Many of our beliefs behave irrationally: this is hardly news to anyone. Although beliefs’ irrational tendencies need to be taken into account, this paper argues that beliefs necessarily preserve at least a minimal level of rationality. This view offers a plausible picture of what makes belief unique and will help us to set beliefs apart from other cognitive attitudes (e.g. imagination, acceptance).
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See Adler (2002), Currie and Ravenscroft (2002), Gendler (2008), Rey (1988), and Van Leeuwen (2014), to name a few. Van Leeuwen (2014), for instance, claims that religious credences are not (factual) beliefs because on his view (factual) beliefs have specific input–output conditions (e.g., evidence-sensitivity) that religious credences do not share. That said, it is possible that some of these authors may be willing to endorse a more moderate form of Traditionalism, similar to the Traditionalism I advocate for below.
Available evidence is not necessarily the same thing as what agents take to be evidence since agents may be wrong about what constitutes evidence for what they believe.
As intended here, procedural rationality encompasses the structural and substantial inferential effects usually associated with belief (see Scanlon 2007). Beliefs support the formation of other attitudes and they also stand in (formal and non-formal) structural relations with other beliefs. Some of the coherence standards I will mention in the last section fall within this sense of rationality.
It is admittedly slightly odd to add this to the stock of doxastic rationalities, since it in fact requires one to take some action, or to react in a certain way, rather than forming a belief. However, since beliefs are meant to be action-guiding, beliefs that do not motivate us are considered failures qua beliefs. Note that in all of these formulations I mostly follow Bortolotti (2010). Let me also point out that the argument of this paper does not stem from a philosophical analysis of rationality per se. I will thus not focus on trying to figure out the correct formulations of the standards of rationality or ask whether or not these standards constitute normative requirements (Broome, 2007; Broome 2013a, b).
A word of caution is needed here. As recently pointed out by Van Leeuwen (2018), there is a tendency to focus on belief’s irrationality and forget the large number of rational beliefs that serve us in the background. So, perhaps it is unfair to claim that Strong Traditionalism would leave us with too few beliefs, because many of our beliefs are in fact rational. It still seems true, however, that Strong Traditionalism forces us to exclude from the category ‘belief’ things that we are normally happy to call beliefs. In other words, the worry is that Strong Traditionalism is, so-to-speak, throwing the baby out with the bathwater by imposing a too-rigid rationality-constraint on belief. Therefore, a more inclusive and fine-grained view—such as the one I propose below—would be preferable to Strong Traditionalism. Thank you to an anonymous referee for pushing me to clarify this point.
Since I will criticize Revisionism below, it is important to clarify now that in this paper I am not trying to fully capture the extension of the pre-theoretical use of the word ‘belief’. Nor am I trying to say that lay people are in error in their use of the word ‘belief’. What I am doing here is appealing to a mature philosophy of mind to carve out importantly different mental states by looking at their functional role. Although, all things being equal, it would be preferable to have a theoretical view of ‘belief’ that squares with our pre-theoretical intuitions, fully conforming to our folk use of ‘belief’ is not a prerequisite of doing good psychology.
This position is also echoed in Bratman’s (1990) theory of “acceptance in a context”. On Bratman’s view, acceptances, like beliefs, function as premises in practical reasoning and deliberation. However, the power of an acceptance is limited to the context in which it was introduced.
Cohen (1992: 4) explains, “belief that p is a disposition, when one is attending to the issues raised, or items referred to, by the proposition p, normally to feel it true that p and false that not-p, whether or not one is willing to act, speak, or reason accordingly” [my emphasis].
The notion of coherence here loosely refers to what some philosophers call ‘structural rationality’. Agents are said to be rational if their beliefs are coherent, namely if they conform to (formal and non-formal) standards of structural rationality (see Scanlon 2007). Here are a couple of examples:
Modus Ponens: Rationality requires of S that [S believes that q, if S believes that p, and S believes that if p then q, and S attends to the question whether q]
Practical non-formal standard: Rationality requires of S that [S intends to do X, if S believes that she ought to do X]
These standards are usually intended as having a wide-scope formulation. That means that, e.g., Modus Ponens can be satisfied either by coming to believe that q or by ceasing to believe that p (or that if p then q). Also, they need to avoid or resolve specific conflicts locally rather than globally (Kolodny 2005: 516).
Bendana and Mandelbaum call this principle “synchronization”.
On a different view, dissonance’s function is to preserve the self, since cognitive dissonance is especially experienced when incoming information conflicts with self-views (Aronson 1968, 1969). Also, Mandelbaum (2019) maintains that dissonance functions as an “immune system” to preserve some of our core beliefs and keep them in place.
There is evidence that the phenomenon of dissonance is also present in children and non-human animals (Aronson and Carlsmith 1963; Friedrich and Zentall 2004; Egan, et al. 2007). This suggests that dissonance-detection and reduction may not always require metacognitive “high-level capacities” and second-order thoughts (Egan et al. 2007: 982). Consistently with this, Lieberman et al. (2001) suggest that the detection-reduction of cognitive dissonance is a fairly automatic process. Relatedly, Zanna et al. (1973) indicate that the discomfort associated with dissonance and ambivalent attitudes increases when the subject is consciously aware of the conflict.
Bortolotti (2010: 87) contends that recent evidence in psychology shows that beliefs do not often get revised even when their rational failure becomes apparent (Tversky and Kahneman 1983). It is unclear, though, whether the subjects in those studies are willing to accept that they made a mistake or that their beliefs are irrational. Also see, e.g. Ranney and Clark (2016) for different results.
Similarly, Campbell and Kumar (2012) argue that people often engage in “consistency reasoning”, intended here as a separate cognitive mechanism, which does the job of coordinating slow, analytical thinking with fast, emotion-based cognitive processes.
Kahan (2016) maintains that motivated reasoning is responsible for altering the strengths of incoming evidence when this is seen as in tension with the convictions of our social or political group.
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the workshop on Belief and Belief-formation at the Centre for Philosophical Psychology, University of Antwerp. I would like to thank Bence Nanay, Eric Mandelbaum and the audience present at the workshop for their questions and comments. The present paper has also greatly benefited from the questions and criticisms received from the members of the philosophy department at UAlbany. Finally, special thanks go to Leo Zaibert for his detailed comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this paper.
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Bergamaschi Ganapini, M. Belief’s minimal rationality. Philos Stud 177, 3263–3282 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-019-01369-y
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