Zachary Irving


During the of Spring 2014, I’m visiting Berkeley from the University of Toronto, where I’m completing a PhD in the philosophy of cognitive science. Specifically, my dissertation concerns the nature and rational significance of a particular type of attention: mind-wandering.

Somewhere between one third and half of our waking thoughts can be classified as mind-wandering. Yet this mental process has been largely neglected by contemporary philosophers. This is a shame for a number of reasons. Philosophers could contribute to the debate within cognitive science over how to define mind-wandering. In Part 1 of my dissertation, “What is Mind-Wandering?”, I will propose a definition that captures both folk intuitions and empirical data about mind-wandering better than extant definitions. In a slogan, mind-wandering is unguided attention. 

My theory could also put pressure on philosophical theories motivated by psychological phenomena that contrast with mind-wandering. Part 2, “Mind-Wandering and the Philosophy of Mind”, will outline the implications of mind-wandering for philosophical debates about attention and dual process theory. One implication concerns the rationality of attention. A tradition dating back to Théodule Ribot and William James classifies mind-wandering as an irrational form of attention. Yet mind-wandering arguably contributes to rationality, insofar as doing so disposes us to attend to creative ideas. In Part 3, “Mind-Wandering and the Rationality of Attention”, I will develop a framework for thinking about the rationality of attention that solves this puzzle. My framework unifies, but challenges intuitions about the rationality of attention that are nascent in Ronnie DeSousa and Michael Bratman, among others.

Like a true mind-wanderer, I have worked on three side interests outside of my dissertation. I’m visiting Berkeley to work under Lara Buchak on a psychological realist interpretation of her risk function. I have also worked with Berkeley’s Mike Arsenault on the epistemology of disagreement. We developed counter-examples to David Christensen’s Independence Principle. Finally, I have written on the epistemic significance of scientific visual representations. Specifically, I’ve tried to provide an alternative to Nelson Goodman’s conventionalist approach to visual representation.

I’m a friendly guy, so if you’re interested in any of these topics, give me a shout!