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.
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