Education and Research

I hold a PhD in philosophy (2011, University of Groningen, advisor Igor Douven) and a PhD in archaeology (2007, Free University of Brussels, advisor Jean Paul van Bendegem).

I started my academic career as a graduate student in archaeology at the Free University of Brussels. I was fascinated by human cognition in the Paleolithic, as exemplified in tallies and calendars of over 30,000 years old, such as the Ishango bone (Congo) and the Abri Blanchard antler (France). I was interested in finding out why humans in the past made such artifacts, and connected this to cognitive science research on numerical cognition. This research suggests that humans share with other animals an evolved number sense that allows them to keep track of small collections of items, and to make rough estimations and calculations with larger collections. I defended my PhD in archaeology and art sciences in 2007.

Abri Blanchard Ishango

Cover of my PhD thesis 2007

In July 2008, I started working at the University of Leuven in a multidisciplinary project in epistemology on the rationality of beliefs, headed by Igor Douven (currently endowed chair in theoretical philosophy, University of Groningen). I became fascinated by the project and, encouraged by Igor, began to work on a PhD in philosophy. I then obtained a research fellowship of the Research Foundation Flanders, with a project entitled “Scientific knowledge acquisition: a cognitive approach” (2010-2013)

My PhD thesis in philosophy (2011, University of Groningen) was Through a mind darkly: An empirically-informed philosophical perspective on systematic knowledge acquisition and cognitive limitations. It examines human cognitive processes underlying discovery in mathematics and the life sciences. I found that the effect of individual cognitive biases on reasoning was mitigated to a significant extent by social processes of knowledge transmission and by an effective use of the external environment. For example, by representing quantities symbolically, humans acquire proficiency with numerical concepts that would otherwise lie outside the scope of our evolved number sense.

Cover of my 2011 PhD

After completing my dissertation in philosophy, I worked on religious epistemology to examine the origins of intuitions that underlie natural theological arguments at the University of Oxford (2011-2012), a Templeton fellowship from the University of Oklahoma. One of the outputs of this fellowship is a monograph on intuitions in natural theology and their cognitive basis, which is under contract with MIT Press (to appear in 2015).

During this research, I became fascinated with the social nature of religious beliefs, which forms the topic of my present British Academy postdoctoral fellowship. There is an interesting isomorphism between the way we acquire scientific and religious beliefs: in both cases, most beliefs are acquired not through experience, but through testimony. We can rarely directly check scientific or religious claims (e.g. germs cause illness; humans continue to exist after death). This similarity between scientific and religious beliefs led me to hypothesize that their reasonableness not only depends on their content, but also on the social processes that underlie their transmission, the subject of my current project.