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Oxford Cognitive Science Project

Note: although this project was completed in 2010/2011, I leave it up for historical purposes.

The General Mission Behind the Project:

The project is hosted at the Centre for Anthropology and Mind (CAM), within the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, at the University of Oxford. CAM's general mission is to generate 

'ground-breaking scholarship in the cognitive scientific study of culture. Certain aspects of human culture and behaviour appear to be universal, whereas other features vary significantly from one population to the next. Research at CAM is directed to explaining cultural regularity and variation.’  

The Project:

The Cognition, Religion and Theology (CRT) project is a three-year (4 million) project that brings together experimental psychologists, anthropologists and philosophers to better understand how the mind informs and constrains religious ideas, in addition to discovering connections between morality, religion and pro-social behavior. A further goal is to understand what implications the findings have for human beings, which is where I come into the picture. The former empirical approach can be seen as furthering Hume's project in the natural history of religion, by answering questions such as: why are so many people mind-body dualists or consumers of testimony about supernatural agents? The latter approach, by contrast, can be seen as advancing Hume's critical project in the dialogues on religion -- in this case by looking not at the structure of design arguments, but at the doxastic implications for what we know about how the religious mind works and why people believe what they do. 


The project has received international press, including ABC, Reuters, and the London Times. 

My Project:

Although some philosophers doubt that cognitive science has any normative significance for the rationality of our beliefs, my project explores some potential challenges to this claim in two papers. The first paper formulates something I call the problem of natural nonbelief (which is analogous to the problem of natural evil except that it concerns nonbelief, as opposed to evil, and finds its support in cognitive and evolutionary science, as opposed to animal suffering). This paper has come out in the Monist.  The second paper has implications for recent work by J.L. Schellenberg and John Hick. I argue that a highly abstract religious view that these thinkers label 'ultimism'  faces some overlooked cognitive and philosophical challenges. This paper, called 'Assessing the Third Way,' has been published as a chapter for a book, edited by Justin Barrett and Roger Trigg, in the Ashgate Science and Religion Series. The book cover is here.


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