Primary Research Project – Persuasion and Philosophy
My dissertation was the first phase of a much larger research project examining when and why philosophical argumentation creates knowledge, changes beliefs, and affects behavior. Hume’s views in this territory have been my primary focus but my search for answers is ever widening. I argue that Hume accepts the existence of sound philosophical arguments for conclusions that we can neither know nor believe. My case study is Hume’s argument against the primary/secondary quality distinction, although Hume holds that all of the main skeptical arguments he considers in Book 1 of A Treatise of Human Nature share these features.
Hume’s account of how we respond to philosophical reasoning is not a mere historical curiosity. I maintain that an account approximately like Hume’s is correct, both because it conforms to our best accounts of the mind and because it is the best explanation of various aspects of philosophy as a practice (e.g. the lack of certain varieties of progress and the lack of stable consensuses). This has implications not only for Hume studies but also for pedagogy and research trends in philosophy more generally. With regards to the latter, the Humean outlook sheds light on how non-epistemic features of our minds lead to transitory research fads and cyclical movements that inefficiently reinvent the conceptual wheel. I and a co-author working in Silicon Valley are developing a series of papers building on this diagnosis and arguing for a solution. We argue that philosophy-specific AI would help philosophy progress by making philosophers more skilled at philosophical reasoning and by enabling them to overcome cognitive obstacles to building consensus. This is also part of my attempt to collaboratively incorporate findings from other fields into my research. I am working towards synthesizing the perspectives, methodologies, and findings of philosophers, scientists, and others into a compelling—and actionable—account of when and why philosophical argumentation is effective.
While my research has implications for how we should think about and conduct academic philosophy, it also potentially has broader social value. In recent years, there seems to be a diminishment of the persuasive power of philosophical arguments that have long been effective in convincing people of the importance of liberal institutions (like a free press) and rights (like freedom of speech). One might think that the soundness of an argument is sufficient to convince—that the human intellect accepts the truth if only it is understood. But the present crises indicate that this noble perspective is somewhat naïve. If the Humean perspective is right, we ought to conceptualize philosophy as an artistic science of persuasion in the mold of Cicero, rather than as an austere application of the light of reason. I am motivated by the prospect that my research could help us uncover new strategies to persuade with philosophical argumentation more effectively.
Works in Progress:
- Paper arguing that Hume accepts the existence of sound philosophical arguments for conclusions that we can neither know nor believe. [complete draft available]
- Paper arguing that Hume would deny the view that it is necessary that if one knows that p, then one believes that p on the basis of an epistemological methodology that represents a challenge to every philosopher with a positive view on this principle (the so-called entailment thesis) to develop an account of the mind, or to explain why they need not do so. [complete draft available]
- Paper defending the plausibility of a Humean position on the denial of the entailment thesis.
- Paper synthesizing prevailing accounts of the mind to explain persistent aspects of the psychology and sociology of philosophizing.
- Paper examining the independent plausibility of Hume’s so-called title principle. Hume expresses this view as follows: “Where reason is lively, and mixes itself with some propensity, it ought to be assented to. Where it does not, it never can have any title to operate upon us.”
The Potential of Artificial Intelligence to Change Philosophy
The era of computers is in full swing and the era of artificial intelligence is upon us. Despite this technological progress, philosophy remains stubbornly resistant to any technologically-driven structural changes. I and a co-author (Caleb Ontiveros, a computer engineer at Chime) are exploring various aspects of the relationship between philosophical argumentation, persuasion, and AI.
Works in Progress:
- Paper arguing that philosophy-specific AI would help philosophy progress and build philosophical consensus, and also that philosophers should dedicate significant effort right now to help apply current AI systems to tackle philosophical problems and interact with one another.
Secondary Research Projects
Defending Humean Positions in Epistemology, Philosophy of Mind, and Logic
I am sympathetic to many of the philosophical positions occupied by Humeans, including those of Hume himself. In several papers under development, I am working on defending some lesser-known Humean views against contemporary alternatives. While there has been a lot of focus on Humeanism in philosophy of science and metaphysics in the contemporary literature, many Humean positions in epistemology, philosophy of mind, and logic are seldom discussed and in need of advocates.
Works in Progress:
- Paper arguing that Hume must deny the Law of Excluded Middle (LEM) on the basis of six of his core principles, all of which have significant independent plausibility. [complete draft available]
- Paper defending a Humean form of panqualityism as a solution to the hard problem of consciousness.
Miscellaneous Early Modern Research
As a historian, I have wide interests–ranging from Aristotle to the early analytics–but much of my focus is on the early modern period. In a variety of research projects, I am exploring early moderns’ contributions to metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind. One of my main goals is to unpack the views of the early moderns in contemporary terms. We can get a clearer picture of the views of the early moderns by attempting to express them (and the arguments for them) in the more precise terms that we have developed since their time. And when we cannot do so, this is itself illuminating and fruitful, as it can reveal ways in which contemporary philosophers have lost some of the conceptual richness available to their forebears.
Works in Progress:
- Paper defining Locke’s substance dualism in contemporary terms and explaining the strongest arguments available to Locke to establish it.
- Paper synthesizing the somewhat disparate extant literature on Kant’s refutation of idealism and arguing for a new interpretation that draws from the main alternatives.
- Paper exploring the relationship between Margaret Cavendish’s views on thinking matter and those of Locke.
- Paper analyzing the debate between Mary Shepherd and Hume on the simultaneity of cause and effect.
- Paper defining and defending Berkeley’s account of unity in the face of attacks from both Hume and Spinoza. [with Michael Rauschenbach]
- Paper using Hume’s philosophy of mind to buttress L.E.J. Brouwer’s.
Dissertation – Hume on Knowledge
Many of Hume’s positions have received as much attention as those of any other early modern figure, but his position on knowledge has been surprisingly neglected. In my dissertation, I develop a general interpretation of Hume’s position on knowledge. The most striking features of Hume’s account, under my interpretation, are that (i) instances of knowledge are immediately present perceptions and (ii) the objects of instances of knowledge are relations between some of their parts. The exegetical and philosophical implications of this account are significant. First, I argue that Hume runs afoul of the widespread contemporary dogma that knowledge entails belief, both in cases involving sense perception and in cases involving abstract philosophical reasoning. Second, I argue that knowledge infallibilisms like Hume’s—views that maintain that a knower could not err with respect to what she knows—are compatible with the negation of external world skepticism, contrary to the consensus in the field. Some strains of direct realism provide ample space for the infallibilist of Hume’s stripe to deny this skeptical conclusion. Third, I argue that some of Hume’s “demonstrations” do not, in fact, generate knowledge. (Demonstrations are, among other things, sound arguments with necessary premises.) Since Hume is widely interpreted to hold that these demonstrations have literally unbelievable conclusions, this means that Hume maintains that we can demonstrate claims that we can neither know nor believe.