Nick Byrd Near Martha's Vineyard

About Nick

Summary | Goals | Interests | Teaching | Research | Outreach


I am currently a grad student. I study philosophy and cognitive science. I take myself to be a philosopher of science, philosopher of mind, and a wannabe social/cognitive psychologist — a.k.a., an “experimental philosopher.” In my free time I enjoy a bit of exercise, nature, travel, soccer, ultimate frisbee, light reading, educational video, stand up comedy, coffee, woodworking, quality time with my partner (pictured above), alone time, or some combination of the above. [Back To Top]


I look forward to completing a PhD and broadening my academic horizons. In the meantime, I enjoy teaching, researching, collaborating, trying to demonstrate the value of philosophy, trying to improve the ethos of academia, and trying to rethink higher education. [Back To Top]


I am usually thinking about reasoning, action, and wellbeing. I think about these topics as a philosopher of science, a philosopher of mind, and an experimental philosopher, but these topics are broad, so my research often includes perspectives from epistemology, ethics, social science, biology, computer science, medicine, and psychiatry. [Back To Top]


I sometimes watch philosophers the way an anthropologist might watch an undiscovered group of people. It’s a lot of fun actually. Maybe you do it too. Right away you notice odd rituals and protocols. And as you encounter more groups of philosophers, you’ll discern distinct traditions, each with their own canonical texts, sacred ideas, and historical narratives. Spend a little more time with philosophers and you’ll notice competing orthodoxies within each tradition. Then take a step back and look at the institution of philosophy and the institutions into which it fits. You’ll detect power dynamics, political movements, incentive structures, etc. Oh, and there are these mysterious things called “intuitions” that seem to bear special authority. Fascinating, right?

But seriously, one of the reasons I care about cognitive science, psychology, and experimental philosophy is that these fields offer insight into what we’re doing when we do philosophy. We might have a folk theory about how we arrive at our philosophical judgments, but cognitive science, psychology, and their ilk can help us arbitrate between these theories and propose better theories.

Why else is reasoning interesting? Well besides being intrinsically interesting, the work on reasoning (a) reveals opportunities to improve our reasoning and (b) makes sense of our otherwise puzzling judgments and behaviors. [Back To Top]


You’ve probably had the experience of trying to resist temptation. You’ve probably also had the experience of failing to resist temptation. A great deal of philosophy and science is devoted to understanding these failures of willpower. I am particularly interested in understanding what willpower is and how it works. As I see it, the more we understand the nature of willpower, the more likely we are to improve it. And if we can reliably improve willpower, then we might be able to prevent many of the bad outcomes that are associated with willpower deficits.

Here’s a fun thought: imagine that there is a “willpower pill” that improves our willpower and thereby allows us to avoid various bad outcomes. I’d bet that lots of people would want to take this pill. Well, we don’t have such a pill, but we might have an alternative. A survey of the literature across various empirical domains suggests that various tweaks to our lifestyle can increase the chances of overcoming temptation, make demanding tasks easier, improve productivity, etc. In other words, by changing our lifestyle, we might be able to improve our willpower. So if you think you should take the willpower pill, then maybe you should change your lifestyle.

Another interesting thought: some of the variables that influence willpower are not within our control. This might mean that someone’s willpower is better or worse than someone else’s willpower in virtue of things that neither party can control. For example, some people — by no effort or choice of their own — have unique access to a lifestyle that allows them to have greater willpower. As a result, these people are more self-controlled, patient, and productive than people with less access to the same lifestyle. So are the people with unique access to certain lifestyles more praiseworthy for having greater willpower? Are people with less access to these lifestyles fully blameworthy for their willpower failures? [Back To Top]


The literature in multiple empirical domains reveals that certain variables have robust effects on our wellbeing. In some cases, we can exercise control over these variables, but we often lack such control. This means that while some of our welfare is up to us, much of it is not. It seems clear from the literature, however, that other people — e.g., neighbors, friends, and family — can influence our wellbeing in ways that we cannot. Moreover, certain institutions can influence our wellbeing in ways that neither we nor our neighbors, friends, or family members can. So while we are not entirely in control of our wellbeing or anyone else’s wellbeing, we do seem to have some control in the matter. And if wellbeing can be differentially influenced by certain people and institutions, then we might wonder how wellbeing ought to influenced by these people and institutions. We might wonder: Do we have certain obligations to ourselves in terms of our own wellbeing? Do we have certain obligations to our friends and family in terms of their wellbeing? Do institutions have certain obligations to their constituents in terms of their constituents wellbeing? Do constituents have certain obligations to their institutions? To other constituents? [Back To Top]


When I am teaching, talking to a student, grading a student’s work or doing some other university duty, I try to keep a few things in mind. One of these things is that fact that my students can make decisions that have tremendous and lasting consequences. They can vote. They can serve on juries. They can create other humans. You get the idea. Since my students are faced with enormous decisions, I introduce them to resources and methods that can help improve their judgments and decisions. I do this by asking important questions, challenging problematic views, and training students in various reasoning strategies. [Back To Top]


Philosophy of science is one of my favorite courses. Science has become something of a fad in my lifetime. As a result, lots of young people are interested in it. However, I find that this interest does not necessarily correlate with sophisticated or even accurate views of science. People say lots of things about science that, upon inspection, seem to be false. For example, people often say that science “proves” or “disproves” things. If you take a careful look at science, however, you find that science can’t actually prove or disprove anything — not conclusively anyway. Also, some popular figures in science claim that science is a purely empirical enterprise such that it can do without philosophy. Notice, however, that this claim is a philosophical one, which means that it cannot be defended without doing a bit of philosophy. Surprisingly, when you look at the defenses of this philosophical claim, you find that they lack philosophical rigor. So there doesn’t seem to be a philosophically satisfying argument which concludes that science can do without philosophy. Other things people say are as follows: there is a single scientific method, scientists try to falsify their hypotheses, science can answer moral questions, etc. These might sound right at first, but none of these claims are so compelling after some reflection. So what should we say about science? To borrow a refrain from Carol Cleland, one thing is abundantly clear: science works. Exactly how and why science works, however, is not so clear. [Back To Top]


I am interested in both theoretical and experimental approaches to problems. So, sometimes I think about problems from my armchair desk chair (and occasionally my standing desk), but sometimes I take a more empirical approach. [Back To Top]


I have written about ill-being, willpower, implicit bias, cognitive therapy, depression, philosophical reasoning, cosmopolitan egalitarianism, racial integration, unconscious cognition, free will, belief, personal identity, the non-identity problem, and posthumous harm. [Back To Top]

Empirical Stuff

I have also studied the relationships between philosophical training/selection, cognitive style, personality, and philosophical judgment. And I have created a 7.5 million word philosophy text corpus, the analysis of which can be used to help answer a variety of questions about philosophy — e.g., do philosophers appeal to intuition? Also, I am interested in replicating a variety of results in psychology — e.g., the effects of reasoning on implicit attitudes. [Back To Top]


There are many ways to convey the value of philosophy and cognitive science beyond the walls of a university. Before starting grad school, I was working on an eBook anthology for middle school and high school students. Now that I am in grad school, I have little time for this project, but I still think about ways to reach more than just my colleagues and students. This is partly why I try to have a social media presence and maintain a blog. I’m also becoming interested in other mediums. I think video and animation can be compelling fun addictive, so I often imagine ways to portray philosophy and cognitive science via, say, YouTube. One idea is to adapt a SciShow or Crash Course model where brief, fast-paced, and entertaining videos become vehicles for education and discussion. School of Life and Wireless Philosophy produce fine examples of short, entertaining videos that pique interest in philosophy. As they continue to generate interest, I think there is a growing opportunity for videos that offer a more thorough treatment of various questions in philosophy. I’d be thrilled to contribute to a project like this. [Back To Top]

And, yes: I have been told that I look like Neil Patrick Harris.