Primary Research Project – The Humean Path
to Philosophical Progress
My research addresses the question of when and why philosophical argumentation is effective in creating knowledge, changing beliefs, and altering behavior.
My current project is to develop a defensible Humean position on how beliefs are generated and stabilized through philosophical argumentation, as well as on the ways in which we can leverage an improved understanding of the process of philosophical belief formation to accelerate epistemic philosophical progress. The viability of a Humean position on these issues has implications not only for Hume scholarship and relevant contemporary sub-disciplines 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 fully understand it. But the often-limited effect of philosophers in convincing each other and shaping public opinion indicates otherwise. Hume proposes a systematic set of explanations for this gap between argument and belief. I am motivated by the prospect of uncovering new strategies to persuade through and in concert with philosophical argumentation.
The initial phase of this project, titled “Hume on the Power of Philosophy” and funded through this past summer by a €100,000 Irish Research Council (IRC) postdoctoral grant, centered around three tasks. First, I have been investigating Hume’s proto-constructivist views on the constituents and structure of arguments—his views on propositions, implication, logical principles, and truth. Second, building on my dissertation on Hume’s accounts of knowledge and belief, I have been gathering evidence for my interpretation of Hume’s psychology of argument, according to which experiences of convincing arguments cause us to believe these arguments’ conclusions by triggering the mental associations by which we reason causally. In precisely the same way that we come to believe that, upon impact, a billiard ball will move away from the cue ball in a typical fashion, we come to believe the conclusions of arguments, or so Hume holds. Third, I have been developing an interpretation of Hume’s commitment to the view that epistemic progress in philosophy would occur if philosophers were to increase the explanatory power of their philosophical beliefs by improving their causal reasoning abilities, in a way continuous with the natural sciences.
For me, Hume’s unique fusion of philosophy and psychology is far from a historical curiosity. In the next phase of this project, I seek to establish whether it—or something like it—is correct by evaluating whether Hume’s positions on the logic of argumentation are defensible given contemporary logical and metaphysical research, whether his account of philosophical belief formation conforms with prevailing psychological theories and can be experimentally confirmed, and whether his views on the epistemic philosophical progress are sensitive to contemporary ethical and methodological results. Some of my work in these dimensions began during my IRC postdoc and has been published in recent articles, like my forthcoming piece in Mind on Hume’s views on implication. However, given the complexities involved in establishing and evaluating the viability of my interpretations of Hume, a book is the necessary output of this project. This book will present, synthesize, and evaluate the viability of Hume’s logical, epistemological, and psychological positions on philosophical argumentation. I aim to complete the proposal for the book by the end of this academic year.
In future work, I will explore alternatives to a Humean research program in the aforementioned domains. I also plan to continue to contribute to Hume scholarship and to continue publishing work on other historical figures. Finally, I will expand my research into artificial intelligence (AI). I recently formed a non-profit organization in order to apply to grants to fund research into philosophical applications of AI in partnership with David Bourget and the team running the Phil*.org ecosystem. We are working on a range of projects to develop and deploy AI tools to increase epistemic philosophical progress in alignment with the proposals outlined in my recent co-authored piece in Metaphilosophy. On the pedagogical side, I plan to continue to write pieces for my newsletter and blog, AutomatED, that explore the ways in which teaching professors can use AI to improve student outcomes and their own efficiency while avoiding the many pitfalls of these new technologies.
Works Under Review or Under Development:
- Book synthesizing and expanding the following papers into a cohesive unity.
- Paper arguing that Hume holds that philosophical beliefs are of the same kind as our beliefs in the behavior of objects like billiard balls and that his position is more plausible than the traditional view of philosophical belief.
- Paper arguing that Hume has a robust account of epistemic progress in philosophy that is unified with his account of progress in the sciences.
- Paper arguing that Hume has insightful views on the ways in which philosophers’ membership in sects influence the stability of their philosophical beliefs.
- Paper evaluating the empirical viability of Hume’s account of the psychology of argumentation.
- Paper arguing that Hume must deny the Law of Excluded Middle (LEM) on the basis of four of his core principles.
- 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).
- Paper arguing that Hume’s Separability Principle has some striking but unnoticed implications for his views on the nature of perceptions, demonstration, contradiction, and beyond (this builds on my recent paper in Mind).
Secondary Research Projects
The Potential of Artificial Intelligence to Change Philosophy
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 Under Review:
- A federal grant application for funding to begin development of an AI tool designed to help philosophers in their research, with functionality similar to what we have sketched in our recent publication. This development process would be conducted in collaboration with the PhilPapers Foundation team.
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 charting the issues surrounding the attribution of external world skepticism to Hume and arguing that Hume is an external world skeptic with respect to knowledge only if he rejects direct realism.
- Paper arguing that there is a tension between Leibniz’s views on necessary truths and his views on contingent ones.
- Paper engaging with the debate between Shepherd and Hume on the simultaneity of causation.
- Paper evaluating whether Du Chatelet’s cosmological argument is a demonstration by her own lights and otherwise.
- 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 using Hume’s philosophy of mind to buttress L.E.J. Brouwer’s.
- Paper exploring the relationship between Margaret Cavendish’s views on thinking matter and those of Locke.
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.