Epistemology Brownbag: Declan Smithies

Date: February 26th

Time/Location: 12:30-2:00 in Kresge 3438

Title: Moral Knowledge by Deduction

Abstract: How is moral knowledge possible? This paper defends the anti-Humean thesis that we can acquire moral knowledge by deduction from wholly non-moral premises. Hume’s Law says that we can never deduce an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, since it is “altogether inconceivable how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it” (1740: 3.1.1). This paper explores the prospects for theory of moral knowledge that rejects Hume’s Law.

Epistemology Brownbag: Rik Peels

Date: February 18th

Time/Location: 4:00-5:30 in Kresge 3438

Title: Can Trust be Voluntary?

Abstract: In this paper, I defend an answer to the question whether trust can be voluntary and, if so, how. First, I make the question more precise by qualifying it in various ways and specifying which kind of trust I am talking about. Next, I consider to what extent trust is voluntary if trust, as some philosophers have argued, is a particular kind of belief. This is a minority view among philosophers working on trust, but even if it is correct, it only works if so-called doxastic compatibilism is true—a particular view on what control over our beliefs amounts to. I argue that if that view is correct as well, we would save responsibility for trust or lack of trust, but not the idea that we choose or decide whether or not to trust. After that, I explain what counts in favor of the thesis that trust is voluntary. I show that there are at least two and possibly three different ways in which trust can be under our control: the constitutive element of reliance is often under our control, the constitutive element of resilience to evidence is often under our control, and there are situations in which we know that trusting actually sufficiently raises a person’s trustworthiness so that we can choose to trust.

Epistemology Brownbag: Marc Alspector-Kelly

Date: February 12th, 2019

Time/Location: 12:30-2:00 in Kresge 3438

Title: The Skeptical Closure Argument

Abstract: Suppose that P is a piece of pedestrian knowledge (such as “I have hands”) and that SK is a skeptical hypothesis (such as “I’m a handless brain in a vat”). A much-discussed argument for skepticism—the skeptical closure argument, or SCA—runs as follows:

(1) You don’t know ~SK.

(2) If you don’t know ~SK then you don’t know P.

(3) So you don’t know P.

The skeptic appeals to (a common rendition of) knowledge closure in support of (2): if S knows P, and knows that P implies Q, then S knows Q. But I’ll show that (3) only follows from a much less plausible version of closure and that, if a more plausible version is substituted, the resulting argument threatens very few if any of our ordinary knowledge claims. I’ll then revise the SCA in such a way that it does mobilize a plausible closure principle while still threatening most ordinary knowledge. It turns out, however, that the needed support for the premises of the revised SCA either renders the argument dialectically superfluous or undermines closure itself. The overall result is that there is no plausible argument for skepticism that mobilizes closure. I’ll also indicate why a related skeptical argument—one that appeals to what I call “front-loading”—fares no better.

Epistemology Brownbag: Anubav Vasudevan

Date: Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

Time: 12:30-2:00 PM

Location: Kresge 3438

Title: On the Judy Benjamin Problem
Abstract: One well-known objection to the principle of maximum entropy is the so-called Judy Benjamin problem, first introduced by van Fraassen (1981). The problem turns on the apparently puzzling fact that, on the basis of information relating an event’s conditional probability, the maximum entropy distribution will almost always assign to the event conditionalized on a probability strictly less than that assigned to it by the uniform distribution. In this talk, I will give a brief introduction to the principle of maximum entropy and present an analysis of the Judy Benjamin problem that can help to make sense of this seemingly odd feature of maximum entropy inference. In addition to helping to further our understanding of the true epistemological grounds of the principle of maximum entropy, my analysis will also shed light on its misunderstood relationship to the Laplacean principle of insufficient reason.

Epistemology Brownbag: Jay Carlson

Date: Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

Time: 12:30-2:00 PM

Location: Kresge 3438

Title: Epistemology of disagreement, bias, and political deliberation: the problems for a conciliatory view


In this paper, I will discuss the relevance of epistemology of disagreement to political disagreement. The two major positions in the epistemology of disagreement literature are the steadfast and the conciliationist approaches: while the conciliationist says that disagreement with one’s epistemic equals should compel one to epistemically “split the difference” with those peers, the steadfast approach claims that one can maintain one’s antecedent position even in the face of such peer disagreement. Martin Ebeling (Ebeling 2017) applies a conciliationist approach to democratic deliberations, arguing that deliberative participants ought to pursue full epistemic concliation when disagreeing with their peers on political questions. I argue that this epistemic “splitting the difference” could make participants vulnerable to certain cognitive biases. We might avoid these biases by paying more attention to the deliberative environment in which disagreement takes place.

Epistemology Brownbag: Nevin Climenhaga

Date: Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

Time: 12:30-2:00 PM

Location: Kresge 3438

Title: (Epistemic) Probabilities are Degrees of Support, not Degrees of (Rational) Belief


 I argue that when we use ‘probability’ language in epistemic contexts – e.g., when we ask how probable some hypothesis is, given the evidence available to us – we are talking about degrees of support, rather than degrees of belief. The probability of A given B is the (mind-independent) degree to which B supports A, not the degree to which someone with B as their evidence believes A, or the degree to which someone would or should believe A if they had B as their evidence. My central argument is that degrees of support can correctly model good reasoning in cases of old evidence where degrees of belief cannot. I consider ways to revise orthodox degree-of-belief Bayesianism in order to account for this kind of case, and argue that such revisions end up unable to account for reasoning about probabilities conditional on evidence that it is impossible not to possess.

PhLing: Michael Glanzberg (Northwestern)

Date: April 14 2017

Time: 1:30-3:30

Location: Kresge 3354

Title: The Cognitive Roots of Adjectival Meaning

AbstractIn this paper, I illustrate a way that work in cognitive psychology can

fruitfully interact with truth-conditional semantics.  A widely held view takes

the meanings of gradable adjectives to be measure functions, which map objects

to degrees on a scale.  Scales come equipped with dimensions that fix what the

degrees are.  Following Bartsch and Vennemann, I observe that this allows

dimensions to play the role of lexical roots, that provide the distinctive

contents for each lexical entry.  I review evidence that the grammar provides a

limited range of scale structures, presumably dense linear orderings with a

limited range of topological properties.  I then turn to how the content of the

root can be fixed.  In the verbal domain, there is evidence suggesting roots are

linked to concepts.  In many cases for adjectives, it is not concepts but

approximate magnitude representation systems that fix root contents.  However,

these magnitude representation systems are approximate or analog, and do not

provide precise values. I argue that the roots of adjectives like these

provide a weak, discrimination-based constraint on a grammatically fixed scale

structure.  Other adjectives can find concepts to fix roots, which can support a

well-known equivalence class construction which can fix precise values on a

scale.  I conclude that though adjectives have a uniform truth-conditional

semantics, they show substantial differences in the cognitive sources of their

root meanings. This shows that there are (at least) two sub-classes of

adjectives, with roots fixed by different mechanisms and with different degrees

of precision, and showing very different cognitive properties.

Epistemology Brownbag: Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa (UBC)

Date: Wednesday, February 22

Time: 12-1:30 PM

Location: Kresge 3438

Title: “Positive Epistemic Norms”


If you’re considering a question, you have three choices: believe, disbelieve, or suspend judgment. Of these three, suspension tends to enjoy, implicitly or even explicitly, the privilege of a perceived ‘default’ status. Epistemologists are quick to emphasise respects in which judgments can be too hasty, or when a combination of attitudes would be irrational. Descartes starts his Meditations with the worry that some of his beliefs may be wrong—so he shifts into suspension, until he can certify his methods as trustworthy. Descartes’s project is familiar, and by and large, analytic philosophy has mostly worked in that paradigm. Until you have enough evidence, play it safe, and suspend judgment.
I will suggest that the neutrality often attributed to suspension is often unwarranted. Suspension is not epistemically best by default. Failure to believe—undue skepticism—can be just as epistemically erroneous as can hasty belief—undue gullibility. (What if Descartes were motivated by the idea of not letting any truths get past him?) I’ll work towards this case from three perspectives: the epistemology of the a priori; the epistemology of testimony; and pragmatic encroachment. The aim is a reorientation of epistemology, away from emphasising negative, restrictive norms, and towards positive ones. I aim to vindicate in a more serious way the natural thought that we often ought to believe things.