Sticking to the Evidence? A computational and behavioral case study of micro-theory change in the domain of magnetism


An intuitive theory is a system of abstract concepts and laws relating those concepts that together provide a framework for explaining some domain of phenomena. Constructing an intuitive theory based on observing the world, as in building a scientific theory from data, confronts learners with a “chicken-and-egg” problem: the laws can only be expressed in terms of the theory’s core concepts, but these concepts are only meaningful in terms of the role they play in the theory’s laws; how is a learner to discover appropriate concepts and laws simultaneously, knowing neither to begin with? Even knowing the number of categories in a theory does not resolve this problem: without knowing how individuals should be sorted (which categories each belongs to), a the causal relationships between categories cannot be resolved. We explore how children can solve this chicken-and-egg problem in the domain of magnetism, drawing on perspectives from history of science, computational modeling, and behavioral experiments. We present preschoolers with a simplified magnet learning task and show how our empirical results can be explained as rational inferences within a Bayesian computational framework.

2012 IEEE International Conference on Development and Learning and Epigenetic Robotics
Tomer Ullman
Primary Investigator

My research focuses on the structure and origin of knowledge, guided by perspectives and methods from cognitive science, cognitive development, and computational modeling. By combining these, I hope to better understand the form and development of the basic commonsense reasoning that guides our interaction with the world and the people in it.