We can think of the considerations above as drawing on an interpretative view of mind. However, these considerations can be supplemented with a dispositional account of beliefs. In metaethics, the explanation of what a belief is seldom goes beyond a very basic comparison to desires, viz., beliefs, by contrast to desires, have a mind-to-world direction of fit. In other words, they purport to represent the world (rather than to change the world to fit one’s desires).
It seems very plausible to think of beliefs, and other attitudes as dispositional mental states (see e.g., Schwitzgebel 2013). Indeed, a dispositional account of beliefs lines up nicely with the idea that beliefs aim to represent the world. To represent the world is roughly to aim at truth. However, we do not hit the target, i.e., truth, automatically. Rather, the means to the end is considerations we perceive of as evidence (or truth-indicative). A belief that p is thus plausibly constituted by a disposition to respond to considerations that are perceived as relevant to the truth of p.Footnote 15 In metaethics, a view along these lines is suggested by Michael Smith. “A belief with the content that p tends to go out of existence in the presence of a perception with the content that not-p, whereas a desire tends to endure, disposing the subject in that state to bring about that p” (Smith 1994: 115). Of course, a mere perception with the content that not-p is not always enough as is evident from various optical illusions e.g., the perception of a “bent stick” in water or the Müller-Lyer illusion. Nevertheless, the basic idea, as we understand it, is that a belief (at least in part) is constituted by a disposition to respond to considerations that are perceived of as evidence. This is what distinguishes a belief that p from other attitudes, e.g., pretending that p.
But what is a disposition? This is a question that has many answers. Fortunately, for our purposes, we need only scratch the surface of this complicated and intriguing issue. A fragile glass, for example, is disposed to break when struck. A classic analysis of disposition is in terms of simple conditionals, viz., a fragile glass is disposed to break when struck if it would break if struck. A standard counterexample to such an analysis involves a glass protected by a support structure. When protected by a support structure, the glass is struck, but the glass does not break. Yet, given that the intrinsic properties of the glass remain, it does not seem to lose its fragility. This illustrates three important things. First, something can have a disposition although the disposition is not manifested. Second, a disposition can be interfered with, i.e., prevented from being manifested. Third, even if the “stimulus condition” is satisfied (the glass is struck), the disposition need not manifest itself (the glass does not break).
These brief remarks are important to understand the dispositional underpinnings of mental states. Start with desires. We can think of a desire as a disposition to bring about motivation. For example, John has a standing desire to exercise on Saturdays. During the week, this desire is mostly dormant. It does not issue in any motivation relevant to satisfy the desire. However, when John realizes that it is Saturday, he becomes motivated in various ways, e.g., he starts packing his bags and heads to the gym. Although the disposition to bring motivation about is constitutive of a desire, it can also be interfered with in different ways. Suppose, for example, that John has recently become severely depressed. This state may interfere with the normal causal chain leading from input to output and thus prevent John’s desire to exercise from manifesting itself. In other words, the desire has no motivational upshots. If John would not have been depressed, however, the desire would have motivated him in the usual ways.Footnote 16
Beliefs plausibly mirror desires in this respect. Suppose that a belief is partly constituted by a disposition to change in response to changes in what is perceived as evidence. Just like the disposition to motivate can be interfered with in the case of desires, the disposition to change in response to changes in what is perceived of as evidence can be interfered with in the case of beliefs.
Consider John again. John’s beliefs usually change in response to changes in what he perceives as evidence. However, the examples considered above are examples where this does not happen. John believes that his son is innocent. Confronted with the surveillance footage, he does indeed come to believe that there is evidence against his belief. However, as argued above, we think that there are various ways in which the evidential belief can be rendered impotent. At this point, the interpretative view and the dispositional view come together nicely. One explanation of why John’s belief that his son is innocent is left unchanged despite John simultaneously believing that there is evidence that speaks against it is because the former belief is, for some reason, too painful to revise or give up. This leads to various unconscious defense mechanisms to kick in that functions to interfere with the normal causal chain leading from a change in what is perceived as evidence to a change in belief. In other words, just like depression may interfere with a desire manifesting itself in motivation, the threat to one of one’s most central beliefs may prevent it from responding to a change in what is perceived as evidence against it. As argued above, provided a certain background explanation, it seems plausible to think that John’s belief does not change in response to the change in what he perceives as evidence. By contrast to the interpretative view, the dispositional view provides a more theoretical explanation of how this is possible. It seems plausible to think that dispositions can be interfered with in different ways. This is just part of what it is to be a disposition. Hence, if a belief is a disposition to change in response to changes in perceived evidence, we should just expect this to be possible.
However, this does not mean that John’s belief may fail to track perceived evidence in just any old way. Rather, to believe something (just like it is to have some other attitude) “is to embody a certain broad-ranging actual and counterfactual pattern of activity and reactivity” (Schwitzgebel 2013: 76). First, in order to determine whether someone has a belief (or any other mental state) it does not suffice to merely look at what actually happens. Even if John’s mental state does not change in response to the change in what he perceives as a change in evidence, this does not show that his mental state is not a belief. In order to more adequately try to determine whether John’s mental state is a belief, we also have to speculate about various counterfactuals. The hypothesis is that John’s mental state is a belief and thus constituted by a disposition to respond to what is perceived of as evidence. The explanation of why John’s belief does not change in response to a change in what is perceived as evidence is, roughly, that certain beliefs are more central to who we are, what we value and the like. Like a fragile glass, some of these beliefs are protected by a kind of psychological support structure that makes them immune to change even in the light of perceiving a change in evidence. However, if John’s mental state were to lose its centrality or importance, we would no longer have a background explanation of why the disposition to change in response to changes in perceived evidence is interfered with. If John’s mental state would not change in such a situation, we would have reason to think that it is not a belief.
Even if we normally change our beliefs in response to changes in what is perceived of as evidence, it seems that there are circumstances where beliefs are intransigent. However, this requires some kind of background explanation. Such background explanations function to (1) give us a story that makes sense of interpreting someone as having a belief that does not play its normal role and (2) explain what it is that interferes with the disposition to change in response to changes in what is perceived as evidence. Consequently, if we understand beliefs as dispositional states and grant that dispositions can be interfered in different ways, then we have reason to think that beliefs usually track what is perceived as evidence, but that beliefs do not invariably track what is perceived as evidence.
Moreover, the dispositional account of belief can be used to explain the intuitions regarding the sources that Rowland uses to support Beliefs Track Perceived Evidence. A belief is (at least part) constituted by a disposition to respond to what is perceived of as evidence. This plausibly explains deliberative transparency, i.e., why doxastic deliberation is exclusively determined by considerations that one perceives of as relevant to the truth of p. Given the dispositional view, the explanation of why we only appeal to considerations that are relevant to the truth is that these are the kinds of considerations that the belief is disposed to respond to. A consideration, e.g., that a certain belief feels good, is not a consideration that is truth-indicative (unless one has a particular background theory according to which it is) and thus not a consideration that a belief is disposed to respond to – it is not the kind of stimulus condition that can bring a change about. This is why we cannot consciously appeal to any other considerations apart from considerations that are perceived of as relevant to the truth of the matter.
This is consistent with other forces influencing what we believe that are outside doxastic deliberation (and control). In particular, the threat to a belief that is central or important can elicit various defense mechanisms that prevent the change in what is perceived as evidence from bringing about a change in belief. In such a case, both beliefs remain fixed. These considerations also explain why akratic combinations of doxastic attitudes are intelligible. Of course, most of the time, akratic combinations of doxastic attitudes are unintelligible. However, if we are given an explanation of why the disposition to change in response to changes in what is perceived as evidence is interfered with, then we are also given an explanation of why an akratic combination of doxastic attitudes is both possible and intelligible.
Finally, Rowland seems sympathetic to Gendler who claims that beliefs are “subject to immediate revision in the fact of changes in our all-things-considered evidence” (Gendler 2010: 296). This is perhaps true for the large majority of our beliefs. However, it does not seem to be true for all beliefs. Schwitzgebel seems to agree: “[o]ur morally most important beliefs […] the ones that reflect our values, commitments, our enduring ways of viewing the world – they’re not like this. They change slowly, painfully, effortfully” (Schwitzgebel 2010: 547). Indeed, if our argument is right, some beliefs may even remain fixed despite a change in what is perceived as evidence. Again, if beliefs are constituted by dispositions to respond to what is perceived as evidence, we should expect that there are ways in which the disposition can be interfered with (just like depression can interfere with a desire causing motivation), e.g., due to various threats that set of various defense mechanisms.
The dispositional view advanced above explains why it is plausible to think that evidence responsiveness is constitutive of belief while this does not warrant thinking that beliefs invariably track what is perceived as evidence. Moreover, it explains most of the data and the intuitions that Rowland relies upon. Of course, we disagree that the nature of belief rules out akratic combinations of doxastic attitudes and that a belief changes immediately in response to changes in what is perceived as evidence. The human psyche, we believe, is much more complicated. Given the dispositional nature of belief (and other attitudes), it seems quite possible for a belief to remain fixed despite changes in what one perceives as evidence against the belief. Not only does this explain why the claim Rowland’s argument requires is false, it hopefully also provides the groundwork for a more adequate dispositional view of belief.
Let us finally, and briefly, return to consider moral judgments and intransigence. Let us suppose that moral judgments are beliefs. If the argument above is right, it is possible for a belief to remain fixed despite changes in what is perceived as evidence. Moreover, given some of the ideas advanced above, it should not be very surprising that moral beliefs (often) are intransigent. A moral belief differs in important respects from most beliefs, e.g., the belief that there is coffee made: our moral beliefs are important to us. They are beliefs that are central to who we are. They are beliefs that some people are willing to die for. It therefore should not be very surprising that they are beliefs that, when threatened, elicit various psychological defense mechanisms that function like a support structure. Sometimes these defense mechanisms may interfere with the normal causal chain leading from a change in what is perceived as evidence to a change in belief. By contrast, the belief that coffee is made is not of any importance and will not set off any defense mechanisms, but immediately change in response to changes in what is perceived as evidence. Consequently, given a dispositionalist view of beliefs along the lines advanced above, the cognitivist can explain why it seems plausible to think that evidence responsiveness is constitutive of belief while arguing that moral peer intransigence is not a problem for cognitivism.