23 July 2020

Gerardo Viera to join Department of Philosophy in Autumn 2020

An interview with our new staff member Gerardo Viera before he joins us in September 2020. Here Gerado talks about his interest and research in cognitive science, and his fascination with time.

Profile image of Gerardo Viera

Gerardo Viera will join the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield in Autumn 2020. He received his PhD in 2017 at the University of British Columbia (Canada) and is currently a postdoc at the Centre for Philosophical Psychology at the University of
Antwerp (Belgium). Gerardo is a philosopher of (cognitive) science. His research focuses on the fascinating philosophical issues that arise from the scientific study of temporal cognition. In this interview, Gerardo discusses his work on the sense of time as well as his general approach to philosophy and cognitive science.

How did you become a philosopher?

I really just stumbled into it. As an undergrad, I bounced between a few different courses and eventually landed on psychology. I took a few philosophy modules and thought they were fun, but it wasn’t until my third year that I took a Minds and Machines module where I was really sold on philosophy. The module was my first real exposure to genuinely interdisciplinary work in philosophy and cognitive science (it was taught by a grad student, Liz Vlahos). That module was super cool. I ended up graduating in psychology and philosophy, and then I decided I would rather study for a PhD in philosophy and cognitive science instead of psychology or neuroscience. So, I applied to a PhD programme in philosophy, and now I’m here.

You are obsessed with time. What is so fascinating about it?

A lot! Time is something that we’re all really familiar with, we all know what it is, but it’s also an incredibly weird feature of our world. So, there’s a lot of cool stuff for physicists and metaphysicians to figure out concerning the nature of time. But my research really focuses on how creatures like us think about or experience time. I think when you start to look into these questions you very quickly get at some core issues in the philosophy of mind and the cognitive sciences. One reason why studying how we think about and experience time gets us to these core issues is that almost all of our mental life exhibits some sort of concern for time. Whether you’re crossing a busy street, listening to music, or thinking about your past or future to learn something about who you are, you have to have some way of keeping track of, or reasoning about, time. So, I think understanding how we come to think about and experience time is central to understanding what the mind is and how it fits in the world around us.

You defend the fragmentary model of temporal perception. What is that? Why should one believe in it?

It’ll be easier to answer these questions by contrasting the fragmentary model with the historically dominant views. Most accounts of temporal perception take our capacity to perceive time to be a single psychological capacity. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is behavioral. For instance, people who are better than average at making duration discriminations in one sensory modality (say, vision) are typically better than average at making duration discriminations in other sensory modalities (say, audition). The second reason is introspective. How does time present itself in experience? Well, all of the events that we perceive through vision, audition, touch, etc., appear to occur within a single timeline. If our capacity to perceive time were the result of something like a single centralized clock, or some other unified process, then we could explain behavioral correlations across sensory modalities, and we’d also be able to explain why time appears as a single unified dimension.

The fragmentary model rejects this idea that temporal perception is a single capacity. Instead, the idea is that even in perception we employ a number of distinct timekeeping systems that are specialized in terms of what sorts of temporal features they keep track of. Some are specialized for very narrow time ranges (e.g., 50ms vs 100ms), some are modality specific (e.g., visual timekeeping vs auditory timekeeping), and others are specialized for specific types of temporal properties (e.g., durations vs temporal ordering). So, instead of temporal perception beginning with a unified system for representing time, we begin with a number of distinct timekeeping systems that must be integrated to construct a unified representation of time.

Now, why believe this? The main reason comes from the growing body of evidence that shows how different timekeeping capacities can be dissociated from one another. Whether it’s through the use of pharmaceuticals, mechanical interventions, studying clinical
populations, or psychophysical studies, there’s a lot of evidence showing that you can selectively impair really specific timekeeping capacities while leaving others intact. So, we have pressure on the unified accounts of temporal perception coming from all areas of the cognitive sciences, and versions of the fragmentary model are being pushed by myself in philosophy and people from neuroscience, developmental psychology, and perceptual psychology. A cool thing is that once you start to think about temporal perception in this way, it opens up a number of questions about perception and cognition that otherwise wouldn’t have been asked.

Richard Feynman once said that if a cataclysm was about to destroy all of our knowledge and he could save a single idea from destruction, he would go for ‘all things are made of atoms’. You are a philosopher of cognitive science. The cataclysm is arriving. Which hypothesis about the mind do you decide to pass down to future generations?

This is a tough question. I don’t think there is anything in the cognitive sciences as general and universally accepted as ‘all things are made of atoms’. If pushed to choose something, I guess I would say that some form of the representational theory of mind must be true. The basic idea of the representational theory of mind, which was probably best defended and developed by Jerry Fodor, is that in order to explain reasoning and behavior we have to posit some sort of system of internal representations (i.e., mental states that are, at least partially, characterized in terms of what they are about, rather than in terms of their biological makeup). A lot of people over the years have tried to do away with internal representations, but we keep coming back to this theory since it really does seem to latch onto something about how we understand the mind.

(Why have you chosen Sheffield as your new academic home? What teaching and research projects are you planning to carry out here?

This is an easy one! Sheffield seems like a great place to work. The department has a bunch of people doing really great work and I’ve heard great things about the postgraduate and undergraduate students. Being a member of the wider cognitive studies community is also really exciting. Also, the department has a reputation for being a really friendly and supportive place. That’s something that really counts for a lot in the academic world. Sheffield also seems like a nice place to live.

In the fall, I’ll be teaching Knowledge, Justification, and Doubt, a first year epistemology module, and I’ll be co-teaching (with Luca Barlassina) the Cognitive Studies seminar. In the spring, I’ll be teaching the first year Philosophy of Science module and I’ll also be teaching a third year module in the Philosophy of Cognitive Studies. In that third year module, we’ll tackle some core issues in the cognitive sciences while looking more closely at memory and its relation to the self.

As far as research goes, my main plans are to continue my work on temporal perception and cognition and connect this work with issues in the philosophy and cognitive science of memory. At the moment, I have some tentative plans to write a book on these topics. Beyond that project, I have a few other projects in the general philosophy of science and cognitive science concerning the nature of natural kinds and explanation, and some other projects on the relationship between time, emotion, and the experience of flow.