Evan Thompson


Research Classification

Research Interests

Asian Philosophies
Cognitive Science
Philosophical Foundations
Philosophy of Mind
Philosophy, History and Comparative Studies
Theories and Philosophies

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Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Grief and other unchosen transformative experiences (2023)

My dissertation addresses alterations to identity and agency created by unchosen transformative experiences. These are experiences such as grief, illness, accident, and war that alter one’s perspective, values, and habitual expectations, and that arise due to events one did not choose. I focus on the experience of grief, theorizing grief as an unchosen transformative experience that alters the griever’s phenomenology and calls on them to reorganize their identity as an agent. My dissertation consists of three central chapters. In Chapter 2, I give a phenomenological account of unchosen transformative experiences, focusing on the problem for one’s agency that these experiences pose. In an unchosen experience, the agent’s habitual structures of thought and action become unworkable, leaving them with the question of how to reconstitute themselves as an agent. I argue that one reconstitutes oneself as an agent through a process of sense-making, in which one acts in new circumstances to redetermine their practical significance. In Chapter 3, I give a framework for situating grief amongst other unchosen transformative experiences, arguing that grief is transformative (i) cognitively, by altering the griever’s expectations, beliefs, desires, etc., (ii) phenomenologically, by altering their experience in a diffuse or global way, (iii) normatively, by altering their practical identity, (iv) and existentially, by confronting them with an existential condition of their life. In Chapter 4, I examine the problem of resilient grief. The cessation of grief presents us with a problem insofar as our reasons for grief are stable but our emotional response quickly diminishes. Formulated in terms of fittingness, the problem is about whether grief fittingly diminishes or whether it remains forever fitting to grieve. I explain the fitting diminishment of grief through a change in the griever’s patterns of attention as the griever’s projects change. I also address whether it is regrettable that we change so as to accommodate the loss, focusing on the argument that the diminishment of grief prevents us from fully grasping the significance of the loss. I argue that the diminishment of grief provides an accurate perspective on the loss, but that it is nonetheless regrettable.

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Investigating dynamics in the stream of thought using experience sampling and fMRI (2023)

One of the most striking features of human consciousness is its ability to foster an ongoing and seemingly continuous stream of thought. How do mental states unfold over time as the mind moves from one thought to another? The Dynamic Framework of Thought (DFT) has suggested a taxonomy of thought based on the way it moves over time (i.e., degree and type of constraints applied on thought) rather than on features of its content (e.g., task-relatedness). This dissertation explored two kinds of dynamics proposed in the DFT framework – deliberately constrained (i.e., goal-directed) and relatively unconstrained (i.e., spontaneous) thought – using first-person reports through experience sampling and third-person data from fMRI. In the first part, I investigated whether people have introspective access to these two types of thought dynamics. Using experience sampling, across various contexts, I found that the two dynamics were experienced as being phenomenally distinct from each other and shared a moderately negative correlation. Subsequently, I characterized the brain regions and networks involved in these phenomenally distinct transitions between mental states. In this real-time experience sampling paradigm, participants were asked to let their thoughts unfold naturally as they were intermittently probed to rate their thoughts on the degree of free-movement and active-direction while in an fMRI scanner. Results showed that regions in the medio-temporal and core subcomponents of the default network were more engaged when thoughts were freely-moving. Regions in the frontoparietal control network, on the other hand, were more engaged when thoughts were not freely-moving and when deliberately-constrained. These findings suggest that executive regions are more associated with strong constraints on the stream of thought, whereas default network regions are more associated with weak constraints on the stream of thought. This work sheds new light on our current understanding of the relationship between the default network and frontoparietal control network during self-generated thought. Overall, this dissertation represents progress in broadening the use of first-person, introspective accounts in neuroscience to advance our understanding of the stream of thought in the broader context of neurophenomenology.

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The social construction of personal identity (2023)

Can metaphysical facts about personal identity, understood as the diachronic identity of a person, be defined without making reference to our social practices? In this dissertation, I argue that personal identity is socially constructed, and therefore that metaphysical facts about personal identity cannot be defined without making reference to our social practices. I develop this argument by critically engaging with Buddhist-informed theories and social constitution theories about personal identity in the philosophy of mind.Specifically, Buddhist-informed theories suggest that personal identity is socially and conceptually constructed based on our psychophysical continuity. Nevertheless, they claim that facts about our psychophysical continuity, which are metaphysical facts about personal identity, can be defined independently of our social practices. However, I suggest that claiming this only makes meaningful social practices impossible. Building upon social constitution theories of personal identity, I argue that our psychophysical continuity is inextricably connected to our social practices, such that whether an individual meaningfully preserves their psychophysical continuity in part depends on whether there are social resources and support available for self-understanding, self-development, or recovery. For this reason, I suggest that personal identity is socially constructed, and metaphysical facts about personal identity cannot be defined without making reference to our social practices. This argument implies that the identity of a person is not only a fact to be determined but also something to be facilitated through our collective effort, including our effort to provide better resources and support in our society. I illustrate the implication by discussing the relation between narrative identity and personal well-being with examples of the imposter phenomenon and rationalization. In the end, I suggest two potential research directions for future work. The first research direction concerns how we may better facilitate personal identity to promote personal well-being. The second research direction concerns how our social infrastructure shapes our cognitive dispositions (such as memory and attention) and emotional identification (such as attachment), and thereby affects our sense of personal identity and well-being.

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Evaluating counterfactuals: case studies of modeling choices and their implications (2019)

Individuals and organizations often turn to counterfactual questions for actionable insight. The answers provided to such questions can have important consequences, therefore it is critical to examine their reliability. In this dissertation, I demonstrate that examining the reliability of these answers forces us to closely evaluate the choices and assumptions that are embedded in the lifecycle of a counterfactual query -- from its construction to its application. I argue that such an evaluation must proceed in a context-sensitive manner, as it must take into account the intended aim of pursuing counterfactual questions, and also the context wherein the answers to such questions will be used. I highlight the different manners in which our choices and assumptions shape the epistemic and ethical reliability of the answers we provide to counterfactual queries by examining three case studies: (1) the selectivity of imagination-driven counterfactual thought; (2) the use of agent-based models for simulating counterfactuals, specifically in the context of investigating the potential impact of diversity on group performance; and (3) the use of machine learning models for answering counterfactual queries, and the use of counterfactual metrics for assessing the ethical reliability of those models. I argue that making choices and assumptions is inevitable, and that the reliability of our dealings with possibilities depends on being transparent about the influence of these assumptions and choices. Such transparency enhances the epistemic quality of the endeavour wherein counterfactuals are put to use by allowing us to explicitly evaluate when a given choice is justified and why. It also improves our capability to formulate informed mitigation strategies in the face of epistemic and ethical complications.

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