Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Rational Pressure Argument

guest post by Neil Van Leeuwen

Many people feel some rational pressure to get their religious beliefs to cohere with their more mundane factual beliefs. 

The Mormon Church’s position on the ancestry of American Indians furnishes a telling example. Its original view, stemming from the Book of Mormon, appears to have been that American Indians descended from Lamanites, who were supposed to be an offshoot of Israelites that migrated to the Americas when the Ten Tribes went into exile. Some Church texts even just refer to American Indians as Lamanites. 

Yet over time the position has shifted, as the Church started to recognize the overwhelming evidence of migrations from Asia across the Bering Strait as the source of American Indian populations. The Lamanites were thus later billed as “the principal ancestors of American Indians.” Then, in 2006, the Lamanites were put down as “among” the ancestors of American Indians.

That shift allowed the LDS Church to maintain both (a) its traditional narrative to the effect that American Indians descended from Lamanites and (b) that that narrative is not inconsistent with thoroughly documented facts about the Asiatic origins of American Indian populations (archeological facts, DNA evidence, etc.). 

Even the current, watered-down Lamanite narrative, one must grant, has no outside evidence in its favor whatsoever. But that’s not the point. The point is that architects of LDS Church doctrine, on acquiring greater levels of knowledge about the actual provenance of American Indians (encoded in the factual beliefs in their heads on the matter), felt at least some rational pressure to bring their religious beliefs into coherence (or at least lack of obvious inconsistency) with their evidence-based factual beliefs.

This existence of such felt rational pressure was the topic of an exchange between Thomas Kelly and me at the Princeton Belief Workshop in June, which Eric described in his fascinating blog on that exchange last month. 

A little background for those new to this. 

I have long argued that there exists a cognitive attitude I call religious credence, which is effectively a form of imagining that partly constitutes one’s group identity. Religious credence is typically called “belief” in everyday parlance. But its functional dynamics are far different from those of ordinary factual belief: it’s more under voluntary control, more compartmentalized, less widely used in supporting inference, and far less vulnerable to evidence. Religious credence is thus a distinct cognitive attitude from factual belief. And not only should philosophers and psychologists regard religious credence and factual belief as distinct; emerging psycholinguistic and experimental evidence suggests that lay people already do regard them differently. 

To apply my view to our running example, consider these two attitude reports. (Let’s imagine that Jim is a member of the LDS Church and also an historian.)

1) Jim thinks that there was a migration across the Bering Strait from Asia to North America.

2) Jim believes that American Indians descended from the Lamanite offshoot of the lost Ten Tribes of Israel. 

Since attitude and content are independent features of mental states, there is nothing necessary about religious credence being the attitude that goes with what are typically thought of as religious contents or about factual belief being the attitude that goes with what are typically thought of as factual contents. In fact, there are plenty of attitude-content crossovers, and it is a strength of my view that it can characterize such crossovers clearly. Still, content is heuristic of attitude type, so it is fair to attribute to me the view that the attitude reported in 1) is most likely factual belief and the one reported in 2) is most likely religious credence. 

Here’s the objection that Tom raised, as paraphrased in Eric’s blog. (Note that Tom didn’t bring up the Mormon Church example that I focus on here, but it’s still a useful illustration of what he was talking about.)

If [religious] credence and [factual] belief really are different types of attitude, why does it seem like there’s rational tension between them? Normally, when attitude types differ, there’s no pressure to align them: It’s perfectly rational to believe that P and desire or imagine that not-P. You can believe that it is raining and desire or imagine that it is not raining. But with belief and credence as defined by Van Leeuwen, that doesn’t seem to be so. 

In other words, the fact that Jim feels pressure to modify the attitude reported in 2) so that it at least does not contradict the attitude reported in 1) suggests that the attitudes reported in both are of the same type—contrary to what my distinction suggests. 

Let’s call this The Rational Pressure Argument. I’ve encountered objections like it in the past, but none of them have been put quite as well as this one from Tom via Eric. For what it’s worth, I regard it as the most interesting objection to my view that exists.

Yet it fails. 

To see how, let’s consider The Rational Pressure Argument laid out a bit more formally. This version of it will deploy our running example, but the assumption of one who makes the argument would be that the relevant bits generalize. (Let “CA” be a verb for the cognitive attitude whose status is in question: e.g., “Jim CAs that p” means that Jim has this attitude with p as its content.)

1. Jim CAs the religious stories and doctrines of his Church. [premise]

2. Jim has factual beliefs whose contents bear on how likely it is that those stories and doctrines are true. [premise]

3. Jim feels pressure to bring the cognitive attitudes described in 1 into rational coherence with the factual beliefs described in 2 (at least to the point of eliminating obvious contradictions). [premise]

4. People do not feel pressure to bring attitudes distinct from factual belief (e.g., imagining, desire) into rational coherence with factual belief. [premise]

5. The cognitive attitudes described in 1 are factual beliefs. [from 1-4]

To make this logically tight, various points would have to be filled in, but that could be done easily enough and needn’t be done for purposes of this blog. So let’s grant the validity of the argument. 

The question then is whether the generalized versions of the premises are true—in particular 3 and 4. 

In the exchange during the workshop, I cited ethnographic research that suggests that people like Jim—being WEIRD—are not that representative of people around the world in feeling rational pressure to remove inconsistency between religious credence and factual belief. In other words, I cast doubt on the generalizability of premise 3, a point by which I still stand. But the argument would still be irksome to my position, even if Jim was only representative of a culturally limited set of people. So here I want to make a different point: premise 4 is not generally true

The reason is that a number of cognitive attitudes that aren’t factual belief are nevertheless subject to rational pressure not to contradict one’s factual beliefs. It’s probably true that, as Eric points out, everyday imagining (daydreaming, fantasizing, etc.) isn’t subject to any such pressure (though it does default to being somewhat constrained). But we shouldn’t generalize from that fact about everyday imagining to all types of cognitive attitudes.

Take the attitude of guessing (whatever that amounts to). One can guess that there are 10,002 jellybeans in the jar, or 10,003 jellybeans in the jar, etc. Guessing is voluntary; one’s guesses don’t generally figure into the informational background that guides inference; and so on. Much distinguishes guessing from factual belief, which is why it is a different attitude. Nevertheless, one typically feels some rational pressure for one’s guesses not to contradict one’s factual beliefs: if I learn and hence come to factually believe that there are fewer than 8,000 jellybeans in the jar, this strongly inclines me to revise my guess to below that number. 

Similar points could be made about attitudes like hypothesizing or accepting in a context (see Bratman, 1992): though they are not the attitude of factual belief, they are often accompanied by some rational pressure not to flagrantly contradict factual belief.

So The Rational Pressure Argument can’t be correct; accepting it would commit us to the false view that guessing (etc.) amounts to factually believing—contrary to fact. We thus needn’t feel any pressure from the argument to collapse my distinction between religious credence and factual belief: yes, in some cultural contexts there may be rational pressure for religious credences to have contents that at least don’t contradict factual beliefs; but no, that doesn’t imply that there is only one attitude type there. So given all the other reasons there are for drawing that distinction, we can leave it in place. 

Where does that leave us?

I have much to say here. But basically I think this discussion leaves us with a cluster of large open research questions:

• What is the character of the rational pressure that people seem to feel to not have their religious credences overtly contradict their factual beliefs? It seems to be much weaker, even when it is present at all, than the pressure between factual beliefs to cohere. What else can we say about it?

• Why does this rational pressure seem to be more prevalent in some cultural contexts than others? Rational pressure to make factual beliefs cohere with one another is, as far as I can tell, universal. But rational pressure to make religious credences cohere with factual beliefs is, as far as I can tell, far from universal. What wanderings of cultural evolution made it crop up more in some places than others?

• And finally, the big normative question: even if people don’t in many cases—in point of psychological fact—feel that much rational pressure to bring their religious credences into coherence with their factual beliefs, should they? 

I look forward to seeing more and more research on the first two (descriptive) sorts of questions in the coming years, and I will be participating in such research myself. The third, normative question is perennial and outside the usual scope of the kind of research I usually do. Yet I hope my descriptive work furnishes conceptual resources for posing such normative questions with greater precision than has been available in the past. If it does that, I believe I’ll have done something useful.

[image: Dall-E rendering of "oil painting of guessing versus believing"]


Anonymous said...

This is really fascinating! Do you think that the place of religious authority in the cognitive economy of those with religious credences could play a role to distinguish the attitudes here?
Something like: if it's the case that there's a conflict between religious credences and beliefs, then always defer to the religious credences as somehow compatible or work-out-able in the end because of their highest authoritative position, and only revise them in the face of directly contradictory facts.

David Duffy said...

Christian Evangelical theologians have written a bit on this, including on the rationalizations of those who no longer believe the Bible is literally true, and Dan Sperber, Pascal Boyer etc have defended the idea that "religious concepts do not in fact constitute an autonomous 'domain' [and] information derived from nonreligious conceptual schemata constrains religious ontology". The example I think about is abortion, where it was only in the 20th century that modern embryology pinpointed when the immortal soul must enter the body, but that this was less politically relevant until the 1970s.

Arnold said...

Attitudes from pressures...the meaning of pressure could be a question... pressure not only the means for instinct but also for feelings in a mind...

What why does a normal mind experience wanting wishing passion and compassion... it a natural imposition on all living things, like storing food for rainy days...

Isn't it in psychology that our functions and behaviors are rationales of food for the mind... ...and for rainy days...

Howard said...

Here's am idea you may have contemplated: that religious beliefs, being maybe not irrational but mythical, belong to a different state of consciousness or system of the brain that CAs, even though they both make statements about facts in the world

chinaphil said...

Yeah, disputing your claims (3) and (4) is really interesting. I can't remember where I got this idea, but I do remember somewhere reading about the idea that our notion of fiction is very culturally constructed. The idea that you could imagine something about people who don't exist, and yet still be caught up in it has to be developed culturally over centuries, and fostered personally through exposure as a child to examples of fiction. It seems that culturally there is some evidence for this suggestion: so much classical fiction is about gods of some kind, placing it at a far remove and making it possibly true-even-if-not-true-in-this-world; conversely, stories about real people in the classical world were generally presented as history. This suggests that even in the advanced civilisations of Greece, Rome, and ancient China, fiction wasn't a category that achieved easy or instinctive acceptance. It had to be developed over the following centuries.
On the individual level, the evidence for the learnedness of fiction is Santa Claus. If you ever taught your kids the Santa myth, you may be familiar with that age, anywhere from 6-10, when they half-believe and half don't believe. It's adorable and fascinating to watch children negotiate that process of coming to understand that Santa can be not real and yet worth thinking about.
In the absence of a well-formed, culturally-advanced, taught sense of what a fiction is, it would be harder to rationalise and justify a set of CAs that do not require any kind of fit with the world.
(4) is similar, but engages the moral sphere. In order to accept that you can have CAs that do not require any fit with the world, you have to have a culturally-advanced, learned acceptance of a clear boundary between the moral and the non-moral. For example, in order to believe that there is no need to square my preference for pears over apples, I'd have to be able to know that there is no normative difference between them. This is harder than it sounds, because people love applying normative meanings to stuff! You have to culturally learn what can be exempted from normative rules.
And religious beliefs are precisely the sorts of beliefs that ride roughshod through our neat fiction/real, moral/non-moral distinctions, so it's no wonder that people do in fact desire to align their religious beliefs with reality.

Arnold said...

A philosophical thesis: internal-strivings...everything else is external...

Great reads, thanks...