Friday, April 24, 2020

Performative Belief: The Blurry Line Between Acting As If You Believe and Really Believing

To believe some proposition P, according to me, is be disposed to act and react, inwardly and outwardly, in the patterns that we are apt to associate with the belief that P. To believe, for example, that there's beer in the fridge is just to be disposed to act and react as we think a beer-fridge-believer would: to go to the fridge if you want a beer (other things being equal), to feel surprise should you open the fridge and find the last beer gone, and so forth across a wide range of relevant situations.

This approach, I've argued, is the only approach to belief that adequately handles mixed-up in-betweenish cases in which your patterns of action and reaction splinter and diverge depending on the circumstances or the type of action called for -- for example, in cases of implicit bias, gradual learning, gradual forgetting, delusion, and half-hearted relgious belief.

But if belief comes down primarily to action, that invites a concern. What if you only act as if you believe? What if you decide, hey, I'm going to pretend I believe that the Queen of England is a space alien reptile! Outwardly, you act accordingly -- you join the conspiracy club and annoy your friends with detailed theories and sincere-seeming professions -- but inwardly you don't genuinely buy it for a minute.

In the past when I've considered such cases, I've considered only extreme versions, like the one just described. In this case, most of your dispositions don't actually align with the belief that P. Inwardly, you're thinking "what a great joke!", and outwardly, if it came to a high-stakes decision, you'd put your chips in the right place. It's just a bit of fun and you know it, so your contrary-seeming dispositions result from what I call, in the full account, the ceteris paribus clause or excusing conditions. All dispositional generalizations are subject to exceptions and excusers. Objects fall if dropped midair, all else being equal or normal. That's a perfectly good dispositional generalization despite exceptions for helium balloons and iron filings in a magnetic field.

Today I want to think about a different, less extreme type of acting as if. In the cases I'm imagining, social pressures or other desires shape your dispositions without your awareness. You're in an environment, say, where almost everyone around you has an unfavorable disposition toward a particular politician, call her Monstro. You don't have a really firm opinion yourself, so you're not going to go against the tide. You'll happily enough join in the general condemnation of Monstro, and you won't be disposed to praise Monstro or endorse Monstro's controversial policies. It's not that you're intentionally suppressing your opinion or explicitly trying to fit in. Nor is it that you regard your peers as great authorities and so become genuinely convinced. Our actions arise from a confluence of causes that aren't all easily traceable. Monstro condemnation just seems to flow naturally from your mouth -- to a substantial extent, unbeknownst to you, because of your social situation.

We can imagine similar cases with other socially approved or disapproved beliefs, such as religious beliefs, beliefs about sports (when you're among like-minded fans), beliefs that are central to an academic group identity, and so on. You act as if, and fairly stably so, more because situational pressures facilitate that action than from rooted conviction.

If beliefs are dispositional patterns, the social pressures might substantially explain and support the dispositional patterns; and if you're not already committed to the opposite, I imagine that your inner voice will generally cooperate. But maybe if you were removed to a different social context with different pressures, you'd find yourself acting differently. Our Monstro condemner, now visiting relatives who are passionate Monstro supporters, might find ambivalence and neutrality suddenly much more natural.

Our Monstro condemner acts as if he thinks Monstro is horrible, and he does so with some dispositional stability as long as he remains in his usual range of circumstances. It's in part just an act, but unlike the faux lizard-queen conspiracy theorist, he isn't fully aware of this fact about it. (He might have a hunch or an inkling.) Condemning Monstro is, for him, a social performance -- but one that doesn't feel inauthentic and which he enacts without reservation and without insight into its performative nature. I'll call this performative belief.

We all have, I suspect, some beliefs that are performative in this way, or partly performative. And by performing them long and consistently enough, we likely strengthen their dispositional tracks. Our P-aligned (e.g. Monstro condemning) actions and reactions gradually become more ingrained, more immovable, until the social context is no longer necessary and the beliefs are no longer merely performative.

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If you enjoy my blog, check out my recent book: A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.

Friday, April 17, 2020

In Praise of Weirdness

I'm a weirdo. It's been a lifelong thing. The popular girls in middle school called me weird for relentlessly riffing on Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and 1st edition D&D. In high school, I wore the wildest second-hand 1970s clothes I could find and people wrote things in my yearbook like "you have amazingly bad taste in shirts!" Now I spend my time writing bizarre essays and stories about group consciousness, simulation skepticism, infinite immaterial Turing Machines, and garden snail sex.

So let me own it. I'm weird, and I like weird things! You too, I hope?

What is it to be weird? I propose this: Something is weird if it's not normal. To be weird, a thing has to be somehow unusual -- but simply being unusual isn't enough. A blade of grass might be bent slightly differently than most other blades of grass. That doesn't make it weird -- not unless it's bent in some weird way. Similarly, your car's license plate number is unusual (no one else has it) but probably not weird. To be weird, a thing must be in some respect strikingly contrary to expectations. A high school kid wearing flower-print bellbottoms amid the black skinny jeans of 1985 is weird. So is a philosopher who has enough of a sliver of dream skepticism to spread his arms to try to fly across campus. A blade of grass with a slightly different bend isn't strikingly contrary to expectations, but one that doubled back on itself in a triple loop then ended in a stringy fluff -- that would be a weirdo piece of grass, man. Totally not normal.

Most philosophers think of norms either statistically or normatively (where to violate a norm is to be in some respect bad), but the kind of violation of normality that is constitutive of weirdness isn't either of those. Statistical rarity isn't enough, as I just explained. But neither is the weird necessarily something that violates our ethical, epistemic, or aesthetic norms. On the contrary, weirdness in my sense is good.

Imagine a world without weirdness -- a world where everything proceeds more or less according to expectations. The grass all shows the normal range of variation; the high school kids all wear normal clothes; philosophers endorse only the normal range of sensible theses. How dull! A certain amount of weirdness is wonderful. When I imagine my ideal world, I imagine a world of variation and difference, where people, events, and objects often have surprisingly strange features.

Now before you read this an endorsement of the view that we should all go completely bananas, let me mention two strong counterpressures toward normality.

First: If everything is surprising, nothing is surprising. There can be no expectations in sheer chaos. Weirdness blooms only against a contrasting background of normality. Not everything can be weird. We weirdos require a sea of straight-men to differ from. So thank you, straight-men!

Second: If most things of Type X lack Feature F, typically there's a reason: Feature F is bad in things of Type X. If an X, then, weirdly has Feature F, that's a problem. It's weird to eat scrambled paper for breakfast. It's weird to glue your socks to your hair instead of sliding them comfortably onto your feet. There are excellent reasons people don't do those things. But those things aren't bad because they're weird; they're weird because they're bad.

The best weirdness is weirdness against a background of normality where the weird-making feature is not also a bad-making feature. This is weirdness as harmless (maybe even helpful) novelty and difference. It's the weirdness of my father, one Christmas, flocking and decorating a tumbleweed instead of a tree for the living room. It's the weirdness of the girl who wears cat ears and sparkly eye shadow to school. The world's capacity to produce weirdness is one of the most wonderful things about existence, right alongside pleasure, knowledge, kindness, and beauty.

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If you enjoy my blog, check out my recent book: A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

The Unreliability of Naive Introspection

Wesley Buckwalter has a new podcast Journal Entries, in which philosophers spend 30-50 minutes walking listeners through the main ideas of one of their papers, sometimes adding new subsequent reflections or thoughts about future research in the area.

Today's Journal Entry is my 2008 paper, "The Unreliability of Naive Introspection".

I make the case that Descartes had it backwards when he said that the outside world is known better and more directly than our experiences. We are often radically wrong about even basic features of our currently ongoing experience, even when we reflect attentively upon it with sincere effort in favorable conditions.

Does It Matter If the Passover Story Is Literally True?

[Originally published in the L.A. Times, April 9, 2017; revised version published as Chapter 25 of A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures]

You probably already know the Passover story: how Moses asked Pharaoh to let his enslaved people leave Egypt, and how Moses’s god punished Pharaoh—killing the Egyptians’ firstborn sons while “passing over” the Jewish households. You might even know the new ancillary tale of the Passover orange. How much truth is there in these stories? At synagogues during Passover holiday, myth collides with fact, tradition with changing values. Negotiating this collision is the puzzle of modern religion.

Passover is a holiday of debate, reflection, and conversation. In 2016, as my family and I and the rest of the congregation waited for the Passover feast at our Reform Jewish temple, our rabbi prompted us: “Does it matter if the story of Passover isn’t literally true?”

Most people seemed to be shaking their heads. No, it doesn’t matter.

I was imagining the Egyptians’ sons. I am an outsider to the temple. My wife and teenage son are Jewish, but I am not. At the time, my nine-year-old daughter, adopted from China at age one, was describing herself as “half Jewish”.

I nodded my head. Yes, it does matter if the Passover story is literally true.

“Okay, Eric, why does it matter?” Rabbi Suzanne Singer handed me the microphone.

I hadn’t planned to speak. “It matters,” I said, “because if the story is literally true, then a god who works miracles really exists. It matters if there is a such a god or not. I don’t think I would like the ethics of that god, who kills innocent Egyptians. I’m glad there is no such god.

“It is odd,” I added, “that we have this holiday that celebrates the death of children, so contrary to our values now.”

The microphone went around, others in the temple responding to me. Values change, they said. Ancient war sadly but inevitably involved the death of children. We’re really celebrating the struggle of freedom for everyone....

Rabbi Singer asked if I had more to say in response. My son leaned toward me. “Dad, you don’t have anything more to say.” I took his cue and shut my mouth.

Then the Seder plates arrived with the oranges on them.

Seder plates have six labeled spots: two bitter herbs, charoset (a mix of fruit and nuts), parsley, a lamb bone, a boiled egg—each with symbolic value. There is no labeled spot for an orange.

The first time I saw an orange on a Seder plate, I was told this story about it: A woman was studying to be a rabbi. An orthodox rabbi told her that a woman belongs on the bimah (pulpit) like an orange belongs on the Seder plate. When she became a rabbi, she put an orange on the plate.

A wonderful story—a modern, liberal story. More comfortable than the original Passover story for a liberal Reform Judaism congregation like ours, proud of our woman rabbi. The orange is an act of defiance, a symbol of a new tradition that celebrates gender equality.

Does it matter if it’s true?

Here’s what actually happened. Dartmouth Jewish Studies Professor Susannah Heschel was speaking to a Jewish group at Oberlin College in Ohio. The students had written a story in which a girl asks a rabbi if there is room for lesbians in Judaism, and the rabbi rises in anger, shouting, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate!” The next Passover, Heschel, inspired by the students but reluctant to put anything as unkosher as bread on the Seder plate, used a tangerine instead.

The orange, then, though still an act of defiance, is also already a compromise and modification. The shouting rabbi is not an actual person but an imagined, simplified foe.

It matters that it’s not true. From the story of the orange, we learn a central lesson of Reform Judaism: that myths are cultural inventions built to suit the values of their day, idealizations and simplifications, changing as our values change—but that only limited change is possible within a tradition-governed institution. An orange, but not a crust of bread.

In a way, my daughter and I are also oranges: a new type of presence in a Jewish congregation, without a marked place, welcomed this year, unsure we belong, at risk of rolling off.

In the car on the way home, my son scolded me: “How could you have said that, Dad? There are people in the congregation who take the Torah literally, very seriously! You should have seen how they were looking at you, with so much anger. If you’d said more, they would practically have been ready to lynch you.”

Due to the seating arrangement, I had been facing away from most of the congregation. I hadn’t seen those faces. Were they really so outraged? Was my son telling me the truth on the way home that night? Or was he creating a simplified myth of me?

In belonging to an old religion, we honor values that are no longer entirely our own. We celebrate events that no longer quite make sense. We can’t change the basic tale of Passover. But we can add liberal commentary to better recognize Egyptian suffering, and we can add a new celebration of equality.

Although the new tradition, the orange, is an unstable thing atop an older structure that resists change, we can work to ensure that it remains. It will remain only if we can speak its story compellingly enough to also give our new values the power of myth.



Dreidel: A Seemingly Foolish Game That Contains the Moral World in Miniature (, Dec. 22, 2019; also LA Times, Dec. 12, 2017 and Chapter 24 of A Theory of Jerks).

Birthday Cake and a Chapel (blog post April 21, 2018 and Chapter 36 of A Theory of Jerks

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Friday, April 03, 2020

Wisdom and Chaos

I. The Puzzle: Why Aren't Academic Philosophers Wise?

Etymologically, philosophy is the study of wisdom. In the popular imagination, philosophers sit cross-legged, uttering cryptic profundities through long white beards. Real philosophy professors spend considerable time reading texts from the "wisdom traditions", and on ethics, the meaning of life, and the fundamental nature of reality. So you might think that the average philosopher would be at least a little bit wiser than the average non-philosopher.

Since the wisdom-o-meter is still in early development, we don't yet have solid scientific evidence on this question. But my impression is that academic philosophers in the United States, as a group, are no wiser than others of their social class -- no wiser on average than chemistry professors, high school teachers, lawyers, or city administrators.

In other words, we don't seem to profit much, in terms of personal wisdom, from our philosophical reading and extended reflection on big-picture questions. Why is this?

One easy answer that will suggest itself to many professional philosophers is this. Most of our reading and reflection doesn't concern the kinds of issues central to wisdom. A philosopher of language might spend much of their professional time reading about the reference of proper names and donkey anaphora. An ethicist might focus on textual puzzles in Kant interpretation. Wisdom might no more tend to follow from those activities than from grading high school history homework or studying sulfates.

However, I think that answer is at best partial. Although one's philosophical research might mostly concern donkey anaphora, most philosophers spend most of their professional time teaching. We teach classes like "introduction to philosophy" and "contemporary moral issues" and "meaning, truth, and value" -- and in prepping and teaching these classes, as well as sometimes apart from class, most of us do engage questions about the meaning of life and what matters most in the big picture. Substantially more than the average chemistry professor, we read and teach classic texts that ordinary people turn to as sources of wisdom. It seems that we ought to learn some wisdom from doing so. The fact that we don't, or don't seem to, thus remains a puzzle.

II. The Nature of Wisdom.

To address the puzzle, we need to think about wisdom and its sources. What is wisdom?

Here's my proposal: Wisdom is the disposition to make decent choices in a wide range of circumstances. If you tend to make poor choices, you're not wise. If you tend to make good choices but only in a narrow range of familiar circumstances and any perturbance would throw you into bewildered disarray, you're also not wise. Wisdom involves stability of good practical judgment even when circumstances turn strange.

A decent choice isn't necessarily the best choice. Only someone with inhumanly heroic insight could be disposed generally to make the best choices in a wide range of circumstances. Decency is more about avoiding blunders -- bad decisions due to panic, short-term thinking, seriously misweighing one's values, overlooking obvious considerations, or grossly misjudging people's character and intentions.

A wide range of circumstances needn't mean all circumstances. How wide a range and what belongs in the range remains an open parameter in this account. If you're a man in a culture where it's not unusual for men to be called to battle, then wisdom probably requires that you be disposed to make decent choices if called to battle. If you're not in such a culture, maybe how you'd react in battle doesn't matter so much. We can also define subclasses of wisdom by considering narrower ranges of circumstances or narrower classes of decisions: wise in matters of child-rearing or in choosing friends or in financial matters.

Being calm and giving good advice, classically associated with wisdom, aren't part of my definition, but they flow naturally from it. Panic leads to bad decisions, so if you're prone to panic, you're probably not wise. Good hypothetical thinking is crucial to good decision making, so the wise will tend to have good judgment about circumstances they aren't in; and since giving bad advice is itself a type of bad decision, it's a failure of wisdom not to know one's limits well enough to stay silent rather than misdirect others.

III. Chaos and Wisdom.

It's an unfortunate feature of the human condition that we rarely learn from other people's mistakes. We insist on making the mistakes ourselves. (This seems to be especially true of teenagers and nations.) So unless you've personally lived through a wide range of circumstances and made a wide range of corresponding mistakes, you're unlikely to have acquired the knowledge necessary to navigate a diversity of situations without blundering. Narrow, stable lives will thus tend to generate less wisdom than chaotic lives with radical changes of circumstance.

This explains your grandmother's wisdom -- grandma who grew up in Hungary, fled the Nazis, built a new life in an unfamiliar country speaking an unfamiliar language, raised five children each with their own chaos, lost her husband, almost died of cancer, knew poverty and comfort, security and uncertainty, love and betrayal.

What is pretty much the least chaotic path through our culture? The academic path. Do what your teachers tell you. Get good grades. Go to graduate school and do it some more. Get a job. Get tenure. It's extremely competitive, but the path is orderly and laid out clearly in advance. Each thing flows neatly from the next. (I set aside the increasingly common chaos of the academic job market.) The set of skills and the range of challenges doesn't change radically over the course of one's life, and there normally are few disruptive conflicts with authority. You wrote decent essays in high school. You wrote better essays in college, then in grad school, and then as a faculty member. Philosophy, literature, and math are perhaps especially narrow, even among academic disciplines. In the laboratory sciences, one at least needs also to learn to manage people and equipment. [ETA: See Marcus Arvan's interesting comment below about whether this description of the academic career path is dated.]

The solution to the puzzle, then, is this. Although one can of course learn some wisdom from reading great philosophy and thinking about profound questions, that's not a particularly good or efficient way to acquire wisdom, compared to actually living through ups and downs and weirdness and chaos. Academic philosophers with narrow, orderly life paths won't fully catch up with grandma, despite some possible modest benefits from thinking hard about Kant, Buddhism, and Montaigne.

You'll be unsurprised to learn that this post was inspired by noting my own and others' reactions to the chaos of the pandemic.


PS: Maybe reading personal essays like Montaigne's or engaging historical or fictional narratives is more effective in simulating alternative experiences than reading abstract arguments? My student Chris McVey has been working on this issue. See some of his data here. Martha Nussbaum's Poetic Justice is also relevant.



Cheeseburger ethics (Aeon Magazine, 2015).

The moral behavior of ethicists (in J. Sytsma and W. Buckwalters, eds., A Companion to Experimental Philosophy, 2016)

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If you enjoy my blog, check out my recent book: A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.