Pathological Belief



Pathological Belief


There is something funny about belief: belief isn’t quite right in the head. The human belief system leaves a lot to be desired. Philosophers have been onto this for a while, noting the peculiarities of belief. Early on it was noticed that belief reports are referentially opaque: you can’t substitute co-denoting terms and be guaranteed to preserve truth-value. Someone can believe that Hesperus is the moon’s best friend and not believe that the Phosphorus is. So belief reports don’t have the logical form of a predicate applied to a subject; they are logically anomalous. This discovery provoked a lot of handwringing and even skepticism regarding the notion of belief. Perhaps there is no such thing as belief—that supposition would certainly remove the logical puzzlement belief occasions. And when are two beliefs the same? What makes one belief differ from another? Criteria of identity are sorely lacking. A properly scientific psychology might wish to eschew or otherwise scorn this element of folk psychology (the folk are a primitive and superstitious crowd). We don’t even know whether beliefs are “in the head”, and if they are not their causal powers look distinctly iffy. Then Kripke delivered his puzzle: belief is not only logically problematic; it is positively paradoxical. Pierre believes both that London is pretty and that London is not pretty—and yet he is a perfectly reasonable man. It is belief that is at fault in allowing such contradictory beliefs, not our friend Pierre (he reasons impeccably). If contradiction is not ground for banishment, then what is? Perhaps we should simply stop believing things, since belief is so fraught with logical and conceptual problems. We have stopped believing in specific propositions as human thought has progressed; maybe we should stop believing altogether. Why court paradox and conceptual incoherence? Belief just isn’t a very wholesome commodity, logically speaking; we would be better off without it. True, we would then have no means of assenting to a proposition, but that is a mixed blessing at best. Animals seem to get on quite well without full-blown belief (except those similarly afflicted), so maybe we should take a leaf out of their book. It is human belief that is problematic; other animals have different ways of negotiating the world (without indulging in referential opacity and contradiction-generating assent behavior). Time to refashion the human cognitive system and let belief quietly expire.

            That utopian hope is reinforced by a feature of belief that is less well explored by analytical philosophers, namely its irrationality. Not only is belief opaque and paradoxical; it is prone to the worst excesses of irrationality. People believe the strangest things on the slenderest of grounds: they positively leap at belief without pondering its reasonableness or possibly errant causes. This wouldn’t matter so much if it weren’t for another feature of belief—its connection to action. People act on these wacky beliefs: hard to believe, I know, given their wonky foundations, but lamentably true. Just consider the out-there ideologies that have permeated human culture and the horrific actions they have prompted. History would not be the same if belief were more responsible and controlled. Irrational belief is the cause of most of the atrocities that have marred human history. It is our capacity to believe crazy things (inter alia) that has led to massacres, pogroms, prejudice, religious wars, genocide, and all the other grotesqueries that bring such shame on the human race. Granted, we have some pretty nasty emotions too, and plenty of evil intentions, but it is our ability to believe garbage that really sets us splendidly apart. Our belief system is sorely lacking in proper regulation and rational self-criticism: people will believe anything if you say it enough times, and if it suits them so to believe. Belief is just too malleable, easily manipulated, prone to fantasy, emotion-driven, and just plain bonkers.  [1] It is a biological adaptation riddled with design flaws, faulty wiring, and damaging malfunction—a real lemon. It’s a wonder natural selection let it pass at all! It should have been eliminated long ago—and maybe it will be in due course.

            To get a sense of belief’s failings, imagine if its proneness to error resulted in something like visual illusion or hallucination: whenever you have a false belief about something it looks to you as if reality is that way. You believe that someone is an animal or a devil and lo and behold that’s what they look like—fur, four legs, no clothes, or horns, hooves, a demonic countenance. That is, your belief system intrudes on your visual system so as to make things appear as they are believed to be. This would result in massive visual illusion, a malfunctioning perceptual system, and a potential for accidents on a grand scale. Suppose you believe in ghosts: then ghosts would appear before you all night long. Or you falsely believe your husband is unfaithful and are promptly visited by vivid scenes of marital infidelity. Surely you would want to consult a doctor and get your eyes examined. But in the case of false belief we have a similar level of delusion that fortunately doesn’t commandeer our senses. Still, we might want to consult a belief specialist who can rid us of these wild suppositions and preposterous opinions. The whole problem is that people find their beliefs perfectly reasonable just because they have them, no matter how groundless and absurd they may be. The illusory nature of belief is not written on its surface, so falsehood can survive undetected and uncorrected. This is a dangerous way for a belief system to be. It leads to belief perseverance that is very difficult to curb.

            The problem, evidently, is that beliefs are just too unencapsulated (in roughly Jerry Fodor’s sense): they are far too prone to elicitation by factors quite irrelevant to their truth. Notoriously, beliefs are influenced by wishes and desires: people have a tendency to believe what they want to believe. This is a disastrous way to build a belief system—the very antithesis of what belief production ought to be. Why on earth did the genes ever construct brains that have this grievous flaw? Surely a minimal requirement on a good belief system is that it should notallow for desires to influence the course of belief formation—that’s the last thing that should happen! But that is exactly what the human belief system permits with giddy abandon (I see no evidence that animals are prone to such misfiring). Hopeless! Beliefs should only be formed by processes involving strict adherence to rationality, but in fact they come into existence for the strangest of reasons, or for no reason at all. This is a grievous fault in the whole system—like having teeth that break whenever you bite into something nutritious, or a tail that whips you in the face whenever you wag it. I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough: the human belief apparatus is appallingly designed, a complete mess, an utter balls-up. It needs to be totally overhauled, or simply consigned to the rubbish heap. It is true that it is possible by diligent effort and proper training to avoid the worst excesses of this defective contraption, but why should our brains present us with such a daunting task—which most people decline to undertake anyway? Animals don’t need rigorous drilling in critical thought and rational belief formation, so why are we so lacking? If there were a little white pill that could put an end to our chronic doxastic disease, wouldn’t we swallow it without hesitation? Surely we want to have healthy beliefs, like healthy teeth, and it is clear enough that our beliefs are all too often rotten misshapen embarrassments. I am not exaggerating: take a look at the average person’s belief system—it’s a complete mess in there (a hot mess, as they say). Who among us is sure that his belief teeth are as sound as they should be? Who can be certain that his desires are not exerting undue influence on his beliefs—after all, nothing in the brain is set up to prevent such a thing from occurring?  [2] We are saddled with a deeply flawed psychological apparatus that we are powerless to regulate with any guarantee of success. What we might call “Descartes’ nightmare” haunts us all: that our much-cherished beliefs are riddled with error and are products of irrational forces. For nothing about belief as it exists in humans can preclude large-scale lapses in veracity—beliefs are just too labile, too susceptible to manipulation. Shakespeare’s Othello can be read as a lamentation over the dire state of the human belief system: the title character has his beliefs manipulated and toyed with by a skilled exploiter of the weaknesses inherent in the human belief system. Othello is not a particularly dull or gullible man, but his beliefs are susceptible to influence from other parts of his psyche that have no place in rational belief formation. He represents us all: we are all the victims of a pathetically vulnerable psychological set-up that leaves us at the mercy of hucksters, tricksters, and our own weaknesses. The entire apparatus needs to be radically redesigned, or removed if the problems are too deep-seated. That was certainly the view of Mr. Spock as he bore witness to the frailty of human belief: he exemplifies the proposition that human belief can only be fixed by excising all emotion—an extreme position, no doubt, but one whose force is not lost on us. Humans diverged from other animals psychologically by developing a belief system with no precursor in the animal cognitive system; the result was something with an enormous downside, to put it mildly. Perhaps human language abetted this regrettable development by enabling excessive flexibility in the belief apparatus, in which case language has a lot to answer for. In any case, what we have to live with now is light years away from ideal. We could be forgiven for supposing that human belief is intentionally irrational—and hence intentionally harmful. I repeat: irrational belief is responsible for the worst excesses of human history. Just consider the ill effects of the belief that the white European races are naturally superior to all other races. Case closed. This is all possible only because belief in humans is so prone to error (motivated error, no doubt). If only we could stop Believing!

            This is why I speak of pathological belief: the problem lies in the nature of belief itself, or at least in the way that belief is embedded in the human psyche. It needs badly to get encapsulated, i.e. insulated from outside interference from other parts of the psyche (it needs to be more modular). We could simply cut the fibers linking the belief centers of the brain to the emotion centers (Chief Science Officer Spock would favor simply removing the emotion centers altogether), but one imagines ethical and other footling objections to such an evidently sound plan. Short of that I can only urge greater awareness of the architectural catastrophe that is human belief. We should regard our beliefs with extreme caution, as if they are dangerous animals, being conscious of their deceptive and credulous tendencies: they love to do stupid things and then conceal the fact under a mantle of apparent rectitude. They are not our friends; we should not trust them; we should question them at every turn. Wasn’t that Plato’s main message and Socrates’s constant plaint? We should regard our beliefs as potentially dangerous viruses not as cuddly little pets that will never let us down. There is definitely something funny about belief, and it isn’t funny.  [3]


  [1] In this respect it resembles fear, which is also highly labile. We easily acquire phobias that are hard to shed. There should be an analogue notion for belief: types of belief that are wildly excessive and out of sync with reality. This seems to be the state of most political belief.

  [2] It would be nice if there were something analogous to homeostasis in relation to belief—a mechanism that would automatically cool them down when they get too hot. As it is we have something like a positive feedback loop, as beliefs feed off each other to create ever more furnace-like conditions.

  [3] I am hoping that my rhetorical excesses here will be forgiven: it is hard not to get worked up about the perils of belief when one surveys the course of human history (including today). People are just far too in love with their beliefs.

6 replies
  1. Jesús Requena
    Jesús Requena says:

    Fantastic, as usual.I think animals have beliefs, too. My dog believes that when I appear at my garden’s window and call him I will give him a treat. Yet sometimes I won’t…Not too different than my belief that my wife loves me, that my country’s government cares about my wellfare or thet I have to respect other people because although there is no God., that’s the right thing to do…

  2. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    Your rhetorical excesses are not only forgiven but applauded! I’d mention though a distinction which I think is relevant to the topic: Kahneman’s systems 1 and 2. Your “rhetorical excesses” apply to system 2, system 1 is way more robust and less prone to falsehoods. System 2 is indeed quite a mess and does not seem to improve with time…

  3. jeffrey g kessen
    jeffrey g kessen says:

    I detected no excesses of rhetorical flourish in your latest Post .Judiciously employed adjectives are the very heart of fine writing–and the more often effective when deployed in the service of analytically-minded philosophers.


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