My work is at the intersection of epistemology and experimental cognitive science, and focuses on philosophical cognition, or how our minds work when we think about philosophical issues. What unities my work is the idea that learning more about how our minds work when we think about philosophical issues can teach us a lot about those issues and the idea that philosophical questions should be approached using a variety of methods, including scientific ones.
Intuition & Philosophical Methodology: Philosophers often use what is called “the method of cases,” designing hypothetical cases and using what we think about those cases (our “philosophical intuitions”) as evidence that specific philosophical theories are true (or false) and as reasons for believing as such. Much of my early research focused on what kinds of things influence how we think about these kinds of cases, and what this could tell us about the methods we use when doing philosophy. It turns out that what we think about these cases is not always what we were supposed to think, and that what we think about them is sensitive to a host of things that we had not expected, and I have argued in a number of papers and books that this raises important methodological questions about whose intuitions to trust and when to trust them, and that the best way to answer these questions is through the careful empirical study of philosophical cognition.
Epistemic Egocentrism and Knowledge Attribution: One of the most hotly debated questions in contemporary epistemology is whether standards for knowledge attribution depend on what possibilities have been made salient in a given conversational context. What makes this debate particularly interesting is that both sides agree that our willingness to attribute knowledge seems to depend on what possibilities are conversationally salient; we are more willing to say that someone knows something in conversational contexts that do not include any mention of the possibility that she might be wrong than in contexts that do. Our lab has demonstrated that the relationship between salience and knowledge attribution can be explained in terms of epistemic egocentrism, an egocentric bias to attribute our own mental states to others. Our current research focuses on the role that individual and cultural differences in perspective taking might play in moderating the influence epistemic egocentrism has on folk knowledge attribution, and the role that salience effects play in folk attributions of other important epistemic concepts (e.g., belief, justification, understanding, explanation, and procedural knowledge).
Philosophy and Cognitive Science of Disagreement: Sometimes we disagree; we hold certain beliefs that are explicitly rejected by others and do so even when exposed to all of the same kinds of evidence and argument. This fact about us has become increasingly interesting to epistemologists, who have tended to focus on whether these kinds of situations require us to change the confidence we have in our beliefs and in what ways. The method of cases plays a big role in the growing epistemology of disagreement, and our lab is interested in what kinds of things influence how we think about these cases, focusing on case structure and framing effects, as well as a host of specific cognitive and situational factors. The results have revealed important things about how people think about the kinds of cases used in the epistemology of disagreement, suggesting both the need for more fine-grained normative theories of disagreement and a change in how we think about the relationship between empirical work on philosophical cognition and the methods used in analytic philosophy.
The Epistemic Benefits of Diversity: Much of the recent work on the epistemology of disagreement treats disagreement as something to be either resolved or dissolved, where the goal has been to find some principled way of determining whose beliefs to trust and when to trust them, something that the growing disagreement about disagreement suggests might be harder to do than we first thought. But lessons from the history and philosophy of science suggest that perhaps disagreement and cognitive diversity are epistemic goods, things to be embraced rather than avoided, our lab is interested in the role that cognitive diversity can play shaping the epistemic projects we pursue, as well as the specific research questions we ask, reasoning strategies we employ, and ways we go about collecting and interpreting evidence. Early results suggest that reflecting on the role that background assumptions play in shaping our epistemic communities might actually help improve those communities by reducing the perseveration of mistaken beliefs and mitigating the influence of certain well-known cognitive biases. What we find is that studying the cognitive science of disagreement not only helps us better understand what we should do when we disagree, but also what disagreement can do for us.