Research

Research

My area of research specialization is epistemology, with a particular focus on social epistemology and virtue epistemology. I am especially interested in understanding how human sociality is related to epistemic normativity. My dissertation focused on issues at the intersection of virtue epistemology and social epistemology, with a particular focus on epistemic trust. I have works in progress that extend the research that I have done for my dissertation by making connections with knowledge-first epistemology, the epistemology of groups, philosophy of science, and philosophy of religion. I also have plans for long-term research projects in early Modern philosophy, philosophy of science, philosophy of education, and philosophy of religion that will build on the foundation of my current research. Section 1 below summarizes my dissertation, section 2 describes my current works in progress, and section 3 describes directions I see my future research taking.

 

1. DISSERTATION SUMMARY

My dissertation, titled Social Epistemic Dependence: Trust, Testimony, and Social Intellectual Virtue, is concerned with the nature and evaluation of epistemic trust. Philosophers often regard beliefs formed by relying on others as epistemically inferior. However, recent developments in the epistemology of testimony and in social epistemology more broadly are leading epistemologists to re-evaluate the normativity of social epistemic dependence. My dissertation contributes to the contemporary conversation by (a) developing a schema for relations of epistemic dependence and locating various forms of epistemic trust within that schema, (b) critically examining recent “trust theories” of testimony and ultimately rejecting the claim that “trust itself” can epistemically warrant belief, and (c) developing an account of the place of trust in epistemology. In particular, I argue that epistemic trust is, under certain conditions, the manifestation of a distinctively social intellectual virtue.

Chapter one sets the stage for the dissertation by reviewing attitudes taken by philosophers toward social epistemic dependence—especially toward beliefs taken on trust in testimony—from Francis Bacon in the late Renaissance period, through the early Modern period in which the Lockean-Humean “reductionist” view of testimony became dominant, to the contemporary conversation. Recent years have seen the rise of interest in alternative views of social epistemic dependence, and an accompanying rise of interest in social epistemology more generally. Some critics of reductionist theories of testimonial knowledge complain that reductionists overlook the epistemological importance of trust. But what is trust, and what place should it have in epistemology?

Chapter two engages the ground-clearing project of defining the terms “trust” and “epistemic trust.” I justify the need for conceptual work by reviewing how the term is used in philosophical, sociological, and psychological literatures. “Trust” is hardly used univocally, either between disciplines, or within epistemology. I survey and critique various definitions and characterizations of trust offered recently by epistemologists, then turn to developing a concept of epistemic trust as a species of epistemic dependence. Specifically, epistemic trust is accepted dependence upon someone or something with respect to (the accuracy of) one’s belief regarding some proposition p, accompanied by the expectation of thereby acquiring knowledge (or other epistemically good status) regarding whether p. Various forms of epistemic trust may be distinguished by the reasons or causes of one’s disposition to depend on one’s trustee in the particular instance.

Chapter three is concerned with recently developed “trust theories” of testimonial knowledge. Some epistemologists propose that trust is epistemically significant in the sense that “trust itself” is capable of justifying beliefs. I examine three different attempts to develop a trust theory of testimonial knowledge, and argue that these accounts ultimately fail. However, I also disagree with those who apparently believe that trust is epistemically insignificant if trust itself can't epistemically warrant belief. The question remains: what is the epistemological significance of trust?

Chapter four is largely concerned with the descriptive project of tracing the typical development of the human capacity and disposition to trust others from infancy to adulthood, and of noting how different species of trust emerge over time. I engage with empirical literature concerning developmental psychology, social cognition, theories of “mindreading,” and the internalization of social norms. Engagement with empirical literature is important for a (broadly speaking) “naturalized” epistemology, such as the virtue reliabilist (a virtue epistemology that includes reliable cognitive faculties among the intellectual virtues) theory that I use in this project. I also include an evaluation of Hume’s and Reid’s descriptive accounts of human social cognition, and conclude that Reid’s is largely vindicated by contemporary research but Hume’s is not.

Chapter five provides a positive account of the place of epistemic trust in epistemology. Relying on the descriptive work done in chapter four, I argue that the disposition to trust others in certain domains, even strangers about whom we have little to no evidence regarding their particular trustworthiness, is (under certain conditions) the manifestation of a distinctively social intellectual virtue. In this chapter I develop the notion of social intellectual virtue, as well as the notions high epistemic trust societies and epistemic social capital as explanatory tools for use in providing an account of how social epistemic dependence is compatible with virtue epistemology. I apply this work to defending virtue reliabilism (a version of “robust virtue epistemology”) from the charge that it is committed to a problematic form of epistemological individualism.

 

2. WORKS IN PROGRESS

I have four works currently in progress. Three are epistemology papers drawing on work done in my dissertation, and the other is a philosophy of religion paper applying recent research on sociality to a puzzle about petitionary prayer.

“Socialized Virtue Reliabilism” presents my account of the place of epistemic trust in epistemology from chapter five of my dissertation. It includes developing and explaining the notions of high epistemic trust societies and epistemic social capital, describing the role that social norms play in creating these social phenomena, and explaining how these phenomena contribute to distinctly social intellectual virtues. I then use this work to defend virtue reliabilism from the charge that it is committed to epistemological individualism.

“The Origin and Development of Epistemic Trust” draws on work from the fourth chapter of my dissertation. I engage with empirical literature on infant cognitive development, mindreading, attachment, testimonial uptake, and social norms to form a picture of how humans typically come to epistemically rely on others and form epistemic communities, and apply the results to debates in social epistemology.

“Can Socially Seated Epistemic Competences Save Virtue Reliabilism?” presents an explanation and critique Ernest Sosa’s theory of socially seated epistemic competences, and presents an alternative account of social intellectual virtues. I argue that socially seated epistemic competences as Sosa describes them cannot do the work of reconciling social epistemic dependence with virtue reliabilism. Instead, the virtue reliabilist should see the disposition to epistemically trust as an intellectual ability when in an appropriate social environment.

“Divine Goodness and the Efficacy of Petitionary Prayer” engages a current debate in philosophy of religion regarding the possibility of efficacious petitionary prayer given a concept of God as omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. Using recent empirical work on mindreading and joint attention, I develop a “joint attention model of petitionary prayer,” and use that model to argue that petitionary prayer is possibly efficacious given an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good God.

 

3. FUTURE DIRECTIONS

In addition to the works currently in progress, I am developing ideas for long-range projects that build on my current research. I currently foresee projects in the epistemology of groups, philosophy of science, early Modern philosophy, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of education.

The epistemology of groups is a growing area of philosophical investigation, and I see my project of understanding trust as naturally leading into questions regarding the possibility and normativity of epistemic trust relationships between individuals and groups, and even between groups. I am interested in studying group knowledge and how group knowledge might or might not be related to individual knowledge.

I see the question of the possibility and normativity of individual epistemic trust in groups as significant for the philosophy of science, and so I hope to engage in a philosophy of science project on the place of epistemic trust in the scientific enterprise. Consider, for example, the question of the possession of “the evidence” for some scientific theory. Rarely, if ever, will any individual have made all the relevant observations, calculations, and inferences required by good scientific practice. Rather, scientists trust one another’s testimonies, and depend on scientific communities and institutions. But does this mean that no one has “the evidence” for most theories? Or does it mean that there is some group of scientists that have the evidence, qua group? Or perhaps that possessing genuinely “scientific” evidence, and even scientific knowledge, only requires trust of some sort rather than following good scientific practice?

I also plan to extend my knowledge of early Modern philosophical attitudes toward social epistemic dependence. I am particularly interested in two projects in early Modern philosophy. First, I am planning a project comparing and contrasting Hume’s and Reid’s theories of developmental psychology and social cognition (broadly speaking), and comparing their views to current empirical results in these areas. I am currently of the opinion that the best current research supports Reid’s view over Hume’s (as briefly discussed in chapter four of my dissertation), but more research is needed. Also, I am interested in the attitude that Francis Bacon had toward social epistemic dependence, and contrasting his attitude with that of Descartes. My initial studies have given me the impression that Bacon had a rather nuanced view, and that Descartes consciously rejects Bacon’s relatively moderate approach in favor of a much more radically individualistic approach to epistemology. Of course, Descartes’ approach proved more influential in subsequent epistemology. I think that Bacon’s view has been under appreciated in recent social epistemology literature, and could provide a moderate corrective to Cartesian individualism.

In philosophy of religion, I am interested in investigating the connection between epistemic trust and religious faith. Trust and faith seem importantly related, but it’s not clear just how. First of all, it’s not clear just what faith is. However, it does seem safe to say that if S has faith in T, then S also is disposed to trust T in at least some fairly broad domains. What else can be said about the relationship between trust and faith? For example, if some forms of trust are indispensible to human flourishing, does this imply that some forms of faith are similarly indispensible? Furthermore, what kind of trust relationships, especially relationships of epistemic trust, are typically involved in the life of religious faith? I suspect that epistemic trust in a religious community of some sort is common, if not typical, among religious believers. What might justify, or render appropriate, such a trust? What parallels or differences might be found between the trust that a religious believer has in her or his religious community, and the trust that a scientists has in her or his scientific community? Can both be epistemically appropriate?

Finally, I am interested in developing projects in the philosophy of education that build on my work on epistemic trust and social epistemic dependence. One question that I find interesting concerns the epistemic goal of education: what ought it to be? Some contemporary theorists argue that certain cognitive skills should be the epistemic goal; other argue that knowledge (or even mere true beliefs) should be the goal. I have in mind a project arguing that the epistemic goal of education should be understanding, and that the goal understanding brings together the goal of cognitive skills with the goal of knowledge. An additional question awaiting investigation concerns whether epistemic autonomy should be an educational value. Educators often say that they want to teach their students to “think for themselves,” and emphasize the kind of skills that this would require; however, given recent progress in understanding just how deeply our social epistemic dependence runs, does epistemic autonomy make sense as an educational ideal? Perhaps it should be treated as a kind of regulative (but unachievable) ideal? Or perhaps it should be replaced by an emphasis on epistemic interdependence and an accompanying emphasis on social intellectual virtues?

 

My plans for future research are ambitious, but I see them all as interrelated and mutually supporting. My current area of specialization is epistemology, with an emphasis on virtue epistemology and social epistemology. With the opportunity to pursue these projects, I foresee adding specializations in philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of education, and early Modern philosophy.