Intuitive Theories


One of the hallmarks of human intelligence is its flexibility. While computers have achieved better-than-human performance in various games, such as Chess, Jeopardy, or Go, there is no single algorithm yet that works in all of these cases. Humans, however, can excel at all of these games, and many other tasks. We believe that bridging the gap between human and machine intelligence requires two key insights from cognitive science: (i) human knowledge is organized in terms of richly structured intuitive theories, and (ii) many cognitive processes can be understood as causal inferences operating over these structures. In this chapter, we first explain what intuitive theories are, how we can model them as probabilistic, generative programs, and how intuitive theories support various cognitive functions such as prediction, counterfactual reasoning, and explanation. We focus on two domains of knowledge: people’s intuitive understanding of physics, and their intuitive understanding of psychology. We show how causal judgments can be modeled as counterfactual contrasts operating over an intuitive theory of physics, and how explanations of an agent’s behavior are grounded in a rational planning model that is inverted to infer the agent’s beliefs, desires, and abilities. We conclude by highlighting some of the challenges that the intuitive theories framework faces, such as understanding how intuitive theories are learned and developed.

Gerstenberg, T. & Tenenbaum, J. B. (2017). Intuitive Theories. In Oxford Handbook of Causal Reasoning (pp. 515-548). Oxford University Press.

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