Two paradoxes of bounded rationality

Philosophers' Imprint (forthcoming).


Abstract: My aim in this paper is to develop a unified solution to two paradoxes of bounded rationality. The first is the regress problem that incorporating cognitive bounds into models of rational decisionmaking generates a regress of higher-order decision problems. The second is the problem of rational irrationality: it sometimes seems rational for bounded agents to act irrationally on the basis of rational deliberation. I review two strategies which have been brought to bear on these problems: the way of weakening which responds by weakening rational norms, and the way of indirection which responds by letting the rationality of behavior be determined by the rationality of the deliberative processes which produced it. Then I propose and defend a third way to confront the paradoxes: the way of level separation.


The accuracy-coherence tradeoff in cognition

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (forthcoming).


Abstract: I argue that bounded agents face a systematic accuracy-coherence tradeoff in cognition. Agents must choose whether to structure their cognition in ways likely to promote coherence or accuracy. I illustrate the accuracy-coherence tradeoff by showing how it arises out of at least two component tradeoffs: a coherence-complexity tradeoff between coherence and cognitive complexity, and a coherence-variety tradeoff between coherence and strategic variety. These tradeoffs give rise to an accuracy-coherence tradeoff because privileging coherence over complexity or strategic variety often leads to a corresponding reduction in accuracy. I conclude with a discussion of two normative consequences for the study of bounded rationality: the importance of procedural rationality and the role of coherence in theories of bounded rationality. 


Abstract: This paper aims to open a dialogue between philosophers working in decision theory and operations researchers and engineers working on decision-making under deep uncertainty (DMDU). Specifically, we assess the recommendation to follow a norm of robust satisficing when making decisions under deep uncertainty in the context of decision analyses that rely on the tools of Robust Decision Making (RDM) developed by Robert Lempert and colleagues at RAND. We discuss two challenges for robust satisficing: whether the norm might derive its plausibility from an implicit appeal to probabilistic representations of uncertainty of the kind that deep uncertainty is supposed to preclude; and whether there is adequate justification for adopting a satisficing norm, as opposed to an optimizing norm that is sensitive to considerations of robustness. We discuss decision-theoretic and voting-theoretic motivations for robust satisficing, and use these motivations to select among candidate formulations of the robust satisficing norm.


Inquiry and the epistemic,

Philosophical Studies 178.9 (2021): 2913-28.


Abstract: The zetetic turn in epistemology raises three questions about epistemic and zetetic norms. First, there is the relationship question: what is the relationship between epistemic and zetetic norms? Are some epistemic norms zetetic norms, or are epistemic and zetetic norms distinct? Second, there is the tension question: are traditional epistemic norms in tension with plausible zetetic norms? Third, there is the reaction question: how should theorists react to a tension between epistemic and zetetic norms? Drawing on an analogy to practical philosophy, I develop a focal point view to resolve these motivating questions. On the focal point view, traditional epistemic norms and zetetic norms answer different types of normative questions. There is nevertheless a familiar type of evaluative tension between traditional epistemic norms and zetetic norms, but this tension is an unavoidable feature of the normative landscape and not a sign that traditional epistemic norms need revision. But if traditional epistemic norms are not zetetic norms, then in what sense is zetetic epistemology a project for epistemologists? I conclude by articulating a sense in which some nontraditional epistemic norms are zetetic norms, and in which zetetic epistemology is an important part of the study of theoretical rationality. 


Permissive metaepistemology,

Mind 128.511 (2019): 907-926.


Abstract: Recent objections to epistemic permissivism have a metaepistemic flavor. Impermissivists argue that their view best accounts for connections between rationality, planning and deference. Impermissivism is also taken to best explain the value of rational belief and normative assessment. These objections pose a series of metaepistemic explanatory challenges for permissivism. In this paper, I illustrate how permissivists might meet their explanatory burdens by developing two permissivist metaepistemic views which fare well against the explanatory challenges. 


Work in progress - Bounded rationality and inquiry


Abstract: A new wave of evidentialist theorizing concedes that evidentialism may be extensionally incorrect as an account of all-things-considered rational belief. Nevertheless, these newer evidentialists maintain that there is an importantly distinct type of epistemic rationality about which evidentialism may be the correct account. I argue that natural ways of developing the newer evidentialist position face opposite problems. One version, due to David Christensen (forthcoming), may correctly describe what rationality requires, but does not entail the existence of a distinctively epistemic type of rationality. Another version, due to Barry Maguire and Jack Woods (forthcoming), characterizes a normative concept that is both distinct and epistemic, but struggles to explain why this concept should be classified as a type of rationality. I conclude that the newer evidentialist strategy of extensional compromise may be less favorable to evidentialism than previously supposed.

Abstract:  Recent work in judgment and decisionmaking has stressed that institutions, like individuals, often rely on decisionmaking heuristics. But most of the institutional decisionmaking heuristics studied to date are highly firm- and industry-specific. This contrasts to the individual case, in which many heuristics are general-purpose rules suitable for a wide range of decision problems. Are there also general-purpose heuristics for institutional decisionmaking? In this paper, I argue that a number of methods recently developed for decisionmaking under deep uncertainty have a good claim to be understood as general-purpose decisionmaking heuristics suitable for a broad range of institutional decision problems.

Abstract: My aim in this paper is to develop an account of rational inquiry for bounded agents. I argue that an account should meet three minimal criteria. First, it should be tradeoff-sensitive, saying how scarce cognitive and non-cognitive resources are to be allocated within the course of a single inquiry, between competing inquiries, and between inquiry and other activities. Second, it should be stakes-sensitive, saying why more resources should typically be invested in our most important inquiries. And third, it should explain the irrationality of many instances of stereotyping, despite the superficial resemblance of stereotyping to cases of rational heuristic inquiry. I argue that we cannot meet these criteria by extending traditional accounts of rational belief or by applying existing philosophical accounts of bounded rationality. I develop a reason-responsiveness consequentialist view of rational inquiry for bounded agents and argue that this view fares well by the lights of the minimal criteria. 


Abstract: Epistemologists have recently proposed a number of norms governing rational inquiry. My aim in this paper is to unify and explain recently proposed norms of inquiry by developing a general account of the conditions under which inquiries are rational, analogous to theories such as evidentialism and reliabilism for rational belief. I begin with a reason-responsiveness conception of rationality as responding correctly to possessed normative reasons. I extend this account with a series of claims about the normative reasons for inquiry that we possess. I apply the account to shed light on two classes of norms that have featured prominently in recent discussions: norms of clutter avoidance forbidding agents from engaging in trivial inquiries, and norms of logical non-omniscience governing properties such as the deductive closure and consistency of an agent's belief state. I conclude with a discussion of the sense in which norms of inquiry should be regarded as epistemic norms. 

Abstract: Epistemic nihilism for inquiry is the claim that there are no epistemic norms of inquiry. Epistemic nihilism was once the received stance towards inquiry, and I argue that it should be taken seriously again. My argument is that the same considerations which led us away from epistemic nihilism in the case of belief not only cannot refute epistemic nihilism for inquiry, but in fact may well support it. These include the argument from non-existence that there are no non-epistemic reasons for belief; the linguistic argument that epistemic norms of belief are needed to capture the semantics of ordinary epistemic talk; and the argument from theoretical roles that epistemic norms are needed to play key theoretical roles for rational belief. I conclude by sketching an alternative Gibbardian picture on which norms of inquiry are all-things-considered norms governing action.

Abstract: Epistemology has taken a zetetic turn from the study of belief towards the study of inquiry. Several decades ago, theories of bounded rationality took a procedural turn from attitudes towards the processes of inquiry that produce them. What is the relationship between the zetetic and procedural turns? In this paper, I argue that we should treat the zetetic turn in epistemology as part of a broader procedural turn in the study of bounded rationality. I use this claim to motivate and clarify the zetetic turn in epistemology, as well as to reveal the need for a second zetetic turn within practical philosophy.


Inquiry under bounds (book)

(Email for drafts)


About this book: Herbert Simon held that the fundamental turn in the study of bounded rationality is the turn from substantive to procedural rationality. Theories of substantive rationality begin with normative questions about attitudes: what should we prefer, intend or believe? By contrast, theories of procedural rationality begin with normative questions about processes of inquiry: how should we determine what to prefer, intend or believe?  If Simon was right, then the central task for theories of bounded rationality is to develop an account of rational inquiry for bounded agents. We need, that is, a theory of inquiry under bounds.

Inquiry under bounds takes as its starting point a five-point bounded rationality program inspired by recent work in cognitive science. To elaborate and defend that program, I argue, we need an account of rational inquiry for bounded agents. Inquiry under bounds develops an account of rational inquiry for bounded agents: the reason-responsiveness consequentialist view. I use this account to clarify and defend key insights from the bounded tradition as well as to shed light on recent controversies in the epistemology of inquiry.

Work in progress - Global priorities research

Abstract: Recent authors have argued that it is overwhelmingly important to mitigate existential risks: risks which threaten to curtail the survival or development of humanity. This position is often supported by pessimistically high estimates of current levels of existential risk. In this paper, I extend a model by Toby Ord and Thomas Adamczewski to do two things. First, I argue, across a range of modeling assumptions pessimism tends to hamper rather than strengthen the case for existential risk mitigation. Second, I show that pessimism is unlikely to ground the overwhelming importance of existential risk mitigation unless it is coupled with an empirical hypothesis: the time of perils hypothesis. However, I argue, the time of perils hypothesis is probably false. I conclude that existential risk pessimism may tell against the overwhelming importance of existential risk mitigation.

AbstractLongtermism holds roughly that in many decision situations, the best thing we can do is what is best for the long-term future. The scope question for longtermism asks: how large is the class of decision situations for which longtermism holds? Although longtermism was initially developed to describe the situation of cause-neutral philanthropic decisionmaking, it is increasingly suggested that longtermism holds in many or most decision problems that humans face. By contrast, I suggest that the scope of longtermism may be more restricted than commonly supposed. After specifying my target, swamping axiological strong longtermism (swamping ASL), I give two arguments for the rarity thesis that the options needed to vindicate swamping ASL in a given decision problem are rare. I use the rarity thesis to pose two challenges to the scope of longtermism: the area challenge that swamping ASL often fails when we restrict our attention to specific cause areas, and the challenge from option unawareness that swamping ASL may fail when decision problems are modified to incorporate agents' limited awareness of the options available to them.


Essays on longtermism (w/Hilary Greaves and Jacob

Barrett), edited book, under contract with Oxford

University Press


About this book:  Longtermism is a philosophical and philanthropic paradigm which urges that the best thing we can do right now is often determined by the effects of our actions on the long-term future. This open-access collection will bring together leading philosophers, economists, and other scholars to interrogate, critique, defend, and apply the longtermism paradigm.


Abstract: By the lights of traditional normative theories, human inquiry is substantially irrational. Humans regularly violate normative constraints set out by logic, probability theory, and decision theory. Traditional normative theories blame the agent, taking these findings to show that humans are irrational. By contrast, I suggest it is often better to blame the theory. Many seeming irrationalities are instances of rational inquiry by bounded agents. To defend this claim, I develop a consequentialist account of rational inquiry and metacognition. This view explains the value of rationality, accounts for duties to gather evidence, and is our best hope for vindicating empirically demonstrated biases as instances of rational inquiry. I apply this account of rational inquiry to clarify and ground a collection of normative claims that arise in scientific theorizing about bounded rationality.


Work in progress - Miscellaneous

Abstract: I argue that there are two distinct deontic roles for unpossessed evidence. First, we sometimes have duties to gather evidence that we do not possess. And second, evidence that we fail to gather may nonetheless bear on how we now ought to act. I argue that subjectivist deontic theories perform well on the first role, but poorly on the second. I propose a way for subjectivists to capture the second role by taking two steps towards objectivism: an information-sensitive account of deontic modals on which the relevant body of evidence is the evidence that agents should have had. I propose and reject two accounts of the notion of evidence that agents should have had, then sketch a third way to make progress in understanding this notion.


Nearly ready (email for drafts)


Why bounded rationality (in epistemology)?


Abstract: Bounded rationality gets a bad rap in epistemology. It is argued that theories of bounded rationality are overly context-sensitive; conventionalist; or dependent on ordinary language. In this paper, I have three aims. The first is to set out and motivate an approach to bounded rationality in epistemology. My second aim is to show how this approach can answer recent challenges raised for theories of bounded rationality. My third aim is to clarify the role of rational ideals in bounded rationality.