Robert Kyle Whitaker

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Epistemology / Philosophy of Religion

Faith and Disbelief” (International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 2019)

Is faith that p compatible with disbelief that p? I argue that it is. After surveying some recent literature on the compatibility of propositional (so-called faith-that) and non-propositional (faith-in) forms of faith with the lack of belief, I take the next step and offer several arguments for the thesis that both these forms of faith are also compatible, in certain cases, with outright disbelief. This is contrary to the views of some significant recent commentators on propositional faith, including Robert Audi and Daniel Howard-Snyder. The primary argument revolves around the possibility of maintaining a single faith through drastic changes in cognitive attitude. I argue that once we allow that propositional faith is compatible with weaker cognitive attitudes than belief, such as acceptance or assent, there is prima facie reason to consider propositional faith as sometimes compatible with disbelief. I then consider objections and offer some final reflections on the significance of the thesis.

“The Question of Privileged Access: Two Arguments for a Skeptical Conclusion” (in preparation)

The question of privileged access concerns whether humans have specially secure or accurate knowledge of their own mental states. I offer two arguments for the skeptical conclusion that philosophers can say little that is definitive about this issue without further empirical work in the psychological disciplines. I take as my starting point William Alston’s classic paper, “Varieties of Privileged Access,” deriving from it the two observations which guide my two arguments. Additionally, I consider in some detail both Brie Gertler’s discussion of privileged access types in her book Self-Knowledge, and Christoph Jäger’s discussion of the logical relations between privileged access types in his paper “Affective Ignorance.”

“Christian Philosophy as Stance” (in preparation)

What is Christian philosophy? Despite the much-noted increase in both the number and visibility of philosophers who are outspoken Christians in the last several decades, “Christian philosophy” remains for many at best a quaint diversion, and at worst an oxymoron. On the other hand, within this Christian subgenre, one might get the feeling that there is no serious challenge to thinking of philosophy as a Christian endeavor, an unfortunate assumption given the thoughtfulness of many who reject it. In this paper, I articulate several challenges to Christian philosophy that I think lie behind its widespread dismissal, and I argue that in fact the Christian philosopher is doing little to address these challenges, owing partially to her perhaps over-zealous adoption of Alvin Plantinga’s “advice” to focus on the problems of Christian communities. While recognizing the value of this advice, I suggest a broader interpretation of Christian philosophy: viewing it as a “stance,” to borrow Bas van Fraassen’s terminology, whereby it is characterized by certain commitments, most prominently living a life of love (here I draw on recent work by Paul Moser). I argue that, in fact, the roots of Western philosophy themselves suggest such a stance (for it is the love of wisdom, and not merely the possession of it, that characterizes our philosophical origins), and thus that Christians may have special insight into the nature of philosophy, insofar as they have special insight into love.

“Implicit Agapism in Peirce’s ‘Neglected Argument'” (in preparation)

I argue that the key to understanding Peirce’s “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God” is found in another of his essays, “Evolutionary Love.” I maintain that without the insights of that essay, the Neglected Argument seems rather unimpressive and mysterious. I note that the “three universes of experience” which form the domain of the Neglected Argument correspond to Peirce’s three modes of the development of the universe, discussed in “Evolutionary Love.” This connection, together with the attitude of “play” from which the Neglected Argument proceeds and its connection to agapism, allows us to make sense of the almost shockingly confident claims Peirce makes for the Neglected Argument, including its assumed universal persuasiveness.

Ethics

“‘At Home in the World’: A Look at Daniel C. Russell’s Dilemma about Virtue, Attachment, and Happiness” (in preparation)

There is a deeply rooted tension in Western moral philosophy, and indeed in the unreflective moral intuitions of ordinary folk, between the view that people are by and large in control of their happiness (broadly Stoic) and the opposing view that they are not (broadly Aristotelian). In his book, Happiness for Humans, Daniel C. Russell traces these opposed conceptions of happiness, arguing for what he calls an “embodied” conception of the self, whereby one’s happiness is constituted by one’s activities and their relations to one’s particular surroundings. He closes the book, however, with a dilemma, which he calls a “tragic conflict”: we must either uphold our autonomy and safeguard our virtue, but at the loss of close, “embodied” relationships; or we give ourselves to those relationships and sabotage our happiness by relinquishing control of our virtue. For Russell, the most anyone can do here is simply to choose which horn of the dilemma she prefers. I respectfully disagree. I argue that there is a way out of this dilemma that allows both those influenced by the Aristotelian and Stoic ideas to maintain what is most central to their concerns, namely embodied virtuous activity and relational autonomy, respectively. I argue that the key to this is in multiplying one’s close relationships, rather than restricting them.

“Situationism Revisited: A Critique of the Practical Intelligence Defense” (in preparation)

Some empirical, psychological research shows that situational variables normally thought to be of little or no significance to character traits, either in their formation or expression, are statistically much more significant factors in predicting and explaining moral behavior than are the social and psychological factors normally associated with virtuous character traits. At best, situationist philosophers think, this research allows for a list of personality traits that bears little resemblance to any classical or commonsense list of virtues. Further, attempts to harmonize these two sorts of lists are not sensitive enough to either the differences in reasons for behavior in diverse situations or to the (in)accuracy of self-reporting. Here I survey some recent attempts by virtue theorists to respond to the situationist challenge, noting several important similarities between them. These I group under the heading “Practical Intelligence Defense” (PID). This defense, I take it, represents the core intuitions which drive the anti-situationist philosophical/psychological response, and which separate the interpretations of the empirical psychological data between those friendly to situationism and those hostile to it. I then give three arguments against the PID.

Dissertation Précis

The Epistemology of Disagreement: Hume, Kant, and the Current Debate (Successfully defended in Feb. 2020)

The problem of disagreement in epistemology is the problem of whether rational disagreement between people who have attempted to share their evidence with one another is possible. Most of us regularly find ourselves in disagreements with others, and we often have the sense that our interlocutors, though mistaken in some way, are nevertheless reasonable in holding the views that they do. Occasionally, we may even think that someone with whom we disagree is about as qualified with respect to the issue at hand as we are. In such a case, we’d be disagreeing with an epistemic peer: someone who is roughly as intelligent, thoughtful, careful, alert, and so on as ourselves, and who is also as informed about the disputed issue as we are. It is common to think that in such a case of disagreement, both peers could be reasonable in their view, even though they take the same set of evidence to support opposed propositions.

Some philosophers, however, have questioned this common assumption, arguing that because of the nature of evidence, reasonable disagreements between peers who have shared their evidence are not possible. One way of arguing for this sort of view is to say that evidence, of metaphysical necessity, can support only one of a competing set of propositions, a principle known as the Uniqueness Thesis (due to Richard Feldman). But the Uniqueness Thesis, I argue, is false, as it is far too strong, has counterintuitive consequences (even on weaker versions), and assumes things at issue in the disagreement debate. We may also note against such a view that reasonable disagreements may be possible by way of private evidence: evidence that cannot be shared. Such evidence may include the felt truth of some proposition, or the seeming to one that some piece of evidence supports p rather than ~p. I argue that private evidence may be a reasonable justification for maintaining one’s view in the face of disagreement, and whether it will be or not depends on the confidence one has in one’s own private seemings, on the evidential value of disagreement itself, and on the confidence one has in the peer status of one’s interlocutor.

I also spell out something that has been implicit in the disagreement literature: that what I call “evidential seemings,” seemings of the form “It seems to one that E supports p,” are analogous to perceptual seemings, such as the familiar experience of being “appeared to greenly” when standing in front of a green expanse. Evidential seemings share broad structural similarity with perceptual seemings, including being non-doxastic, pre-theoretical, sui generis, basic, generative of prima facie justification, and incapable of non-circular justification themselves. I argue that such seemings have evidential significance, and that this significance does not disappear on the discovery of disagreement, though the seemings do of course remain defeasible. The question is whether and when they are defeasible by higher-order evidence in the form of disagreement.

I consider and reject several ways in which disagreement may defeat one’s evidential seemings, such as by providing evidence of the contingency of one’s belief (à la Gideon Rosen), by creating epistemic symmetry between peers so that a peer has no way to identify which peer’s seemings are correct (à la David Christensen and Adam Elga), or by constituting meta-evidence: evidence that there is evidence for p (à la Richard Feldman). I conclude that the fact of disagreement itself does not necessarily provide counterbalancing evidence regarding what one should believe about p, and that meta-evidence may not in fact constitute evidence for a subject that is directly relevant to the disputed proposition. However, I do hold that there is something important about meta-evidence: insofar as one is dealing with a perspective that is constituted by certain features of epistemic excellence, the views of a person with that perspective may count as evidence for a disputed proposition. Prolonged disagreement with such a person may yield defeat of one’s evidential seemings in the form of what I call the Parity Problem: in the context of peer disagreement, both parties may be aware that things would seem just the same to them as they do if in fact the other party were correct and they were mistaken. This presents a skeptical difficulty that affects what one should believe about p in the context of such a disagreement, not because of the unique nature of disagreement itself, nor because of an inability to weigh one’s own seemings more heavily than one’s peer’s, but rather because peer disagreement (possible or actual) puts one’s own evidential seemings into conflict. The question then is when another’s judgment is trustworthy enough to provide such defeating meta-evidence, which is a question about peerhood.

Peerhood, contra several commentators in the disagreement debate, is about relative equality along a number of “peer factors,” including things like intelligence, carefulness, time spent considering the evidence, sobriety, etc. The bulk of the disagreement debate thus far has centered on what the epistemically responsible action is when one finds that one is disagreeing with a peer. Two main positions have developed, each with its own varieties: the Conformist view, which holds that one ought to conform one’s view to one’s peer’s view, and the Nonconformist view, which holds that one may be justified in maintaining one’s own view. I argue that both views, as presented, have problems. Conformist views (e.g., David Christensen, Richard Feldman, Adam Elga) place too much emphasis on the evidential value of disagreement itself, mistakenly taking the fact of disagreement to have some defeating power that it does not in fact have. They also tend to assume (e.g., Christensen) that peer disagreement is epistemically similar to disagreement with a superior, which is unwarranted. Nonconformist views (e.g., Thomas Kelly, Marc Moffett, Michael Bergmann), on the other hand, tend to underestimate the significance of epistemic parity produced by long disagreement with someone one takes to be a peer. In such cases, though one may be justified in maintaining one’s view, we lack a sufficient explanation for how this is so. Thus, the strength of the Conformist view is parasitic on the power of the Parity Problem. Likewise, the burden of the Nonconformist view is to overcome that problem and provide a clear explanation of how one remains justified in one’s view in cases of prolonged disagreement after full disclosure of evidence with an apparent epistemic peer.

I propose and discuss three possible solutions to the Parity Problem, one inspired by David Hume, and two inspired by Immanuel Kant: (1) Practical considerations stemming from the underdetermination of one’s views by the available evidence as well as one’s larger epistemic goals can justify maintaining one’s view. I explore this option with the assistance of David Hume, who helps us to see that it can be epistemically appropriate to maintain a view even when one knows that it cannot be demonstrated to be the uniquely rational conclusion to draw on the basis of some evidence set. Alternatively, I draw on Kant’s theory of judgment to argue that judgments that someone else is an epistemic peer may be classified as either (2) empty regulative theoretical judgments, or (3) non-theoretic judgments (analogous to judgments about taste). In either case, I argue, rational disagreement under Parity is possible. I conclude with a critique and defense of these solutions, and some reflections on where they leave us with respect to the peer disagreement problem.