Friday, March 08, 2019

Thoughts, Judgments, and Beliefs -- What's the Difference?

Today I'm going to pitch a taxonomy. My secret agenda is to undermine overly intellectualist views about belief and self-knowledge.

An episode of some sort occurs in your mind. Let's say it's in inner speech: "I should get started on that blog post" or "It fine for her to choose Irvine over Riverside". On the face of it, it's an assertion: It's not a question or a string of nonsense or a "hmmmmm...". An episode of inner speech in the form of an assertion is, I will say, one type of assertoric thought. (Assertoric thought needn't require inner speech if visual imagery or emotional reactions or imageless thoughts can do the same type of work; but let's set that issue aside for today.) Inner speech of this sort can cross your mind without your judging or believing the content. If I sing to myself "She's buying a stairway to Heaven", normally I don't at that same moment believe that anyone is actually buying a stairway to Heaven. At other times, it seems that I do genuinely believe what I am saying to myself, with the inner speech somehow the vehicle of that belief: "Uh oh, we're out of coffee!" The question is: What is present in the latter case that is absent in the former?

One possibility is a feeling of assent. On this view, when "out of coffee!" comes to my mind, accompanying that inner speech is another type of experience, not in inner speech -- an experience of yes-this-is-true, or a feeling of confidence or correctness. In contrast, when I'm singing along with Led Zeppelin, there's no such accompanying yes-this-is-true experience.

Another possibility, the one I prefer, is that the important difference is less in the phenomenology, that is, in some experiential difference between the two cases, than it is in type of cognitive traction the thought has. Does the thought spin idly, so to speak, or does it penetrate into other aspects of your cognitive life? I'd like to suggest that if the thought has one type of cognitive traction, it's a judgment. And if the judgment has a certain type of further traction, you believe. If the thought has little to no traction, it's a mere idle thought (or as I call it elsewhere, a "wraith" of judgment).

It seems to me phenomenologically plausible that at least sometimes we feel confidence when we speak silently to ourselves, and sometimes we feel doubt or skepticism or like we're just singing some words. The same episode of inner speech "She's buying a stairway" can be experienced very differently, and this difference can have something to do with whether we really judge it to be so. But for two reasons, I think it's a mistake to rely on these phenomenological differences in distinguishing between judgments and merely idle assertoric thoughts.

First, even if there is sometimes a phenomenology of confidence or this-is-really-so-ness and sometimes a feeling of doubt or I'm-merely-singing, it is by no means clear that such epistemic phenomenology accompanies all of our inner speech or even most of it. For example, in Russell Hurlburt's experience sampling studies, we don't see a lot of reports of this type of epistemic phenomenology. Thinking back as best I can on my own stream of experience (some systematically sampled, but mostly not), it strikes me that such phenomenology would generally be subtle in most cases -- the kind of thing it would be easy for a theorist to miss or alternatively to invent given the difficulty of knowing such structural features of experience. Such phenomenological criteria are, at best, a dubious theoretical foundation for such an important distinction.

Second, and maybe more importantly, what we should care about in making a distinction of this sort is not the existence, or not, of a feeling of confidence or some accompanying phenomenology of this-is-so. What matters more is the role the thought plays in one's cognitive life. That role is what the distinction between judgment and idle thinking ought to track.

Consider the two examples I began with: "I should get started on that blog post" and "It's fine for her to choose Irvine over Riverside". I say these to myself, perhaps with some feeling of that-is-so. But then, maybe I don't start on the blog post. I check Facebook instead, though there's no real need for me to do so. Nor do I feel particularly bad about that, or torn. The thought occurred, seemed in some sense right, but didn't penetrate further into my cognition or decision making. Meanwhile, maybe, I remain miffed that she rejected Riverside for Irvine (I'm imagining here a graduate student or faculty member choosing to decline our offer of admission or hiring). Probably I shouldn't be miffed. It is fine! People ought to choose what they think is best for them. And yet... most of my cognition about the matter remains wrongly and irrationally hurt and resentful. I'm trying to convince myself, but I haven't fully succeeded.

What we do and should care about in distinguishing judgment from idle thought is the extent to which I have succeeded. If, at least for that moment, my planning and thinking really is informed by my seeming-assessment that it's time to get started and that it's fine for her to choose Irvine, then that is what I have judged. But if, as is sometimes the case, the thoughts don't really penetrate into the remainder of my cognitive life, don’t guide other aspects of my reasoning and my posture toward the world, then it's probably best to regard them as mere idle thoughts, rather than genuine judgments, even if in some superficial way I feel sincere and this-is-so-ish when I say them to myself. (On the metaphor of attitudes as postures toward the world, see my discussion here.)

That is how I would like to draw the distinction between judgment and idle thought.

How about belief? Here I want to make a similar move, but at an expanded temporal scale. We might sincerely judge something to be so in the sense that our related thoughts, and our general posture toward the world, are for a moment aligned toward the truth of that thing. I really do, now that I think of it carefully, judge it to be fine for her to have made that choice. Of course it's fine! But the difference between a judgment and a belief is the difference between an occurrence and a steady-state thing. A judgment happens in a moment; a belief endures, at least for a while. The question is: Does the judgment stick? Does that momentary assessment have enough cognitive traction to change how I will feel about it next time I return to the question? After the conscious thought vanishes, will it leave some sort of more durable trace in my cognitive structure? Or it is here and gone? Belief requires, I suggest, that more durable trace.

One way to think of it is this: A conscious thought is in a way a preparation for a judgment, and a judgment is in a way a preparation for a belief. "P" bubbles up into your mind, for some reason. If P finds the right kind of momentary home in your mind, if, at that moment, for the duration of its presence in the footlights of consciousness, it shifts or solidifies related aspects of your mentality, then it is a full-bodied judgment and not just an idle thought. And if what it shifts and solidifies stays shifted and solidified after the judgment fades from consciousness, then that judgment has become a belief.

Back to the secret agenda: If this is right, you cannot just read what you believe, or even what you currently judge, off of what you can introspectively discover, or what you say with a feeling of sincerity. Genuine belief and judgment require penetration deeper into the springs of thought and action.



"A Dispositional Approach to the Attitudes: Thinking Outside of the Belief Box" (in Nottelmann, ed., New Essays on Belief, 2013).

"Do You Have Whole Herds of Swiftly Forgotten Microbeliefs?" (Feb 1, 2019). [N.B.: Today's post suggests a partial resolution to the question that the microbeliefs post leaves open.]

Against Intellectualism about Belief (Jul 31, 2015)


Howie said...

I'm not sure I get your point: so, I say I want to diet, but I don't, so I lack the belief I should diet.
However, I work with a cognitive therapist and after two months I successfully start losing weight- so now I believe that I should lose weight- but I'm really the same person, aren't I?

chinaphil said...

Your cheeky examples raise part of the problem - beliefs about the future and feelings and/or morality are inevitably going to raise more difficulties than physical "the cat is on the mat" style statements.
So I just want to chase the complexity back up the argumentative chain: At the end you suggest that assertions might be of indeterminate belief status, but perhaps that also means that their "assertoricity" is not as determinate as we originally thought.
Perhaps they were just bunches of ideas that could have crystallized into an intention, a belief, a question, a wish, or something else.
We could represent these ideas using infinitive forms in English, to avoid giving them an excessively assertoric or questioning or wishing form, if they really haven't yet taken on those features in the mind yet: "getting started on a blog post"; "it being OK to choose Irvine". As we decide how to feel about these things, we form them into actual propositions or intentions: "I should get started on a blog post," "I know that I ought to say it is OK to choose Irvine."
Incidentally, this is quite a common problem in translation: Chinese (especially Classical Chinese, but modern Mandarin, too) does this stripping away of intentional markers more easily than English, so it's a common device to present ideas and generate suspense by not providing the author's intentional stance immediately.

howard b said...

So perhaps having a belief that one should do A means that under certain conditions one will do A, though by your analysis one does not quite believe A because of one's behavior. So believing A maans potentially A will be behaved

Anonymous said...

How about considering two contradictory conditionals, say, "if it rains I will take my umbrella with me" and "if it does not rain, I won't take my umbrella with me". They both influence my (future) action and to my current beliefs, but I don't pass judgement on either (say, I don't have the evidence pro or con yet). They both seem to qualify as judgements, but they contradict each other: but I don't seem to commit a contradiction if I assert both of them, since they are conditional statements. Still they seem to qualify as judgements on your account since they determine my beliefs and actions to a degree, perhaps even as beliefs.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks!

Howard: Yes, your second comment is closer -- thought I also think that phenomenology and other cognitive features are relevant, as well as whether there are related excusing conditions. For example, do you feel genuinely guilty, kick yourself, is there some excusing condition like high stress? On my view, it is possible to be in an in-between state, if some of your dispositional profile goes one way and some goes the other.

Chinaphil: Interesting! I like the idea about starting the idea without the intentional marker -- maybe the assertoricity can be indeterminate in some such cases. On the cat-is-on-the-mat type examples: One reason I prefer to avoid them is that starting with the simple case where everything aligns can lead to simplicistic views. To highlight how the judgment and belief might come apart, it's helpful to start with cases in which it's plausible that they might!

Anon: I'm not seeing the problem yet. I can judge that If A, B, and if not-A, not B. I don't see anything contradictory there, nor need I commit to whether A. Is there something in my account that would prevent me from allowing that it's possible to judge and believe them both simultaneously?