Monday, September 4, 2017

Why we believe

Most of us are happy to stipulate that it is best to believe only what is true. Yes, there are weird cases in which believing fantasies and falsehoods may make you happier or keep you out of trouble. But, clearly, any creature that lacks a systematic tendency to represent its umwelt accurately is not long for its world.

This is a defensible view as long as we confine the use of the term "belief" to mental representations that yield relatively precise and falsifiable predictions. My belief that there are pickles in the pantry predicts that I will find them there if I look. If I come up pickleless, yet maintain my previous degree of confidence in their existence, there is something wrong with me.

Some philosophers do use the term in this way. Quassim Cassam, e.g., characterizes belief as a mental state that is "regulated for truth in a way that other modes of acceptance are not." This is fine, too, but it is a technical usage and one that is apt to cause confusion.

For example, it weirdly implies that most people do not believe that God is good. They may sincerely avow it, but they can not believe it because they accept it on faith, and faith is not regulated for truth. This is odd, because if you ask even a pickle-laden lay person for a typical belief, she is far more likely to say that God is good than that she has pickles in her pantry.

The critical point here is that if we think it is just obviously best to believe only what is true, this may be because we are simply defining belief in that way. If there are modes of acceptance- by which I mean modes of accepting a proposition as true- other than belief, it remains an open question whether this is true of them as well.

A different way to think about the nature of belief is to ask what they make us do. Intellectualists about belief claim that we believe P only if we reflectively and sincerely endorse the truth of P. Behaviorists claim that we believe P only if we generally behave as if P were true. Their sticking point is that we often sincerely claim to believe things when our behavior suggests otherwise. Intellectualists say we do believe in such cases, behaviorists say we don't.

Eric Schwitzgebel, a behaviorist, says that the reason my belief that there are pickles in the pantry reliably causes me to behave as if this were so is that it is "normatively neutral" and "straightforwardly connected to observable behavior." On the other hand, the reason a man may sincerely claim to love his children, despite failing to provide for them, is that whether he loves his children is not normatively neutral, and behavioral departures are more easily justified.

Neither intellectualism nor behaviorism support the idea that beliefs are inherently regulated for truth. But behaviorism is the more comprehensive framework for appreciating what Cassam’s proposal may cause us to miss. For there are often good reasons why we persist in behaving as if P were true despite strong evidence of its falsehood.

To see this clearly, let’s stipulate, contra Cassam, that we believe any claim we sincerely accept as true. I suggest that the less normatively neutral a belief, the less truth-regulated it is likely to be. Forget about explicitly normative claims, since many doubt these have truth values at all. As Schwitzgebel uses this term, even patently empirical claims like:
  • Children of traditional marriages suffer the fewest mental health problems. 
  • Abstinence counseling is an ineffective means of preventing teen pregnancy. 
  • Climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government. 
  • Intellectual differences between the sexes are partly due to genetic differences. 
are normatively loaded. This is because those who claim to (dis)believe them are sure to suffer the (dis)approbation of others as a result. And the reason for this is that beliefs like these reliably indicate whose side we are on; i.e., our religious, political and cultural affiliations.

Of course, informed, free thinking people can evaluate such claims on the evidence alone. But most people who think of themselves in this way are deluded. Our views on a range of disparate issues can usually be predicted from our affiliations. This is nowhere truer than in the academy itself, where viewpoint diversity has been declining for decades.

Clearly, one important reason that normatively loaded beliefs are not regulated for truth is the high cost of changing them. For the individual, the expected value of truth may be minute compared to that of remaining a member in good standing. This is true even of the scientific community, our most highly truth-regulated social institution. There, young graduate students are indoctrinated into the models and methods of their mentors, and their interests and theoretical commitments typically develop along similar lines. Scientists who change their views before a sea change of opinion requires it suffer all the costs of disloyalty that we lay folk experience in the real world.

Beyond social allegiances, our beliefs are also constitutive of our personal identities. We cling to them the way we cling to quite arbitrary preferences, because a relatively stable set of each is what helps us to maintain the feeling that we are not social suck-ups but unique individuals leading independently meaningful lives. To the extent that we identify strongly with a belief, it may be folly to give it up for one that is merely true.

These claims are easy things to believe about other people, but difficult to accept about ourselves. It is humiliating to think that I have been given the gift of Reason, and yet for the beliefs that I care most about, I use it, not to discover what is true, but what it comforts me to believe. Of course, if what I am saying is true in general, then it is a very good reason for believing it is not true of me at all.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. "Clearly, one important reason that normatively loaded beliefs are not regulated for truth is the high cost of changing them."

    I'm not sure I believe this, but I'm trying it on: The kind of truth regulation you seem to be talking about is that of making “relatively precise and falsifiable predictions” and checking up on them, which determines whether or not to give up the proposition. But that seems really strict and really hard to do with most of the examples you use. So, what we see are other ways to regulate for truth that are more lax, but still kind of probative. Certain claims get loaded with normativity to increase the costs of deviation, but this sort of regulation is still a decent proxy for truth regulation (or, at least, better than nothing).

    1. Kyle, thanks, I think you make a good point regarding the examples I use. I'm inclined to think what I say holds for other normatively loaded claims that are closer to the sensory periphery, though, don't you? The evidence may be very clear, e.g., that my child is a bully, my priest is a pedophile, my president is incompetent, or that my taste for golf and scotch is making it difficult to pay my electric bills. And yet I resist these conclusions because of the high social and personal costs of changing my mind and corresponding behaviors. Of course, the 'because' here is causal. It doesn't, and really couldn't, enter into a coherent rationale.

      For the most part the phenomenon is just good old-fashioned motivated reasoning/ rationalization. All I'm saying is that this is typically more rational than we philosopher types are inclined to allow.

  2. Schwitzgebel seems to be on to something here, but there may not be as close a correlation between the degree to which a belief is normatively neutral or charged and the degree to which a belief is regulated for truth. I wouldn’t say that normatively loaded beliefs are not regulated for truth. There may be other alternative explanations for this.

    There may be at least a few possible ways to characterize the relationship between a belief’s normativity and a belief’s being regulated for truth.

    (1) A direct correlation between truth regulation and normativity: as the degree of normativity increases the degree of truth regulation decreases.

    (2) A possible correlation between truth regulation and normativity: one possible reason for a decline in truth regulation is that a belief is normatively charged.

    (3) No correlation between truth regulation and normativity.

    The statement that normatively loaded beliefs are not regulated for truth seems consistent with (1). If a belief is fully charged, normatively speaking (i.e., normatively loaded), then the degree of truth regulation would be zero.

    I think (2) (or even (3)) is more plausible (Schwitzgebel seems right to be pointing to one possible reason for why people claim to believe things that are inconsistent with the facts (and inconsistent with their behavior)).

    A belief’s being normatively charged may make it harder to disclaim (requiring a bit more justification to deny), but still can be part of a weighing or deliberative process in which truth matters. A belief may be normatively charged for many reasons: (i) it is part of one’s religious or cultural beliefs, (ii) it is part of one’s personal convictions, (iii) it is the content of a promise, (iv) the acceptance or denial of which may be accompanied by praise or blame, etc. Let’s say that the considerations for a belief B that abstinence counseling is ineffective in reducing teen pregnancy includes strong support by empirical evidence and strong disapproval by (i) and (iii), a promise to one’s parents about the importance of abstinence (although, a different belief—see below). These considerations may be weighed to arrive at a conclusion that B is nonetheless true: abstinence counseling is ineffective.

    The strong claim (1) seems to require that normative considerations operate not as a possible reason for acceptance or denial to be included in one’s deliberation, but as an overriding reason (i.e., Raz’s “exclusionary reason”) that removes the claim from deliberation altogether. Maybe this is true for some people who are not accustomed to thinking for themselves, but I doubt this would include most people who engage in some deliberation. I think (2) above is consistent with deliberation in which the normative reasons are assigned greater weight than other standard reasons (including empirical evidence).

    1. Chong, thanks, I think this is all correct. (1) is indefensible. I think what is true is that the more normatively loaded a claim is for me, the less truth-regulated it will be for me. At some level we all know that the fact that whether P is true matters to us, means that we are less likely to be able to evaluate the relevant evidence objectively. But (some) people who understand this about themselves also have the ability to seek the guidance of disinterested parties and to accept their conclusions. And this ability certainly counts toward a person's overall tendency toward truth-regulation. This kind of behavior is quite unusual, though. I think this is an area where it is useful to be able to say something like "I know she's right, but I just don't believe it." This is incoherent in analytic philosophy, but it describes a common experience perfectly.

  3. I would also point out that formulating beliefs, especially normative charged ones, is tricky. What some religious people tend to believe about abstinence, for example, is not that abstinence is effective in preventing teen pregnancies but that sex is morally acceptable only within the confines of marriage (one does not require a particular commitment about the other). The reformulated belief—sex is morally acceptable only within the confines of marriage—is indeed normatively loaded, but not regulated for truth? We may assume that it too is false by connecting it somehow to the patently false belief, but the two are unrelated. We can also argue whether such beliefs have truth values at all (I think they have truth values and are regulated for truth; moral claims are usually defended not by empirical evidence, but normative arguments from within a particular normative framework).

    Also, some beliefs that are assumed to be normatively charged, may not be or may not be entirely. For example, rather than “climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government,” we can formulate the belief differently:

    (a) The world is experiencing climate change.

    (b) Long-term climate conditions are the result of anthropogenic causes (causation).

    (c) A reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases would be effective in mediating the effects of climate change (mediation).

    (d) The governments should reduce carbon dioxide emissions despite significant short-term economic costs and a lack of participation by other governments (moral-political).

    Fiscal conservatives (not me) have strong doubts about (b), (c), and especially (d), but not because climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government or some other religious reason. They may have considered the IPCC reports and found them inconclusive with regard to (d). The rejection of (d) may be based on giving greater weight (because of its greater likelihood) to the evidence of the short-term costs on the economy and the unequal participation by other major polluters--i.e., through a process of deliberation (and truth regulation).

    If we formulate other people’s beliefs charitably, we may find that, even if they are normatively charged, they also are (or can be) regulated for truth.

    1. I think I agree with this, too. As I mentioned, I didn't really want to talk about truth-regulation in the context of explicitly normative claims, as that is too messy. But you're completely right that we often (perhaps typically) attribute beliefs to people that they do not actually hold. Part of the reason we do so is our own lack of truth-regulation.

      Still, I know plenty of laypeople who allow the possibility of (a) and strongly reject (b). But they do so despite knowing that about 97% of experts accept (b). Of course 97% of climate experts can be wrong, but any lay person who has high confidence that they are wrong is not truth-regulated in regard to this question. They simply aren't free to develop a reasoned opinion because it would mean agreeing with too many of their enemies and disagreeing with too many of their friends.

  4. Hello Professor Mayes,

    Hopefully your break brought you much rest and relaxation.

    As an aside before a more philosophical point, I find it very odd to think that we might use reason to bolster 'what it comforts me [us] to believe', and yet so many of us are able to understand and empathize with the post-existential pickle.

    Anyways, do you think that pragmatic theories of truth avoid some of the problems and concerns you outline or just rephrase or shift them? Perhaps it wouldn't even bear on this discussion, but I would think that other truth theories could at least account for belief in a way which simultaneously affords conceptual space to true beliefs being best, truth-regulation being a feature of belief, and the problems of normative load.

    Of course, the merits (if any) of such a theory of truth may be outweighed by the normative load of even considering such things (or the personal cost in fronting the charges for the spoonful of sugar which might help one swallow it haha).

    Have a good semester!

    -Stan Lovelace

    1. Hi Stan, nice to hear from you.

      I guess I think that a pragmatic theory of truth could avoid these problems. If the truth is, roughly speaking, what is useful for us to believe, there certainly is something useful about believing what gives me comfort, and to the extent that I can determine this my beliefs would be truth-regulated on a pragmatic view.

      I guess the main problem here is that pragmatic theories of truth may be useful to believe, but they are false. It's useful for me to believe all mushrooms are poisonous. Of course, it would be more useful for me to believe that some are and some aren't, and to know the difference. But if truth is to be identified with some kind of long run, optimal usefulness, then a pragmatic approach won't address the problem. In the short run it may be comforting to me to believe that riding motorcycles is not dangerous, but in the long run it will make me an organ donor.

  5. I always thought there was something fishy about pragmatic theories of truth... but aren't you assuming a non-pragmatic theory of Truth in order to argue the falsity of the pragmatic theory?

    Regardless of that though, it seems to me that the either pragmatic theories would render belief's relation to truth trivial (of course we always believe whats true, when beliefs being truth-regulated just means they are sensitive to all cost-benefit factors weighted according to our own system) or that a pragmatic theory would have to assume a 'fact of the matter' regarding usefulness which would re-establish beliefs relation to a similar kind of external absolute. Of course... if these are the only possibilities, and such features render such a theory of truth only possibly as useful as another, then perhaps such a theory is self-undermining. It seems I've only ended up saying exactly what you said haha. Thank you for any help grappling with this.

    1. Stan, as you may remember I actually subscribe to a redundancy theory of truth. So where Cassam says "truth-regulated" I would prefer to say "reality-regulated." My current belief that there are pickles in the pantry is regulated by reality only if the absence of pickles in the pantry would cause me to believe that there are no pickles in the pantry.

      And, so, yeah I think a pragmatic theory of reality is a non starter. I'm a pragmatist about rationality, but not about reality.

    2. Interesting (I actually do remember), is there any good reading you'd recommend on this view? Is it the same as the deflationary account of truth?