New Insights and Directions for Religious Epistemology


The aim of this project is to make a bold and lasting impact on religious epistemology. In particular, we plan to revitalize religious epistemology by bringing to bear the rich range of fertile developments in recent mainstream epistemology that have thus far not been systematically integrated into religious epistemology, thereby opening up new channels of research for religious epistemology. Towards this end, the project is designed to attract the best minds of our day (especially those who have yet to make a contribution to religious epistemology), in producing a large body of work meeting the highest academic standards, to forge links between religious epistemology and other academic disciplines, including both analytic theology and relevant areas of empirical science, and to cement the credibility of religious epistemology as both a relevant and fertile locus for research within mainstream philosophy.

The purpose of this page is to describe in detail our vision for the project.

Description of Research Activities

  • Research Thrust

The project will consist of a sizeable group of coordinated researchers consisting of the project leader, three postdoctoral fellows, three junior research fellows, nine academic visitors, four distinguished academic visitors, a substantial number of Oxford faculty and students, and an intellectually varied group of expert participants at the planned workshops and conference. Research funding will support the three postdoctoral fellows, the three junior fellows and teaching buyouts for Oxford faculty who are well placed to generate directly relevant research outputs. Cultivating promising young scholars, in particular, is an investment in the future of religious epistemology and amplifies the long-term impact of the project.

Since the 1960s, epistemology has experienced a period of unparalleled creativity. The intensity with which tough problems have been addressed has resulted in a wide array of new theories and philosophical tools. We detail below six topics in mainstream epistemology which will serve as focal points for research and then list seven further likely avenues of exploration.

(a) One persistent theme in recent epistemology has been an emphasis on the epistemological relevance of factors traditionally considered irrelevant to the theory of knowledge. These include, but are not limited to (i) what is at stake with regard to the truth or falsity of the relevant belief; (ii) which possibilities of error are psychologically salient; and (iii) what use the relevant proposition is being put to in practical reasoning. Such factors make their presence felt in two kinds of theories, contextualist and subject-sensitive invariantist. Roughly speaking, contextualists make such factors relevant according to how the knowledge attributor varies along such parameters, whereas subject-sensitive invariantist views makes such factors relevant according to how the subject of the attribution stands with regard to these parameters. (Obviously, mixed views are possible.) These ideas have natural application to religious epistemology—for example, one intriguing issue is the connection between the role of stakes in these theories and more traditional debates connected to Pascal’s Wager and the epistemology of religious or mystical experience where the relevant stakes are very high indeed. Surprisingly, however, the interface between these theories and religious epistemology has rarely been explored.

(b) A number of models of the nature of knowledge have been offered in the last fifty years, some causal, some evidentialist, some reliabilist, some counterfactual based, and some which factorize knowledge into truth and justification plus some further condition. But the most popular structural model of late (one which is a descendent of the earlier reliability models) has been safety-based, which treats knowledge as a belief that could not easily have been false. Often this idea gets refined using the notion of methods: A belief is knowledge only if one could not easily have been led to falsehood by some relevantly similar method. The complementary tools of safety and methods provide fresh ways of evaluating claims about knowledge within the religious sphere and also for testing the viability of those tools. This is also an area where epistemology can learn significantly from empirical science (in this case psychology and cognitive science), since it is unlikely that questions about the nature of the relevant methods can be answered independently of empirical inquiry.

(c) One prominent area of discussion in contemporary epistemology has been the nature and scope of the phenomenon called defeat, wherein knowledge that is in place gets destroyed by the acquisition of misleading evidence against the proposition believed or against the propriety of the method whereby the relevant belief was formed. On one view, defeat is commonplace and can be given theoretical foundations by way of principles that connect epistemological status to fresh evidence. (For example, one prominent idea is that there is a ‘level connection’ between one’s justified views about one’s justificatory status and one’s actual justificatory status, so that if one is justified in thinking one is not justified in believing something, then one is automatically not justified in believing that thing.) On another view defeat is not commonplace—if one knows, then no incoming evidence can destroy knowledge so long as the person continues to hold the original belief on the same basis. ‘Defeat’ models have a natural account of what is bad about someone who clings to a belief previously known in the light of incoming negative evidence: since knowledge is destroyed, the belief should be relinquished. ‘No defeat’ models have to provide a different account of what is intuitively bad about someone who hangs on to the belief in this setting. The natural strategy for doing this is to appeal to the bad habits of mind that are thereby inculcated: even if on this occasion sticking to one’s guns allows the retention of knowledge, one inculcates a habit whereby one will inevitably stick to one’s guns in other circumstances where one does not know. This all connects to a large and important issue in epistemology, namely that of providing a foundational explanation of what is virtuous about open-mindedness and what is non-virtuous about dogmatism. This work has natural application to issues concerning the appropriate attitudes or intellectual habits that should be cultivated within theism towards atheism, agnosticism, and tolerance between different religions or religious sects.

(d) One growth area in epistemology has been the application of formal methods to epistemology, ones that are often used in confirmation theory within philosophy of science. The introduction of formal methods has certainly been fruitful but it has also raised important foundational questions. One key question concerns the nature of evidence. Arguably, the most promising account of evidence—one that identifies evidence with knowledge—also suggests the need for a kind of humility that is not properly accounted for in standard discussions, namely that it is often the case that we are not in a position to know what our evidence is (either because we know but do not know we know or, even more obviously, because we do not know and do not know that we do not know). A second foundational question has been the source of the probabilities that are used in formal epistemology (which in its Bayesian manifestation turns on the source of ‘prior’ probabilities). Some models are thoroughly subjectivist, taking there to be no deeper facts about epistemic probabilities than the subjective credences of agents. Others are much more objectivist, positing facts about intrinsic plausibilities (or ‘evidential probabilities’) to which agents are better or worse attuned. A third area of discussion concerns the problems of making formal epistemology workable in a context where infinity is in play (for example, this makes trouble in decision theory when outcomes with infinite utility are in place). A fourth prominent area of discussion has been the epistemological significance of hypotheses on which there are many ‘observers’: on many views, one roughly speaking ought, ceteris paribus, to prefer views on which there are many similar observers to views on which there are few. The interface between philosophy of religion and these foundational issues is a fertile one. It is, for example, an area where some of the infinity issues have particular relevance, an area which might provide the metaphysical foundations for some of the relevant probabilistic structure, and an area where humility about evidence might be particularly apt. It has also become increasingly clear that while debates about the epistemological significance of fine-tuning turn in significant part on work in theoretical physics, they also hinge importantly on how the relevant foundational issues in formal epistemology are resolved. A final application of formal modeling is in illuminating the nature of faith. Should we think of faith as a distinctive sort of credal attitude and if so, does it call for a distinctive kind of modeling?

(e) The epistemology of testimony has been a central area of discussion in recent epistemology, in good part thanks to the work of Jennifer Lackey, Elizabeth Fricker and Sanford Goldberg. In this connection there are a range of interesting questions concerning the conditions under which knowledge can be successfully acquired via testimony. Does the testifier need to know that which she asserts? (Lackey argues ‘No’.) Does one need to have good evidence of the credentials of the testifier? Does the testifier have to be generally reliable? Is there any interesting epistemological difference between testimonial knowledge acquired via what is asserted versus that which is acquired via what is implicated or presupposed? (This last question is one of the foci of Fricker’s recent research.) What is the epistemic status of a person who acts as a mouthpiece for a corporation or group of people? What challenges to testimonial knowledge are raised by the context-dependence of natural language (wherein words have different contents in different contexts), especially in connection with the acquisition of knowledge from written sources? Does epistemological status degrade as information is passed along a testimonial chain? Is there an important contrast between trusting someone and mere reliance? What are the analogies and disanalogies between the preservation of knowledge via memory and via testimony? Once again religious faith provides both a fertile application point and testing ground for the various answers that have been offered to these questions.

(f) Questions concerning the epistemic relevance of etiology have received significant attention of late. What relevance does information about the causal history of a belief (its etiology) have on the evidential status of that belief? In the context of religious epistemology, there are a number of salient kinds of etiological information that are of potential epistemic relevance. These include causal correlations between place of birth and the content of religious belief (the “problem of contingency”), causal correlations between genetic makeup and religious conviction, and evolutionary explanations of religious belief wherein religious belief is accounted for in a number of ways, for example, by its adaptive value or as an unintended side-effect of something else which provides evolutionary advantage. The relevant inquiries have, quite obviously, a significant empirical component. But they also interface with foundational epistemology. There are two ways in which the relevant empirical facts might have significant impact: First, they might, if true, show that the relevant religious beliefs never constituted knowledge in the first place. Second, it may be that even if such beliefs began life as knowledge, such empirical information might serve to rob those beliefs of their positive status by means of the mechanism of defeat adverted to above. The realm of etiology is thus a place where topics discussed under (b) and (c) can be jointly brought to bear and, indeed, where there can be mutually beneficial exchange with relevant specialists in empirical science.

Here are some further possible topics which are relevant to religious epistemology, all of which connect well with academic interests among scholars at Oxford:

  1. The epistemology of agnosticism: Is withholding belief a distinctive attitude (as opposed to mere absence of belief)? If so does it have a distinctive epistemology?
  2. Is there a foundational a priori/a posteriori distinction? If so, what can be said about the limits of a priori knowledge?
  3. What are the conditions of innate knowledge of a given subject matter?
  4. What is the nature of the epistemological methods deployed in prophecy?
  5. Do we have strong evidence that religious experience fails the safety conditions for knowledge?
  6. Can the phenomenon of understanding be reduced to facts about knowledge or it is a distinctive kind of epistemic state?
  7. Epistemology and normativity: Is knowledge the aim of belief? What are the foundational norms of belief: Truth or knowledge?

The six main topics described above are natural bases for the six smaller workshops planned for the project. In each case the project will not only draw from the finest analytic philosophers working in the area (including epistemologists, philosophers of religion, and those working on formal confirmation theory and decision theory), but will also receive substantial input from relevant empirical researchers in neighboring fields (including, where relevant, cognitive scientists, developmental biologists, psychologists, geneticists and theoretical physicists), and also from theologians who can shed light on the theological significance of the relevant epistemological ideas (and in some cases, on the way they took shape in early religious scriptures). However, the project will by no means be limited to those six main topics. The project leader, research fellows, and visitors will pursue their own research within the ambit of the project’s general mission, which is that of bringing recent developments in epistemology to bear on philosophy of religion. We expect that a good deal of the research will overlap with the six main topics. But it will include other topics as well (of which (1) to (7) above are salient examples).

The intended audience of this research project is first and foremost the academic community. The project will reshape and invigorate the pursuit of epistemology by philosophers of religion and will add a fresh dimension to mainstream epistemology itself. Through its emphasis on interdisciplinary discussion, philosophers will benefit from empirical science and theology. But moreover, scientists and theologians will gain significant exposure to recent epistemology, especially as its bears on foundational questions about religious belief. We are particularly concerned to enhance the growth and vitality of analytic theology, an area for which an understanding religious epistemology is crucially important. We recognize, moreover, the benefit of a diversity of theological angles. The project’s intended audience is not, however, limited to the academic community, as demonstrated below.

A volume of papers will be published in connection with the major conference. Oxford University Press has already expressed preliminary written interest in publishing that volume. By prioritizing visitors, postdoctoral fellows and faculty buyouts that will generate concrete publication outputs, we expect at least twenty journal articles in leading journals and several monographs to be published as a direct result of support by the project (in addition to the conference volume). These publications will in turn generate a secondary literature of their own as the new ideas in religious epistemology set new agendas for discussion. Further material will be published via online media (see section four below). Webcasts, public lectures and roundtable discussions will raise awareness of the project and help facilitate a ripple effect to the general public.

  • Events

The project aims to make a bold impact through its various activities. Our activities will be divided into four categories, as detailed below. Advertising for several of these activities will be continued into the life of the project.

  • Workshops

These will be focused events. Each workshop is designed to achieve significant progress on one of the designated key topics in religious epistemology. There will be heavy emphasis on discussion and the exchange of ideas. Each workshop will consist of five speakers who will speak for thirty minutes followed by ample time for discussion. In addition to these participants, each workshop will comprise the project leader, the postdoctoral and junior research fellows, academic visitors in residence and relevant recipients of teaching buyouts. Each workshop will be open to the students and faculty of Oxford University, and (depending on space) any other interested persons. A draft of the talks will be published on the website. After the workshop participants will be strongly encouraged to publish an updated version of their talk in the light of discussions emerging from the workshop.

  • Workshop #1

Theme: Religious Epistemology, Contextualism, and Subject-Sensitive Invariantism
Date: Hilary term 2013 (13 - 14 March 2013)
Location:Oxford University

  • Workshop #2

Theme: Safety, Methods and Religious Epistemology
Date: Trinity term 2013 (12 - 13 June 2013)
Location: Oxford University

  • Workshop #3

Theme: Epistemic Defeat and Religious Epistemology
Date: Hilary term 2014 (17 - 18 March 2014)
Location: Oxford University

  • Workshop #4

Theme: Religious Epistemology and Testimony
Date: Trinity term 2014 (24 - 25 June 2014)
Location: Oxford University

  • Workshop #5

Theme: Formal Epistemology and Religious Epistemology
Date: Michaelmas term 2014 (early October—early December)
Location: Oxford University

  • Workshop #6

Theme: Epistemological Issues Arising from the Etiology of Religious Belief
Date: Hilary term 2015 (mid. Jan.—mid. March)
Location: Oxford

  • Nine Public Lectures

Each of the academic visitors will be expected to give a public lecture, making for a total of nine public lectures. These lectures will play an important role in disseminating ideas in contemporary religious epistemology to a wider audience. The theme of each lecture will be related to the visitor’s current research project.

  • Four Roundtable Discussions

Each distinguished guest will engage in a roundtable discussion on a relevant topic with a panel of guest speakers from the UK drawn from a wide variety of academic disciplines, including representatives from empirical science and theology. Each roundtable discussion will be three hours in duration (with a break for lunch) and will cover two topics, one chosen by the distinguished visitor; the other by the project leader. These events will provide the opportunity to pursue topics in religious epistemology within a particularly diversified intellectual setting.

  • One Large International Conference

The project will culminate in a large conference on topics directly related to the mission of the project. The conference itself will consist of six keynote speakers who will be leading figures in areas of relevance and ten further papers which will be chosen. There will be at least one paper on each of the six main workshop topics. A book consisting of edited essays will emerge from the conference. Conference participants will be asked to update their contributions after the conference in the light of conversations at and emerging from the conference. The conference will be open to anyone interested and will take place in a large conference venue in Oxford.

  • Curricula Development

One section of the project’s website will serve as an aid to those developing curricula within religious epistemology. Academics connected to the project will be encouraged to post syllabi for their courses relating to religious epistemology. The aggregation of these syllabi in a single locus will aid course development by others and facilitate communication between those who are teaching in this area. The junior and postdoctoral fellows will be responsible for the smooth running of this aspect of the project and will also ensure that the new research outputs generated as a direct result of the project are brought to the attention of those teaching religious epistemology via regular curricula updates.

  • Electronic and Print Media

As for electronic media, the project will have a strong presence quite apart from the electronic versions of the print media. The project will make use of a webpage which will have substantial attached documentation, podcasts, and videos connected to the project events, and which will provide advance notice of all the project’s activities. Podcasts will also be available through Oxford University’s iTunes site ( http://itunes.apple.com/institution/oxford-university/id381699182#ls=1 ). There will also be a blog and Facebook page run by the postdoctoral researchers that will provide a forum for lively discussion of topics connected to the mission of the project. The events will also be covered in the Oxford Gazette, the Oxford Today magazine, and the University student newspapers. Both local and national newspapers, radio and television stations will be made fully aware of the activities of the project. The relevant activities will also be posted on the major international philosophy mailing lists.

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