thesis!


  1. Adam Lerner says:

    Thank you so much, Professor Tognazzini. 🙂

  2. I’m glad to hear that your research this semester has been exhilarating — that’s a good sign that grad school in philosophy is a good place for you. Best of luck getting those applications out, and as always, feel free to get in touch if I can help.