Project Titles and Abstracts

"Biases and Skepticism", Nathan Ballantyne

Psychologists report that humans predictably fail on many tasks of judgment and reasoning. What does this empirical evidence tell us about human rationality? Theorists waging the "rationality wars" have typically considered the implications of that evidence for humanity in general, including those of us who are not even aware of it. Curiously, theorists have almost universally left reasons and reasoning on the sidelines. This is an oversight. I contend that we can better understand our limits as truth-seekers by reasoning about the impact of the empirical evidence on our attitudes. I want to understand the rational significance of that evidence by investigating our reasons in light of that evidence. To that end, I reflect on the import of the empirical results for humans who are themselves aware of the results. My question: how should learning of the human propensity to err affect our thinking? In answering this question, I set out some new arguments that help us assess our controversial beliefs about topics such as philosophy, morality, and religion. Though these arguments are more plausible than widely discussed "peer disagreement" arguments, they target many of the same sorts of beliefs. So understanding the significance of the empirical evidence can, I think, help us address questions about rational disagreement.

"From No Explanation of Reliability to Moral and Religious Skepticism", Matthew Braddock

Everybody wonders whether our moral beliefs are justified or amount to knowledge. Almost everybody knows that whether our moral beliefs are justified or amount to knowledge crucially depends on whether they are reliable. And everybody knows that where our moral beliefs came from is crucially relevant to whether they are reliable. All this creates widespread skepticism for many because it is not obvious that the plausible origins of our moral beliefs should inspire confidence in their reliability. Indeed many think that a good look at the origins of our moral beliefs gives us reason to think they are unreliable. My broad question: are there cogent arguments to moral skepticism from premises regarding the origins of our moral beliefs? Several philosophers (e.g. G. Harman, B. Leiter, R. Joyce) have developed “anti-explanationist” arguments that move to the skeptical conclusion from the premise that our best explanation of our moral beliefs does not appeal to their truth. I do not find extant arguments of this sort convincing. I aim to strike out in a different direction by developing arguments from the premise that we C”have no plausible explanation of the reliability of our moral and religious beliefs.

We possess plausible enough evolutionary explanations of our perceptual reliability, but it appears to many that we have no plausible explanation (evolutionary or otherwise) of our moral and religious reliability. My question: given this explanatory difference, what epistemic difference does it make? My writing project: develop skeptical arguments from the premise that we have no plausible explanation of moral and religious reliability. Importantly, in order to avoid tough companions in guilt objections, the arguments to-be-developed should impugn moral and religious reliability without also impugning our perceptual and mathematical reliability. Big picture: if these arguments succeed, they’ll give us reason to think perceptual skepticism should be taken less seriously than moral and religious skepticism. Of course, for these arguments to succeed, I must offer good support for the premise that we have no plausible explanation of moral and religious reliability—a task which would involve assessing extant explanations—but that is best left for another paper. My aim in this present paper is to develop the inference from the “no explanation of reliability” premise to the skeptical conclusion.

"Phenomenal Conservatism", Andrew Cullison

I am currently working on a book that develops and defends a view called phenomenal conservatism, the view that if it seems to a person that P and they have no defeaters, they are justified in believing P. After a detailed defense of phenomenal conservatism, I attempt to undermine skepticism about three suspicious types of knowledge: religious knowledge, moral knowledge, and philosophical/modal knowledge. I will be working on this project throughout the seminar.

I will present portions of chapter 3 in which I defend phenomenal conservatism from 11 objections. Three of the objections involve trying to show that phenomenal conservatism is committed to the claim that certain obviously unjustified beliefs turn out to be justified. The fourth objection is that phenomenal conservatism is somehow explanatorily impotent. The fifth objection begins by arguing that phenomenal conservatism is committed to epistemic conservatism (the view that whatever you believe is prima facie justified). The argument then concludes that, since we should reject epistemic conservatism, we should reject phenomenal conservatism. The sixth objection is that phenomenal conservatism is committed to every justified belief being an epistemically basic belief. The seventh objection begins by noting that seeming states are not necessarily truth conducive. Many philosophers think that justified beliefs are likely to be true, and this is difficult to reconcile with phenomenal conservatism if seeming states are not truth conducive. The eighth objection is that phenomenal conservatism is committed to implausible theses concerning the connection between epistemic justification and practical reasoning. The ninth objection addresses whether phenomenal conservatism is just a tacit endorsement of some kind of objectionable dogmatism. The tenth objection argues that phenomenal conservatism is at odds with some plausible theses in Bayesian epistemology. The eleventh objection is the phenomenal conservatism has problems making sense of our justification for some future propositions.

"Prelest and the Perceptual Model of Religious Experience", Travis Dumsday

In ordinary sense perception the assumption (at least for non-skeptics) is that the objects of perception are inherently truth-telling, in a sense. They are impersonal and objective, such that an observer with a well-functioning perceptual system, in appropriate circumstances, will apprehend the object as it really is, at least to some degree. This is assumed even in well-known thought experiments concerning cases of systematic deception of the senses, like the barn facade town. If the observer has normal faculties and observes closely and thoroughly enough, she will realize that they are not really barns.

But in certain religious systems, including Judaism and Christianity, this is not a feature of religious experience. There, the objects of perception are personal beings capable of causing us to perceive them in certain ways and not others. Moreover, we have no purely perceptual faculty such that we could, by its use alone, test the veridicality of the perception. Consequently, the perceiver is left open to certain kinds of spiritual deception (called prelest in Russian Orthodox spirituality, where the notion has received a good deal of attention) that are simply not possible in the case of ordinary sense perception. On these doctrinal systems, veridical perception in the context of religious experience is not assured by a cognitive faculty alone, but also by way of moral discernment, spiritual wisdom etc. Alston (1991, pp. 209-211) does attempt to address the idea of deception in this context, but he does not take sufficient account of just how large a disanalogy it introduces between sense perception and perception in the context of religious experience.

But in certain religious systems, including Judaism and Christianity, this is not a feature of religious experience. There, the objects of perception are personal beings capable of causing us to perceive them in certain ways and not others. Moreover, we have no purely perceptual faculty such that we could, by its use alone, test the veridicality of the perception. Consequently, the perceiver is left open to certain kinds of spiritual deception (called prelest in Russian Orthodox spirituality, where the notion has received a good deal of attention) that are simply not possible in the case of ordinary sense perception. On these doctrinal systems, veridical perception in the context of religious experience is not assured by a cognitive faculty alone, but also by way of moral discernment, spiritual wisdom etc. Alston (1991, pp. 209-211) does attempt to address the idea of deception in this context, but he does not take sufficient account of just how large a disanalogy it introduces between sense perception and perception in the context of religious experience.

However, this disanalogy is not a feature of all doctrinal systems. In some religions, knowledge and proper technique are the keys to veridical religious experience, such that the moral dimension of discernment (indeed, sometimes the very notion of discernment) is downplayed or even eliminated. Within these, Alston’s model is workable. However, these systems have traditionally been viewed by Jewish and Christian theologians as systematically deceptive, partly because of that elimination. Whether they are correct in this view or not, this dispute serves to cast doubt on another aspect of Alston’s theory, namely the reliabilist model of justification underlying it. His account (1991, ch. 7) suggests that members of different systems of mystical practice can all be rationally justified in accepting their outputs, given reliabilist assumptions about socially mandated cognitive practices. On Judaism and Christianity this is rejected, since on these views many such practices are systematically deceptive.

Is the disanalogy I am pointing to a problem for the overall veridicality of religious experience? In a way, no: the disanalogy doesn’t imperil the idea that some religious experiences are events really caused by external non-natural agents. In fact, the problem I’m raising presupposes the idea, and is only a problem if indeed that is the case. So it can’t cause a problem for veridicality simpliciter. As such the disanalogy provides no support to naturalistic critiques of religious experience. What it does rather is block what might be seen as an implication of the perceptual model, namely that we could in theory experiment in the realm of spiritual experience just as we can experiment in the realm of perception, and in each case expect to make reliable discoveries.

"Meta-Semantic Arguments Against Skepticism", Justin Fisher

I'm especially interested in meta-semantic arguments against certain “mild” forms of skepticism.  Many naturalized semantic theories (especially, but not exclusively, externalist ones) allow that, so long as we have a track record of appropriate causal interaction with things or kinds in the world, our terms and concepts will semantically latch onto these referents. Such theories hold, for example, that our history of successful interaction with objects of different temperatures has enabled our thermal perception to latch onto some referent, even if most of us have no idea what the actual nature of heat is.  Putnam (1982) argues along these lines that long-envatted brains would not be victims of mass-deception but instead would correctly perceive aspects of the computer simulation from which they receive their sensory inputs. So at least certain forms of perceptual skepticism can plausibly be ruled out by meta-semantic considerations.

Broadly similar considerations can also be rallied in support of a “Cornell-style” moral realism, upon which moral terms refer to whatever natural kinds have been playing an appropriate causal role in our moral practices (c.f., Boyd 1988).  This does much to counter the sorts of moral skepticism that have been advanced by Mackie (1977), Joyce (2007), and Street (2006).

The case of religious concepts is more difficult because it's less clear that we have an established track record of successful causal interaction with any supernatural agents.  If we did have a track record of, say, successful intercessory prayer, then a meta-semantic argument might plausibly lead us to conclude that of course God exists: God is whatever is responsible for answering all these prayers.  However, without such a track-record of successful interaction, meta-semantic arguments get no grip, and we are left with the serious possibility that our various god-concepts may have semantically latched onto either nothing or mere strands of human culture.

So, I think a form of religious skepticism may be immune to meta-semantic considerations, even while such considerations can rule out mild skeptical hypotheses regarding perceptual objects and moral kinds.  I'd like to explore these issues during the seminar, and envision writing a paper discussing the ways in which meta-semantic considerations can help to defuse mild skeptical worries in a variety of domains.  (I think van Fraassen’s (1980) argument against scientific realism and Plantinga's (1993, 2008) argument that evolutionary naturalists are forced into skepticism can also be defused in much the same way, so I would anticipate including this in my paper as well.)  I'm also interested in exploring the difference between "mild" skeptical worries which can be defused by meta-semantic considerations and more "extreme" skeptical worries (e.g., that I might be in a purely random universe that, by a mere fluke chance, has seemed orderly thus far) which metasemantic considerations fail to rule out.

"Darwinian Normative Skepticism", Dustin Locke

Several authors have recently mounted distinctly Darwinian arguments for normative skepticism. Nevertheless, the basic Darwinian challenge to our normative judgments remains unclear. I suggest that the Darwinian challenge concerns the explanation of what I call our ‘normative dispositions’—that is, our dispositions to judge things to be good, bad, right, wrong, etc. The Darwinian account of our normative dispositions seems to reveal that those dispositions are in no part explained by facts that support what we take to be the normative truth. This alone, I argue, provides us with a defeater for our normative judgments. Against this claim, some authors have suggested that we can be confident in our normative judgments because we can see that evolutionary forces have pushed us towards the normative truth. I argue that these responses implicitly rely on an unacceptable bootstrapping argument. I argue that the only way to respond to the Darwinian challenge is directly: we must either argue against the Darwinian account of our normative dispositions, or else argue that the Darwinian account reveals those dispositions to be explained by facts that support what we take to be the normative truth. This turns out to be possible, but it might come at the price of accepting an implausible metanormative theory.

"On the Evolutionary Arguments for Moral Skepticism", Theresa Lopez

Of the various ways in which evolution is hypothesized to influence moral judgment, moral nativism figures into the most compelling case for a global evolutionary debunking of moral belief. Moral nativism is the view that our capacity for moral judgment is enabled by a biologically innate cognitive mechanism or set of mechanisms specific to the moral domain. In The Evolution of Morality, Richard Joyce advances the most prominent such global debunking argument, concluding that if moral nativism is true all of our moral beliefs are epistemically unjustified.

To assess the force of this nativist debunking argument, it is necessary to examine the details of the relevant moral psychological theses. I argue that while strong versions of moral nativism may lend support to the global debunking of justified moral belief, versions of moral nativism that are plausible in light of current findings from moral psychology do not. Current psychological findings may, however, lend support to targeted evolutionary debunking arguments, which conclude just that some subset of our moral beliefs is epistemically unjustified.

"Skeptical Hypotheses and Moral Skepticism", Josh May

Epistemic moral skeptics maintain that we do not have moral knowledge. Traditionally they have not modeled their arguments on the kind of skeptical hypotheses we find among perceptual skeptics about the external world, such as Descartes’ deceiving demon or the brain-in-a-vat scenario. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (2006), however, has recently argued on just such grounds for a moderate form of moral skepticism (set within a contrastivist framework for justification). In fact, he believes skeptical hypotheses have special force in the moral case. I argue that the prospects are bleak for such lines of argument by using Sinnott-Armstrong’s formulation as a test case. Its failure to specify an adequate skeptical scenario reveals a general lesson: skeptical hypothesis arguments are not a promising avenue for moral skeptics to take.

"The Origin and Rationality of Religious Belief", Justin McBrayer

In the last few years, explanations of religious intuitions, experiences, beliefs, and practices have received increased attention from a variety of scientific fields. And just as explanations of moral intuitions and beliefs have been leveraged by philosophers to argue for conclusions in metaethics, so too have explanations of religious phenomena been leveraged to argue for conclusions in philosophy of religion. However, almost all philosophers who have been interested in such explanations use them to argue for skepticism about religious claims, i.e. they argue that explanations of religious intuitions and beliefs provide undercutting defeaters that should leave us agnostic about the truth of the religious claims in question.

In the last few years, explanations of religious intuitions, experiences, beliefs, and practices have received increased attention from a variety of scientific fields. And just as explanations of moral intuitions and beliefs have been leveraged by philosophers to argue for conclusions in metaethics, so too have explanations of religious phenomena been leveraged to argue for conclusions in philosophy of religion. However, almost all philosophers who have been interested in such explanations use them to argue for skepticism about religious claims, i.e. they argue that explanations of religious intuitions and beliefs provide undercutting defeaters that should leave us agnostic about the truth of the religious claims in question.

Take the case of theism. Almost everyone assumes that the scientific data poses a problem for theism. But, in fact, a case can be made that some of the data provides evidence for theism. For example, recent work by psychologist Deborah Kelemen shows that children are “intuitive theists.” On the philosophical side, an early example of this sort of inference is C.S. Lewis’ argument from universal desire for God to the conclusion that there must be an object of that desire. If one can reasonably expect that such a result would be closely connected with the purposes of God, it seems that one might be able to offer an argument to the best explanation for the truth of theism.

Or consider the case of atheism. Can one leverage explanatory data in an argument for the conclusion that God does not exist? I envision two ways that this argument might go. First are arguments from false implication that rely on the conjunction of a philosophical premise (e.g. if God exists, then religious belief would come about in such-and-such a way) and a scientific premise (e.g. but belief in God does NOT come about in such-and-such a way), to conclude that God does not exist. These arguments are isomorphic to other prominent arguments for atheism, such as the argument from evil or the argument from divine hiddenness.

The second, perhaps more sophisticated, type of argument takes the form of an inference to the best explanation. Just as moral error theorists have argued that the best explanation for the relevant data (e.g. the causal history of moral beliefs, the existence of moral disagreement, etc.) does not posit the existence of moral facts, so, too, a religious “error theorist” can argue that the best explanation for the relevant data (e.g. the causal history of religious beliefs, the existence of religious disagreement, etc.) does not posit the existence of any divine facts. Thus, the explanatory data from science provides an indirect reason for thinking that atheism is true.

"Clairvoyance and the Sensus Divinitatus", Andrew Moon

Consider the following three cases:

  • Case 1: Fred, an ordinary adult, sees an apple. He knows that he has reliable visual faculties, and he forms the belief that there is an apple.
  • Case 2: Norman is an adult whom God specially designs with the faculty of clairvoyance. Norman is not aware of this fact. One day, this faculty activates for the first time and triggers the formation of the belief that the president is in New York.
  • Case 3: Sally is an adult whom God has designed with a sensus divinitatus, a faculty designed to form beliefs about God. One day, her faculty activates for the first time and triggers the formation of the belief that there is a God who loves me.

(Note: remarks by Plantinga suggest that he thinks that situations like Case 3 often obtain and that beliefs in these situations are warranted.)

Like many, it seems plausible to me that Fred’s belief is warranted and Norman’s belief is not. Yet, Sally’s belief seems analogous in all relevant ways to Norman’s belief. Hence, Sally’s belief is unwarranted. But then it follows that some theistic beliefs that Plantinga would probably think are warranted are not.

Supposing this argument is successful, I have two questions. What epistemic property does Fred’s belief have that the others’ beliefs don’t have? Second, could theistic beliefs come to have this property?

There are many possible answers to the first question. One prima facie plausible answer is that Fred knows that he has reliable visual faculties; the others do not know they have either a clairvoyance faculty or a reliable sensus divinitatus. Yet, if we endorse the general principle S knows that p only if S knows that the faculty which produced the belief that p is reliable, then we get regress problems. So, I endorse a restricted version of the principle. For those without a well-developed defeater system (e.g., very young children), a belief B can be warranted even if the believer has no awareness that he has the relevant faculties. For those with a well-developed defeater system, this knowledge is required. Hence, we have an explanation for why the adult believers in the above cases (excluding Fred) do not know. On the other hand, if we stipulate that the believers are very young children, then I no longer have the intuition that they don’t know.

This has interesting results for how we answer the second question. If children have been designed so that they form their first theistic beliefs as they are forming their first perceptual, memorial, and other beliefs, then those theistic beliefs do not require knowledge that the relevant faculty is reliable. They do not have a well-developed defeater system. On the other hand, if the sensus divinitatis does not activate until later in life (after the defeater system is well-developed), then the person must gain knowledge that he has a reliable theistic belief forming faculty.

"Disagreement, Rationality, and Religious Belief", John Pittard

The central question of my dissertation is whether the fact of persistent and sharp disagreement over the plausibility of religious beliefs undermines the epistemic justification of those beliefs. The first part of my dissertation focuses on the epistemic significance of disagreement in general, and the latter part focuses on debates pertaining to religious disagreement in particular.

In the first part of the dissertation, I articulate and defend a position that could be labeled “moderate conciliationism.” Many of the recent defenders of “conciliationism” have argued that in a disagreement over p, I ought to give significant evidential weight to my disputant’s assessment of p’s plausibility unless I have reasons for preferring my own assessment that are independent of my disputed reasoning about p. It is thought that without this “independence condition,” legitimate skeptical worries presented by disagreement are too easily swept aside. The moderate position I develop rejects the independence condition but holds that widespread and persistent disagreement typically does generate significant skeptical pressure, and that this pressure can typically be overcome only if I am able to satisfactorily explain (to myself) why it is that I am reliable with respect to the matter under dispute while so many others are not. While I am free to make use of my disputed beliefs in articulating this explanation, the explanation requirement is nonetheless a demanding one that in many disagreements cannot easily be met.

However cogent the arguments for conciliationism may be, many have argued that conciliatory norms are self-undermining since, in a context where conciliationism is itself is disputed, conciliatory norms would presumably recommend abandoning conciliationism. I devote a chapter to answering this self-undermining objection. I argue, first, that there are good reasons for adopting a conciliatory norm that exempts itself from its skeptical prescriptions. Second, even non-self-exempting conciliatory norms are not self-undermining if interpreted in a reasonable way—the same way we must interpret almost any epistemic norm if it is to be at all plausible.

Turning to religious belief, I will first consider whether the skeptical implications of disagreement can be granted without harm to religious faith if it is supposed that religious faith is based in significant part on practical (rather than merely theoretical) reasons. I will argue that even if faith is not a purely theoretical commitment, “practical evasion” of disagreement skepticism is unlikely to succeed. I will then turn to Christian belief to consider a concrete example of how a religious believer might attempt to more directly meet the threat of disagreement skepticism. I will argue that many Christian theologians offer an account of epistemic credentials with respect to religious belief that could help the believer meet the burden of explaining (to him or herself) why Christians might be reliable in their religious beliefs even though so many other informed and intelligent people are not. Drawing on the theological epistemologies of Pascal, Edwards, and Kierkegaard, I will develop one such explanation and evaluate its theological, philosophical, and empirical plausibility.

"Knowledge by Way of Prophecy", Dani Rabinowitz

Religious epistemology, in the analytic tradition at least, has tended to concentrate on the epistemology of religious experience. In other words, religious epistemology is centrally concerned with the epistemic status of beliefs formed as the result of a religious experience. The work of the Reformed epistemologists dominates this field. Yet religious experiences are not monolithic in nature; that is to say, there are different kinds of religious experiences. There are those that happen to many theists and can occur unexpectedly. These are the types of religious experiences that Plantinga focuses on. William Alston, in contrast, has in mind religious experiences in which the object of the experience is God. To use Alston’s language, such religious experiences involve the perception of God himself. This type of religious experience, too, is had by many theists and can also occur unexpectedly.

There is, however, a different kind of religious experience that has been ignored by Plantinga and Alston and which is of more importance; namely, the prophetic religious experience. Prophecy denotes the type of religious experience had by Moses and the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and Mohammed. This type of religious experience is responsible, on several theological interpretations at least, for the very existence of certain religions and the content of their theology. Hence its significance as an object of study. In contrast to the types of religious experience addressed by Alston and Plantinga, prophetic experiences are only had by a select few and after considerable preparation. Additionally, it is not clear that Alston and Plantinga can account for the qualitative difference between the prophetic and the non-prophetic experiences with their models.

In my work I seek to explicate the Aristotelian model of prophecy that was roughly shared between the Islamic, Christian, and Jewish scholars of the medieval period. In particular, I focus on the model as presented by Moses Maimonides, the influential Jewish Aristotelian philosopher. With this model in hand, I seek to determine whether beliefs held by way of prophecy are safe, where a safe belief is roughly a belief that could not easily have been false. Here I have in mind the safety condition for knowledge developed and defended by Timothy Williamson, Ernest Sosa, and Duncan Pritchard. Knowledge, as opposed to warrant or rational belief, provides the benchmark for the epistemology of prophecy given the importance of knowledge in contradistinction to those two other epistemic assets or properties. Here I have in mind knowledge as the norm of assertion and practical reasoning as well as the influential role Williamson’s knowledge first epistemology has come to enjoy. Lastly, given the role of non-evidential factors in knowledge ascriptions, as defended by contextualists and subject-sensitive invariantists, working with knowledge as the benchmark is more interesting and relevant given the role religious belief plays in the life of the theist.

"An Account of Disagreement’s Epistemic Significance with Application to Religious and Moral Disagreement", Blake Roeber

Consider the Following pairs of cases.

  • 1A: Your son asks what 537 divided by six equals. You and your peer do the math in your heads. You get 89.5 but your peer says the answer is 88.5. 1B: Your son asks what two plus two equals. You say four but your peer insists that two plus two is two.
  • 2A: Someone asks whether garter snakes lay eggs. You think they do but your herpetologist friend says they don’t. 2B: Someone asks you whether garter snakes lay eggs. You think they do but your three-year-old kid says they don’t.
  • 3A: We’re looking at an object on a distant hillside. You’re sure it’s a rock but I insist that it’s a bear. For no other reason than that we disagree, you conclude that my eyesight must be terrible. 3B: We’re looking at an object on a distant hillside. You’ve known for years that my eyesight is terrible. You’re sure it’s a rock but I insist that it’s a bear. You know I don’t have anything to go on but my visual evidence.

Plausibly, your belief gets defeated in all of the A cases but none of the B cases. No single thread runs through these pairs of cases, however. We get different verdicts in 1A and 1B because you’re much more intimately related to the proposition under dispute in 1B than in 1A. We get different verdicts in 2A and 2B because your opinion of your interlocutor’s reliability with respect to the proposition under dispute changes from 2A to 2B. Finally, we get different verdicts in 3A and 3B because the justification you have for your opinion of your interlocutor’s reliability with respect to the proposition under dispute changes from 3A to 3B. We can generate analogous cases for all variety of beliefs and, abstracting from these cases, we get principles like the following:

  • P1. The more intimately you’re related to the proposition that p, the less susceptible your belief that p will be to disagreement-based defeat. If you can just see that p (as they say), your belief that p may be immune to disagreement-based defeat.
  • P2. To the extent that you can’t just see that p, the more reliable you consider an interlocutor (relative to yourself), the larger the defeater you’ll acquire if she disagrees with you.
  • P3. Where you can’t just see that p and you think your interlocutor is less reliable than you are, you can’t take a dismissive attitude toward her dissenting opinion unless you’re justified in thinking she’s less reliable than you.

My writing project will defend properly Chisholmed versions of these principles and combine them with insights gained in the first and third topics of the seminar to illuminate the epistemic significance of moral and religious disagreement.

"Reference Drift and Religious Disagreement", Meghan Sullivan

Testimony is a crucial source of evidence for religious claims, so language plays a key role in the transmission of much religious knowledge.  But the language used to convey religious beliefs raises puzzles that ordinary testimony does not.  For example, in the major Abrahamic faiths, are assertions about God essentially metaphorical or do some of our ordinary predicates apply to God?  If all religious language is metaphorical, is it possible to make true assertions about matters of faith?  What are divine names and do they function semantically like ordinary names?  Is there any way to tell whether speakers of different traditions co-refer with their terms or whether they are having merely verbal disagreements? The answers to these questions will inform our broader views about the possibility and nature of religious knowledge.

While at the 2011 seminar, I will be writing on the relationship between divine names and substantive religious disagreement. In the paper, I will argue that the phenomenon of reference drift poses a special threat to religious knowledge, especially in traditions that hold a kind of divine hiddenness.  The paper is tentatively divided into three sections.  The first section explains the problem of reference drift for divine names and argues for a set of semantic and theological assumptions that drive the problem.  The second section argues that, in light of the problem, disagreement poses a special skeptical problem for knowledge of religious claims.  The third section weighs responses to the problem.  

"Disagreement, Debunking, and Desiderata", Joshua Thurow

One worrisome aspect of our cognitive lives is disagreement. We all face disagreement at some time or other, and often those who disagree with us are our epistemic peers - that is, they are roughly as well informed on the relevant issue, and have similar evidence-evaluating skills, as ourselves. Philosophers have recently focused considerable attention on answering the following question: what attitude is it rational to take in a case of disagreement amongst epistemic peers? Although many different answers have been offered, most imply that we should significantly decrease our degree of confidence in our political, philosophical, and religious beliefs. As a result, many of our beliefs in these domains are not justified.

Although strong arguments have been offered for this view, many remain incredulous. Peter van Inwagen writes, “Here I confess my predicament - as a philosopher who holds particular views, as a citizen who casts his vote according to the dictates of certain political beliefs, as an adherent of one religion among many. ... I am unwilling to listen to the whispers of Clifford’s ghost; that is, I am unwilling to become an agnostic about everything but empirically verifiable matters of fact. ... And I am unable to believe that my gnosticism, so to call it, is irrational. I am, I say, unwilling to listen to these whispers. But I am unable to answer them” (“We’re Right, They’re Wrong,” in Feldman and Warfield (ed.) 2010: 28). I share van Inwagen's reaction, and in this project I aim to explore a novel way of responding to the challenge of disagreement. So far, philosophers have tried to respond to the challenge by arguing against the view that we are not justified in light of disagreement amongst epistemic peers. But, I suspect that van Inwagen's reaction is a sign of something else: perhaps there is some epistemic notion other than justification that we care more about, and that according to whatever notion that is, believing in the face of disagreement can be epistemically appropriate. I plan to explore this idea in my project.

My idea fits in well with William Alston's recent work on epistemic desiderata. Alston (2005) argues that there is no single notion of epistemic justification. Rather, there are many different desirable epistemic properties, and epistemology ought to be exploring these different properties and explaining when and why different properties are significant. Working within Alston's views, I will explore two epistemic properties that may avoid the challenge of disagreement: Nicholas Wolterstorff's notion of entitlement and another notion that I call 'entitlement of life project.' I will explain each notion, discuss its prospects for evading skepticism, and also discuss its prospects for evading the challenge from disagreement.