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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P.D. Magnus said...

Is what makes it "just an act" the fact the the performative Monstro-denouncer doesn't have the corresponding internal dispositions? Or is it that their external dispositions only manifest in a suitable social context? If it's the latter, then there's a sense in which every belief is just an act. One only says anything in suitable social contexts, and there are other social contexts in which one would keep quiet or say something else.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Both aspects. You're right that it's worth thinking a bit more carefully about difference between the social conditions under which you'd express deeply held beliefs vs those under which you'd express performative belief. There's social contingency in both, and probably a good range of gray cases, but somehow there seems to be more or different contingency as one tends toward the performative end.

Luke Roelofs said...

This all seems right, but are you taking the upshot to be that there's a third category to recognise ('performative beliefs') distinct from belief and performance, or that there's a distinctive type of belif here ('performative'), or that this is a class of cases indeterminate between belief and performance (lying on the 'blurry line')?

SelfAwarePatterns said...

It strikes me that a lot more of our beliefs are either performative, or have performative origins, than most of us are comfortable with. And I'm not confident this is an area where introspection reliably tells us the difference. It may just be telling us a useful social story.

Arnold said...

Is our believing and reasoning a use of energy...

Can we extract a value in the way our energy is used...

Are our use of energies possible values here on this planet...

Philosopher Eric said...

I’m in complete agreement professor. Furthermore as is sometimes the case I’d like to take your post a great deal further.

I am a moral relativist, which is to say that I consider standard moral notions to exist as social tools from which to manipulate us to whatever dogma that we happen to be subjects of at a given point in our lives. My central thesis is that value itself does not exist as what’s moral, but rather as something which is produced in the head. Thus we’re all self interested products of our circumstances in the quest for this head based value stuff, though as such we tend to formally deny this nature in order to better conform with the social tool of morality. Here we tend to praise notions like “altruism” in order to benefit from the approval of others. Maintaining such a fa├žade tends to increase the potential for our heads produce what’s actually valuable to us.

The problem however seems to be that psychologists are thus tasked with grasping our nature, though as subjects of these social dynamics have been unable to yet break free of the need to pacify group doctrines. I suspect that this helps explain why the field has not yet been able to develop any broad generally accepted theory regarding our function. If I’m right then such a theorist would tend to be vilified as a common hedonist! Thus it may be that the field of philosophy will need to help psychology harden up by means of developing a community of respected professionals which is armed with something like my single principle of axiology. It states:

It’s possible for a machine which is not conscious (like a brain), to produce a punishment/ reward dynamic from which to drive the function of something that is conscious (like yourself).

Such a community should help clear the way for psychologist to finally explore their domain amorally, which is to say in the manner that harder forms of science are able to. Recently my friend Liam interviewed me about a post I did on the matter for his YouTube channel. Beyond being way too nervous, I guess for a first try I didn’t do all that poorly.

Nichi Yes said...

The examples of performative belief remind me of Plato's belief/knowledge distinction in the Protagoras (350s), at least as I understand it, mostly following Penner: A belief acquires knowledge status when it is "strong" or stable enough to be maintained across contexts. The usual goto examples are things like believing you should refrain from indulging in much cake when away from it, but the belief doesn't stick around in contexts with cake. I'd take performative belief to be a species of Plato's not-strong belief, the relevant contextual factors being social.

Also, some people seem to only have these beliefs. Whether that's a mere seeming and defect of introspection and observation or psychologically real. Do you take it to be conceptually possible for someone to have only performative beliefs? If it is, then there seems to me to be a nice causal story to tell explaining some of BPD's symptoms in terms of trauma configuring the mind to overrely on performative beliefs or even fail to develop other belief-making mechanisms. If not, then their introspection must be incorrect, which requires a rather different set of solutions.

Bao Pu said...

You might find Hans-Georg Moeller's and Paul D'Ambrosio's "Genuine Pretending" book on the Zhuangzi very interesting.