Research

Progress in science and philosophy (since 2019): I’m the Co-Investigator of the project “Understanding Progress, in Science and Beyond”, which is generously funded by the Icelandic Research Fund. The main objectives of this project are (i) to develop and evaluate a novel understanding-based account of scientific progress, and (ii) to explore the prospects for extending this account to philosophical progress. For more details see here.

Measurement in cognitive science (since 2019): I’m interested in the nature, validation, and development of measurement techniques in cognitive science. I focus on more experimentally based measures, such as eye-tracking and neurological measures. Another emphasis will be the relation between indirect measurement and robust inferences based on direct measurement.

  • In June 2019, I’ll host a first workshop on this topic together with Edouard Machery, featuring both philosophers of science and cognitive scientists as speakers.

Applied statistical reasoning (since 2015): I’m primarily concerned with statistical hypothesis testing. One sub-project is to examine the relationship between research hypotheses and corresponding statistical hypotheses. Future sub-projects are to analyze the justificatory role of statistical values in hypothesis testing, such as the widely contested p-value, and to explore the connection between the so-called replication crisis and statistical hypothesis testing.

  • From October 2017 until the end of March 2018, I worked on this project at the University of Salzburg (host: Charlotte Werndl; financially sponsored by an Ernst Mach visiting research fellowship from the OeAD).

Understanding (since 2015):  I’m primarily concerned with reductionism about understanding why and the factivity of scientific understanding, i.e., with the question whether understanding why is simply knowing why, and the question whether scientific understanding can involve falsehoods. Regarding the former, I am steering a middle course between reductionism, according to which understanding why reduces to knowing why, and anti-reductionism. I make the case for what I dub modest and parsimonious reductionism, according to which understanding why reduces to what I below called ‘non-shallow’ knowing why. Apart from developing this account, I defend the claim that scientific understanding why is factive in light of model-based understanding, based on my work on model-based knowing why. I argue that successful scientific idealizations are not part of the propositional content of one’s understanding (which would render the content partially false). Instead, they only provide us with an epistemic access to explanatorily relevant features.

Publications (so far):

  1. Lawler, I. (online first). Understanding why, knowing why, and cognitive achievementsSynthese. DOI: 10.1007/s11229-017-1672-9
  2. Lawler, I. (2016). Reductionism about understanding whyProceedings of the Aristotelian Society. 116 (2), pp. 229-236. DOI: 10.1093/arisoc/aow007

Knowing why (since 2014): Knowing why things are the case is an important epistemic achievement. My doctoral thesis, Knowing why – an investigation of explanatory knowledge (2018), offers an analysis of knowing why based on inquiry into the nature of why-questions and their answers, as well as into the nature of knowledge and concealed questions, such as knowing when the train comes. I first provide a basic analysis of knowing why in two parts. (1) I argue that knowing why p is knowing an answer to the respective ‘Why p?’ question, which, at minimum, expresses that an explanatorily relevant dependency obtains between the p-phenomenon and some q-phenomenon. A paradigmatic example of such an answer is a <p because q> proposition; though, not all suitable answers are equivalent to such propositions, e.g., <p in order to · · ·> propositions and <a reason why p is q> propositions. (2) I argue that knowing why does not require knowing principles or facts that establish the dependency between these phenomena. Knowing that some explanatorily relevant dependency obtains does not require knowing on what grounds it obtains. The latter is only required for what I call ‘non-shallow’ knowing why. In the remainder of my thesis, I analyze three important aspects of knowing why. (3) I argue against the popular thesis that
‘Why p?’ questions are inherently contrastive. (4) I argue against recent claims that knowing why is gradable. Only the quality of what you know when you know why is gradable. (5) I rebut
an important argument against the factivity of knowing why, by arguing that idealizations in scientific models are not constitutive parts of knowing why based on these models.

  • From May 2014 until March 2018, I worked on this project as a predoctoral researcher on the Volkswagen Foundation project “A study in explanatory power”.
  • From October 2015 until the end of March 2016, I did research at NYU in the research center “Varieties of Understanding” under the supervision of Michael Strevens and Catherine Elgin in order to deepen my studies.
  • April & May 2017 I did research at the University of Edinburgh under the supervision of Duncan Pritchard.

Publications (so far):

  1. Lawler, I. (2019). Levels of reasons why and answers to why-questions. Philosophy of Science, 86(1), pp. 168-177
  2. Lawler, I. (2018, online first). Understanding why, knowing why, and cognitive achievements. Synthese. DOI: 10.1007/s11229-017‑1672-9

Non-declarative sentences and intensional semantics (since 2013): The meaning of declarative sentences  (e.g., “The cat is on the mat.”) is typically analyzed in terms of their truth conditions. Intuitively, the meaning of non-declarative sentences (e.g., “Is the cat on the mat?” or “Put the cat on the mat!”) cannot be analyzed in this way. Nonetheless, there are good reasons to strive for a unified semantic. A common semantic framework for all kinds of sentences would accommodate the thought that sub-sentential expressions have the same meaning in all kinds of sentences, and it could deal with so-called mixed-mood sentences in which different kinds of sentences are combined (e. g., If you put me on the mat, then where do you put the cat?).  In my Master thesis, Non-declarative sentences and internsional semantics — A shotgun wedding? (2014), I examined two proposals of how to obtain such a framework by employing tools from intensional semantics. The first stems from David Lewis (“General Semantics”, 1970) and the second from Roland Hausser (esp. “Surface Compositional Grammar”, 1980). Lewis’ basic idea is that non-declaratives are syntactic variants of certain explicit performatives (“Do you love me?” vs. “I ask you whether you love me”). Since the latter arguably have truth conditions, non-declaratives have them, too. Their syntactic surfaces differ but not their semantics. This idea is plausible in light of the fact that such variants are both used to achieve the same communicative goal (e.g., to ask the addressee whether she loves the language user). Nonetheless, Lewis’ proposal has been widely rejected and never been worked out. My evaluation of the objections shows that they are not conclusive, though. Some of them arise from too simplified an interpretation of his proposal, some rely on disputable premises, and some can be rebutted. My conclusion is that Lewis’ proposal deserves to be fully worked out. Hausser’s basic idea is that non-declarative sentences do not have truth conditions but the same kind of semantic values as certain sub-sentential expressions. For instance, an imperative sentence has a similar semantics as one-place predicates; it specifies the property the addressee of the utterance is directed to achieve. While this analysis does justice to our intuitions insofar as that it does not ascribe truth conditions to non-declarative sentences, Hausser’s semantics has technical problems, some conceptual inconsistencies, and is not able to treat complex non-declarative sentences and mixed-mood sentences in its current form. My conclusion is that the idea requires a different implementation to yield a convincing proposal. So, even though both proposals are not fully satisfactory, it seems promising to integrate non-declarative sentences into an intensional semantics. The alleged shotgun wedding might turn out to be a happy one.

The pedagogy of logic and critical thinking (since 2012): I’m especially concerned with how to best teach logic to people who are not drawn to formalisms or math. Together with Daniel Milne-Plückebaum, I worked on two sub-projects (2012-2016): (i) We worked on how to teach the basics of critical thinking and philosophical logic to beginners and non-specialists in an effective manner. Our goal is to provide students with tools they can use for analyzing, understanding, criticizing, and constructing arguments beyond the classroom. (ii) We rethought classical argument taxonomies in order to gain a unified and detailed classification of arguments which treats deductively valid and deductively non-valid arguments on a par. While using concepts of deductive logic does not yield the desired outcome insofar as it results in analyzing deductively non-valid arguments too coarse-grainedly, we work on employing concepts from inductive logic to obtain a uniform treatment of both argument types and their respective subtypes.

  • From 2012 to 2014, we developed and applied a course concept for teaching how to analyze natural language argumentation using both formal and informal methods. This part of our project was supported by the project “Handwerk Philosophie” (which is sponsored by the program “Richtig Einsteigen” by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research). You can find some of our materials (in German) here: blog.lupenkurse.de/

Multi-modal meaning (since 2011): Humans do not only communicate by speech. Information can also be communicated with body postures, eye gazes, co-speech gestures, facial expressions, intonation, etc. If any of the latter accompany speech, it seems natural to assume that they build a meaning unit for the speaker and the recipient. Together with Hannes Rieser and Florian Hahn, I model such cases multi-modal from a formal semantics point of view, with an emphasis of speech-accompanying gestures. Among other things, we developed formal models for interfacing speech meaning and gestures meaning. We also took a look at the details of how speech and gestures (and their respective semantics) are aligned to each other both intra- and inter-personally in dialogues and trialogues. Part of our work was conducted in collaboration with Stefan Kopp, Kirsten Bergmann, Thies Pfeiffer, and Udo Klein. You can find some outcomes of our research here: http://www.sfb673.org/projects/B1/publications

  • From March 2011 until June 2015 (i.e., mostly parallel to my Master studies), I worked as a predoctoral Research Fellow on the interdisciplinary project “Speech-gesture alignment” of the CRC 673 “Alignment in Communication” (based at Bielefeld University, sponsored by the DFG), which was led by Hannes Rieser (linguistics) and Stefan Kopp (computer science).

Publications with my involvement (so far):

  1. Lawler, I., Hahn, F., Rieser, H. (2017). Gesture meaning needs speech meaning to denote – A case of speech-gesture meaning interaction. In: Proceedings of the Workshop “Formal approaches to the dynamics of linguistic interaction”, pp. 42-46.
  2. Hahn, F., Lawler, I., Rieser, H. (2014). First observations on a corpus of multi-modal trialogues. In: Proceedings of the 18th Workshop on the Semantics and Pragmatics of Dialogue, pp. 185–187.
  3. Klein, U., Rieser H., Hahn, F., Lawler, I. (2013). Abduction and parameterised semantic composition in speech-gesture integration. In: Proceedings of the 17th Workshop on the Semantics and Pragmatics of Dialogue, pp. 207–209.
  4. Pfeiffer, T., Hofmann, F., Hahn, F., Rieser, H., Röpke, I. (2013). Gesture semantics reconstruction based on motion capturing and complex event processing: a circular shape example. In: Proceedings of the 14th Annual Meeting of the Special Interest Group on Discourse and Dialogue, pp. 270–279.
  5. Bergmann, K., Hahn, F., Kopp, S., Rieser, H., Röpke, I. (2013). Integrating gesture meaning and verbal meaning for German verbs of motion: Theory and simulation. In: Proceedings of the Tilburg Gesture Research Meeting.
  6. Röpke, I. (2011). Watching the growth point grow. In: Proceedings of the Second Conference on Gesture and Speech in Interaction.