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Pondering Perception: Zoe Drayson

By Maya Weeks - Assistant Professor of Philosophy Zoe Drayson adopts an interdisciplinary, naturalist approach at the intersection of philosophy and the mind sciences.

You’re a philosopher. What does that mean for your work?

My work focuses on the intersection of philosophy and the mind sciences. In particular, I am interested in the extent to which findings in psychology and neuroscience inform or influence our philosophical theories of the mind. 

Traditionally, philosophy has often been held to be independent from science: the idea was that science only tells us how the world actually is, using empirical methods; whereas philosophy tells us how things could possibly be or must necessarily be, based on non-empirical methods like conceptual analysis and logical frameworks. Many philosophers these days, however, are ‘naturalists’, which means that they deny there is a clear distinction between the methods and aims of philosophy and science. I take a naturalist approach to the philosophy of mind, but it’s not always clear what that should mean: there are lots of different ways to think that science ‘informs’ or ‘influences’ philosophy, without a clear argument for more or less extreme views of this. 

What are you currently working on? 

My current project is an exploration of the metaphysics of cognitive science, that is, what psychology and neuroscience can tell us about the nature of perception, thought, skilled behavior, etc. From the fact that cognitive science operates with a largely computational model of thought processes, should we conclude that thinking just is computation? Or could there be thinking created with non-computational minds? Should we understand computational claims as merely models by which we can predict and simulate cognitive phenomena, or must we actually believe that minds are physically implementing these computations?  

What would it mean for minds to be physically implementing these computations? 

One way to think about it would be to think about the brain as the hardware and the mind as the software that it’s running. One of the reasons that philosophers are quite drawn to this idea is that it seems to allow that minds could be implemented in things other than brains. This is not because philosophers think brains are nothing to do with minds: we acknowledge the scientific fact that human minds are intimately connected with our brains, but we’re interested in whether it’s possible for a creature without a brain like ours to have mental states. If minds are like computer programs, this allows us to think of minds as physically implemented, but without having to assume that mental states are identical with particular kinds of physical things like neurons. Think about how you can get effectively the same app for an Android as for an iPhone. You need to have the hardware to run the software, but it doesn’t need to be the same hardware.

What brought you to this particular project?

I was motivated by the discovery that a lot of naturalist philosophers of mind simply have nothing to say about these questions: they appeal to the science and draw philosophical conclusions without showing their working—they give no indication of what justifies this move. I noticed this particularly when I was working in the philosophy of perception, where there is a tendency to switch between talking about metaphysical and psychological theories of perception as if they're making the same sorts of claims. 

We’re interested in whether it’s possible for a creature without a brain like ours to have mental states.


In my recent paper ‘Direct perception and the predictive mind,’ I focus on proponents of a particular neural architecture claiming it has widespread philosophical implications, and I show that their scientific commitments don’t entail their metaphysical and epistemological claims. 

What is your most surprising or exciting finding so far?

One of the things that’s so surprising about naturalist philosophy of mind is how often philosophers fail to show their working: they fail to justify what licenses particular conclusions from the premises. But this is the basic skill of a philosopher—to be able to set out argument clearly in premise-conclusion format and show that the conclusions follow from the premises, constituting a valid argument. This is what we teach students, and what we ask students to do in writing class papers. It’s amazing that this failing is so widespread in this area of philosophy. 

What opportunities are presented by interdisciplinary research collaborations?

As an interdisciplinary researcher, I spend a lot of time reading about work in cognitive science. I teach on the Cognitive Science program at UC Davis, as well as in the Department of Philosophy, so that allows me access to work being done in the mind sciences. I'm also affiliate faculty at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, where there is a network of people I regularly interact with concerning issues of consciousness and cognition. 

Which other researchers at UC Davis are doing work that particularly interests you? 

I'm involved in a couple of research projects run by other departments at Davis. Sanjay Joshi (Engineering) is interested in brain-computer interfaces, and the idea of being able to control prostheses remotely. I'm involved in this through my previous work on extended cognition. Nina Amenta (Computer Science) has a great project going that aims to get more women and minority students into computer-related disciplines, such as the cognitive science major here. I’m looking for ways to make the major and the syllabuses more appealing to non-traditional computing students.  

Learn more about Zoe Drayson.