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Assimilation and control: belief at the lowest levels


The core of Zimmerman’s picture posits an inverse correlation between an action’s automaticity and belief’s role in the action’s execution. This proposal faces serious problems. First, high-attention, high-control actions don’t seem to heighten awareness of one’s beliefs. Second, low-attention, low-control actions are caused by the same states at play when executing high-attention, high-control actions, in which case there is no ontological difference in the states involved in these behaviors. Third, on Zimmerman’s view it is unclear what it is for a state to be involved in behaviors at all, as the basic realist response—that beliefs cause behavior—is unavailable to a Zimmerman-style pragmatist. Lastly, if Zimmerman's view were right and low-level behaviors weren't caused by beliefs, then we should turn our attention to those states instead, as most of our behavior isn’t executed under conditions of high control and attention.

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    He seems to scoff at mental representations general, which is of a piece of his general aversion to psychological reality (“an animal’s psychology is its neurology”) (2018, 65).

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    This situation has nothing to do with nicotine per se—one can find the same effects for alcohol, cocaine, and opioids; see Porot and Mandelbaum (forthcoming).

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    Zimmerman does not like talk of belief storage (“the belief box”), and he offers up some old canards against it [i.e., there is no neural evidence for localized beliefs, (Zimmerman 72; cf. Quilty-Dunn and Mandelbaum 2018a)]. This makes one wonder if he’d apply the same arguments to semantic memories, thereby showing their putative non-existence. It would be just as sensible for him to do so, for what are semantic memories if not beliefs?

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    Note that the CRT isn’t in itself interesting. The same morals—and generally the same rates—hold if instead one focuses on syllogistic reasoning or base rate cases (Bago and De Neys 2017).

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    The book fails to engage with many core questions, such as belief’s functional role (e.g., how beliefs are acquired, changed, stored, and used in inference) and its metaphysics (e.g., whether beliefs are relations to mental representations, where their opacity comes from). When these topics do arise the treatment generally lasts a sentence. For instance, Zimmerman rejects propositional attitude talk entirely, by writing, “Of course, humans use sentences to attribute beliefs to themselves and other animals. But there is no further sense in which belief is itself a ‘propositional attitude’” (p 20). That is the whole argument. For other senses in which belief may be deemed a propositional attitude see Richard (1983), Dretske (1988), Crimmins (1992), Spohn (2012), Gluer and Wikforss (2013), Leitgeb (2017) and Friedman (2019).


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Funding received during the execution of this paper came from the National Endowment of the Humanities fellowship (FEL- 257901-18). The NEH is hereby thanked for their largesse. Special thanks to Susanna Siegel, Kate Ritchie, and Jake Quilty-Dunn for helpful suggestions on this paper.

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Correspondence to Eric Mandelbaum.

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Mandelbaum, E. Assimilation and control: belief at the lowest levels. Philos Stud 177, 441–447 (2020).

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  • Belief
  • Reasoning
  • Reflexes
  • Rationality
  • Intuition