Research

My work focuses on bounded rationality, inquiry, and global priorities research. 

 

I want to know how bounded agents should make up their minds about what to do and believe, and how the answers to these questions can help us to do good better. 

 
Bounded Rationality

Humans are bounded agents. In action and inquiry we must ration scarce cognitive and physical resources to achieve desirable outcomes. Herbert Simon coined the term bounded rationality to cover theories of rationality which pay special attention to the limited resources and abilities of bounded agents. 

As the term caught on, bounded rationality came to mean many things to many different people. My research focuses on a traditional notion of bounded rationality with five core commitments:

 

 

Process-focus: Resource constraints bear not only on action, but also on the process of inquiry itself. A complete theory of bounded rationality should focus on the processes of practical and theoretical inquiry by which actions and beliefs are produced.

Heuristic inquiry: Bounded agents have access to a toolbox of heuristic strategies for practical and theoretical inquiry. Boundedly rational agents learn to flexibly apply heuristics in appropriate contexts. In many contexts, heuristic strategies are more appropriate than their nonheuristic counterparts.

Ecological rationality: Most heuristics perform well in some environments and poorly in others. Heuristics are not rational or irrational in themselves, but only in an environment.

Modest anti-intellectualism: The purpose of inquiry is not to construct cognitive models of choice situations. Inquiry aims to produce good decisions and correct, helpful beliefs. Inquiries should be judged primarily by their results and not by their internal cognitive structure.

Vindicatory epistemology: Human cognition is, on balance, fairly rational.

 

Inquiry

Bounded rationality is process-focused. Resource bounds constrain not only the beliefs we can form and the actions we can take, but also the processes of inquiry by which these beliefs and actions can be arrived at. For this reason, the bounded tradition focuses on norms governing inquiry rather than belief and action.

Philosophical work on inquiry spans at least two topics. Many authors tackle both at once.

 

 

Metaphysics of inquiry: What type of process is inquiry? Recent authors have argued that inquiry is directed at a question rather than a proposition, and that inquiry is intimately related to a class of interrogative attitudes such as curiosity, doubt and suspension of judgment.

Norms of inquiry: What are the norms governing inquiry? Recent authors have stressed that inquiry is governed by a number of norms that are importantly different from, and perhaps in tension with traditional epistemic requirements.

 

My research focuses on norms of inquiry. I defend a reason-responsive consequentialist account of rational inquiry and use that account to explain and defend key normative insights from the bounded tradition.

 

Global Priorities Research

 

Altruists are bounded agents. We have only so much time, money and other resources to use to make the world a better place.

 

What should we do with a given amount of resources if our aim is to do the most good? Global priorities research studies foundational issues in philosophy, economics, and other disciplines that arise in answering this question.

Our current focus at the Global Priorities Institute is on articulating and critiquing the longtermism paradigm, which holds that the best thing we can do is often what is best, or near-best for the long-term future of humanity. 

 

I am especially interested in issues at the intersection of bounded rationality and the longtermism paradigm. Longtermist decisionmaking takes place under conditions of deep uncertainty, involving severe informational scarcity and computational intractability. Does the nature of decisionmaking under deep uncertainty call for the development of new decisionmaking methods, or even for revisions to fundamental standards of rational choice?