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Conceiving an interdisciplinary future

An interview with Franz Berto

Franz Berto works on logic and metaphysics. He completed his Philosophy degree at Ca’Foscari University of Venice, Italy. He did his PhD in Philosophy at the same university, and afterwards he worked at different universities all over the world. He worked at the University of Aberdeen UK, the Institute for Advanced Study of the University of Notre Dame in the US, at the Sorbonne-Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, and at the universities of Padua, Venice, and Milan-San Raffaele in Italy. Already three years ago, he continued his career at the University of Amsterdam. Franz has been in SMART since the end of 2015.


Armchair philosophy

“I started doing philosophy because I got interested in very general foundational questions. I usually do ‘armchair theoretical philosophy’: the kind of research you engage in by sitting in a (comfortable) chair, considering hypotheses, and speculating about abstract problems. It’s very different from applied research, because there are no practical implications in sight. You want to achieve understanding.”

The logic of conceivability

Franz recently got a grant for a big interdisciplinary project: “It’s called ‘The Logic of Conceivability’, and it got a ton of money from the European Research Council. I want to study how we reason when we imagine non-actual scenarios. This can take place in everyday speculations about what may happen, like: ‘What am I to do if my residence permit gets revoked?’. It can also come with counterfactual hypotheses about the past, concerning how things might have gone differently: ‘Would he have had the accident, had he stopped when the traffic light was yellow?’. You engage in these exercises all the time, when you try to anticipate the future, or to learn from mistakes. Many thought experiments in science work analogously: think of Galileo’s thought experiment on falling bodies. Looks like we can form new justified beliefs this way, at least sometimes (Galileo refuted the Aristotelian theory of motion via pure thought).  But how can we know about reality by contemplating unreal scenarios in our mind? If we understand better how this happens, we may also get better at doing it.”

Interdisciplinary work

“Philosophers study these phenomena, and cognitive psychologists and logicians do as well, but sometimes there is little interaction between them. I came up with the idea of studying conceivability in a more interdisciplinary way. That’s something I have never done before, so I applied for funding to hire people who would complement my limited expertise. Some of the problems in science are due to the fact that one area of research does not speak to the other. For instance, there is a lot of work in epistemic logic. This is the logic of how we reason on what we know, and how we form and update our beliefs. There are very precise mathematical models in this area, but they often model idealized reasoners: people who are logically omniscient, perfectly consistent in their beliefs. That can be corrected if you take empirical research in psychology on board. There is a lot of empirical work that shows which kinds of fallacies are common, the sort of mistakes people are more prone to make. Combining this with accurate logical techniques may give realistic and enlightening models of human reasoning. People do it already at the ILLC, the institute I am affiliated with at the UvA. For instance, Michiel van Lambalgen is a world-leading authority on this kind of research.”

Schizophrenic academia

“I said that I’ve never done interdisciplinary research before. Interdisciplinary research is officially encouraged by universities, funding bodies, research councils. But the academia is a bit schizophrenic about this. If you submit an interdisciplinary research proposal to a panel, it might be that specialists from fields other than your own evaluate it from their own viewpoint – which makes it not unlikely that they will bash you because your approach is as alien to them as theirs would be to you. It happened to me, and friends, a couple of times when we applied for funding at NWO, the Dutch research agency. Besides, there are few interdisciplinary journals that have a good reputation among the specialists who will sit in your hiring or promotion committees. It’s a peculiar situation.”

‘SMART animals’

The theme of the second edition of the SMART conference is ‘SMART animals’: “I am looking forward to the conference. I know nothing about animal cognition, except for those old philosophical views they teach you when you are a philosophy undergrad. For instance, they teach you how Descartes thought that animals are nicely organized, mindless machines. But I know that there is a lot of research on animal cognition nowadays, also in philosophy, and it will be good to have a glimpse at what people say.”

Situated cognition

“Some classic philosophy of cognition was very much in line with GOFAI (good old-fashioned artificial intelligence). I’m not a specialist, but I know that that paradigm is now considered outdated, or at least in need of serious rethinking. The focus of AI nowadays is not (only) on artificial symbol systems, like expert systems solving problems in very specific domains, or getting better and better at playing chess. People now pay more attention to the importance of things like having a body that interacts with the environment, for instance. Is has become increasingly clear that if you want to have artificial intelligent beings, you cannot only focus on higher faculties, like those taking care of logical reasoning and mathematical skills. Instead, you have to be able to mimic other capacities, some of which are shared by humans and animals. I’m not very much into this kind of research (I still care more about the higher faculties, like the capacity of engaging in counterfactual speculations, above all about remote possibilities). But I see the growing importance of research in situated cognition, the capacity to interact efficiently with the physical environment, etc. One needs to be able to understand these faculties of the mind if one wants to understand intelligence as a whole.”

Future goals

“One goal is to make the best of the five years I have for this project on conceivability. Some people are very good at getting big grants, but I don’t know about myself… This may be a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. So that is the mid-term aim. On the short-term, I have a pair of papers and a book to write with a couple of friends. In the long run – I just don’t know. Nightmarish bureaucracy forces lots of academics, who are lucky enough to have a permanent job, to spend most of their time busy with micro-managerial activities. That bit of time left to study and do research still makes all the rest bearable. And one thing I appreciate about that bit of time, is that it allows the freedom of going where I am led by my curiosity. I think that’s one of the highest kinds of freedom.”