Current projects

Evolution, ethics, and human origins: A deep-time perspective on human morality

Funded by the John Templeton Foundation Start date: December 2017 (for a total of 33 months) Principal Investigator. with Johan De Smedt (co-investigator).

Funding: GBP 158,038

Human morality has unique features: we care about fairness, we are compassionate, and we cooperate in ways that go further than the altruistic behaviors of other primates. Such behaviors are regulated by moral norms, which are shared and enforced by communities. The evolution of human morality is an enduring question in ethics and moral psychology. This project will examine the evolutionary origins of morality by including a crucial piece of evidence that has been neglected in the literature: archaeological evidence for care and cooperation among human ancestors. We will combine this line of inquiry with findings from developmental psychology and studies of cooperation in non-western cultures and in primates. We will address 3 central questions. 1. How did human morality evolve? We will investigate the archaeological evidence for hominin cooperation, such as care for disabled individuals, collaborative hunting and gathering, and childcare. We hypothesize that human-specific morality evolved in a mosaic fashion as a result of selective pressures specific to hominin social life. We will write a monograph, a paper, and hold a series of public lectures. 2. Can there be objective moral norms in the light of evolution? We will explore the hypothesis that moral claims (in particular, pertaining to human cooperation) can be true in a realist sense, whereas others are likely not. Outputs will be a paper, a panel session, a conference and an edited volume on moral realism. 3. Are the theological notions of original sin and the Fall compatible with evolution? Drawing on the theology of Irenaeus and Schleiermacher, we propose they are. We outline a mechanism for this in a monograph and paper, and will organize a conference on the topic. We expect our project will change how scholars engage in evolutionary ethics. It will demonstrate that the details of how human morality evolved matter, and that they can help decide between philosophical and theological positions.

Website: Templeton grants database

Creative fiction writing for philosophers

Funded by the British Society of Aesthetics Dates: 1-2 June 2017

Funding: GBP 3904

Fiction has traditionally been a powerful way for philosophers to express their ideas, as the novels and plays by e.g., Iris Murdoch, Jean Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus illustrate. Such works had a large impact on the wider public, and provided a low-threshold way for them to engage with complex philosophical ideas. Although philosophers can also reach a wider audience in other ways (e.g., through opinion pieces in the media and popularising books), fiction has unique aspects: it is emotionally engaging, and elicits empathy for its characters. Especially in domains such as ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of mind, fiction is an underexplored way for philosophers to communicate their ideas to the wider public. Philosophers face several obstacles, the most important one being a lack of training. Writing effective fiction requires different skills compared to writing papers for academic philosophical journals, with techniques such as dialogue, vivid descriptions, and creating narrative tension, all lacking from the toolkit of most academics. The aim of this workshop is to help professional philosophers to write fiction effectively.

Outputs specific to this project

Philosophy through fiction

Funded by the Berry Fund for Public Philosophy, Project website Start date: July 2016

Funding: USD 500

Abstract: This project is a prize competition for best philosophy-themed speculative fiction story. The funding will be used to provide a cash prize to the winner (USD 500). The winning author will also have their work published in Sci Phi Journal. The competition will open in July 2016, with a projected deadline of February 2017. The aim of the project is to encourage philosophers to explore philosophical ideas through fiction. As novels by, e.g., Iris Murdoch, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre indicate, fiction can be a compelling medium for philosophy. Not only does it help to explore ideas that cannot be easily dealt with in the format of a journal article or monograph, it also helps to reach a broad audience, as the enduring popularity of philosophical novels by Murdoch and others testifies.

Outputs specific to this project

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 VU University Amsterdam (ongoing)

Start date: January 2015

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.

Outputs specific to this project

Website: UCR website with winners announced

Past projects

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.

Duration: October 2013 - December 2014

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

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

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 200,000

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