The Samovar

Belief and Pragmatism: God, ideals and addiction

Recently I wrote a post that provoked much disagreement, claiming that almost nobody believes in God. On further reflection, I think I can make a clearer statement (although with a less punchy headline sadly). A less divisive way of putting it might be, what should we make of statements like

He believes X but acts as if he doesn’t,


He believes X but doesn’t act consistently with those beliefs.

These are quite curious statements, especially the first. I find these statements interesting because I want to try to interpret them as a Pragmatist. Briefly, a Pragmatist tries to only talk about things to the extent that they have real world consequences, and tries to give things meaning relative to those consequences. From this point of view, if we take the first statement as accurate, then we have a real problem. The first clause says that he believes X, but the second denies any connection between X and his actions. To define a pragmatic (I’ll use small p from here on) conception of ‘belief’ would mean defining it in terms of its consequences, but the statement says there are none.

This might seem like a fairly irrelevant problem, but I think it’s more significant than it seems because people make statements like this all the time. I’ll illustrate with three examples:

  1. The “champagne socialist” claims to believe in an ideal of equality, but acts to get as much as he can for himself.
  2. The theist who regularly sins and just generally doesn’t seem to pay anything more than lip service to his faith.
  3. The drug addict, can see clearly that his habit will kill him but keeps on doing it anyway.

The first two seem problematic to me, and the third less so although it shares many similar features.

Now at this point I should say that you could easily disagree that these are problematic. For example, most people aren’t pragmatists and so wouldn’t see the difficulty in finding a pragmatic definition of belief to be a problem. For my part, I feel that something like pragmatism is inescapable – if we’re to make sense then what we talk about has to be grounded in experience. William James sometimes referred to pragmatism as “radical empiricism”, which seems appropriate.

In the entry I wrote about belief in God, I took a point of view which I think is roughly equivalent to what Dennett calls the Intentional Stance. Although I must say I haven’t read his book so I might be mistaken. As I understand it, the intentional stance says: hypothesise that an individual is acting rationally with respect to his beliefs and desires. We can’t know what the beliefs and desires are (they’re internal), but we can see the actions and from that attempt to infer what the beliefs and desires are. Even though we know that individuals are not rational, thinking about in this way might tell us something useful.

Because I’ve been making Powerpoint slides for presentations recently, I couldn’t help but turn this idea into one of those silly diagrams with boxes and arrows. In the diagram ‘internal model’ refers to the model of the world that an individual has, which is continually updated according to their experiences. The ‘plan’ box gets arrows from ‘goals’ and ‘internal model’ because it is a rational maximiser attempting to find actions which, at least in the individuals internal model of the world, would best fit its goals.

Model 1

Model 1 – The intentional stance?

I think this way of looking at things can tell us a lot, but it has some difficulties with the example of the drug addict. Now the drug addict doesn’t appear to act as if he believes his habit will damage him, although he says he knows it will, wishes to stop, etc. His claims about what he claims to believe also seem fairly uncontroversial in some sense, and are entirely about real world things with real world consequences (unlike the case of belief in God). One response would be to say that his goals are different to what you might think: an addict has the overriding goal of getting high. The trouble with this is that for this to be right, the goals must have been changed by his previous actions. If the individual’s goals as well as his internal model can be changed, then it becomes a lot more difficult to infer anything about the goals or beliefs from the actions. In particular, what is to stop us saying that everyone’s ‘goal’ is to do the actions that they actually do? This fits with the intentional stance but tells us next to nothing. I think I know what the response to this criticism would be: that that would be to multiply the number of ‘goals’ unnecessarily (one for each action). Fair enough, but it does point to a genuine problem with that theory I think.

In the case of addiction, we actually have quite a good scientific theory as to what happens. Taking addictive drugs releases chemicals into the brain which mess up the reward signals that our brain uses as part of its decision making process. It shouldn’t be a surprise that injecting chemicals into the part of us that makes decisions might mess up that process. Now should this be described as messing with our goals and desires, or as messing with our rationality?

Returning to the first two examples of the champagne socialist and the sinning theist, I think most people would say that they really do believe what they say they believe, but that those beliefs don’t directly determine the individual’s actions. This seems a reasonable point of view, but it needs some work to make it more precise. My first attempt is this boxes and arrows diagram:

Model 2

Model 2 – The adviser to the king

In the top left we have a box with little boxes inside it. The large box represents in some sense the conscious part of this individual’s mind. He has a conscious model of the world, conscious goals, and from this he can formulate a conscious plan. However, in the larger scheme of things, these consciously determined plans don’t have the final say. There is also an unconscious scheme: an unconscious internal model of the world, unconscious goals, and a plan based on these unconscious elements in addition to the conscious ones. It is this unconscious bit that has the final say, and the results of actions taken feed back into both the conscious and unconscious internal models of the world. In this model, the conscious part is in some sense acting as an adviser to the real decision maker, the unconscious part. Relative to this scheme, we can say that the beliefs of the conscious part (the internal model inside the top left box) are that individual’s ‘beliefs’. This could explain why an individual could be capable of ‘believing’ one thing but acting in contradiction to that belief: the unconscious planner is just overriding the suggestions of the conscious adviser.

This model can also explain a lot. You could say that the conscious module at the top left is a sophisticated, rational reasoner, capable of using logic, deduction, etc., whereas the unconscious decision maker uses much cruder rule, something along the lines of: do what’s worked well in the past according to how much dopamine is sloshing around my brain afterwards. This would obviously explain the drug addict example where the unconscious decision maker is getting directly messed with chemically. It would also explain the sinning theist and champagne socialist: the unconscious decision maker with the real power has just realised that the high and mighty ideals of the conscious module don’t make it happy, whereas sex and champagne do.

So this scheme is nice, but it has a different set of problems. The first is that it is much more empirical than the intentional stance scheme. Who knows if this is how the brain really makes its decisions or not? Further neuroscientific research may tell us how we really make decisions, but wouldn’t we like to be able to say something meaningful without waiting for that (which may easily be many decades coming)? In general, ‘belief’ clearly relates to an internal state and therefore a definition of it would seem to have to relate to a model of human thought and behaviour. Or is there another neutral way of defining it? I haven’t got one. Any suggestions?

The second problem is more philosophical, and relates to how we use a term like belief. Suppose the model of decision making in the adviser model was accurate, does it make sense to say that the individual as a whole ‘believes’ what are really just the beliefs of one part of it? Or is this just overemphasising the conscious part of belief? Perhaps we need a new vocabulary of belief that makes this distinction clearer? Or perhaps we should just abandon the word entirely?

I propose that instead we always bear in mind the limit of applicability of a concept. Most concepts are useful when used in certain contexts, but break down at certain edge cases (like for example, the concept of ‘inside’ breaks down at a quantum level when objects can jump between positions without going through intermediate ones). From this point of view then, we could say that the concept ‘belief’ has some everyday uses, but that we should always have in mind the pragmatic limit of applicability. Things like belief in gravity or belief about some observable facts, which people act consistently with almost all of the time, could be still used unproblematically, but talk of belief in ideals or belief in God should raise alarm bells because we know that these beliefs will not inform us as to individuals actions. An alternative conclusion to my previous controversial entry would then be: belief in God is beyond the pragmatic limit of applicability of the concept ‘belief’.