Current projects

The influence of intuitive afterlife beliefs on philosophical reflections on postmortem identity

Funded by the Immortality Project, University of California, Riverside, carried out at the University of Oxford.

Start date: August 2014

Funding: USD 18,683.52

Abstract: Most religions affirm an explicit belief in life after death. The question of how exactly humans are able to survive their physical death has been the focus of intense philosophical discussion. One topic in contemporary philosophy of religion is the problem of personal identity: how can I still be "me" in the afterlife, given that my body decays or gets destroyed after death? Since scripture does not specify this, a variety of solutions have been put forward in philosophical and theology such as a re-creation of the physical body at the end of times, or the existence of an immaterial, immortal soul that preserves the identity of the person. Recent research in the cognitive science of religion indicates that the cross-culturally widespread belief in a life after death is cognitively natural for humans: it arises spontaneously, without explicit instruction, and sometimes even in the absence of any cultural input. Moreover, humans are not intuitive dualists, but think of the human person as consisting of one or more material and immaterial entities (e.g., a body and a soul, or a body, mind, and soul). Do these folk intuitions continue to play a role in professional philosophy?

The aim of this project is to probe the influence of intuitive, unreflective views of postmortem survival and personal identity on philosophical thinking. My working hypothesis is that intuitive, early-developed views on personhood have played, and continue to play a significant role in contemporary philosophy of religion. This project consists of two subprojects. The first is an experimental philosophical investigation of intuitive views of personhood in laypeople and philosophers. The second subproject will consist of a critical literal study of philosophical work on postmortem identity, specifically looking at the role of untutored intuitions in this body of philosophical literature. I will examine whether the philosophical ideas that derive from these intuitions are justified or whether the etiology of these intuitions should lead us to question their validity.

Taking what others believe seriously: Implications of social epistemology for the rationality of religious beliefs

Funded by the British Academy, carried out at the University of Oxford.

Start date: October 2013

Funding: GBP 236,995

Abstract: Is it reasonable to hold religious beliefs? To assess this question, most philosophers have focused on individual reasoning and experience. However, recent work in social epistemology (the branch of philosophy that studies the social dimension of knowledge acquisition) prompts us to reassess this individualistic view. As religious beliefs are acquired mainly socially, questions about their reasonableness should take into account what others believe, and how this relates to our own beliefs. This project will make a novel contribution to the question of the rationality of religious beliefs by investigating their social nature. I will apply insights and methods from social epistemology to assess the reasonableness of religious beliefs, focusing on 3 subprojects: the prevalence of theistic belief across times and cultures, the importance of deference to testimony by experts in the acquisition of religious beliefs, and the significance of religious disagreements. In this way, I aim to shed new light on debates in religious epistemology that have traditionally ignored its social dimension.

Outputs specific to this project

Website: British Academy postdoctoral fellowships awards 2013

Past projects

Cognitive Origins of Intuitions in Natural Theology

Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, carried out at the University of Oxford

Duration: September 2011 – June 2012

Funding: USD 50,000 + a further USD 15,000 for the organization of a workshop

Abstract: Arguments in natural theology (e.g., fine tuning argument, cosmological argument) rely to an important extent on intuitions, for example about causality, agency, and design. Over the past few decades, cognitive scientists have provided convincing evidence that some of these intuitions are a stable part of human cognition. My aim is to explore to what extent cognitive science can elucidate the origins of intuitions that underlie arguments in natural theology, and what this implies for the justification of the premises in these arguments (a fortiori, of their conclusions). Drawing on empirical and theoretical research in the cognitive science of religion, I will critically analyze arguments in natural theology, with an emphasis on the work of contemporary philosophers of religion.

Outputs specific to this project

Website: Templeton Oxford Fellows award announcement

Scientific knowledge acquisition: a cognitive approach

Funded by the Research Foundation Flanders, carried out at the University of Leuven

Duration: October 2010 – September 2013

Funding: EUR 250,000

Abstract: Science is a recent historical phenomenon with characteristic methods of investigation and rules for reasoning and drawing inferences. Scientific theories and results often run counter to our intuitions, for example in the domains of particle physics and evolutionary biology. Yet scientists draw on the same cognitive resources as other people, and they are subject to the same cognitive limitations. How can people produce scientific knowledge within the scope and limitations of their cognitive capacities? This project will seek an answer to this question by developing abroad philosophical framework that integrates theories and results from cognitive science, including developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, cognitive psychology and philosophy of mind. In this way, I aim to obtain a better insight into the cognitive basis of scientific knowledge acquisition.

Outputs specific to this project

Religious concepts as structured imagination

Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, carried out at the University of Leuven

Duration: October 2009 – July 2010

Funding: GBP 4,500

Abstract: This was a grant for an empirical study that investigates how people imagine novel religious concepts. What cognitive processes underlie the generation of religious concepts? This study investigates the creative processes involved in religious concept formation from the perspective of structured imagination. It examines whether the generation of novel religious entities is structured by universal features of human cognition that are hypothesized in the cognitive science of religion literature, in particular regarding the degree to which religious beings are anthropomorphic, their level of couterintuitiveness, and their moral character.

Outputs specific to this project

Website: Project website