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,

and

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’.

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Nobody believes in God

OK, not nobody, but almost nobody.

To believe something, you have to act in a way that is consistent with the belief being true. Otherwise, you’re just saying that you believe it. If someone tells you that twiglets are highly toxic and will kill you instantly, at the same time as munching a bag full of them, you’re likely to doubt they really believe it. Same thing if they told you that it would lead you to an eternity of damnation. You wouldn’t trade in the brief pleasure of eating a bag of twiglets for an eternity of damnation if you really believed in it. But this is exactly the situation of people claiming to believe in God whilst simultaneously doing things all the time that are inconsistent with it being true. Anyone who believes in hell but sins anyway – they don’t really believe in hell. Someone who believes in the teaching of Jesus, but also thinks that capitalism is a great idea – doesn’t really believe in Jesus’ teachings at all. And so on.

Now at this point, a Catholic will come along and say: you don’t necessarily go to hell if you sin, as long as you repent afterwards. But… if you sin planning to ‘repent’ afterwards, that doesn’t count (so I’m told). Well, I bet quite a lot of that goes on if people were honest with themselves. It seems to me that if you really believed in God, you wouldn’t try to sneak stuff by on a technicality. If you have any respect for the concept at all, you’ve surely gotta believe that He is wise to that.

In fact, when a religious rule is inconvenient, it tends to be ignored, or the meaning of it changed. In a capitalist society, the stuff that is antithetical to the pursuit of wealth is ignored. In a liberal society, the stuff about stoning adulterers and homosexuals is ignored. Conversely, in an illiberal one the stuff about loving your neighbour and turning the other cheek is ignored.

When it comes to a clash between what religion says you should do, and what is convenient to do in real life, convenience wins out over religion almost every time. Or in other words, the reason that there are so many adulterous affairs is that people don’t give any credence to the idea that they will be eternally punished for it in the afterlife (no shag is good enough to warrant infinite and everlasting pain as a consequence, surely?). In practice they behave, quite sensibly, as if the notions of religion were false. And for these reasons, I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t believe in God.

The meaning of ‘belief’

I suppose to make my case a bit more convincing I need to say something about the meaning of the word ‘belief’. Three obvious possibilities come to my mind when trying to define what belief might mean, someone believes something if:

  1. They say they believe it.
  2. They act in a way that is consistent with it being true.
  3. They are in some internal state correlative with the concept ‘belief’.

The twiglet example shows that (1) isn’t good enough, and it’s not clear that (3) has any meaning although it’s obviously compelling in some way. So for me, I have to go with (2), although I’d modify it slightly. I would say that to believe something is, roughly speaking, to act in accordance with a mental model of the world in which the proposition is true. I prefer this way of talking about it because it deals with the difficulty of defining what is or isn’t true (you can define truth or falsity of a proposition relative to a model without having to define it for the real world), and it gives a slightly more precise idea of what sorts of actions would count as consistent (i.e. those that are made by some decision-making procedure based on a mental model relative to which the proposition is true). This definition has its difficult points too, but I think it’s a helpful starting point at least.

In my experience of explaining this idea to people, there are various sticking points that stop people from agreeing that nobody believes in God. For starters, it seems kind of rude to suggest all these people are saying they believe in God but don’t really. Well, maybe that is rude, but is it any ruder than saying that one of their fundamental beliefs is wrong and that their view of the world is completely warped? I don’t think so, but even if it is that’s no reason not to say it. I think a more fundamental sticking point is that most people tend to have some sort of mixture of definitions (1) and (3) in their minds when asked about what belief means. If there is a mental state correlative to ‘belief’ – and introspection and intuition says there is – then surely the best person to report the status of that mental state is the person concerned. All very democratic, but people are often very bad at introspection and may themselves think that the fact that they are saying something without attempting to deceive means they believe it. The problem with that is: what about the unconscious?

The last sticking point is perhaps the most interesting of all, that in many ways it seems as though people do act in a way that is consistent with it being true. They go to church (some of them), they try to avoid sinning too much, they pray, etc. My response to this is that all of these actions are consequences of their believing that they believe, but not their actual believing. And I think that’s not a contradiction. The thing is, our mental models are disjointed fragmentary ones, not grand theories of everything. To get by in the world, we only need incomplete, heuristic models of situations that tend to recur. A mental model of the world in which we act as if we had a mental model of the world in which God exists doesn’t necessarily mean that we do indeed have a mental model of the world in which God exists. Mental models, and decision making procedures based on them, don’t have to be complete or accurate. They don’t need to be deductively complete or consistent, because most of the time we’re not capable of nor interested in making all the deductive conclusions possible from our different fragmentary mental models. In particular, our mental models of ourselves are often quite incredibly wrong. We think “In situation X I would do Y”, but then situation X happens and we do Z, the exact opposite of Y. It happens all the time. So it’s perfectly possible that we can believe that we believe in God, and consequently do all of the things we associate with a person who believes in God, but not actually believe in God (which would if we thought about it deeply enough, entail doing all sorts of things we wouldn’t actually do).

Dennett

With most ideas, someone has already had them before you (often Hume in my experience, the clever bugger), and this is no exception. I haven’t read much Dennett, but it appears he has covered some of the same ground. I’m told that he makes a distinction between belief and opinion that is somewhat akin to what I’m talking about here. I didn’t find anything directly about this (please post a link in the comments if you have a good one), but his article Do Animals Have Beliefs? has this interesting nugget which might have some relevance to the discussion of the three definitions of belief above:

There are independent, salient states which belief-talk ‘measures’ to a first approximation.

I also found this YouTube video of him saying that he doesn’t believe that believers really believe. It’s my first embedded video on this blog, too.