I'm in my sixth year in University of Pittsburgh's Philosophy PhD program. I received my B.A. in Philosophy and Japanese Language from UC Berkeley. I write about skepticism.
My main areas of interest are epistemology and the history of early modern philosophy. My primary topic is skepticism, the view or feeling that we know never little. My research addresses questions like: How can we talk to people who are deeply and radically skeptical? What kinds of considerations or arguments could get them get to change their mind? From where does their skepticism come? I treat these as live philosophical questions. But my approach is informed by historical treatments of skepticism, especially those of Hume and Kant.
I am also interested in existentialism, the history of ethics, moral psychology, philosophy of action, bioethics and the works Aristotle and Heidegger.
‘Talking to skeptics’
Committee: John McDowell (chair), Stephen Engstrom, James Shaw, Karl Schafer (UC Irvine)
Skeptics argue that we can know almost nothing at all. In doing so, they threaten our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. Many philosophers now think there is no use in talking to skeptics—that no argument can change their minds and thus cure them of their skepticism. These philosophers opt for a merely preventative response, aiming to show to just their satisfaction how to resist skeptical arguments. I argue that a cure is necessary, viable and theoretically illuminating.
First, I argue that the merely preventative response must fail. To succeed with it, I argue, we would have to understand why skeptical arguments appear compelling. We would then find out either why the arguments seem compelling, but are ultimately not, or that they are indeed compelling. In the first case, a cure would be within reach; we could explain the skeptic’s error to her. In the second, prevention would come too late; we ourselves would need a cure. It follows, I argue, that until we can show a skeptic how she has gone wrong, we cannot resist her arguments in good faith.
Second, I argue that we can in fact change a skeptic’s mind. I begin by considering influential arguments for skepticism about the external world, including arguments from closure and underdetermination, Crispin Wright’s dreaming argument, and the classic argument formulated in Jim Pryor’s “The Skeptic and the Dogmatist.” I show that all these arguments, despite their apparent differences, rely on a shared, tacit premise: that perception never puts us in touch with the world in a way that guarantees the truth of what we perceive. I then argue that the best arguments for this shared premise are circular. This reveals that skepticism about the external world is based on a groundless intuition. Showing this to the skeptic clears the obstacles to her accepting, on ordinary grounds, a view on which perception can provide us with knowledge of how things are around us. This acceptance cures the skeptic.
This ambitious, curative response to skepticism, I next argue, has an illuminating history. Its tracing of skepticism to a groundless intuition has a richly fruitful, if somewhat unobvious, precedent in Hume. I argue that Hume’s repeated invocation of the four humors of ancient and medieval medicine in his discussions of skepticism shows that he considers skepticism to be primarily a temperament. The skeptical temperament can cause excessive questioning and even madness, when overly dominant, but brings only the carefulness and rigor needed for engaging in philosophy, when balanced with other temperaments. In offering a conception of proper balance between skeptical and other dispositions, Hume shows us what we can learn from the skeptic even as we cure her.
The curative response also helps us understand Kant’s views, and Kant’s views the curative response. Kant’s defenders and critics alike tend to assume that his transcendental deduction of the categories can only refute skeptical empiricism if the empiricist can accept its premises while believing that empiricism is true. The curative response opens up a new exegetical possibility—namely, that Kant intends his deduction to change the skeptical empiricist’s mind not by compelling, but rather by exhibiting, an alternate conception of the mind’s relation to the objects of knowledge. This novel reading, I argue, finds support in the text, especially in Kant’s portrayal of skeptical empiricism as an unstable position, which skeptics would eagerly abandon were they to properly grasp the alternative. The reading in turn illustrates the power of offering an alternative in addressing skepticism, and in philosophical argumentation more generally.
If I am right, we can and should talk to skeptics. We need not be quiet or dogmatic in their presence. We can show them the groundlessness of their views, instead of conceding the groundlessness of ours. And we can change their minds, by offering a compelling alternative.