Monday, July 03, 2006

What We "Believe"

My six-year-old son Davy, after a long, exhausting day, and stuck in traffic for hours, was a bit drunk with sleepiness, I think, and began a disquisition on the nature of the universe. Among the various ideas he endorsed, and discussed at length, with all the metaphysical coherence available to a six-year-old, were that the universe has thousands of dimensions, not just three (or four, including time). Some of them are like ordinary spatial dimensions, perpendicular to our three (I had been talking to him about Flatland and spatial dimensionality a few days previously), while others, which he called "realms" (to distinguish them from the others) were like whole separate universes. Some of these "realms" had aliens with multiple heads. He concluded by saying, "That's what I believe".

Now in what sense does Davy "believe" this? I guess I've come to think that there is a genuine sense in which Davy believes this, and that his psychological state regarding the "dimensions" is not all that different from adult metaphysical stances. He can discourse semi-coherently on it at length. He'll probably endorse the views again in a few days if I remind him of our conversation. He'll draw obvious consequences from it, and argue against conflicting views.

But of course this "belief" has very little connection to his behavior. There's I think quite a different sense of belief in which I believe that this post will appear on the blog when I'm done with it -- a fact I've been taking for granted and which informs and drives my behavior. To give these different types of "belief" names, let's call the latter sort of belief "implicit" and the former "explicit".

Philosophy and ordinary folk psychology tends not to fully appreciate the vastness of the gulf between these two sorts of belief, perhaps. Often the two types of belief do co-occur: I both implicitly act as though my house is on Wilding Place and I verbally endorse the claim that it is. But the disconnection between them is often vast -- as in the cases, I think, of the implicit racist, the person who says she believes in Heaven and Hell but whose actions betray a surprising indifference to her eternal reward and punishment, and the immoral ethics professor. It's one thing to say "X" seriously and quite another to live it.

In a way, I suppose, this is old news and not surprising. But I think we too often overlook the gulf here, in philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, everyday life. Maybe we need two different words for these two different types of state, so as not to confuse things by applying the term "belief" to both. (Indeed, maybe the English "belief" does pretty much just capture the explicit, not-especially-well-connected-with-action type of state. "These are our beliefs....")

To the extent we have special "first-person privilege", near-infallible authority about what we "believe", it's really, I think (believe?), only regarding what we endorse in the explicit sense -- which is really the much less psychologically and morally important form of belief....


Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

I think this issue is very important, particularly for thinking about what we should aim to do when we teach philosophy. I find that it is easy (and hence tempting) to engage students in a discussion of their explicit beliefs and to avoid getting them to try to figure out what their implicit beliefs are. But, unless we do that, it is nearly impossible to submit their and our implicit beliefs to rational scrutiny or to change them through a process of rational reformation.

I (explicitly) believe there is an analogous distinction between believing to be valuable (or of value) and actually valuing. This case is complicated by the fact that there is a further difference between believing to be valuable from a reflective point of view and believing to be valuable while failing to think of all the relevant information or alternatives, perhaps because one is in the thrall of a passion like jealousy. Then again, maybe we should make a similar distinction between explict beliefs which we call "our considered opinions" and those which we do not.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Brad, I agree with you completely. Yet I would also emphasize -- I'm not saying you deny this -- that valuing from a "reflective point of view" and valuing "in the thrall" of a passion may be very difficult to distinguish from the inside. They may be phenomenologically identical. (Nomy Arpaly, whose book I just finished, is helpful on this point, I think.)

One interesting kind of case, which my student Ted Preston discussed at length in his dissertation, is the adulterous priest. Does he really believe adultery is wrong? Does he really value not committing adultery? In what senses? It hangs on the details, but in such cases a lot of things that we often think (in the rational case) travel together can splinter apart.

Genius said...

Another thought provoking post!

I think as we grow older we form more and more connections between ideas so it is easier for a child to have free floating concepts that are "believed" in a part of their mind.

Anyway somehow we tiptoe through all of this in our day to day lives and in our legal system. Declaring some people to "own" certain behaviors and other people and others behaviors to not be owned. And this has in a sense a real root in how deeply these behaviours or beliefs are intergrated into us. Whether the beliefs cause actions and if the behaviours ae caused by beliefs etc.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Genius, you must be older than you look in your picture!

I like your thought about free-floating "beliefs" being easier for young children. In adults, perhaps we have to get more abstract and disconnected (for example, metaphysical) for our beliefs to float free of our actions as easily as they do in children.

Genius said...

The picture is my "co-blogger".
I am asisting with the typing since her fingers are still too short!

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

I'm skeptical that your implicit-explicit distinction can capture what you are after. You seem to be saying that explicit beliefs drive behavior whereas implicit beliefs don't (or do not to the same amount). But is this true? By characterizing your son's implicit beliefs you even mentioned connections to behavior yourself: "He'll probably endorse the views again in a few days if I remind him of our conversation. He'll draw obvious consequences from it, and argue against conflicting views."

Perhaps I would try to approach the matter by assuming different standards for belief-ascriptions (corresponding to what is at stake in a certain context) mirroring somewhat the contextualism-debate about "know". At least, this seems to be an alternative to treating "belief" as ambiguous in the way you propose.