Are there ever good epistemic reasons to neglect base rates? Assuming an empiricist modal epistemology, I argue that we face an interesting tension between some very plausible epistemic norms: a norm requiring us to proportion our beliefs to the evidence may facilitate knowledge of the actual world, whilst inhibiting our acquisition of modal knowledge—knowledge of how things could be, but are not. The potential for this tension in our epistemic norms is a significant result in its own right. It can also rationalize certain forms of demographic base-rate neglect.
We commonly evaluate search engines and the results they return, but what grounds those evaluations? One straightforward way of evaluating search engines appeals to their ability to satisfy the goals of the user. Are there, in addition, user-independent norms, that allow us to evaluate search engines in ways that may come apart from their ability to satisfy the individuals who use them? One way of grounding such norms appeals to moral or political considerations. I argue that in addition to those norms, there are also distinct user-independent epistemic norms that apply to search engines. Evaluating search engines relative to them, however, requires us to appreciate the impact search engines have on our practices and norms of inquiry more broadly: by systematically altering the accessibility of information, search engines don’t just give us information but shape our collective imagination, and the categories it operates over.
How to see invisible objects Noûs. 2022; 56: 343– 365
Abstract: It is an apparent truism about visual perception that we can see only what is visible to us. It is also frequently accepted that visual perception is dynamic: our visual experiences are extended through, and can evolve over time. I argue that taking the dynamism of visual experience seriously renders certain simplistic interpretations of the first claim, that a subject at a given time can see only what is visible to her at that time, false: we can be meaningfully said to see invisible objects. This counterintuitive result in turn focuses our attention on the relationship between perception and memory. I show that it is difficult to draw a clear or simple distinction between the two. Memory and perception rely on, and blend with, one another. Together, these claims point us away from understanding visual perception as a simple reflection of the environment, and instead as closer to a process of dynamic modelling that draws together occurrent stimulation and stored information.
Prejudice as the misattribution of salience. Analytic Philosophy. 2021. 00, 1– 19.
Winner of the Sanders Prize for Philosophy of Mind 2020
Abstract: What does it take to be prejudiced against a particular group? Is prejudice always epistemically problematic, or are there epistemically innocent forms of prejudice? In this paper, I argue that certain important forms of prejudice can be wholly constituted by the differential accessibility of certain pieces of information. These accessibility relations constitute a salience structure. A subject is prejudiced against a particular group when their salience structure is unduly organised around that category. This is significant because it reveals that prejudice does not require the presence of any explicit cognitive or emotive attitude, nor need it manifest in behaviour: it can be solely constituted by the organisation of information, where that information may be accurate and well-founded. Nonetheless, by giving an account of ‘undue organisation’ in epistemic terms, I show that this account is compatible with an understanding of prejudice as a negatively-valenced epistemic category.
Abstract: What, if anything, is epistemically wrong with beliefs involving accurate statistical generalizations about demographic groups? This paper argues that there is a perfectly general, underappreciated epistemic flaw which affects both ethically charged and uncharged statistical generalizations. Though common to both, this flaw can also explain why demographic statistical generalizations give rise to the concerns they do. To identify this flaw, we need to distinguish between the accuracy and the projectability of statistical beliefs. Statistical beliefs are accompanied by an implicit representation of the statistic's modal profile. Their modal profile determines the circumstances in which they can legitimately be projected to unobserved instances. Errors in that implicit content can be compatible with the accuracy of the “bare” statistic, whilst systematically leading to downstream errors in reasoning, in a manner which reveals an epistemic flaw with an important aspect of the belief state itself.
Abstract: I identify three aspects to the puzzle of the speckled hen: a general puzzle, an epistemic puzzle, and a puzzle for the representationalist. These puzzles rely on an underlying ‘pictorialist’ assumption, that we visually perceive general, determinable properties only in virtue of determinate properties or more specific, local features of our visual experience. This assumption is mistaken: visual perception starts from a position of uncertainty, and is routinely able to acquire information about general properties in the absence of more specific information. Acknowledging that visual indeterminacy is structured this way resolves all three puzzles of the speckled hen.
Abstract: Visual perception relies on stored information and environmental associations to arrive at a determinate representation of the world. This opens up the disturbing possibility that our visual experiences could themselves be subject to a kind of racial bias, simply in virtue of accurately encoding previously encountered environmental regularities. This possibility raises the following question: what, if anything, is wrong with beliefs grounded upon these prejudicial experiences? They are consistent with a range of epistemic norms, including evidentialist and reliabilist standards for justification. I argue that we will struggle to locate a flaw with these sorts of perceptual beliefs so long as we focus our analysis at the level of the individual and her response to information. We should instead broaden our analysis to include the social structure within which the individual is located. Doing so lets us identify a problem with the way in which unjust social structures in particular “gerrymander” the regularities an individual is exposed to, and by extension the priors their visual system draws on. I argue that in this way, social structures can cap perceptual skill.
Bias in a biased system: Visual perceptual prejudice. In N. Ballentyne and D. Dunning (eds.) Bias, Reason and Enquiry: New Perspectives from the Crossroads of Epistemology and Psychology. 2022. Oxford University Press. 177-201
Abstract: The visual system responds to both an excess of available information and an underdetermination problem by relying on priors that facilitate its successful navigation of an environment on the basis of past encounters. These priors can concern demographic features, such as race or gender, in a manner that resembles prejudicial bias. This focuses our attention on the following problem: how can we identify prejudicial bias within a system that relies on a kind of structural bias to accomplish its goals? Taking two bodies of recent empirical work as case studies, including work on the same-race face effect, I explore and reject three possible criteria for demarcating problematic instances of bias. I identify a principled reason why standard epistemic criteria cannot accomplish the task. I instead propose an adoption of a skill-based model of visual perception that allows for multi-dimensional evaluation relative to a set of potentially competing goals.
Abstract: Philosophers have tended to formulate theories of perceptual justification independently of psychological investigation into perceptual functioning. Nevertheless, work in perceptual epistemology often conceals an implicit commitment to a normative view of what kinds of processing maximise the epistemic power of a perceptual experience, that is, its capacity to justify belief. This implicit commitment is to a set of “minimalist” norms, which treat sensory stimulation as the ultimate locus of epistemic power, and consequently set value on the purity of sensory signal and passivity of perceptual processing. These norms fit poorly with our best scientific models of perception, which draw out the ways in which it can be understood as akin to a hypothesis. Focusing on visual perception in particular, I argue that appreciating how it plays the role of a hypothesis within the visual system, whilst also constituting a form of evidence at the person level, gives us reason to reject these minimalist norms for perceptual processing.
Abstract: What kind of content must visual states have if they are to offer direct (non-inferential) justification for our external world beliefs? How must they present that content if the degree of justification they provide is to reflect the nuance of our changing visual experiences? This paper offers an argument for the view that visual states comprise not only a content, but a confidence relation to that content. This confidence relation lets us explain how visual states can offer non-inferential perceptual justification of differing degrees for external world beliefs. These confidence relations let visual states justify beliefs in a way that is sensitive to subtle differences in the character of our visual experiences, whilst still allowing that visual states give us direct access to the external world in virtue of their content.
Abstract: Discussion of Frege’s theory of fiction has tended to focus on the problem of empty names, and has consequently missed the truly problematic aspect of the theory, Frege’s commitment to the view that even fictional sentences that contain no empty names fail to refer. That claim prima facie conflicts with his commitment to the cognitive transparency of sense, and the determination of reference by sense. Resolving this tension compels us to recognize that fiction for Frege is a special kind of force, and that words express a sense capable of picking out a referent only in the presence of the appropriate assertoric force. In effect, Frege’s theory of fiction reveals his commitment to an act-centered rather than an expression-centered semantics.