Primary Research Project – Persuasion and Philosophy
My current research addresses the question of when and why philosophical argumentation is effective in creating knowledge, changing beliefs, and altering behavior. The goal is to derive empirically grounded lessons for making philosophy more impactful in our societies. My current focus is on Hume’s positions on what distinguishes stably believable philosophical claims, how we can stabilize philosophical beliefs via argument, and when and why representations of philosophical claims that are not stable beliefs cause actions. This project, titled “Hume on the Power of Philosophy” and funded through the summer of 2023 by a €100,000 Irish Research Council (IRC) grant, is based at University College Dublin under the supervision of Dr. Ruth Boeker. In this project, Hume’s account of how we respond to philosophical reasoning is far from a historical curiosity. I seek to establish whether an account like Hume’s is correct by evaluating the degree to which his positions conform with psychological theories and can be experimentally tested.
The empirical viability of Hume’s unique blend of philosophy and psychology has implications not only for Hume studies but also for pedagogy, public outreach, and research trends in philosophy more generally. One might think that the soundness of an argument is sufficient to convince—that people will accept the truth if only they understand it. But the often-limited effect of philosophers in shaping public opinion (and convincing each other) would seem to indicate otherwise. Hume proposes a systematic set of explanations for this gap between argument and belief. As I argue in my recent Hume Studies article, Hume’s acceptance of the existence of sound philosophical arguments for conclusions that we cannot stably believe plays a central role in his core argument in Book 1 of his Treatise. If the Humean perspective is right, philosophy must be understood as an austere application of the light of reason and as an artistic science of persuasion, with an emphasis on the latter. I am motivated by the prospect of uncovering new strategies to persuade through and in concert with philosophical argumentation.
I first began to explore these topics in my dissertation on the interaction between Hume’s epistemological perspective on knowledge and his philosophy of mind. Based upon the first chapter of my dissertation, my “Knowledge and Sensory Knowledge in Hume’s Treatise” (Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy, 2021) argues for a new comprehensive interpretation of Hume’s account of knowledge. Contrary to the consensus, I argue that Hume is an empiricist in a new sense, in that he holds that sensations can also be instances of knowledge. In a series of further papers, I argue that Hume denies the entailment of belief from knowledge and that Hume’s account of knowledge makes room for a rejection of external world skepticism. I argue that Hume’s position on the former is significant since the prevailing consensus in contemporary analytic epistemology is that this entailment thesis is obviously true. More generally, I argue that Hume’s psychology-driven epistemological methodology represents a challenge to the methodology of many epistemologists.
After I complete my IRC grant project, my next project will be dedicated to further evaluating the extent to which Hume’s positions in the psychology of philosophy can be empirically and experimentally tested. I will also be expanding my analysis beyond Hume to other figures in the early modern period, as well as defending Humean positions on logic.
Works in Progress:
- Paper arguing that Hume must deny the Law of Excluded Middle (LEM) on the basis of six of his core principles. [under review]
- Paper arguing that Hume’s views on implication, which are tightly linked to his so-called “Dictum” (according to which there are no necessary connections between distinct entities), have some troubling implications given his other principles. [under review]
- Paper analyzing Hume’s views on when philosophical arguments trigger the mind’s belief-forming mechanisms, how persistent the resultant beliefs are, and how they can be undermined.
- Paper arguing that Hume holds that representations that are not stable beliefs but are nonetheless stable in some respects are widespread among philosophers who reflect on abstruse and abstract topics.
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 six Humean and Russellian principles, all of which have significant independent plausibility, jointly entail the negation of the Law of Excluded Middle (LEM). [under review]
- 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. [revise and resubmit]
- Paper arguing that there is a tension between Leibniz’s views on necessary truths and his views on contingent ones. [under review]
- 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.
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) 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. [complete draft available]
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.