Studying philosophy and psychology should make any thoughtful person less self-certain.

Jason Leddington

"Our relationship to our own minds is not as simple as we think," says Professor Jason Leddington, philosophy. "Most people take it for granted that they basically understand themselves. But do they really?" he asks. "Studying philosophy and psychology should make any thoughtful person less self-certain."

Perception is one of the first areas Leddington asks his students to question. "We think we see everything, but we miss so much. Magicians are happy to take advantage of this."

To prove his point, Leddington, who has performed theatrical magic semi-professionally, has been known to create illusions for his students. "The experience of a successful magic performance creates cognitive dissonance," he explains. "You experience the seemingly impossible and you try to make sense of it. When you're unsuccessful, the result is uncomfortable, but often exhilarating."

According to Leddington, cognitive dissonance is also central to the experience of other kinds of art, including drawings of impossible figures by artists such as Reutersvärd and Escher and musical phenomena such as the Shepard-Risset Glissando, which seems to get lower while simultaneously remaining constant in pitch. "Such experiences are now one of my central research interests," he says.

Leddington's classes integrate philosophical readings about the human mind from both past and present with recent work in cognitive and social psychology and behavioral economics. In his 100-level course, Consciousness, he also requires students to complete several weeks of meditation practice. "It's a first-person study of consciousness to complement the third-person approaches characteristic of most philosophy and psychology," he says. "We also discuss some of the ways that meditation can contribute to well-being. As a society, we agree that training the body is important. Shouldn't it be just as important to train the mind?"

Leddington and seven of his students have teamed up with fellow philosophy professor Matthew Slater to devise a plan to help foster the public's understanding of science. "Understanding and knowledge are very different things," Leddington says. The project combines philosophical and empirical studies of the nature of human understanding with case studies of critical scientific outreach efforts. Ultimately, the team hopes to devise a list of recommendations designed to improve public understanding.

"Never give up, and never be satisfied," Leddington tells his students. "What is consciousness? What is the relation between reason, emotion and desire? How can I live a good life? If you stop asking yourself questions such as these, you might as well be dead."

Posted Sept. 30, 2015