Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The Washout Argument Against Longtermism

Longtermism is the view that what we choose to do now should be substantially influenced by its expected consequences for the trillions of people who might possibly exist in the longterm future. Maybe there's only a small chance that trillions of people will exist in the future, and only a minuscule chance that their lives will go appreciably better or worse as a result of what you or I do now. But however small that chance is, if we multiply it by a large enough number of possible future people -- trillions? trillions of trillions? -- the effects are worth taking very seriously.

Longtermism is a hot topic in the effective altruism movement, and William MacAskill's What We Owe the Future, released last week, has made a splash in the popular media, including The New Yorker, NPR, The Atlantic, and Boston Review. I finished the book Sunday. Earlier this year, I argued against longtermism on several grounds. Today, I'll expand on one of those arguments, which (partly following Greaves and MacAskill 2021) I'll call the Washout Argument.

The Washout Argument comes in two versions, infinite and finite.

The Washout Argument: Infinite Version

Note: If you find this a bit silly, that's part of the point.

As I've argued in other posts -- as well as in a forthcoming book chapter with philosopher of physics Jacob Barandes -- everything you do causes almost everything. Put more carefully, if we accept currently standard, vanilla physics and cosmology, and extrapolate it forward, then almost every action you take will cause almost every type of non-unique future event of finite probability. A ripple of causation extends outward from you, simply by virtue of the particles that reflect off you as you move, which then influence other particles, which influence still more particles, and so on and so on until the heat death of the universe.

But the heat death of the universe is only the beginning! Standard cosmological models don't generally envision a limit to future time.  So post heat death, we should expect the universe to just keep enduring and enduring. In this state, there will be occasional events in which particles enter unlikely configurations, by chance. For example, from time to time six particles will by chance converge on the same spot, or six hundred will, or -- very, very rarely (but we have infinitude to play with) six hundred trillion. Under various plausible assumptions, any finitely probable configuration of a finite number of particles should occur eventually, and indeed infinitely often.

This relates to the famous Boltzmann brain problem, because some of those chance configurations will be molecule-for-molecule identical with human brains.  These unfortunate brains might be having quite ordinary thoughts, with no conception that they are mere chance configurations amid post-heat-death chaos.

Now remember, the causal ripples from the particles you perturbed yesterday by raising your right hand are still echoing through this post-heat-death universe.

Suppose that, by freak chance, a human brain in a state of great suffering appears at spatiotemporal location X that has been influenced by a ripple of causation arising from your having raised your hand. That brain wouldn't have appeared in that location had you not raised your hand. Chancy events are sensitive in that way. Thus, one extremely longterm consequence of your action was that Boltzmann brain's suffering. Of course, there are also things of great value that arise which wouldn't have arisen if you hadn't raised your hand -- indeed, whole amazing worlds that wouldn't otherwise have come into being. What awesome power you have!

[For a more careful treatment see Schwitzgebel and Barandes forthcoming.]

Consequently, from a longterm perspective, everything you do has a longterm expected value of positive infinity minus negative infinity -- a value that is normally undefined. Even if you employed some fancy mathematics to subtract these infinitudes from each other, finding that, say, the good would overall outweigh the bad, there would still be a washout, since almost certainly nothing you do now would have a bearing on the balance of those two infinitudes. (Note, by the way, that my argument here is not simply that adding a finite value to an infinite value is of no consequence, though that is arguably also true.)  Whatever the expected effects of your actions are in the short term, they will eventually be washed out by infinitely many good and bad consequences in the long term.

Should you then go murder people for fun, since ultimately it makes no difference to the longterm expected balance of good to bad in the world? Of course not. I consider this argument a reductio ad absurdum of the idea that we should evaluate actions by their longterm consequences, regardless of when those consequences occur, with no temporal discounting. We should care more about the now than about the far distant future, contra at least the simplest formulations of longtermism.

You might object: Maybe my physics is wrong. Sure, maybe it is! But as long as you allow that there's even a tiny chance that this cosmological story is correct, you end up with infinite positive and negative expected values.  Even if it's 99.9% likely that your actions only have finite effects, to get an expected value in the standard way, you'll need to add in a term accounting for 0.1% chance of infinite effects, which will render the final value infinite or undefined.

The Washout Argument: Two Finite Versions

Okay, what if we forget about infinitude and just truncate our calculations at heat death? There will be only finitely many people affected by your actions (bracketing some worries about multiverse theory), so we'll avoid the problems above.

Here the issue is knowing what will have a positive versus negative longterm effect. I recommend radical skepticism.  Call this Skeptical Washout.

Longtermists generally think that the extinction of our species would be bad for the longterm future. There are trillions of people who might have led happy lives who won't do so if we wipe ourselves out in the next few centuries!

But is this so clear?

Here's one argument against it: We humans love our technology. It's our technology that creates the big existential risks of human extinction. Maybe the best thing for the longterm future is for us to extinguish ourselves as expeditiously as possible, so as to clear the world for another species to replace us -- one that, maybe, loves athletics and the arts but not technology quite so much. Some clever descendants of dolphins, for example? Such a species might have a much better chance than we do of actually surviving a billion years. The sooner we die off, maybe, the better, before we wipe out too many more of the lovely multicellular species on our planet that have the potential to eventually replace and improve on us.

Here's another argument: Longtermists like MacAskill and Toby Ord typically think that these next few centuries are an unusually crucial time for our species -- a period of unusual existential risk, after which, if we safely get through, the odds of extinction fall precipitously. (This assumption is necessary for their longtermist views to work, since if every century carries an independent risk of extinction of, say, 10%, the chance is vanishingly small that our species will survive for millions of years.) What's the best way to tide us through these next few especially dangerous centuries? Well, one possibility is a catastrophic nuclear war that kills 99% of the population. The remaining 1% might learn the lesson of existential risk so well that they will be far more careful with future technology than we are now. If we avoid nuclear war now, we might soon develop even more dangerous technologies that would increase the risk of total extinction, such as engineered pandemics, rogue superintelligent AI, out-of-control nanotech replicators, or even more destructive warheads. So perhaps it's best from the longterm perspective to let us nearly destroy ourselves as soon as possible, setting our technology back and teaching us a hard lesson, rather than blithely letting technology advance far enough that a catastrophe is more likely to be 100% fatal.

Look, I'm not saying these arguments are correct. But in my judgment they're not especially less plausible than the other sorts of futurist forecasting that longtermists engage in, such as the assumption that we will somehow see ourselves safely past catastrophic risk if we survive the next few centuries.

The lesson I draw is not that we should try to destroy or nearly destroy ourselves as soon as possible! Rather, my thought is this: We really have no idea what the best course is for the very long term future, millions of years from now. It might be things that we find intuitively good, like world peace and pandemic preparedness, or it might be intuitively horrible things, like human extinction or nuclear war.

If we could be justified in thinking that it's 60% likely that peace in 2023 is better than nuclear war in 2023 in terms of its impact on the state of the world over the entire course of the history of the planet, then the longtermist logic could still work (bracketing the infinite version of the Washout Argument). But I don't think we can be justified even in that relatively modest commitment. Regarding what actions now will have a positive expected impact on the billion-year future, I think we have to respond with a shoulder shrug. We cannot use billion-year expectations to guide our decisions.

Even if you don't want to quite shrug your shoulders, there's another way the finite Washout Argument can work.  Call this Negligible Probability Washout.

Let's say you're considering some particular action. You think that action has a small chance of creating an average benefit of -- to put a toy number on it -- one unit to each future person who exists. Posit that there are a trillion future people. Now consider, how small is that small chance? If it's less than one in a trillion, then on a standard consequentialist calculus, it would be better to create a sure one unit benefit for one person who exists now.

What are reasonable odds to put on the chance that some action you do will materially benefit a trillion people in the future? To put this in perspective, consider the odds that your one vote will decide the outcome of your country's election. There are various ways to calculate this, but the answer should probably be tiny, one in a hundred thousand at most (if you're in a swing state in a close U.S. election), maybe one in a million, one in ten million or more. That's a very near event, whose structure we understand. It's reasonable to vote on those grounds, by the utilitarian calculus. If I think that my vote has a one in ten million chance of making my country ten billion dollars better off, then -- if I'm right -- my vote is a public good worth an expected $1000 (ten billion times one in ten million).

My vote is a small splash in a very large pond, though a splash worth making.  But the billion-year future of Earth is a much, much larger pond.  It seems reasonable to conjecture that the odds that some action you do now will materially improve the lives of trillions of people in the future should be many orders of magnitude lower than one in a million -- low enough to be negligible, even if (contra the first part of this argument) you can accurately predict the direction. 

On the Other Hand, the Next Few Centuries

... are (moderately) predictable! Nuclear war would be terrible for us and our immediate descendants. We should care about protecting ourselves from pandemics, and dangerous AI systems, and environmental catastrophes, and all those other things that the longtermists care about. I don't in fact disagree with most of the longtermists' priorities and practical plans. But the justification should be the long term future in the more ordinary sense of "long term" -- fifteen years, fifty years, two hundred years, not ten million years. Concern about the next few generations is reason enough to be cautious with the world.

[Thanks to David Udell for discussion.]

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The Philosophy Major Continues to Recover and Diversify in the U.S.

The National Center for Education Statistics has released their data on bachelor's degree completions in the U.S. through the 2019-2020 academic year, and it's mostly good news for the philosophy major.

Back in 2017, I noticed that the number of students completing philosophy degrees in the U.S. had plummeted sharply between 2010 and 2016, from 9297 in 2009-2010 to 7507 in 2015-2016, a decline of 19% in just six years. The other large humanities majors (history, English, and foreign languages and literatures) saw similar declines in the period.

A couple of years ago, the trend had started to modestly reverse itself -- and furthermore the philosophy major appeared to be attracting a higher percentage of women and non-White students than previously. The newest data show those trends continuing.

Methodology: The numbers below are all from the NCES IPEDS database, U.S. only, using CIP classification 38.01 for philosophy majors, including both first and second majors, using the NCES gender and race/ethnicity categories. Each year ends at spring term (thus "2010" refers to the 2009-2010 academic year).

Trend since 2010, total number of philosophy bachelor's degrees awarded in the U.S.:

2010: 9274
2011: 9298
2012: 9369
2013: 9427
2014: 8823
2015: 8186
2016: 7491
2017: 7575
2018: 7669
2019: 8075
2020: 8195

As you can see, numbers are up about 9% since their nadir in 2016, though still well below their peak in 2011. (The numbers are slightly different from those in my earlier post, presumably to small post-hoc adjustments in the IPEDS dataset.)

One consequence of the decline, I suspect, was on the job market for philosophy professors, which has been weak since the early 2010s. This has been hard especially on newly graduated PhD students in the field. With the major declining so sharply in the period, it's understandable that administrators wouldn't prioritize the hiring of new philosophy professors. If numbers continue to rise, the job market might correspondingly recover.

Total degrees awarded across all majors has also continued to rise, and thus in percentage terms, philosophy remains well below its peak of almost 0.5% in the late 2000s and early 2010s -- only 0.31% of students, a tiny percentage. Philosophy won't be overtaking psychology or biology in popularity any time soon. Philosophy majors, you are special!

Back in 2017, I also noticed that, going back to the 1980s, the percentage of philosophy majors who were women had remained entirely within the narrow band of 30-34%, despite an increase in women in the undergraduate population overall. However, in the most recent four years, this percentage rose to 39.4%. [ETA 1:48 p.m.: Since 2001, the overall percentage of women among bachelor's recipients across all majors has stayed fairly constant at around 57%.] That might not seem like a big change, but given the consistency of the earlier numbers, it's actually quite remarkable to me. Here's a zoomed-in graph to give you a sense of it:

[click to enlarge and clarify]

The philosophy major is also increasingly racially or ethnically diverse. The percentage of non-Hispanic White students has been falling steadily since NCES began collecting data in 1995, from 81% then to 58% now. Overall, across all majors, 61% percent of bachelor's degree recipients are non-Hispanic White, so the philosophy major is actually now slightly less non-Hispanic White than average. (All the race/ethnicity figures below exclude "nonresident aliens" and "race/ethnicity unknown".)

The particular patterns differ by race/ethnic group.

Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders constitute a tiny percentage: about 0.2% of degree recipients both in philosophy and overall since the category was introduced in 2011.

American Indian or Alaskan Native is also a tiny percentage, but unfortunately that percentage has been steadily declining since the mid-2000s, and the group is especially underrepresented in philosophy. According to the U.S. Census, about 0.9% of the U.S. population in that age group identifies as non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaskan Native.

[click to enlarge and clarify]

The following chart displays trends for the other four racial categories used by the NCES. In 2011, "two or more races" was introduced as a category. Also before 2011, the Asian category included "Pacific Islander".

As you can see from the chart, the percentage of Hispanic students graduating with philosophy degrees has surged, from 4.3% in 1995 to 14.4% in 2020. This is approximately representative of a similar surge among Hispanic students across all majors, from 4.8% in 1995 to 15.7% in 2020. Multiracial students have also surged, though it's unclear how much of that surge has to do with changing methodology versus the composition of the student population.

The percentage of philosophy majors identifying as Asian or Black has also increased during the period, but only slowly: From 5.4% and 3.3% respectively in 1995 to 6.8% and 5.6% in 2020. For comparison, across all majors, the numbers rose from 5.4% to 8.1% Asian and 7.6% to 10.2% Black. So, in 2020, Asian and especially Black students are disproportionately underrepresented in the philosophy major. Interestingly, some data from the Higher Education Research Institute suggests that there has been a very recent surge of interest in the philosophy major among Black students just entering college. We'll see if that plays out among Bachelor's degree recipients in a few years.

Monday, August 08, 2022

Top Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazines 2022

Since 2014, I've compiled an annual ranking of science fiction and fantasy magazines, based on prominent awards nominations and "best of" placements over the previous ten years. Below is my list for 2022. (For all previous lists, see here.)

[A DALL-E output for "science fiction and fantasy magazine"]

Method and Caveats:

(1.) Only magazines are included (online or in print), not anthologies, standalones, or series.

(2.) I gave each magazine one point for each story nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, or World Fantasy Award in the past ten years; one point for each story appearance in any of the Dozois, Horton, Strahan, Clarke, or Adams "year's best" anthologies; and half a point for each story appearing in the short story or novelette category of the annual Locus Recommended list.

(2a.) Methodological notes for 2022: Starting this year, I swapped the Sturgeon for the Eugie award for all award years 2013-2022. Also, with the death of Dozois in 2018, the [temporary?] cessation of the Strahan anthology, and the delay of the Horton and Clarke anthologies, the 2022 year includes only one new anthology source: Adams 2021. Given the ten-year-window, anthologies still comprise about half the weight of the rankings overall.

(3.) I am not attempting to include the horror / dark fantasy genre, except as it appears incidentally on the list.

(4.) Prose only, not poetry.

(5.) I'm not attempting to correct for frequency of publication or length of table of contents.

(6.) I'm also not correcting for a magazine's only having published during part of the ten-year period. Reputations of defunct magazines slowly fade, and sometimes they are restarted. Reputations of new magazines take time to build.

(7.) I take the list down to 1.5 points.

(8.) I welcome corrections.

(9.) I confess some ambivalence about rankings of this sort. They reinforce the prestige hierarchy, and they compress interesting complexity into a single scale. However, the prestige of a magazine is a socially real phenomenon that deserves to be tracked, especially for the sake of outsiders and newcomers who might not otherwise know what magazines are well regarded by insiders when considering, for example, where to submit.


1. Tor.com (198 points) 

2. Clarkesworld (185.5) 

3. Asimov's (160.5) 

4. Lightspeed (129) 

5. Fantasy & Science Fiction (127.5) 

6. Uncanny (113) (started 2014) 

7. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (59.5) 

8. Analog (55) 

9. Strange Horizons (46)

10. Subterranean (35) (ceased short fiction 2014) 

11. Nightmare (31.5) 

12. Apex (30) 

13. Interzone (30.5) 

14. Fireside (18.5) 

15. Slate / Future Tense (17.5) 

16. FIYAH (13.5) (started 2017) 

17. The Dark (11.5) 

18. Fantasy Magazine (10) (occasional special issues during the period, fully relaunched in 2020) 

19. The New Yorker (9.5) 

20t. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (7) 

20t. McSweeney's (7) 

22. Sirenia Digest (6) 

23t. Omni (5.5) (classic magazine, briefly relaunched 2017-2018) 

23t. Tin House (5.5) (ceased short fiction 2019) 

25t. Black Static (5) 

25t. Conjunctions (5) 

25t. Diabolical Plots (5) (started 2015)

25t. Shimmer (5) (ceased 2018) 

29. Terraform (4.5) (started 2014) 

30t. Boston Review (4) 

30t. GigaNotoSaurus (4) 

32. Paris Review (3.5) 

33t. Daily Science Fiction (3) 

33t. Electric Velocipede (3) (ceased 2013) 

33t. Future Science Fiction Digest (3) (started 2018) 

*33t. Galaxy's Edge (3)

33t. Kaleidotrope (3) 

33t. Omenana (3) (started 2014) 

33t. Wired (3)

40t. Anathema (2.5) (started 2017)

40t. B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog (2.5) (started 2014)

40t. Beloit Fiction Journal (2.5) 

40t. Buzzfeed (2.5) 

40t. Matter (2.5) 

40t. Weird Tales (2.5) (classic magazine, off and on throughout the period)

46t. Harper's (2) 

46t. Mothership Zeta (2) (ran 2015-2017) 

*48t khōréō (1.5) (started 2021)

48t. MIT Technology Review (1.5) 

48t. New York Times (1.5) 

48t. Translunar Travelers Lounge (1.5) (started 2019)

[* indicates new to the list this year]



(1.) The New Yorker, McSweeney's, Tin House, Conjunctions, Boston Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Harper's, Matter, and Paris Review are literary magazines that occasionally publish science fiction or fantasy.  Slate and Buzzfeed are popular magazines, and Omni, Wired, and MIT Technology Review are popular science magazines, which publish a bit of science fiction on the side.  The New York Times is a well-known newspaper that ran a series of "Op-Eds from the Future" from 2019-2020.  The remaining magazines focus on the F/SF genre.

(2.) It's also interesting to consider a three-year window.  Here are those results, down to six points:

1. Uncanny (59) 
2. Tor.com (56.5) 
3. Clarkesworld (37.5)
4. F&SF (36)
5. Lightspeed (29)
6. Asimov's (25.5)
7t. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (14) 
7t. Nightmare (14)
9. Analog (11) 
10. Strange Horizons (10.5) 
11. Slate / Future Tense (9) 
12. FIYAH (8.5) 
13. Apex (8) 
14. Fireside (7)

(3.) For the past several years it has been clear that the classic "big three" print magazines -- Asimov's, F&SF, and Analog -- are slowly being displaced in influence by the four leading free online magazines, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny (all founded 2006-2014).  Contrast this year's ranking with the ranking from 2014, which had Asimov's and F&SF on top by a wide margin.  Presumably, a large part of the explanation is that there are more readers of free online fiction than of paid subscription magazines, which is attractive to authors and probably also helps with voter attention for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.

(4.) Left out of these numbers are some terrific podcast venues such as the Escape Artists' podcasts (Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders), Drabblecast, and StarShipSofa. None of these qualify for my list by existing criteria, but podcasts are also important venues.

(5.) Other lists: The SFWA qualifying markets list is a list of "pro" science fiction and fantasy venues based on pay rates and track records of strong circulation. Ralan.com is a regularly updated list of markets, divided into categories based on pay rate.

Monday, August 01, 2022

The Nature of Belief From a Philosophical Perspective, With Theoretical and Methodological Implications for Psychology and Cognitive Science

Every so often, I give a brief overview of my perspective on belief to audiences of psychologists. After the 2021 Creditions conference, I was asked to write up my thoughts and publish them in a special issue of Frontiers in Psychology (ed. Rüdiger J. Seitz).

Since it's short enough to fit in a (longish) blog post, I thought I'd post it here. Those who are already familiar with my work on belief won't find much new, but it might be a helpful overview for others. Plus, I direct a few gentle (?) jabs at Eric Mandelbaum, my favorite opponent on this topic.

[output from Dall-E for "belief philosophy psychology in style of Van Gogh"]


In recent academic philosophy, representationalism is probably the dominant model of belief. I favor a competing model, dispositionalism. I will briefly describe these views and their contrasting implications, including some theoretical and methodological implications relevant to research psychologists and cognitive scientists.

Representationalism Vs. Dispositionalism, Definitions

According to representationalism, to believe some proposition P (for example, that there's beer in the fridge or that men and women are intellectually equal) is to have a representation with the content P stored in your mind, available to be deployed in relevant reasoning. It's somewhat unclear how literally the “storage” idea is to be taken, but leading representationalists, such as Fodor and Mandelbaum (Fodor, 1987; Mandelbaum, 2014; Quilty-Dunn and Mandelbaum, 2018; Bendaña and Mandelbaum, 2021), appear to take the storage idea rather literally. One might compare to the concept of the “long-term memory store” in theories of memory. The stored representation counts as available to be deployed in relevant reasoning if it can be accessed when relevant. If asked whether men and women differ in intelligence, you'll retrieve the representation that men and women are intellectually equal, engage in some simple theoretical reasoning, and answer “no” (if you want to be honest, etc.). If you feel like drinking a cold beer, you'll retrieve the representation that beer is in the fridge, engage in some simple practical reasoning, and walk toward the kitchen to get the beer.

According to dispositionalism, to believe that P is to be disposed to act and react in ways that are characteristic of believers-that-P. Maybe there's a representation really stored in there; maybe not. If you are disposed to go to the fridge when you want a beer, if you are disposed to say “yes” when asked whether there's beer in the fridge, if you display surprise upon opening the fridge and finding no beer, etc., then you count as believing that there's beer in the fridge, regardless what underlying cognitive architecture enables this. Dispositionalism has its roots in philosophical behaviorism and Ryle (1949). However, I and other recent dispositionalists eschew behaviorism, allowing that some of the relevant dispositions can be “phenomenal” (i.e., pertaining to conscious experience), such as the disposition to feel (and not just exhibit) surprise upon opening the fridge and seeing no beer, and other dispositions can be cognitive (i.e., pertaining to inference or other cognitive transitions), such as the disposition to draw the conclusion that there is beer in the house (Schwitzgebel, 2002, 2021).

Representationalism commits to a particular type of cognitive architecture—the storage of representational contents matching the contents of the believed propositions—and it is to a substantial extent neutral about the extent to which the stored contents are behavior-guiding. Dispositionalism commits to belief as behavior-guiding, while remaining neutral on the underlying architecture. The difference matters to psychological theory and method as I will now explain.

In-Between Believing

On representationalism, it's natural to think of belief as a yes/no matter. P is either stored or it's not. You either believe it or you don't. Representations can't normally be “half-stored.” What would that even mean? If the representation isn't retrieved when relevant, it's a “performance” failure; the underlying “competence” is still there, as long as it could in principle be retrieved in some circumstances. This leads some representationalists, especially Mandelbaum, to unintuitive views about what we believe. For example, if someone tells you “dogs are made of paper,” Mandelbaum holds that you will believe that proposition—even after you reject it as obviously false—because the representation gets stored and starts influencing your cognition. Of course you also simultaneously believe that dogs are not made of paper.

On dispositionalism, believing is more like having a personality trait: You match the dispositional profile to some degree, just like you might match the dispositional profile characteristic of extraversion to some degree. Sometimes, the match might be nearly perfect. I might have all the dispositions characteristic of the belief that there's beer in my fridge. Other times, the match might be far from perfect. Cases of highly imperfect match can be described as in-between cases of belief.

Consider the belief that men and women are intellectually equal. Someone—call him the “implicit sexist”—might be disposed to act and react in some ways that are characteristic of that belief. He might say “men and women are intellectually equal” with a feeling of confidence and sincerity, ready to defend that view passionately in a debate. Other dispositions might tilt the other way. He might feel surprised if a woman makes an intelligent comment at a meeting, and it might take more evidence to convince him that a woman is smart than that a man is smart.

Or consider gradual forgetting. In college, I knew the last name of my roommate's best friend. I could easily recall it. Over time, as memory faded, I would have been able to recognize it, picking it out from nearby alternatives, but recall would have been weaker. As memory continued to fade, I would have recognized it less and less reliably until eventually it was utterly forgotten. During the intermediate phase, I would in some respects act and react like someone would believed his name was (let's say) Guericke, in other respects not. There was no precise moment at which the belief dropped from my mind, instead a long period of gradual, fading in-betweenness.

Dispositionalist views naturally invite us see belief as permitting in-between cases, as personality traits do. Representationalist views have more difficulty accommodating this idea.

Contradictory Belief

Conversely, representationalist views naturally allow for contradictory belief, as discussed in the “dogs are made of paper” example, while dispositionalist views appear to disallow the possibility of having contradictory beliefs. There seems to be no problem in principle in storing both the representation “P” and the representation “not-P.” But one cannot simultaneously have the dispositional structure characteristic of believing that men and women are intellectually equal and the dispositional structure characteristic of believing that women are intellectually inferior. That would be like having the dispositional structure of an extravert and simultaneously the dispositional structure of an introvert—structurally impossible.

Given an implicit sexism case, then, representationalism tends to favor the idea that the sexist believes both that women and men are intellectually equal and that women are intellectually inferior. The two contradictory beliefs are both stored and accessible (perhaps in different cognitive subsystems, retrieved under different conditions). Dispositionalism tends to favor treating such cases as in-between cases of belief. Similarly for other inconsistent or conflicting attitudes: the Sunday theist/weekday atheist; the self-deceived lover who sincerely denies that their partner is cheating but sometimes acts as if they know; the person who would say the road runs north-south if queried in one way but who would say it runs east-west if queried in another way.

Let me briefly defend the dispositionalist stance on this issue. We have no need for contradictory belief. It helps none to say of the implicit sexist that he believes both “men and women are intellectually equal” and “women are intellectually inferior.” To make such a claim comprehensible, we need to present the details: In these respects he acts and reacts like an egalitarian, in these other respects he acts and reacts like a sexist. But now we've just given the dispositional characterization. If necessary—if there are good enough architectural grounds for it—we might still say that he has contradictory representations. But representation is not belief.

Explanatory Depth Vs. Explanatory Superficiality

Quilty-Dunn and Mandelbaum (2018) argue that representationalism has an explanatory depth that coheres well with the aims of cognitive science. If the belief that P is a relation to a stored representational content “P,” we can explain how beliefs cause behavior (retrieving the stored representation does the causal work), we can explain why there's usually such a nice parallel between what we can say and what we can believe (speech and belief involve accessing the same pool of representations), and so forth. The dispositionalist approach, in contrast, is superficial: It points to the dispositional patterns but it does not attempt to explain the causal mechanisms beneath those patterns.

While explanatory depth is a virtue when available, it is not a virtue in this particular case. To think that belief that P always, or typically, involves having an internal representational content “P” is a best empirically unsupported. (Contrast with the empirically well supported claim that the visual system represents motion in regions of the visual field.) At worst, it is a simplistic cartoon sketch of the mind. It's as if someone insisted that having the personality trait of extraversion required having an internal switch flipped to “E,” because otherwise we'd be stuck without an internal causal explanation of extraverted patterns of behavior. Of course there are internal structures that help explain people's extraverted behavior, and of course there are internal structures that help explain people's implicitly sexist behavior and their beer-fetching behavior. But we need not define belief in terms of a simplistic representationalist understanding of those internal structures.

Still, a partial compromise is possible. It might be the case that internal representations of P are present whenever one believes that P. The dispositionalist need not deny this—any more than a personality theorist need not deny that extraversion might involve an heretofore-undiscovered E switch. The dispositionalist just doesn't define belief in terms of such structures, permitting a skeptical neutrality about them.

Intellectualism Vs. Pragmatism

I will now introduce a second philosophical distinction. According to intellectualism about belief, sincere assent or assertion is sufficient or nearly sufficient for belief. According to pragmatism about belief, to really, fully believe you need not just to be ready to say P; you need also to act accordingly.

The intellectualism/pragmatism distinction cross-cuts the representationalism/dispositionalism distinction. However, I submit that the most attractive form of dispositionalism is also pragmatist. To really, fully believe that women are intellectually equal requires more than simply readiness to say they are. It requires not being surprised when a women makes an intelligent remark. It requires treating the women you encounter as if they are just as smart as men in the same circumstances. Alternatively, to really believe that your children's happiness is more important than their academic success it's insufficient to be disposed to say that is the case; you must also to live that way.

The Problem With Questionnaires

I conclude with two methodological implications.

First, if pragmatist dispositionalism is correct, then you might not know what you believe. Do you really believe that men and women are intellectually equal? Do you really believe that your children's happiness is more important than their academic success? You'll say yes and yes. But how do you really live your life? You might be more in-betweenish than you think.

When psychologists want to explore broad, life involving beliefs and values, they often employ questionnaires. Questionnaires are easy! But if pragmatist dispositionalism is correct, questionnaires risk being misleading when asking about beliefs or other attitudes with an important lived component that can diverge from verbal endorsement. Questionnaires get at what you say, not at how you generally act.

A brief example: The Short Schwartz's Values Survey (Lindeman and Verkasalo, 2005) asks participants how important it is to them to achieve “power (social power, authority, wealth)” and various other goods. If intellectualism is the right way to think about values, this is an excellent methodology. However, if pragmatism is better, it's reasonable to doubt how well people know this about themselves.

Developing Beliefs

Developmental psychologists often debate the age children reach various cognitive milestones, such as knowing that objects continue to exist even when they aren't being perceived and knowing that people can have false beliefs. If representationalism is correct, then it's natural to suppose that there is in fact some particular age at which each individual child finally comes to store the relevant representational content. However, if dispositionalism is correct, gradualism is probably more attractive: Such broad beliefs are slowly constructed, involving many relevant dispositions, which might accrete unevenly and unstably over months or years.

In my experience, developmental psychologists often endorse gradualism when explicitly asked. Yet their critiques of each other seem sometimes implicitly to assume the contrary. “Boosters” (who claim that knowledge in some domain tends to come early) reject as too demanding methodologies that appear to reveal later knowledge. “Scoffers” (who claim that knowledge in some domain tends to come late) reject as too easy methodologies that appear to reveal earlier knowledge. Each trusts only the methods that reveal knowledge at the “right” age. But while of course some methodologies might be flawed, the gradualist dispositionalist ought to positively expect that across a variety of equally good methods for discovering whether the child knows P, some should reveal much earlier knowledge than others, though none are flawed—because knowing that P is not a yes-or-no, not an on-or-off thing. There need be no one right age or set of methods. (For more on this issue, see Schwitzgebel, 1999; McGeer and Schwitzgebel 2006.)



"Gradual Belief Change in Children", Human Development, 42 (1999), 283-296.

"In-Between Believing", Philosophical Quarterly, 51 (1999), 76-82.

"A Phenomenal, Dispositional Account of Belief", Nous, 36 (2002), 249-275.

"Acting Contrary to Our Professed Beliefs, or the Gulf Between Occurrent Judgment and Dispositional Belief", Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 91 (2010), 531-553.

"Do You Have Infinitely Many Beliefs about the Number of Planets?", Oct 17, 2012.

"It's Not Just One Thing, To Believe There's a Gas Station on the Corner", Feb 28, 2018.

"Superficialism about Belief", Jul 16, 2020.

"The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief" in Cristina Borgoni, Dirk Kindermann, and Andrea Onofri, eds., The Fragmented Mind (Oxford, 2021).

This is just a sample of my work on belief. I've been hacking away on these points since my dissertation 25 years ago!