Attributions of Purpose and the Philosophy of Religion
Joshua Knobe (Yale University)
Mike Rea (Notre Dame)
Jonathan Schaffer (Rutgers)
David Rose (Stanford)
Tobias Gerstenberg (Stanford)
Total Award Amount: $249,999
Start Date: July 1, 2022
End Date: June 30, 2024
Judgments about purposes play a central and ubiquitous role in the philosophy of religion. Philosophers of religion have been concerned with questions about whether human life has a purpose and whether the universe itself has a purpose. They have also been concerned, albeit somewhat indirectly, with questions about the larger, divine purposes that might be served by individual events in people's lives.
But interest in these issues is not confined just to philosophers. Quite apart from anything in the world of philosophy, these issues play a central role in the lives of religious believers. Many religious people have a strong sense that their lives have a deeper purpose (e.g., to serve God) or that events within our lives have some larger purpose (e.g., that the purpose of the suffering we endure is to teach us an important lesson).
In this project, we bring together ideas from the philosophy of religion and experimental philosophy to examine questions about religiously significant purposes. At an empirical level, we will be exploring people's ordinary intuitions about religiously significant purposes. And at a more philosophical level, we will be drawing on the empirical results to address core questions in the philosophy of religion. A natural way into this problem is to begin thinking at a more general level about how people attribute purposes. Consider the ways in which people attribute purposes in non-religious contexts. You might think that each room in your office building has a specific purpose (this one is for teaching classes, that one for the administrative staff). Or you might find yourself thinking about the "true purpose of philosophy," and you might think that certain things philosophers have done go against that purpose.
Reasoning about things from this perspective, one might at first think that we don't even need to focus in any serious way on questions about religiously significant purposes in particular. Instead, one may think that we could start by developing a general theory of purpose attribution and then simply apply that general theory to the specific case of religiously significant purposes.
We reject this approach. At the core of our project is the idea that different purpose attributions might be genuinely different. W hat people are doing when they think about the purpose of the universe, or about the purpose of their lives,might be deeply different from what they are doing when they think about the purpose of an ordinary physical object like a room in an office building.
Our aim in this project is therefore to take up the topic of religiously significant purpose attributions as a problem in its own right. We will be exploring the factors that influence such attributions and the ways in which they might be similar to, or different from, purpose attributions that appear outside of religiously significant contexts. We will then be drawing on the empirical facts we uncover in this investigation to explore their implications for the difficult conceptual and epistemic questions surrounding religiously significant purpose attributions.
Joshua Knobe is an experimental philosopher, whose work ranges across issues in philosophy of mind and action and ethics. He is a Professor in the Program in Cognitive Science and Department of Philosophy at Yale University. He was previously Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Knobe received his BA at Stanford University in 1996 and his Ph.D. from Princeton in 2006, where he studied under Gilbert Harman, among others. His work has been discussed in various media, including The New York Times and Slate. He is arguably most widely known for what has come to be called "the Knobe effect" or the "Side-Effect Effect." Most of his work involves using the kinds of experimental methods associated with cognitive science to address the kinds of questions associated with philosophy. Much of his recent research has been concerned with the impact of people's moral judgments on their intuitions about questions that might initially appear to be entirely independent of morality (questions about intention, causation, etc.).
Michael Rea is Rev. John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy, Concurrent Faculty in the Gender Studies Program, and Director of the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame, where he has taught since 2001. His research focuses primarily on topics in philosophy of religion, analytic theology, metaphysics, and feminist philosophy. He has written or edited more than fifteen books and over fifty articles, and has given numerous lectures in the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Russia, China, and Iran, including the 2017 Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews.
Jonathan Schaffer is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He previously held positions at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the Australian National University, and the University of Houston. In 2014 he was awarded the Lebowitz Prize for excellence in philosophical thought by Phi Beta Kappa in conjunction with the American Philosophical Association and from 2016-19 he had a Humboldt Prize. He specializes in metaphysics and also works on epistemology, language, and the philosophy of science.
David Rose is currently a graduate student in the department of psychology at Stanford University. Before coming to Stanford, David earned a PhD in philosophy from Rutgers University. His current work is largely focused on the role of teleological thinking in various aspects of categorization. Some of his previous work on this topic focused on the role of teleological thinking in material object composition and persistence. At present, he is mainly focused on developing and defending the view that we essentialize categories in terms of teleology. In addition to investigating teleological essentialism in adults, his research also focuses on documenting and tracing its emergence in children’s essentialist thinking.
Tobias Gerstenberg is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. He leads the Causality in Cognition Lab (CiCL, http://cicl.stanford.edu). The CiCL studies the role of causality in people's understanding of the world, and of each other. Professor Gerstenberg's research is highly interdisciplinary. It combines ideas from philosophy, linguistics, computer science, and the legal sciences to better understand higher-level cognitive phenomena such as causal inference and moral judgment. The CiCL's research uses a variety of methods that include computational modeling, online experiments, eye-tracking experiments, as well as developmental studies with children. Professor Gerstenberg's work has appeared in top journals including Psychological Review, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Psychological Science, Cognitive Psychology, Cognition, and Cognitive Science.