Current Projects


That an epistemic authority believes that p is often a good reason to believe it yourself. The preemption view claims that optimal way of responding to epistemic authority is to let the fact that an authority believes that p be your sole reason for believing it. But there are three salient types of epistemically authoritative situation for which preempting is either epistemically inappropriate or conceptually inapplicable. The first arises when you have an independent reason for the authority’s belief, the second when you have a reason for that belief which depends on the authority for its status as a reason. The third arises – perhaps most surprisingly – when you have reasons against the authority’s belief. I provide an alternative account on which the epistemically best course of action is to make use of all of your reasons, including but not limited to the fact that the authority believes that p.
When one person trusts another for information, typically both parties are epistemically vulnerable: the trusting person is vulnerable to false information, and the trusted person puts her reputation as a truth-teller on the line. Both parties are roughly on a par in terms of the risks they undergo. Trusting people for information via certain digital media can unbalance this parity of risk. The trusting party takes a much greater risk than the trusted party: because of our psychological wiring, digital contexts exert greater epistemic and psychological pressure to believe what we read than to hold purveyors of falsehood accountable. This imbalance has detrimental effects on the entire epistemic community.
Digitalization has transformed human life in less than a generation. But our cognitive and emotional hardwiring – fine-tuned over millions of years – is honed for an analog world. One might think that our analog hardwiring is flexible, enabling easy adaptation. But I will argue that it is ill-suited to many aspects of digital life, with worrying consequences for individuals and society. I will clarify this problem of digital whiplash by focusing on the examples of online discourse, online trust, and digital surveillance. This discussion will also showcase the importance of the humanities, specifically of analytic philosophy, in helping us cognize well in a digital age.
If you love someone, should you aim to believe better of him than epistemic norms allow? The partiality view says that you should: love, on this view, issues norms of belief that clash with epistemic norms. The partiality view is supposedly supported by an analogy to partiality in action, by the phenomenology of love, and by the claim that love commits us to our loved one’s good character. But I argue that the partiality view is false. Love does issue a doxastic norm, but – perhaps surprisingly – it says that you should obey epistemic norms in forming and maintaining beliefs about those you love. I argue this first by appeal to the emotional responses of love, which, when sensitive to what the loved one is really like, can make love great and be morally transformative; and second, by showing that caring for a loved one requires true beliefs about her. My view, the epistemic view about love, might seem to deplete love of its mystery and suspense. On the contrary: it is precisely the journey of mutual discovery – a series of epistemic achievements – that makes love exciting.

Monograph: Faith in Evidence

Chapter 1 locates religious evidentialism in the broader context of religious epistemology. It offers a better alternative to three other widely held views. One is fideism, which says that religious beliefs can be held without respecting one’s evidence. The second is an overly permissive form of evidentialism, which emphasizes respect for evidence but understands this very liberally, allowing religious experiences and community traditions to be the bulk of a person’s evidence. The third view is an overly strict form of evidentialism, which denies that experiences and tradition are legitimate evidence and insists instead on interpersonal considerations such as philosophical arguments. Religious evidentialism is more robust than fideism and permissive evidentialism. But it is robust in the right way: unlike strict evidentialism, it recognizes the importance of religious experiences and traditions, but says that their epistemic influence must be regulated.

Chapter 1 then addresses some worries that might be raised about the project as a whole: that it operates within a Western Judeo-Christian framework, that it is committed to realism about religious truth and to cognitivism about religious beliefs, the worry that religious epistemology is overly fixated on the cognitive aspects of faith, and the suspicion that analytic philosophy lacks the resources to talk sensitively about matters of deepest human importance. The chapter finishes with a summary of the rest of the rest of the book.

Chapter 2 spells out religious evidentialism, the claim that people should respect their evidence in forming and holding beliefs about religious matters. There are two sorts of norm at issue. The epistemic norm says that respecting our evidence helps us obtain knowledge about religious matters. The faith norm says that respecting evidence is an important way to manifest and cultivate religious faith.
I clarify the epistemic norm, situating it in the contemporary epistemological debate about whether evidence can be interpreted in only one way or in a plurality of ways. I then clarify the faith norm. This involves sketching the account of faith I’ll develop in chapter 7, and discussing how the faith norm applies when a person’s evidence speaks against belief in God.

I then present the way in which I understand respect for evidence. This has two components: a synchronic proviso about how you should respond to the evidence that you have at a given time, and a diachronic one about how you should go about acquiring new evidence over time. I finish by showing how religious evidentialism mitigates some worries that religious believers might have respect for evidence.

PART I: The Epistemic Norm

Chapter 3 spells out and defends my account of responding to, or weighting, the evidence that you have. Such an account must be sensitive to the effects of cognitive biases on our belief-formation. These are particularly active in our thinking about religious matters, because religion activates strong emotions and feelings of community identity. Yet biases, as a fundamental feature of our cognitive architecture, are not always unreliable, but can also be reliable. Dealing with them in an evidence-weighting policy is thus a complex matter.

This chapter taps into the philosophy-of-religion debate on evidence-weighting, which I argue can be read as a debate over how best to handle bias: whether to avoid unreliable biases about religion or foster reliable ones. One view, which I call impartialism, recommends ascribing the greatest evidential weight to evidence that meets criteria drawn from scientific reasoning and is thus less likely to be affected by unreliable bias. A second view, which I call partialism, recommends giving greater weight instead to certain forms of evidence that fall short of these criteria and can thus be expected to exhibit reliable and unreliable biases alike. The third view, which I call egalitarianism, recommends weighting both kinds of evidence the same. I argue that egalitarianism is the best evidence-weighting policy for negotiating the effects of bias.

In chapter 4 I turn to the second component of respect for evidence, acquiring new evidence in an epistemically responsible way. This is important, because no matter how carefully a person weights the evidence that she has, if that evidence is unrepresentative, it will mislead her. Seeking representative evidence is a challenge, in light of our tendency to absorb and evaluate information in a way that reinforces our biases. If we follow these natural tendencies, we are prone to missing important information that could moderate or challenge our views. I thus argue that an important component of epistemically responsible evidence-acquisition about the religious domain is engaging in disagreement with those who espouse other religious worldviews.

Philosophers of science have long realized that epistemically responsible evidence-acquisition involves engaging in disagreement. Religious communities, however, tend to discourage disagreement, regarding it as a potential threat to their beliefs. This makes sense when we think of religious beliefs, if divinely revealed, as a treasure that one must at all costs safeguard. But I argue that discouraging religious disagreement is counterproductive even with respect to this aim, and engaging in it is beneficial. I do not argue this by comparing science and religion, however. For scientific hypotheses are ideally held with a scholarly neutrality, and my aim is to persuade those who are committed to religious beliefs that religious disagreement can be epistemically beneficial for them too.

Chapter 5 elaborates on the way in epistemically responsible evidence-acquisition involves disagreement, highlighting that different forms of disagreement yield distinct epistemic benefits. One relevant sort of disagreement arises between people in different social locations in a community, since social location shapes our emotional and perceptual dispositions and values, and through these our belief systems.

In religious communities, disagreement between religious authorities and people at the margins of the community can yield special religious insights. Religious authorities occupy a social location that in some ways is epistemically privileged, with access to education and a religiously centered life. But in other ways religious authority confers epistemic limitations, since authorities are used to being epistemically deferred to. The social location of the religiously marginalized, I argue, can yield insights that complement these deficits. Religious marginalization may reveal certain problematic aspects of the community’s beliefs and practices, and it can involve a certain sort of suffering that may generate religious wisdom. Religious communities, then, should embrace the epistemic benefits of religious disagreement, including between those who are authoritative and those who are marginalized within them.

PART II: The Faith Norm

I turn in Part II to the faith norm: the claim that you should respect your evidence about religious matters if you are to cultivate faith. This claim might come as a surprise, for faith is often regarded as having a fraught relationship with evidence. Some even argue that faith and respect for evidence are incompatible. But this idea, I argue in chapter 6, comes from a mistaken view of faith. I defend my view with a counterexample, inspired by the Biblical figure of Job, which shows that respecting your evidence can itself be an expression of great faith.

When the righteous Job is visited by awful suffering, his companions urge him to believe that God is just and good in spite of this strong evidence to the contrary, and therefore that he (Job) must deserve his suffering. But Job refuses. Instead he seeks more evidence about God’s justice and goodness, in the only way that he can: by demanding that God explain himself. Whereas some would see in this an abandonment of Job’s faith, I argue that Job is expressing it admirably. For Job’s loyalty to what God represents prevents him from worshiping a God whom he does not rationally believe to be just and good. Appealing to God for evidence is a last-ditch attempt to save his faith, and Job takes it on faith that God will provide the evidence he needs.

The previous chapter shows that that respect for evidence is not only compatible with faith, but can even be an expression of it. This is not yet a defense of faith norm, however, which makes the stronger claim that respecting one’s evidence always adds value to faith. Chapters 7 and 8 defend this claim. Chapter 7’s contribution is an account of faith itself as this emerges from the discussion of Job. Faith, on this view, is a special form of trust.

I situate this view in the context of alternative accounts of faith, notably Matheson’s account of faith as grit (i.e. passion and perseverance). I argue that grit is an excellent account not of faith, but of faithfulness, and that these two notions must be distinguished. Faithfulness is to faith what trustworthiness is to trust. Both are standardly had in the context of a relationship of faith, which is at its best when each party has faith in the other and is faithful to her. I buttress this account by appeal to the Biblical Hebrew and Greek notions of faith, respectively ’emuna and pistis. I then argue that faith, in keeping with recent discussions, does not entail belief that God will come through for you, or even belief that God exists.

Chapter 8, drawing on the account of faith developed in the previous chapter, argues for the faith norm: that respect for evidence is an important way to cultivate faith. There are some faith relationships, including faith in God, to which love between the parties is proper. I argue that loving someone well involves respecting your evidence so that you can come to know her as she really is and care for her needs. This suggestion flies in the face of a recent view, called the doxastic-partiality view, which says that you should sometimes disrespect your evidence about your loved one. This is supposed to ensure that you have a continually positive view of her character. I criticize the doxastic-partiality view on the grounds that it can slip too easily into idolatry, encouraging a mistaken picture of your loved one. Moreover, doxastic partiality makes it difficult to care for your loved one, as it encourages false beliefs about his needs. I defend an alternative view, evidentialism about love. Love is at its best when accompanied by evidence-respecting beliefs about your loved one. When the loved one is God, respecting your evidence about him helps you know him as he really is, and discern his will more accurately.

With this I finish my defense of the faith norm and thus of religious evidentialism. From the viewpoints of both epistemology and faith, a person should respect her evidence when forming or holding beliefs about religious matters. Doing this promotes religious knowledge and helps cultivate one’s faith relationship (should God exist). Religious evidentialism achieves these results by declining to compromise on epistemic norms in the way that some other religious epistemologies have done; yet the robust epistemic norms that it posits remain sensitive to the realities of human cognition and the distinctive features of the religious domain.

Religious writings and tradition are an important source of information about the notion of religious faith. This is trivially so for those who regard such texts as divinely revealed, but it also applies to those who regard them simply as data concerning deep-rooted aspects of human thought. This chapter argues that Jewish and Christian scriptures contain a proto-evidentialism that resembles the account I have developed.

To make this case I show first that the Hebrew and Greek words for faith, respectively ’emuna and pistis, mean roughly to rely on something that is reliable and seen to be reliable – as opposed to something that one harbors any doubts about. But why should this reliance and perception of reliance involve beliefs that are evidence-respecting? To answer this question I draw on the biblical texts themselves. Narrative portrayals of faith in God are typically, and normatively, accompanied by God’s providing evidence on which this faith can rest (for example, the God of the Jewish scriptures does mighty works expressly so that his people may know that he is the LORD, a tradition that Jesus takes himself in the New Testament to be continuing with his miracles). Prophets continually exhort the faithful to trust God on the basis of his character revealed in his past works (think of Moses and Isaiah), and New Testament authors exhort faith on the basis of the history they have meticulously documented (the gospels of John and Matthew).

There are of course apparent counterexamples, such as Abram, who to all appearances leaves his homeland on the basis of a command out of the blue and then keeps his faith against the evidence that God wants him to murder his son; the letter to the Hebrews, which calls faith the “conviction of things not seen”; Job, who is held up as an exemplar of faith for maintaining his faith in God’s goodness and justice in the face of disastrous counterevidence; and of course Doubting Thomas, whom Jesus chastises for refusing to believe in Jesus’ resurrection without tangible proof. I address these and other apparent counterexamples.

On the basis of these and other considerations from religious sources, I argue that something like the evidentialism defended here is the norm in at least the Judeo-Christian religious tradition.

Edited Volume: Liminal Lives