Berkeley Research

To date research in Prof. Lombrozo's Concepts and Cognition lab has focused on children and adults' explanations and their relationship to conceptual representation and learning. For example, previous work in the lab has found that children and adults prefer explanations that are simple in the sense that they involve few unexplained causes, and under some conditions, that specify a function or purpose rather than a causal mechanism. The lab's research has also shown that these preferences for some kinds of explanations over others have important consequences for cognition: they impact how people organize conceptual representations—which are arguably the building blocks of thought—and how people identify causal relationships.

As part of the Varieties of Understanding project, and motivated by recent advances in epistemology and philosophy of science, research in the lab takes a closer step towards a rigorous, experimental, and interdisciplinary investigation of human understanding, focusing on the key questions below, which use explanation and learning as vehicles for investigating the nature of children and adults' understanding:

  1. Explanation and understanding are clearly related, but how? Are the explanations judged most compelling—for example, those that are broad but simple—the ones that generate the greatest sense of understanding and support the most effective learning?
  2. Do different kinds of explanations generate different kinds of understanding? In particular, do "teleological" or "functional" explanations support a different kind of understanding than "mechanistic" explanations? If so, when is each kind of explanation or understanding most appropriate, and why? Do teleological explanations have a special status in some domains, such as religious explanations?
  3. Most people have had the experience of achieving greater understanding as a result of explaining something to someone else, or even to themselves. In what sense do people achieve new understanding as a result of explaining, even in the absence of novel information from the external world?

These questions are investigated using the methods of cognitive and developmental psychology, alongside the conceptual tools of analytic philosophy. In particular, question (1) relates to issues in philosophy of science concerning scientific explanation and the goals of scientific inquiry, question (2) relates to research in the philosophy of biology, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of religion concerning teleological explanations, and (3) relates to questions in epistemology with roots in Plato's Meno. The questions also have important educational implications, both for formal education in classrooms and for the improvement of everyday reasoning.

Prof. Lombrozo will be aided in this research by two postdoctoral researchers and a graduate research assistant. Prof. Michael Strevens, the Philosophy Director of the Varieties of Understanding grant, will also pay annual visits to the Berkeley lab to help integrate the work of the psychology and philosophy postdocs.