Current Research

But what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions.

– René Descartes, Second Meditation

The aim of my current research project is to defend an alternative, and decidedly anti-Cartesian, answer to Descartes’s second question, namely, What is a thing that thinks? The central contention of my project is that a thing that thinks is not merely a thing that understands and wills. It is, rather, a thing that both knows and acts. In contemporary terms, the view I oppose is that knowledge and action are to be explained in terms of belief and desire. My aim, in fact, is to show that the proper order of explanation is precisely the reverse: belief and desire are to be explained in terms of knowledge and action.

My current work focuses, however, on knowledge and belief – in other words, on theoretical reason or theoretical thought, rather than on practical reason or practical thought. Within this domain, I aim to establish two especially important claims. The first is that what is most fundamental, in providing an account of theoretical reason or theoretical thought, are complex epistemic acts, i.e., acts through which knowledge is (sometimes) acquired – for example, perception and inference. The second is that there is an important distinction between theoretical reason and theoretical thought, and that the former must be understood in terms of the latter. Roughly put, my claim is that theoretical reason is specifically self-conscious theoretical thought. The result, of course, is that theoretical thought – and, in particular, fundamental epistemic acts like perception and inference – must be understood without appeal to self-consciousness.

My defense of these claims begins in my paper “Inferring as a Way of Knowing,” where I provide an account of the act of inference – the act of coming to believe something on the basis of something else you already believe – in terms of its epistemically successful species, the act of coming to know something on the basis of something else you already know. My central claim here is that the crucial expression “on the basis of” must be understood as picking out a special kind of causation – what I call theoretical rational causation – which can itself be explained as causation that is (either actually or potentially) productive of knowledge. Specifically inferential rational causation can then be explained as theoretical rational causation in which the cause is one or more of your beliefs. Crucially, the view avoids any appeal to self-consciousness, appeal typically buried in the introduction (by, for example, Maria Alvarez, Paul Boghossian, John Broome, John Gibbons, and Ram Neta) of acts – essentially self-conscious acts – of taking it that your premises support your conclusion. The result is that we can admit that such “takings” are distinctive of specifically self-conscious acts of inference, but explain them, in terms of our prior account of inference, as acts in which you (rightly or wrongly) take yourself to have come to know something through inference.

Two projected papers, tentatively entitled “Perceiving as a Way of Knowing” and “Believing for Reasons,” apply the same form of argument to perception in particular and to ways of knowing (i.e., acts through which knowledge is, or can be, acquired) in general, respectively. The central claim of the former is that perception, like inference, involves theoretical rational causation. The difference is that, in perception, the cause is not a belief, but rather the actualization of a perceptual capacity. On this view, the act of coming to believe something on the basis of perception is understood as a complex act involving both the actualization of a perceptual capacity and a judgment, where the judgment is rationally caused by the actualization of the perceptual capacity. As in the case of inference, a specifically self-conscious perceptual act is one in which you (rightly or wrongly) take yourself to have come to know something through perception, i.e., to have performed a perceptual act of the fundamental – that is, knowledge-producing – kind.

The central claim of the latter paper is that any way of knowing will have the sort of structure thus assigned to both inference and perception. What is important here, though, is not so much that claim itself as its upshot, which is that, as I like to put it, the notion of believing for a reason is more fundamental than the notion of a reason for believing. In other words, the notion of a reason for believing is actually abstracted out of the generic concept of a (not necessarily self-conscious) way of knowing, i.e., an actually or potentially knowledge-producing mental act. The resulting account of reasons for believing is similar to that recently defended by Maria Alvarez, in her Kinds of Reasons. But it provides her conception of reasons with a different and deeper theoretical motivation.

A couple other papers, already in draft, develop the project in another direction. In “Belief, Judgment, and Rational Explanation,” I defend a dispositional account of belief, while, at the same time, rejecting the common view – traceable to Gilbert Ryle but ably defended more recently by Eric Schwitzgebel – that, if belief is a disposition, it must be a “multi-track” disposition, one actualized not only in a variety of behaviors, but also in a variety of thoughts and feelings. On the view I prefer, belief is a “single-track” disposition – specifically, a disposition to judge. To put it schematically: the belief that p is, precisely, the disposition to judge that p, where the latter is the single and defining actualization of the former. What seems to force the multi-track view of belief, I suggest, is a conflation of the (unique) actualization of a power with the (various) effects of that actualization – a distinction recently defended, for powers generally, by Nancy Cartwright (in “Causal Laws, Policy Predictions, and the Need for Genuine Powers”) and Richard Corry (in “How is Scientific Analysis Possible?”). I also provide a new and powerful motiviation for my version of the dispositional theory of belief, by arguing that we can explain certain essential features of belief by – and perhaps only by – appeal both to the fact that belief is a disposition and to the fact that the actualization of the belief that p is, specifically, the judgment that p.

In “Coming to Believe,” I connect the view of belief as the disposition to judge with the view of ways of knowing defended in the other three papers mentioned above. The central claim here is that the phrase “coming to believe” – at least where the belief is not formed as a result of wholly non-rational processes – should be understood as a determinable whose determinates are the particular ways of knowing: perceiving, inferring, and the like. And these latter – as I hinted above, in my discussion of perception – are composed at least partly of judgments. More generally, they are composed of actualizations of appropriate capacities. So, in the case of inference, the capacities thus actualized are the premise- and conclusion-beliefs, so that coming to believe something through inference (inferring) is, properly speaking, the act of judging something on the basis of something else you also judge. And coming to believe something through perception (perceiving) is the act of judging something on basis of the actualization of a perceptual capacity (plus, as epistemologists are wont to note, the actualization of “background” beliefs, i.e., now, “background” judgments). This view allows me to carve a middle path between a theory of belief and its formation defended by both Nishi Shah and David Velleman (in “Doxastic Deliberation”) and Quassim Cassam (in “Judging, Believing, and Thinking”) and a very different theory of belief defended by Matthew Boyle (in “Active Belief” and “‘Making Up Your Mind’ and the Activity of Reason”). Roughly speaking, my claim is that (as Boyle rightly sees) Shah and Velleman and Cassam introduce an unbridgeable gap between reasoning and the formation of belief – a gap that undermines the claim that belief is a rational state (or, as I like to put it, an act of reason) – while Boyle, in avoiding that gap, leaves himself no room to provide any account of the (rational) formation of belief. My account, by contrast, provides a natural account of the formation of belief, and does so without introducing any gap between reasoning and the formation of belief.

For more about these and other papers of mine, see my work in progress page.