Edward Baggs: On the mind and climate change
Edward Baggs, Assistant Professor, and new DIAS Fellow, argues that cognitive scientists should look at climate change from a collective point of view. He has written the following essay to explain why
My research focuses on the relationship between minds and the environment.
I am currently trying to address this question from two different directions. First, I am interested in a fundamental question in the psychology of perception: How is it that we perceive a structured world?
Second, I am interested in the ways that human activity has altered the environment, and how we might learn to live in a sustainable manner. The two questions are connected.
Human activity has brought the climate system to a dangerously unstable state. One of the reasons why this has happened is that the global effects of our activity were difficult to perceive until relatively recently.
A challenge that we face is how to adjust our behavior so as to reverse the harmful effects that human activity has had on the Earth system.
The challenge is likely too large to be addressed by individuals voluntarily changing their own behavior. Addressing climate breakdown will require behavior change at the societal scale.
Climate change is a collective action problem. It calls for new tools that allow us to collectively perceive our relationship with the Earth system.
What impact in society do you wish your research to have?
In cognitive science, we tend to think of ourselves as isolated individuals.
We tend to think of the mind as a private theatre, and we tend to think that we can know about other people's minds only by inferring that they must have a similar private theatre inside their head too. I think this view of the mind is wrong.
And I think that the mind-as-private-theatre way of thinking makes it unnecessarily difficult to address the major global challenge that we are faced with today, human-caused climate breakdown.
The psychological theories that I'm interested in are ones that provide a different way of thinking about the relationship between one mind and another mind, and between our collective group of minds and our environment.
The world is not a theatre. The world does not exist only as subjective experience. The world is material.
The world is the material substrate of all life that we know about, including ourselves. Maintaining the planet as a life-supporting system is a single, collective problem faced by all of us. It cannot be addressed using old-fashioned individualistic thinking. I think if more people, including more cognitive scientists, began to recognize this we would be better placed to start fixing our planet.
How do you benefit from being a DIAS Fellow?
DIAS was deliberately set up as an interdisciplinary space.
This is important to me because the kinds of questions that I am interested in do not necessarily fall neatly into a single existing academic discipline.
Talking to colleagues at DIAS can be a useful way to figure out whether the questions that I think I am pursuing are really meaningful and are relevant to a broad audience.
Some colleagues and I have recently established a group called the DIAS Minds Group that will work on interdisciplinary questions concerning minds.
We have a talk series coming up on the topic of Mind in the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch, it denotes the idea that humans have become the decisive force shaping the activity of life on Earth.
Our question is whether our old ways of thinking about the mind are still relevant, given this new epochal framing. I am looking forward to the series.
About Edward Baggs
- Edward Baggs is Assistant Professor at the Department of Language and Communication
- He received his PhD in 2015 from the School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh.
- He was also a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow at University College London's Bartlett School of Architecture.
- His main interest is in the psychology of how humans and other animals perform tasks within social interactions, within an environment that is populated with other animals