Delusions and Not-Quite-Beliefs

Abstract

Bortolotti argues that the irrationality of many delusions is no different in kind from the irrationality that marks many non-pathological states typically treated as beliefs. She takes this to secure the doxastic status of those delusions. Bortolotti’s approach has many benefits. For example, it accounts for the fact that we can often make some sense of what deluded subjects are up to, and helps explain why some deluded subjects are helped by cognitive behavioral therapy. But there is an alternative approach that secures the same benefits as Bortolotti’s account while bringing additional benefits. The alternative approach treats both many delusions and many of the non-pathological states to which Bortolotti compares them as in-between states. Subjects in in-between states don’t fully believe the beliefs which it is sometimes convenient to ascribe to them. This alternative approach to belief and belief-ascription fits well with an independently attractive account of the varied purposes of our ordinary attitude ascriptions. It also makes it easier to make fine-grained distinctions between intentional attitudes of different kinds.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Strictly speaking, the dispositions in question are those that are apt to be associated with the belief. Competence with folk-psychology means we can associate dispositions even with novel beliefs on first hearing them (see [2], p. 251). Some of these dispositions are ones we would associate with almost any belief. But others will be particular to beliefs with certain contents. Either kind of disposition will likely be characterized in conditional form: to have the belief is to be disposed to think, feel, or behave thusly, if certain conditions hold. Thus, to believe that grandma’s delcious chocolate cake is on the kitchen table ready to be served is to be disposed to come to the kitchen if one desires a piece of such a cake (see [2], p. 251, and pp. 253–7 (on the role of ceteris paribus clauses in dispositional specifications)). Many dispositions in a stereotypical profile will be specified by conditional statements whose antecedents refer to other propositional attitudes. (So this account of attitudes is non-reductive.) The account can therefore handle the fact that two subjects who both believe that p will behave differently in the same circumstances, because they differ in their other propositional attitudes.

  2. 2.

    The label ‘in-between belief’ does not function to pick out a special state that someone is determinately in. It is a convenient way of referring to the fact that a particular subject fails fully to meet any relevant folk-psychological stereotype. A subject is in a state of in-between belief when, for example, she does not fully fit the stereotype for believing that p, but also fails to fully fit the stereotypes for other intentional attitudes in the neighborhood—such as the stereotypes for believing that not-p, or imagining that p.

  3. 3.

    Bortolotti briefly considers what she terms a ‘sliding scale’ approach to belief, on which subjects who deviate from norms of rationality may count as having partial rather than full beliefs, and on which it may sometimes be indeterminate whether a subject’s behavior “can be legitimately characterised by the ascription of beliefs” ([4], p. 21). She rejects it for her purposes on pragmatic grounds, however, because it makes it harder to give yes or no answers to questions about the intentionality of behavior, and hence makes it harder to apply the intentionality test in ethical and other contexts (p. 21). Now, if one simply wants ease of application, one could decide to treat all cases of in-between believing as sufficient (or not) for passing the test for intentional behavior. Ease of application isn’t Bortolotti’s ultimate concern, however. She does express concern about approaches that require us to look beyond what is observable in the moment of ascription (p. 91). But in her treatment of authorship, it becomes clear that decisions about whether to count someone as a believer will involve taking a fairly wide-angle look at a subject’s current and potential behavior. She also allows that authorship—the capacity to defend a current belief with reasons—comes in degrees. Her discussion of the difficulty of ascribing insufficiently authored beliefs to others suggests she might allow that in some cases it is indeterminate whether a particular delusional content is appropriately ascribed as a belief (see 252). Bortolotti might, therefore, be more sympathetic to an in-between approach than her initial discussion of the sliding scale option suggests.

  4. 4.

    I have presented, and will continue to present, the idea of in-between belief in concert with a dispositional model of belief. But any account of belief on which it is possible for a subject to satisfy some but not all of the criteria for believing that p could be developed into an account on which it is sometimes indeterminate whether a subject believes that p. (Schwitzgebel explains how to generate in-between belief on both representationalist and functionalist accounts of belief ([3], p. 535–36).) So a non-dispositionalist about belief could still deny full doxastic status to many delusions (and some other irrational states), and construe them instead as in-between beliefs.

  5. 5.

    Some of the material here draws on my “Delusions and Dispositionalism about Belief,” forthcoming in Mind and Language.

  6. 6.

    I don’t mean that the clinician would have to employ Schwitzgebel’s vocabulary during therapy sessions—only that the work of such therapy can be described on his model.

  7. 7.

    These are not propositional attitude types by means of which a subject has a determinate content in her control. (See note 2 above.) As with the phrase ‘in-between-belief’, these are labels for a range of conditions in which a subject’s dispositions are such that no determinate ascription of any relevant attitude/content pair is appropriate. In-betweeness, and the consequent indeterminacy of ascription, affects the appropriateness of content- as well as attitude-specification. Consider, for example, a person suffering from the Capgras delusion. Suppose she deviates in various ways from the dispositional profile associated with believing that one’s beloved spouse has been kidnapped and replaced with an imposter. The pattern of odd behavior (failing to report the kidnapping to the police, calmly sharing a bed with the supposed imposter) that makes a flatly true ascription of belief inappropriate also makes it inappropriate to take ‘my beloved spouse has been kidnapped and replaced with an imposter’ as a determinately adequate content-specification for some attitude she has. We may need to appeal to that content in specifying some of her dispositions—such as her disposition to assert that content, for example. But that doesn’t mean she has that very content in her grasp, such that we now just need to cast about for the propositional attitude by means of which she does so.

  8. 8.

    The phrase “virtual control” is from [5], p. 106. In addition to [6], see [7] for another account that would be sympathetic to the view suggested by the phrase.

  9. 9.

    I won’t try to make the case in support of the regulative view here. But it is attractive for a number of reasons. It copes very well with the fact that we sometimes get a grip on what others are up to by applying a tacit theory to them, and sometimes by simulating them [8]. It highlights and makes sense of links between folk-psychology and ordinary moral assessment [5,8]. And it appears to fit nicely with some recent work on the evolutionary origins of folk-psychology, and on the way children develop competence with it ([9], [8] and [10]).

  10. 10.

    [6] discusses cases of this kind, and argues that subjects in such conditions have lost any distinctive first-person authority over the states in question.

  11. 11.

    That is why this account differs from one Bortolotti considers and rejects, on which rational norms play a constitutive role in ideal interpretation but have no serious role in the actual practice of interpretation (109). On the account presented in this paper, ascriptive activity is not just passively recording subjects’ degree of (non)compliance with norms. It actively helps prod subjects into greater compliance with those norms.

  12. 12.

    Getting to believe better—getting to believe in the full-blooded sense—means trying to acquire some of the dispositions one currently lacks from the profile for the target belief. For example, aiming to believe better that one’s family life is more important than one’s career advancement could involve aiming to acquire (if one lacked it) the disposition to leave one’s office every day at five o’clock. (See [3] for arguments that such dispositions are as important to belief as are dispositions to avow the content of the belief when asked.) Since many dispositions central to belief profiles are such that a person could coherently undertake to cultivate them, it is possible for believing-better to be an aim a person sets herself.

  13. 13.

    Bortolotti’s argumentative strategy depends on the fact that we do use belief-ascriptive language with many subjects who violate rational norms. But combining the in-between view of belief with the regulative view of ascription means there is no easy move from ‘belief-ascription is licensed in this context’ to ‘the state in question is really a belief’. Belief-status may just be a matter of living up to relevant folk-psychological norms. But not all licensed ascriptions are simple reports that subjects are currently living up to those norms.

  14. 14.

    This could make it too easy to count a pattern of behaviors as a belief. The danger is that by being so relaxed about what is required to count as believing the content of one’s delusion, Bortolotti will be faced with many deluded subjects who will also count as believing a content opposed to the content of their delusion. Attributing lots of directly contradictory—as opposed to just poorly integrated—beliefs to deluded subjects might make the irrationality of those subjects appear to differ in kind, and not just in degree, from garden-variety irrationality.

  15. 15.

    Bortolotti first talks about an individual “manifest[ing] the pattern of behaviour of a subject with beliefs” on p. 156 (italics original), with reference to epistemic rationality. The final portion of the book is where Bortolotti lays out at once all four of the belief-distinguishing patterns of behavior she recognizes.

  16. 16.

    See [11] and [7,12].

  17. 17.

    This leaves open the question of what does distinguish significant pathology.

  18. 18.

    For example, clinicians sometimes present deluded subjects with potential confounders for their delusion (see [13] for examples of such conversations). Buchanan and his colleagues [14] report that nine out of 33 subjects who sometimes acted on their delusions, and 45 of 56 subjects who did not so act, ignored an interviewer’s presentation of a potential confounder for the content of their delusion. Twelve and eight in each group did alter (at least during the interview) their conviction in their delusion in response to the presented confounder. (That is, those individuals not only engaged in corrective action, but in intersubjectively rational corrective action.) Interestingly, only one of the actors, and none of the non-actors, responded by giving a delusion-consistent explanation of the confounding statement. Even though such an explanation wouldn’t be an intersubjectively rational one, making it counts as taking corrective action in the broad sense. That subject was attempting to show that apparent counter-evidence against a potential belief wasn’t good counter-evidence. He or she was (in that respect) exercising the kind of virtual control distinctive of belief.

  19. 19.

    I have discussed the exercise of virtual control in terms consistent with a dispositional view of belief that highlighted the possibility of in-between beliefs. But that isn’t obligatory. One could agree that virtual control mattered for the individuation of attitudes, and for subjects’ possession of them, while holding that any belief ascription is always determinately true or determinately false. One would, however, have to allow that in cases where virtual control was inadequate, relevant belief-ascriptions were flatly false. One would also have to allow that we often make flatly false ascriptions to one another for pragmatic reasons (when we are, for example, exhorting someone towards having a particular attitude). If one made those allowances, one could agree that it is useful to assess deluded subjects’ degree and kind of virtual control over the contents of their delusions while denying that deluded subjects (or others) are ever in in-between states.

  20. 20.

    I am grateful to Eric Schwitzgebel and an anonymous referee for this journal for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.

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Correspondence to Maura Tumulty.

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Tumulty, M. Delusions and Not-Quite-Beliefs. Neuroethics 5, 29–37 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-011-9126-4

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Keywords

  • Beliefs
  • Bortolotti
  • Delusions
  • Dispositionalism
  • Folk-psychology
  • Regulative
  • Schwitzgebel