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Tool Use and Causal Cognition

Workshop description

Tool use has recently become a focus of interest in a number of different branches of psychology, including comparative, developmental and neuropsychology. The results of this research should also be of considerable interests to philosophers, as they might shed light on long-standing philosophical issues about the nature of our understanding of causal relations. In particular, research on tool use raises two key questions: (1) To what extent might such research provide us with insights into aspects of causal understanding that cannot (easily) be measured using other methods for studying causal cognition? (2) How should we best characterize the type or types of causal understanding involved in particular instances of tool use, and how might doing so contribute to drawing more general distinctions between different kinds of causal understanding?

In more detail, some of the issues to be discussed at the workshop, which might contribute to addressing these two questions, are as follows:

  • It is sometimes argued that, when we learn to use a tool, the tool becomes 'incorporated into the body schema'. Might this incorporation involve some kind of appreciation of causal powers, and if so how does such an appreciation relate to other ways of grasping causal relations?
  • Perhaps some cases of tool use require carefully distinguishing the detection and exploitation of affordances from explicit causal understanding, a distinction not readily applicable in the mainstream causal learning literature. Can any such distinction be elaborated and supported, for instance, by research into the nature of the neural systems involved in tool use, or by studies of the various patterns of deficit associated with apraxia?
  • Do differences between humans' and other animals' abilities to select, store and use tools reflect differences in causal understanding?
  • If success on tasks requiring the planned use of tools demonstrates an understanding of the causal powers of tools detached from one's immediate circumstances, what other causal tasks should we expect those capable of planned tool use to succeed on?
  • To what extent is the capacity to represent tools different from the capacity to represent other objects, and what is special about representing tools?
  • What do children learn when they rapidly learn the functions of tools by observing demonstrations? And why do other populations fail to learn in this way?