Dissonance and Doxastic Resistance


This paper focuses on the puzzling situation of having beliefs that are resistant to one’s own critical reasoning. This phenomenon happens, for example, when an individual does not succeed in eliminating a belief by evaluating it as false. I argue that this situation involves a specific type of irrationality—not yet properly identified in the literature—which I call ‘critical doxastic resistance’. The aim of this paper is to characterize this type of irrationality. Understanding such a phenomenon sheds light on the type of agency that we exercise when we reason critically. Moreover, it illustrates one relevant relationship between agential rational control of our beliefs and the rational functioning of beliefs as being responsive to reasons. I argue that critical doxastic resistance is characterized by a failure to meet the following rational norm: in critical reasoning, the results of evaluative reasoning should automatically transfer into, and be implemented by, the reasoning or beliefs under evaluation.

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  1. 1.

    EMILIA is inspired by Schwitzgebel’s (2001, 2010) cases: ‘Juliet, the implicit racist’ and ‘Ralph, the sexist’.

  2. 2.

    A different pro-judgment view will be discussed in the second section of this paper.

  3. 3.

    I defend the contradictory-belief interpretation over two further interpretations (Borgoni 2014). One holds that Emilia switches between believing that P and believing that not-P. When she asserts P she believes that P but when she displays sexist behavior she believes that not-P. This view has obvious flaws. For example, it cannot account for the case in which Emilia argues against sexism while displaying sexist behavior. I also reject Schwitzgebel’s (2010) reading that Emilia has in-between beliefs. My reading is compatible with other approaches to similar cases, such as the ones defended by Bilgrami (2006) and Moran (2001). Bilgrami and Moran distinguish between types of beliefs to understand cases of conflicting beliefs.

  4. 4.

    The contradictory-belief interpretation of this particular case is presented as a working assumption for the discussion below. Given that the contradictory-belief view is a reasonable interpretation of the cases currently discussed in the literature, analyzing its consequences deserves attention. My discussion in the remainder of the paper explores such consequences.

  5. 5.

    According to the third criterion for irrationality below, even if Emilia believed only that not-P, she would count as irrational if such a belief lacked any rational support.

  6. 6.

    I am employing Burge’s notion of ‘entitlement’ (1993, 2003) and his distinction between entitlement and justification. Entitlement is a species of epistemic warrant, which is somehow broader than justification. The warranted individual does not need to be able to understand the warrant in order to have an entitled belief. Justification, on the other hand, is also a species of epistemic warrant, but it is conceptually accessible on reflection to the warranted individual (Burge 2003: 505).

  7. 7.

    Mele (2001: 120) identifies the following four conditions for entering self-deception in acquiring a belief that P: ‘1. The belief that P which S acquires is false; 2. S treats data relevant, or at least seemingly relevant, to the truth value of P in a motivationally biased way; 3. This biased treatment is a nondeviant cause of S’s acquiring the belief that P; 4. The body of data possessed by S at the time provides greater warrant for not-P than for P’.

  8. 8.

    Her belief that not-P is not a case of stubborn belief either (Lynch 2013). Lynch characterizes someone who has a stubborn belief as someone who, after having settled on some opinion, refuses to reconsider it and sticks to that opinion.

  9. 9.

    I thank an anonymous referee for the reformulation of this case.

  10. 10.

    I will return to the distinction between conscious and unconscious beliefs in Sect. 3.

  11. 11.

    There is no consensus about whether epistemic akrasia is a possible phenomenon (see Owens 2002 and Adler 2002 for a denial of its possibility). Nor is there consensus about whether it is an irrational phenomenon (see Coates 2012; Elga 2013). Thus, entering into this debate would require a further paper. However, there are reasons to think that doxasticc resistance cannot be subsumed under epistemic akrasia. Apart from the structural difference between the cases treated under the label of epistemic akrasia and EMILIA, there seems to be a further difference between them. Forming an ‘ought-judgment’ of what to believe seems to be necessary for epistemic akrasia but not for doxasticc resistance. Emilia, for example, does not need to form the judgment that she ought not believe that not-P (or that believing that not-P is wrong) in order to engage in doxasticc resistance. Judging that her belief that not-P is false while failing to eliminate the belief is sufficient to count as a case of doxasticc resistance. In contrast, Emilia could not believe something against her best judgment, and thereby be epistemically akratic, without forming a judgment of what to believe. In this sense, if epistemic akrasia and doxasticc resistance are in fact closely related phenomena, doxasticc resistance seems to be more basic.

  12. 12.

    Accepting that there is a belief that persists in Emilia’s psychology works mostly on the assumption of the contradictory-belief or anti-judgment models. However, as I emphasised previously, the contradictory-belief view is this paper’s working interpretation, whose consequences are explored.

  13. 13.

    See experiments conducted by Dasgupta and Greenwald (2001).

  14. 14.

    This view of beliefs is compatible with some different accounts, including Velleman’s (2000), who holds that beliefs aim at truth. The above view is not committed to a stronger thesis, which says that truth is the only or primary norm of beliefs.

  15. 15.

    My differentiation between two belief functions relates to, but does not overlap with, the current discussion on norms of beliefs. Gibbons (2013: 29) identifies a tension between two norms of beliefs: ‘(T) Necessarily, for all p, you ought to believe that p only if p’ and ‘(J) Necessarily, for all p, you ought to believe that p iff you’re justified in believing that p’. Different accounts of belief offer different approaches to how those supposedly conflictive norms relate to each other. Wedgwood (2002) defends the priority of (T) over (J). Velleman (2000) is also regarded as someone who prioritizes (T) over (J). Gibbons (2013), on the other hand, prioritizes (J) over (T). According to Feldman (2000), the two norms involve two senses of ought, and thus, they are not in conflict. The argument of this paper does not depend on taking a stance on this debate, although investigating its relationship suggests a further research question.

  16. 16.

    In contrast, failing to be true does not settle any parameter of irrationality for beliefs. Someone who holds false beliefs is not taken to be irrational unless other conditions are in place, such as how those false beliefs have been formed or are held by the individual.

  17. 17.

    There is a sense in which Harry’s recalcitrant belief does not completely fail insofar as it seems to be sensitive to the evidence. Responsiveness to reasons seems to be only one kind—though an important one—of responsiveness to evidence. However, Harry does fail to implement the specific norm in critical reasoning that characterizes doxasticc resistance.

  18. 18.

    As Alston argues (1988), we do not have voluntary control over our beliefs. Our beliefs are not controlled in the way our actions are. We do not believe at will (Hieronymi 2006). However, a sensible notion of mental agency is one that is not based on voluntary control. See, for example, the notion of evaluative control proposed by Hieronymi (2009). This paper’s argument relies on the commonsensical idea that changing one’s mind, shifting one’s attention, and certain kinds of reasoning are examples of mental agency. The individual does something when he or she engages in such activities. Most belief formation probably does not involve agency (much less voluntary agency). See Owens (2002), for a denial of the idea that beliefs can be freely and deliberately formed. However, accepting that changing one’s beliefs through reasoning is a type of mental agency does not imply that mental agency is a matter of voluntary agency.

  19. 19.

    Critical reasoning includes incorrect and poor evaluation of one’s beliefs. HARRY seems to be such a case.

  20. 20.

    The fact that Emilia becomes aware and tries to change her belief that not-P will not count as a kind of transference and implementation of reasons unless the reasons operate on her belief that not-P, i.e., eliminate it. In Emilia’s case, the reasons may have been transferred to and implemented by other mental items, but not by the belief under evaluation.

  21. 21.

    One might wonder whether cases in which Emilia does not acknowledge to believe that not-P are also cases of doxasticc resistance. Cases in which (1) she is unaware of her prejudice and cases in which (2) she misidentifies her belief by other mental state are such circumstances. If situation (1) involves a resistant belief, it displays a sort of irrationality related to ‘critical doxastic resistance’, but it does not fully match the criterion for being such a case. Doxasticc resistance involves a failure to implement the reasons generated by the evaluation of one’s own resistant beliefs. Without awareness, the individual in (1) cannot evaluate the belief and thereby generate reasons against it. Furthermore, in case (1), the belief that apparently resists first-order reasons can possibly be dissolved once the individual gains awareness of the inconsistency between her beliefs. In contrast, in case (2), if the individual recognizes her prejudices but does not name her belief ‘belief’, the individual can still engage in doxasticc resistance. Once the individual assesses her resistant belief (as a different mental state) and generates reasons against it (e.g. ‘having such feelings or automatic thoughts are epistemically ungrounded’), the individual generates a reason that should have an impact on the belief, despite the individual’s misidentification of the belief as a belief.

  22. 22.

    One might ask whether modularity could explain the internal division underlying Emilia’s irrationality. I will leave aside this issue since discussing modularity in relation to EMILIA would require an entire paper and further research. On the one hand, it is not clear whether modularity is consistent with the idea that Emilia’s belief that not-P is one of her beliefs. Although Emilia fails to control that belief through her reasoning, she is in a relevant sense responsible for her belief. On the other hand, there are different notions of modularity available in the literature, which might have different consequences for analyzing EMILIA. According to the classical work by Fodor (1983), a given system is modular if it exhibits some specific traits such as ‘domain specificity’ and ‘encapsulation’. Only a peripheral system can possibly be modular according to Fodorian modularity. However, Barret and Kurzban (2006) note that modularity can be understood in terms of functional specialization. One example of the differences between the two notions is their compatibility with information integration. According to Barret and Kurzban, the functional specialization notion of modularity is consistent with information integration from multiple sources, while the Fodorian notion is not.

  23. 23.

    In mentioning this group, I am not suggesting that prejudices per se should be understood as cases of doxasticc resistance.

  24. 24.

    The correct interpretation of the Müller–Lyer illusion is highly disputable. However, the view that the illusion involves a tension between a perceptual state and a belief state (and not between two mutually contradictory beliefs) is a plausible one.

  25. 25.

    In none of the types does exercising agency over one’s own beliefs mean to believe at will. See Hieronymi (2006).


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Thanks to Lucy O’Brien, Manuel de Pinedo, Marian David and Sam Wilkinson for valuable conversations and helpful comments on previous drafts. I’m also grateful to Tyler Burge for numerous discussions and suggestions on the various stages of this work.

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Correspondence to Cristina Borgoni.

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Borgoni, C. Dissonance and Doxastic Resistance. Erkenn 80, 957–974 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-014-9691-0

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  • Belief State
  • Irrational Belief
  • Wishful Thinking
  • Critical Reasoning
  • Phenomenal Consciousness