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At the Depths of Believing

We have the beliefs, concepts and concepts we do because of contingencies of history, culture and biology. If I had been born to a different family I might have ended up a religious believer rather than an atheist. If you had been born in a different culture you might have used concepts like honour and shame rather than concepts like rights or freedom. And if the human species had had a different evolutionary history we might have found it natural, like cuckoos or turtles, to abandon our offspring at birth. What are we to make of this? What justification do any of my beliefs, concepts or values have if I have them only because of some blind spin of the world’s roulette wheel?

These questions give voice to what I call ‘genealogical anxiety’, the worry that uncovering the naturalistic origins of our worldviews will reveal them to be bankrupt. Analytic philosophy has recently been overtaken by genealogical anxiety, with lively debates about whether findings in evolutionary psychology, social psychology and neuroscience debunk religion, morality or indeed philosophy itself. This trend toward genealogical anxiety is mirrored in the broader culture, where it is common to hear that many things we hold dear – love, meaning, reason, the self – must give way under the scientific gaze. Underlying these various debates is a single philosophical question: when, if ever, does a genealogical revelation undermine what it explains – and why? At the Depths of Believing is a project that aims to offer a synthetic account of genealogical anxiety in both its historical and philosophical dimensions.

Dr Amia Srinivasan's project is funded by a Leverhulme Trust fellowship.