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!


Benjamin C. Kinney said...

As a neuroscientist, it is hard to see how representationalism could be correct except in the loosest, most-abstracted way. ...Which is a statement in support of dispositionalism!

I wouldn't use the term "disposition," because it is too psychological... but wait this article is about psychology, isn't it? In which case, my preference for terms like "weights" and "Bayesian priors" is just a different set of labels for dispositionalism!

As a neuroscientist, I strongly support the idea that people understand themselves poorly, and that questionnaires are an unreliable way to determine people's natures! Great at self-image measurement, though! But there are some interesting workarounds. You get much more accurate answers if you stop asking "do you do X?" and instead ask "do your peers do X?"

Tangent: This self-image effect explains the classic (apocryphal???) result where men supposedly had many more sexual partners on average than women. The numbers just don't add up! (Especially in the closeted days when these surveys happened.) But if you ask people how many partners their peers have, suddenly men and women report the same numbers.

All of this depends on the idea that pragmatism is more important than intellectualism - that "belief" is defined by actions, not just internal states. I think this is an axiom/assumption, not something provable, at least not unless you have some specific goal in mind. I hold this axiom strongly, but it may be controversial outside of academia. My understanding is that many Christian practices and beliefs (e.g. repentance, faith) depend on intellectualism.

Tl,dr: neuroscientist thumbs-up!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Benjamin!

Yes, I agree that representationalism about belief doesn't look very architecturally plausible from a neuroscientific perspective. It's good to hear another neuroscientist endorse this. I say this not from a general rejection of representational realism where the neuroscientific architecture seems to support it, e.g., representational structures in primary visual cortex. You'll be unsurprised to hear that representational realists about belief have some moves they can make against this, chiefly by distinguishing a level of representational processing which, although implemented neurally, doesn't map neatly onto neural architectural features we are currently able to systematically detect.

I also agree about the value of indirect methods. On pragmaticism, I agree that that's an axiom or starting point rather than something empirically testable. I think it's pragmatically justifiable, if that doesn't sound too circular. A pragmatic view of belief turns out to be the most useful approach for getting at what we do and should care about.

Howard said...

Hi Eric

Your theory of belief though intriguing seems odd- so I act to find out what I believe? It sounds a little circular- sure action is the test in a way, but I act a certain way because of what I believe not vice versa.

SelfAwarePatterns said...

As always with these types of discussions, it seems like definitions matter. What exactly do we mean by a "representation"? Would a component of a disposition (that might be a component of several dispositions), that is triggered in such a way that it covaries with something in the environment, count as a representation? If not, then what is necessary and sufficient for a representation?

Another thing that much of this seems to assume is that we're always unified in our beliefs. As Eric noted, I might intellectually prefer to say I believe in equality, but then have a habitual reaction that treats some people differently. Except in many cases, I notice the discrepancy and force my actions to align with my intellectual position.

In those cases, what do I really believe? Do I believe one thing when I catch myself, and another when I don't? Or does my prefrontal cortex believe one thing while my basal ganglia believe something else? Or do we just say "I" as the totality of the system are somewhere in between? Is there a strict fact of the matter in all this? Or just how we as a society choose to socially judge someone in that state?


David Duffy said...

I still find this dispositional model less than useful, and a problem is it is too loose. As per your allusion to behaviorism, it can be applied to many situations where the most parsimonious model is representational in nature eg "I believe there is a table in the centre of my kitchen"; "I believe that it is dangerous for me to walk around certain areas of East Baltimore at night"; "I believe a woman cyclist is more likely to be slower than a male cyclist, even though women regularly overtake me riding on the street, because I have a mental picture of two overlapping Gaussian curves".

Jim Cross said...

"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.”

Near sunset I happen to notice a large snake in my front yard. On second thought, I realize I left the hose in the yard while watering the azaleas.

Was the snake a representation or a disposition?

Arnold said...

My question is for about cognition... cognition just what we are, here now a phenomenal force...

And are we just one phenomenon related to other phenomena... the phenomenon of cognition related to the phenomenon of observation...

Can relationships of observation and cognition be for a phenomenal self...
...then and for other phenomena of any kind...

Steven B Kurtz said...

Eric and all,

If one is a physicalist [energy-matter-information], and hard determinist like Galen Strawson, the distictions don't seem to be more than semantic. Decisions/choices are made continually, but embodied priors encountering the present produce a result that could not be otherwise.

If evidence of anything not physical, or extricable from it is presented, a Nobel would likely result!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Howard: Compare with personality traits. Saying "yes" to party invitations is partly constitutive of extraversion, though in another sense we can say that one's general extraversion is a cause of your saying yes. Similarly with the behavioral dispositions that are partly constitutive of believing, say, that men and women are intellectually equal.

Mike: Absolutely! The definition of "representation" matters, and I find that people sympathetic with representationalism sometimes get a little squirrely around this issue. In the extreme, if having the dispositional structures is sufficient for having the "representation" then the view risks collapsing into a form of dispositionalism after all. On "in-between" cases as I call them: I think it's often a mistake to look for the "real" belief underneath the mixed profile, as though it must be discretely one or the other.

David: If the human mind is often loosely structured, then you need a model with some looseness in it.

Arnold/Steven: Those are obviously big questions, which go well beyond the content of this post!

Howard said...

What implications would your definition have for the law?

Howard said...

If knowledge is true, justified belief and belief is disposition to behave what does that imply?

Arnold said...

In-Between Believing...
...What about a continuum of men women children on three-way-disposition...

That in-between believing could be a continuum of purposeful practices...
... which might include dispositions for remembering...

Truth, Value aside...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi all! Howard, not sure about the law, but I don't actually accept the JTB account of knowledge:

Howard said...

So I take it you dissent from the correspondence theory of truth as well?