Note: For a full list of publications, work under review, presentations, etc., see my CV.
Peer-Reviewed Articles (in English)
Most of my papers are written in English and intended for an international audience. However, I have also written a few research articles in Icelandic; please scroll down for details on these.
Rational Understanding: Toward a Probabilistic Epistemology of Acceptability
Forthcoming in Synthese (special issue entitled "Themes from Elgin"). Penultimate draft.
Abstract: To understand something involves some sort of commitment to a set of propositions comprising an account of the understood phenomenon. Some take this commitment to be a species of belief; others, such as Elgin and I, take it to be a kind of cognitive policy. This paper takes a step back from debates about the nature of understanding and asks when this commitment involved in understanding is epistemically appropriate, or `acceptable' in Elgin's terminology. In particular, appealing to lessons from the lottery and preface paradoxes, it is argued that this type of commitment is sometimes acceptable even when it would be rational to assign arbitrarily low probabilities to the relevant propositions. This strongly suggests that the relevant type of commitment is sometimes acceptable in the absence of epistemic justification for belief, which in turn implies that understanding does not require justification in the traditional sense. The paper goes on to develop a new probabilistic model of acceptability, based on the idea that the maximally informative accounts of the understood phenomenon should be optimally probable. Interestingly, this probabilistic model ends up being similar in important ways to Elgin’s proposal to analyze the acceptability of such commitments in terms of ‘reflective equilibrium’.
Should Scientific Realists Embrace Theoretical Conservatism?
Abstract: A prominent type of scientific realism holds that some important parts of our best current scientific theories are at least approximately true. According to such realists, radically distinct alternatives to these theories or theory-parts are unlikely to be approximately true. Thus one might be tempted to argue, as the prominent anti-realist Kyle Stanford recently did, that realists of this kind have little or no reason to encourage scientists to attempt to identify and develop theoretical alternatives that are radically distinct from currently accepted theories in the relevant respects. In other words, it may seem that realists should recommend that scientists be relatively conservative in their theoretical endeavors. This paper aims to show that this argument is mistaken. While realists should indeed be less optimistic of finding radically distinct alternatives to replace current theories, realists also have greater reasons to value the outcomes of such searches. Interestingly, this holds both for successful and failed attempts to identify and develop such alternatives.
The Epistemic Value of Expert Autonomy
Abstract: According to an influential Enlightenment ideal, one shouldn't rely epistemically on other people's say-so, at least not if one is in a position to evaluate the relevant evidence for oneself. However, in much recent work in social epistemology, we are urged to dispense with this ideal, which is seen as stemming from a misguided focus on isolated individuals to the exclusion of groups and communities. In this paper, I argue that that an emphasis on the social nature of inquiry should not lead us to entirely abandon the Enlightenment ideal of epistemically autonomous agents. Specifically, I suggest that it is an appropriate ideal for those who serve as experts in a given epistemic community, and develop a notion of expert acceptance to make sense of this. I go on to show that, all other things being equal, this kind of epistemic autonomy among experts makes their joint testimony more reliable, which in turn brings epistemic benefits both to laypeople and to experts in other fields.
Divergent Perspectives on Expert Disagreement: Preliminary Evidence from Climate Science, Climate Policy, Astrophysics, and Public Opinion (with James Beebe, Maria Baghramian and Luke Drury)
Abstract: We report the results of an exploratory study that examines the judgments of climate scientists, climate policy experts, astrophysicists, and non-experts (N = 3367) about the factors that contribute to the creation and persistence of disagreement within climate science and astrophysics and about how one should respond to expert disagreement. We found that, as compared to non-experts, climate experts believe that within climate science (i) there is less disagreement about climate change, (ii) methodological factors play less of a role in generating disagreements, (iii) fewer personal or institutional biases influence climate research, and (iv) there is more agreement about which methods should be used to examine relevant phenomena we also observed that the uniquely American political context predicted experts’ judgments about some of these factors. We also found that, in regard to disagreements concerning cosmic ray physics, and commensurate with the greater inherent uncertainty and data lacunae in their field, astrophysicists working on cosmic rays were generally more willing to acknowledge expert disagreement, more open to the idea that a set of data can have multiple valid interpretations, and generally less quick to dismiss someone articulating a non-standard view as non-expert, than climate scientists were in regard to climate science.
Beyond Explanation: Understanding as Dependency Modeling
Abstract: This paper presents and argues for an account of objectual understanding that aims to do justice to the full range of cases of scientific understanding, including cases in which one does not have an explanation of the understood phenomenon. According to the proposed account, one understands a phenomenon just in case one grasps a sufficiently accurate and comprehensive model of the ways in which it or its features are situated within a network of dependence relations; one’s degree of understanding is proportional to the comprehensiveness and accuracy of such a model. I compare this account with accounts of scientific understanding that explicate understanding in terms of having an explanation of the understood phenomenon. I discuss three distinct types of cases in which scientific understanding does not amount to possessing an explanation of any kind, and argue that the proposed model-based account can accommodate these cases while still retaining a strong link between understanding and explanation.
Scientific Progress: Four Accounts
Abstract: Scientists are constantly making observations, carrying out experiments, and analyzing empirical data. Meanwhile, scientific theories are routinely being adopted, revised, discarded, and replaced. But when are such changes to the content of science improvements on what came before? This is the question of scientific progress. One answer is that progress occurs when scientific theories ‘get closer to the truth’, i.e. increase their degree of truthlikeness. A second answer is that progress consists in increasing theories’ effectiveness for solving scientific problems. A third answer is that progress occurs when the stock of scientific knowledge accumulates. A fourth and final answer is that scientific progress consists in increasing scientific understanding, i.e. the capacity to correctly explain and reliably predict relevant phenomena. This paper compares and contrasts these four accounts of scientific progress, considers some of the most prominent arguments for and against each account, and briefly explores connections to different forms of scientific realism.
Scientific Progress, Understanding, and Knowledge: Reply to Park
(This is a response to Sungbae Park's Does Scientific Progress Consist in Increasing Knowledge or Understanding?, which in turn is a response to my Scientific Progress: Understanding versus Knowledge.)
Abstract: Dellsén (2017) has recently argued for an understanding-based account of scientific progress, the noetic account, according to which science (or a particular scientific discipline) makes cognitive progress precisely when it increases our understanding of some aspect of the world. Dellsén contrasts this account with Bird’s (2007, 2015) epistemic account, according to which such progress is made precisely when our knowledge of the world is increased or accumulated. In a recent paper, Park (2017) criticizes various aspects of Dellsén’s account and his arguments in favor of the noetic account as against Bird’s epistemic account. This paper responds to Park’s objections. Since a number of Park’s arguments rely on the idea that scientific progress may merely consists in “achieving the means to increase knowledge” (Park 2017: 570), I will start by discussing this “means-end thesis”.
Promotion as Contrastive Increase in Expected Fit (with Nathaniel Sharadin)
Abstract: What is required for an action to promote the satisfaction of a desire? We reject extant answers and propose an an alternative. Our account differs from competing answers in two ways: first, it is contrastive , in that actions promote the satisfaction of desires only as contrasted with other possible actions. Second, it employs a notion of expected fit between desire and world, defined as the weighted sum of the fit between the desire and the world in all possible outcomes, where each weight is given by the probability of the agent’s obtaining the relevant outcome. According to our proposal, then, an action promotes a desire when the expected fit for the desire given that the agent performs the action is greater than the expected fit of the desire given that the agent performs the contrasting action. We highlight this account’s attractive features and explain how it improves on its competitors.
The Beliefs and Intentions of Buridan's Ass (with Nathaniel Sharadin)
Abstract: The moral of Buridan's Ass is that it can sometimes be rational to perform one action rather than another even though one lacks stronger reason to do so. Yet it is also commonly believed that it cannot ever be rational to believe one proposition rather than another if one lacks stronger reason to do so. This asymmetry has been taken to indicate a deep difference between epistemic and practical rationality. According to the view articulated here, the asymmetry should instead be explained by the difference between rational intentions and rational actions. Thus, it turns out, Buridan's Ass-style cases do not indicate an asymmetry between epistemic and practical rationality as such.
The Heuristic Conception of Inference to the Best Explanation
Abstract: An influential suggestion about the relationship between Bayesianism and Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) holds that IBE functions as a heuristic to approximate Bayesian reasoning. While this view promises to unify Bayesianism and IBE in a very attractive manner, important elements of the view have not yet been spelled out in detail. I present and argue for a heuristic conception of IBE on which IBE serves primarily to locate the most probable available explanatory hypothesis to serve as a working hypothesis in an agent's further investigations. Along the way, I criticize what I consider to be an overly ambitious conception of the heuristic role of IBE, according to which IBE serves as a guide to absolute probability values. My own conception, by contrast, requires only that IBE can function as a guide to the comparative probability values of available hypotheses. This is shown to be a much more realistic role for IBE given the nature and limitations of the explanatory considerations with which IBE operates.
Abductively Robust Inference
Abstract: Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) is widely criticized for being an unreliable form of ampliative inference – partly because the explanatory hypotheses we have considered at a given time may all be false, and partly because there is an asymmetry between the comparative judgment on which an IBE is based and the absolute verdict that IBE is meant to license. In this paper, I present a further reason to doubt the epistemic merits of IBE and argue that it motivates moving to an inferential pattern in which IBE emerges as a degenerate limiting case. Since this inferential pattern is structurally similar to an argumentative strategy known as Inferential Robustness Analysis (IRA), it effectively combines the most attractive features of IBE and IRA into a unified approach to non-deductive inference.
When Expert Disagreement Supports the Consensus
Abstract: It is often suggested that disagreement among scientific experts is a reason not to trust those experts, even about matters on which they are in agreement. In direct opposition to this view, I argue here that the very fact that there is disagreement among experts on a given issue provides a positive reason for non-experts to trust that the experts really are justified in their attitudes towards consensus theories. I show how this line of thought can be spelled out in three distinct frameworks for non-deductive reasoning, viz. Bayesian Confirmation Theory, Inference to the Best Explanation, and Inferential Robustness Analysis.
Deductive Cogency, Understanding, and Acceptance
Abstract: Deductive Cogency holds that the set of propositions towards which one has, or is prepared to have, a given type of propositional attitude should be consistent and closed under logical consequence. While there are many propositional attitudes that are not subject to this requirement, e.g. hoping and imagining, it is at least prima facie plausible that Deductive Cogency applies to the doxastic attitude involved in propositional knowledge, viz. (outright) belief. However, this thought is undermined by the well-known preface paradox, leading a number of philosophers to conclude that Deductive Cogency has at best a very limited role to play in our epistemic lives. I argue here that Deductive Cogency is still an important epistemic requirement, albeit not as a requirement on belief. Instead, building on a distinction between belief and acceptance introduced by Jonathan Cohen and recent developments in the epistemology of understanding, I propose that Deductive Cogency applies to the attitude of treating propositions as given in the context of attempting to understand a given phenomenon. I then argue that this simultaneously accounts for the plausibility of the considerations in favor of Deductive Cogency and avoids the problematic consequences of the preface paradox.
Reactionary Responses to the Bad Lot Objection
Abstract: As it is standardly conceived, Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) is a form of ampliative inference in which one infers a hypothesis because it provides a better potential explanation of one’s evidence than any other available, competing explanatory hypothesis. Bas van Fraassen famously objected to IBE thus formulated that we may have no reason to think that any of the available, competing explanatory hypotheses are true. While revisionary responses to the Bad Lot Objection concede that IBE needs to be reformulated in light of this problem, reactionary responses argue that the Bad Lot Objection is fallacious, incoherent, or misguided. This paper shows that the most influential reactionary responses to the Bad Lot Objection do nothing to undermine the original objection. This strongly suggests that proponents of IBE should focus their efforts on revisionary responses, i.e. on finding a more sophisticated characterization of IBE for which the Bad Lot Objection loses its bite.
Realism and the Absence of Rivals
Abstract: Among the most serious challenges to scientific realism are arguments for the underdetermination of theory by evidence. This paper defends a version of scientific realism against what is perhaps the most influential recent argument of this sort, viz. Kyle Stanford’s New Induction over the History of Science. An essential part of the defense consists in a probabilistic analysis of the slogan “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. On this basis it is argued that the likelihood of a theory being underdetermined depends crucially on social and historical factors, such as the structure of scientific communities and the time that has passed since the theory first became accepted. This is then shown to serve as the epistemological foundation for a version of scientific realism which avoids Stanford’s New Induction in a principled and non-question-begging way.
Understanding without Justification or Belief
Abstract: In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest among epis- temologists in the nature of understanding, with some authors arguing that understanding should replace knowledge as the pri- mary focus of epistemology. But what is understanding? According to what is often called the standard view, understanding is a species of knowledge. Although this view has recently been challenged in various ways, even the critics of the standard view have assumed that understanding requires justification and belief. I argue that it requires neither. If sound, these arguments have important upshots not only for the nature of understanding, but also for its distinctive epistemic value and its role in contemporary epistemology.
Abstract: According to Bas van Fraassen, scientific realists and anti-realists disagree about whether accepting a scientific theory involves believing that the theory is true. On van Fraassen’s own anti-realist empiricist position, accepting a theory involves believing only that the theory is correct in its claims about observable aspects of the world. However, a number of philosophers have argued that acceptance and belief cannot be distinguished and thus that the debate is either confused or trivially settled in favor of the realist. In addition, another set of philosophers have argued that van Fraassen’s empiricist position appeals to an unmotivated distinction between observable and unobservable aspects of the world. This paper aims to reconstruct a van Fraassen-style empiricism about scientific acceptance that avoids these two objections – reconstructed empiricism.
Certainty and Explanation in Descartes' Philosophy of Science
Abstract: This paper presents a new approach to resolving an apparent tension in Descartes’ discussion of scientific theories and explanations in the Principles of Philosophy. On the one hand, Descartes repeatedly claims that any theories presented in science must be certain and indubitable. On the other hand, Descartes himself presents an astonishing number of speculative explanations of various scientific phenomena. In response to this tension, commentators have suggested that Descartes changed his mind about scientific theories having to be certain and indubitable, that he lacked the conceptual resources to describe the appropriate epistemic attitude towards speculative theories, or that the presence of geometrical principles in these explanations guarantee their certainty. I argue that none of these responses is satisfactory and suggest a different resolution to the tension by examining Descartes’ notion of explanation. On Descartes’ view, providing an adequate explanation does not require being certain of the theories that constitute the explanans. Relatedly, the purpose of Cartesian explanations is not to discover the truth about the various underlying mechanisms that such explanations appeal to, but to support his general philosophical thesis that all natural phenomena can be explained by appealing to the extension of matter.
Scientific Progress: Knowledge versus Understanding
Abstract: What is scientific progress? On Alexander Bird’s epistemic account of scientific progress, an episode in science is progressive precisely when there is more scientific knowledge at the end of the episode than at the beginning. Using Bird’s epistemic account as a foil, this paper develops an alternative understanding- based account on which an episode in science is progressive precisely when scientists grasp how to correctly explain or predict more aspects of the world at the end of the episode than at the beginning. This account is shown to be superior to the epistemic account by examining cases in which knowledge and understanding come apart. In these cases, it is argued that scientific progress matches increases in scientific understanding rather than accumulations of knowledge. In addition, considerations having to do with minimalist idealizations, pragmatic virtues, and epistemic value all favor this understanding- based account over its epistemic counterpart.
There May Yet Be Non-Causal Explanations (of Particular Events)
Abstract: There are many putative counterexamples to the view that all scientific expla- nations are causal explanations. Using a new theory of what it is to be a causal explanation, Bradford Skow has recently argued that several of the putative counterexamples fail to be non-causal. This paper defends some of the counterexamples by showing how Skow’s argument relies on an overly permissive theory of causal explanations.
Explanatory Rivals and the Ultimate Argument
Abstract: Although many aspects of Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) have been extensively discussed, very little has so far been said about what it takes for a hypothesis to count as a rival explanatory hypothesis in the context of IBE. The primary aim of this article is to rectify this situation by arguing for a specific account of explanatory rivalry. On this account, explanatory rivals are (roughly speaking) complete explanations of a given explanandum. When explanatory rivals are conceived of in this way, I argue that IBE is a more plausible and defensible rule of inference than it would otherwise be. The secondary aim of the article is to demonstrate the importance of accounts of explanatory rivalry by examining a prominent philosophical argument in which IBE is employed, viz. the so-called Ultimate Argument for scientific realism. In short, I argue that a well-known objection to the Ultimate Argument due to Arthur Fine fails in virtue of tacitly assuming an account of explanatory rivalry that we have independent reasons to reject.
Peer-Reviewed Articles in Icelandic
The following is a list of (peer-reviewed) research articles published in Icelandic journals. I have included English abstract where available; otherwise I have included a short summary in English.
Frá skoðunum til trúnaðar og aftur til baka: Yfirlit um bayesíska þekkingarfræði
English title: "From Belief to Credence and Back Again: An Overview of Bayesian Epistemology"
In Hugur. Penultimate draft.
English abstract: This paper discusses the delicate relationship between traditional epistemology and the increasingly influential probabilistic (or ‘Bayesian’) approach to epistemology. The paper introduces some of the key ideas of probabilistic epistemology, including credences or degrees of belief, Bayes’ theorem, conditionalization, and the Dutch Book argument. The tension between traditional and probabilistic epistemology is brought out by considering the lottery and preface paradoxes as they relate to rational (binary) belief and credence respectively. It is then argued that this tension can be alleviated by rejecting the requirement that rational (binary) beliefs must be consistent and closed under logical entailment. Instead, it is suggested that this logical requirement applies to a different type of binary propositional attitude, viz. acceptance.
Hlutdrægni í vísindum: Vanákvörðun, tilleiðsluáhætta og tilurð kenninga
English title: "Biased Science: Underdetermination, Inductive Risk, and Discovery"
In Ritið. Icelandic text.
English abstract: Feminist philosophers of science have argued that various biases can and do influence the results of scientific investigations. Two kinds of arguments have been most influential: On the one hand, it has been argued that biased assumptions frequently bridge the gap between observation and theory associated with ‘the underdetermination thesis’. On the other hand, it has been argued that biased value judgments determine when the evidence in favor of a particular theory is considered sufficiently strong for the theory to be accepted as true. This paper argues that bias can influence the results of scientific investigations via a third route. Briefly, biases can and do influence which theories are seriously proposed and considered in scientific communities, which in turn leads to otherwise promising theories being ignored when scientists are choosing between such theories. In the final section, I suggest that this result speaks in favor of taking a quite radical approach to eliminating unwanted biases in science.
Gagnrýnin og vísindaleg hugsun
English title: "Scientific versus Critical Thinking"
In Skírnir. Icelandic text.
English summary: This paper engages with a tradition in Icelandic philosophy of theorizing about critical thinking. The central thesis of the paper is that critical thinking should not be identified with scientific thinking, since scientific research is often (and inevitably so) based on a kind of epistemic trust in other scientists' testimony that is incompatible with critical thinking. The paper also criticizes the idea that critical thinking should be associated with any of Charles Peirce's four ways of forming beliefs in "The Fixation of Belief".
Tvö viðhorf til vísindalegrar þekkingar – eða eitt?
English title: “Reconciling two Approaches to the Epistemology of Science”
In Ritið. Icelandic text.
English abstract: There are two main approaches to the epistemology of science. On the one hand, some hold that a scientific hypothesis is confirmed to the extent that the hypothesis explains the evidence better than alternative hypotheses concerning the same subject-matter. This idea is often referred to as Inference to the Best Explanation. On the other hand, some hold that a scientific hypothesis is confirmed to the extent that the hypothesis is probable given the evidence. This idea is often associated with Bayesianism or Bayesian epistemology. Opinions differ on whether and how these two approaches may be reconciled. This paper criticizes some recent attempts to make peace between Bayesianism and Inference to the Best Explanation and sketches a new account of how the two approaches may be reconciled.
Review of Best Explanations: New Essays on Inference to the Best Explanation, ed. by Kevin McCain and Ted Poston
In Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Link to review.
Understanding in Epistemology and Philosophy of Science: A Complicated Relationship (Review of Explaining Understanding, ed. by Christoph Baumberger, Stephen Grimm and Sabine Ammon)
A Classic of Bayesian Confirmation Theory (Review of Probability and Evidence).
Review of Reason and Explanation: A Defense of Explanatory Coherentism, by Ted Poston
Review of The Epistemic Significance of Disagreement, by Jonathan Matheson
Frelsi, hamingja, femínismi (Review of Hugsað með Mill)