2011 Purdue Summer Seminar on Perceptual, Moral, and Religious Skepticism (June 8-24, 2011)

Director: Michael Bergmann (Purdue University)

Invitation to Apply


Applications are due by December 1, 2010. Selection decisions will be made by Feb 15, 2011.

Despite the fact that they have been and continue to be staples of traditional philosophy, skepticism about the existence of the external world and doubts about the reliability of perception are widely dismissed as problems about which we needn’t worry. But moral and religious skepticism are thriving and taken much more seriously. This difference in attitude toward perceptual skepticism, on the one hand, and moral and religious skepticism, on the other, can be surprising when viewed in light of the fact that arguments for the reliability of our perceptual, moral, and religious beliefs are all widely viewed among experts as unconvincing. The fact is that most contemporary epistemologists think that our perceptual beliefs about the external world are justified not on the basis of argument or inference but on the basis of sensory experience. Similar accounts have been proposed for the justification of our moral and religious beliefs: here too the proposal is that such beliefs are justified on the basis of experience, not arguments or inference. Given that in all three cases the arguments (for the reliability of the beliefs or for the existence of their subject matter) have been viewed as both unpersuasive and unnecessary for justification, why is it that perceptual skepticism isn’t taken seriously whereas moral and religious skepticism are? Does perceptual belief differ from moral and religious belief in a way that explains these differing attitudes? Is it because there is more disagreement when it comes to moral and religious beliefs? Or is it perhaps because evolutionary accounts of their origins are more likely to be undermining?

Michael Bergmann is working on a monograph addressing these and related questions and would like others to join him in thinking about these matters. To that end, recent PhDs (2006 and later) and ABD graduate students in philosophy, theology, psychology, or cognitive science are invited to apply to participate in the 2011 Purdue Summer Seminar on Perceptual, Moral, and Religious Skepticism. Fifteen participants will be selected for the seminar, which will take place at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN. Each will receive a stipend of $5,000 out of which they will pay expenses such as travel, lodging, food, etc. (On-campus housing costs for 18 nights is $575 to share a room with another participant or $925 for your own room; eating three meals per day for 18 days in Purdue’s award-winning on-campus dining facilities costs $475; other housing and dining options are possible.)

The seminar will cover three main topics. The first topic will be whether accounts of perceptual knowledge and responses to perceptual skepticism are useful models for accounts of moral and religious knowledge and for responses to moral and religious skepticism. Here the focus will be on whether there are significant similarities between perceptual, moral, and religious belief. The other two topics have to do with important differences between perceptual belief, on the one hand, and moral and religious belief, on the other. The second topic will be whether moral and religious disagreement, both of which are much more common than perceptual disagreement, provide epistemic defeaters for moral and religious belief. The third topic will be whether evolutionary accounts of the origins of moral and religious belief are undermining, unlike such explanations for perceptual belief.

The seminar will be led by Michael Bergmann. In addition, Walter Sinnot-Armstrong (Duke University) and Justin Barrett (Oxford University) will be guest speakers on the topics of moral skepticism and evolutionary explanations of religious belief, respectively.

It is expected that the participants will be working on writing projects related to the seminar topics and that they will briefly present some aspect of this work to the other participants sometime during the seminar. In the months immediately following the seminar, the best paper(s) from the participants will be selected for presentation at an interdisciplinary conference to be held at Purdue in September of 2012 (not 2011). (Both the seminar and the conference are components of a larger project entitled "Knowing in Religion and Morality" and are funded by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation, along with additional support from Purdue University.)

Applications are due by December 1, 2010. Selection decisions will be made by Feb 15, 2011. A panel of experts in epistemology, ethics, and philosophy of religion will make the final decision regarding selection of participants. That decision will be based primarily on:

  • The suitability and quality of the writing project described in the application essay
  • The applicant's past academic achievement
  • The applicant’s promise for doing valuable research in the future on the seminar’s topics

Application Instructions

Applicants should send an application email to knowing@purdue.edu with the following as attachments:

  • A CV (5 pages maximum).
  • A short writing sample (3500 words maximum): this should be a sample of your best work and it needn’t be on the seminar topics—anything in philosophy, theology, psychology, or cognitive science is fine, even an excerpt from a longer work modified so that it can stand alone.
  • An application essay (750 words maximum) that (i) describes the writing project on which the applicant will be working (and part of which will be presented at the seminar for feedback), (ii) explains how the ideas of the writing project relate to or engage the seminar topics, and (iii) explains how (in light of the author’s CV and writing project) the author’s participation might benefit the seminar community.

In addition, applicants should have two confidential letters of recommendation sent by email from the letter writers to knowing@purdue.edu (with the name of the applicant in the subject line). The letter writers should keep in mind the points listed above as the primary bases for selecting seminar participants. If letter writers would rather submit letters by mail, they can be sent to the address listed below.

Structure of and Preparation for the Seminar

The seminar will meet each weekday morning at Purdue from Wednesday, June 8 through Friday, June 24, kicking off with a reception on the evening of June 7. Some mornings will be reserved for participants to present their own work. On the other mornings, when there aren’t guest speakers, Bergmann will lead the seminar in an intensive study of selected topics and relevant literature. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong will be the guest speaker on Friday, June 17 and Justin Barrett will be the guest speaker on Friday, June 24. On those days we will have an evening BBQ attended by the guest speaker (food and drink for all will be provided). In addition, there will be an opportunity for participants to meet informally for conversation with the guest speakers in the afternoon on the day of their visit.

The seminar will work best if the participants come prepared by having worked through a common list of readings (a partial list is available here; a full list, differentiating crucial from merely recommended readings, will be circulated once the participants are selected). Having afternoons, evenings, and weekends free during the period of the seminar will provide opportunity for reading related to the seminar topics and for working on individual writing projects to be presented during the seminar. (To assist with doing such work, participants will be given access to Purdue’s library and to computer labs.)

Seminar Flyer and Contact Information

A flyer for the seminar is available here.

Please direct all questions about the seminar to:

Michael Bergmann
Department of Philosophy
Beering Hall
Purdue University
100 N. University St.
West Lafayette, IN 47907