Friday, October 06, 2006

Unqualified Judgment Without Belief?

Krista Lawlor gave a very interesting talk here at UC Riverside Wednesday, which has me thinking again about belief. (Admittedly, getting me thinking about belief isn't a very hard thing to do!)

It seemed implicit in her paper, and it came out more explicitly in discussion afterward, that Lawlor regards believing as a matter of having a broad, stable array of dispositions -- i.e., having general patterns of thought, reaction, planning, implicit assumption, etc., in conformity with the content of the belief -- as opposed to belief being merely a matter of having some thought or judgment or opinion occurring to one in a moment; and indeed the two phenomena often come apart. (For my endorsement of this view, see this post and this essay and this essay too.)

To use one of Lawlor's examples, someone raised in a family committed to the reality of homeopathy might as a result of taking a chemistry class become convinced that homeopathy doesn't work, in the sense of reaching a sincere judgment like this: "Something so diluted that not even a single molecule of the supposedly curative substance remains must be inert!" And yet that person might not yet be ready to throw his homeopathic remedies in the trash, might feel uncomfortable not taking those remedies in certain cases, might in unguarded moments find himself thinking "so-and-so needs such-and-such a remedy", etc. There's a certain amount of cognitive inertia between what we sincerely judge in the moment and what we enduringly, dispositionally believe.

Or here's an example from my essay linked to above: Someone might sincerely and unhesitantly and unqualifiedly endorse the proposition that all the races are intellectually equal, yet be so biased in her implicit reactions and background assumptions about people that we wouldn't want to say that she really should be described as fully, dispositionally believing that.

No one is more on board with Lawlor on such matters than I, yet my colleagues were not all entirely convinced!

Here's the most common objection I heard, in the comments and in discussion with Lawlor before and afterward: If your dispositions don't fall entirely into line with your judgment, then either your judgment must not be wholly unqualified, or you must be the victim of some sort of weird irrationality.

Now I'm not sure exactly what we ought to call "rational", but in some cases at least I think it makes considerable sense to have a sort of dispositional inertia. We don't want to cast aside long-held beliefs that ramify through our lives with the advent of a single unqualified judgment. Suppose the homeopathy case were, instead, a case of someone being converted to libertarianism by Ayn Rand. Fortunately, such conversions often fade quickly, fail to ramify, are conversions only of temporary judgment, not in the broad array of one's dispositions. (Apologies to libertarians!) So I hesitate to think of the divergence between unqualified judgment and broad, dispositional belief as simply irrational.



Keith Frankish said...

For what it’s worth, I agree with you and Lawlor. I’m convinced that the best way to make sense of cases like this is to accept that conscious judgements and unreflective behavioural dispositions embody two very different kinds of belief, which often march in step but can easily diverge. Conscious judgements, in my view, involve a sort of active commitment, which requires effort and self-discipline to sustain. Executing such a commitment requires keeping track of the proposition judged true, recalling it in appropriate contexts, and employing it as a premise in conscious inference. Such a commitment, I claim, amounts to a form of belief, which I’ve dubbed superbelief. One’s unreflective behaviour, on the other hand, manifests what I call basic belief. Like you, I think of basic belief as involving a broad array of unreflective behavioural dispositions. (In calling them ‘unreflective’, I mean that they manifest themselves without prior conscious reasoning.) Now one’s superbeliefs may influence one’s basic beliefs, but there is often a time lag. Think of what happens when you drive someone else’s car and find that the indicator stalk is on the other side from the one you’re used to. (This happens to me every time I drive my wife’s old Corolla.) You consciously judge that the stalk is on the other side, and you remain stably disposed to take that proposition as a premise when you give conscious thought to what you are doing. But as you drive you persistently fail to give conscious thought to your actions, and it takes an infuriatingly long time for the information about the location of the stalk to influence your unreflective behaviour. You instinctively move your hand to other side (activating the windscreen wipers, in my case), thereby manifesting a basic belief to the effect that the stalk is on the normal side. Yet – I would claim – you also count as (super)believing that the stalk is on the other side, in virtue of the fact that you remain stably disposed to take that proposition as a premise on those occasions when you do engage in conscious reasoning on relevant topics. I don’t think either of the objections you mention has much bite here. The judgement can be wholly unqualified in virtue of the fact that you are disposed to take the proposition in question as an unqualified premise in relevant conscious reasoning, when you engage in it. Nor is there any weird irrationality involved. You have contradictory beliefs, but they are located at different levels and can co-exist unproblematically. It is true that superbelieving that p will constitutively involve possessing certain basic-level beliefs (for example, the disposition to use p as a premise in conscious inference), but these are meta-level beliefs and are compatible with the first-order belief that p.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Keith, for your lucid and helpful comment! I think your work is among the most insightful on this topic, and I'd direct interested readers to your Mind and Supermind.

I agree with almost everything you say here, except that I wouldn't draw a sharp line between belief and "superbelief". I think the dispositions can splinter in a wide variety of ways (hence "The Splintered Mind", if anyone was curious) -- as I describe in "A Phenomenal, Dispositional Account of Belief" and "In-Between Believing", which you can link to from the front page of this blog.

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