Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Christopher Viger


Heuristics are often invoked in the philosophical, psychological, and cognitive science literatures to describe or explain methodological techniques or "shortcut" mental operations that help in inference, decision-making, and problem-solving. Yet there has been surprisingly little philosophical work done on the nature of heuristics and heuristic reasoning, and a close inspection of the way(s) in which "heuristic" is used throughout the literature reveals a vagueness and uncertainty with respect to what heuristics are and their role in cognition. This dissertation seeks to remedy this situation by motivating philosophical inquiry into heuristics and heuristic reasoning, and then advancing a theory of how heuristics operate in cognition. I develop a positive working characterization of heuristics that is coherent and robust enough to account for a broad range of phenomena in reasoning and inference, and makes sense of empirical data in a systematic way. I then illustrate the work this characterization does by considering the sorts of problems that many philosophers believe heuristics solve, namely those resulting from the so-called frame problem. Considering the frame problem motivates the need to gain a better understanding of how heuristics work and the cognitive structures over which they operate. I develop a general theory of cognition which I argue underwrites the heuristic operations that concern this dissertation. I argue that heuristics operate over highly organized systems of knowledge, and I offer a cognitive architecture to accommodate this view. I then provide an account of the systems of knowledge that heuristics are supposed to operate over, in which I suggest that such systems of knowledge are concepts. The upshot, then, is that heuristics operate over concepts. I argue, however, that heuristics do not operate over conceptual content, but over metainformational relations between activated and primed concepts and their contents. Finally, to show that my thesis is empirically adequate, I consider empirical evidence on heuristic reasoning and argue that my account of heuristics explains the data.