Saturday, August 18, 2007

Explaining Beliefs

Why do we believe the things we do? Fans of evolutionary psychology might be tempted to construct an evolutionary story about how such-and-such a belief might have proven beneficial to our ancestors on the African savannah. (Freudians and others might construct other stories.) But this is usually the wrong level to focus on. Evolution has equipped us with reliable general faculties of sense and reason. This means that the specific conclusions we reach are better explained by what's justified than by what's adaptive. In other words, if a belief is justified then no further explanation is necessary. It is only blatantly unreasonable beliefs that call out for special explanation -- perhaps in terms of evolved biases, developed disorders, social pressures, or the like.

This is important because people often treat evolution (and causal explanations in general) as an argument for moral skepticism: whatever caused our beliefs, it presumably isn't the abstract moral facts themselves!* But such arguments are question-begging, for they presuppose the skeptical view that our moral beliefs aren't justified.** Indeed, I think there's an important sense in which our philosophical beliefs are caused by the facts: we are responsive to considerations of rational coherence, which is precisely what the truth itself consists in.
* = It's also suspicious that only moral philosophy is singled out here. Logic is no less abstract, after all. Not to mention the belief in skepticism itself.

** = It works better as an argument against Platonism, though.

Here's the vital point: if philosophical truth just is what's maximally reasonable, then the skeptic needs to show that no moral views are more reasonable than their competition (for this would suffice to explain our knowing them). But of course merely pointing to Darwin does no such thing.


  1. I think that the fact that the first skeptics wrote and taught before Plato demonstrates quite effectively that Darwin is inconsequential.

    if a belief is justified then no further explanation is necessary. It is only blatantly unreasonable beliefs that call out for special explanation -- perhaps in terms of evolved biases, developed disorders, social pressures, or the like.

    I think (pfft! I know firsthand) that the skeptic assumes that bias, disorder, and pressure is the majority of human belief. To get this, you have to think of what happens after the first believer, or a what point your acceptance of belief out of osmosis no longer is rational coherence. This leads the skeptic to question rational coherence itself (Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche)--but that's modern philosophy!

    Your vital point is actually where the skeptic has a seizure: to assert that "no moral view is valid" really is to assert a moral view. Hence the skeptic who won't leave off skepticism (too many amateur philosophers today, including me), or Nietzsche finally having a neurotic breakdown, or the perpetual examiner of truths (Socrates, Montaigne).

    Of all the names I've dropped in this comment, I think Montaigne's life demonstrates the most healthy skepticism: his Essays deny any personal certainties ('cept Catholicism) and accept a radically relativistic outlook. But that didn't stop him from putting all his questions aside when acting as a magistrate in France, and doing a decent job.

  2. Richard -

    "In other words, if a belief is justified then no further explanation is necessary."

    I assume you mean something like: "in other words, if a belief is explicitly justified by the believer, then no further explanation is necessary."

    People hold true, justifiable beliefs for all sorts of weird reasons.

  3. Richard,

    The moral skeptic might give you everything you are asking for and still think that she has won the war. She might, like me, that there are incompatible sets of beliefs which are equally rationally coherent. Maybe she pushes forward a bit more. For every (human) set of beliefs with moral views there is a set of beliefs without moral views which is equally rationally coherent. (This strikes me as rather plausible). You can call your set of rationally coherent beliefs "true" if you wish, she can call this other non-moral set of rationally coherent beliefs "true", and the heart of the moral-skeptical challenge remains. Why think that there are moral facts?

    In fact, I think that the thrust of this skeptical challenge is exactly this. If two people start with incompatible beliefs and then start building webs of coherence, they will arrive at different webs of belief which may well be equally rationally coherent. Rational coherence cannot arbitrate between these webs of belief. Hence, we need to be suspicious of which beliefs we started from.

    Moral beliefs are especially suspicious because of there abstractness and because there is evidence that there is prolonged and perhaps rationally intractable disagreement about the moral truths.

  4. Michael - yeah, I'm thinking of justification as attaching to belief tokens rather than types. (Hence 'justified' not 'justifiable'.)

    Jack - ha, yes, that mirrors my own take on ontology! I don't really mind that kind of scepticism so much though (you'll presumably at least grant that it's an open question whether rational convergence will occur -- and so give some credence to moral objectivism). My target here is a narrower skeptical argument.

    Jared - I should probably be more careful in distinguishing epistemic 'skeptics' who are merely cautious of bold knowledge claims, and ontological 'skeptics' who boldly claim that there's nothing there to be known. Perhaps 'nihilists' or 'error theorists' would be better labels for my targets here.

    I'm not sure if it makes much sense "to question rational coherence itself" (cf. my post on the law of non-contradiction). Since it's the only possibility for successful inquiry, I'm going to stick with it...

  5. " Darwin is inconsequential."

    Thats a MASSIVE call.
    There is no reason for evolution to NOT do work in areas of truth or areas that you could have explained in other ways.

    Of course Evolutionary psychology is like other sorts of psychology or share market analysis in that people will always have a valid sounding answer to anything.

  6. genius-

    I'd just like to keep Darwin confined to the two books he actually wrote, and acknowledge the theorists that put evolutionary-like ideas into philosophy. That'd be the pre-socratics (esp. Heraclitus); in the generation before Darwin it'd be the German Idealists and Romantics. Darwin found biological evidence for his first book, and in his second book relied on old-school speculation to connect his evidence to his still strong Christian beliefs. When we are "tempted to construct an evolutionary story about how such-and-such a belief might have proven beneficial to our ancestors on the African savanna", we are doing a pre-Darwinian speculation. So in the sense that Herder and friends had much more interesting ideas as to where culture and beliefs came from, thereby greatly improving the fields of philology, linguistics, and anthropology, Darwin is quite inconsequential when it comes to cultural study. And in the end, I think evolutionary psychologists are wrong to point at Darwin when talking about belief. They must look at Darwin's sources, whom were much more diverse in opinion and refined in analysis than (I believe) Darwin was in his second book.

  7. There are reasonable intermediate positions between the two extremes, one that evolution had to give us each of our specific beliefs, and the other that we have completely general reasoning abilities of equal reliability on all topics.

  8. P.S. I'm not convinced that psychological, political and social (as opposed to evolutionary) factors are negligible as explanations of justified beliefs.

    Indeed, if this were true then an awful lot of orthodox History of Science would be negligible.

    Social etc. factors (though usually not as fine-grained as epistemic factors) can give quite specific explanations for intellectual events.

    They help to explain the motivations behind intellectual acts (why was thinker x so concerned for the truth in general? Or why was thinker y so determined to show a particular claim to be true?). But they also explain how the act was possible? (how did thinker x, or community y, come by the intellectual and material resources that were needed to establish such-and-such a claim?)

    Sure, justification is important. But the story of how thought evolves is richer and more interesting than justification alone.

  9. Fair enough. I guess my real complaint here is against a kind of genetic fallacy, whereby one takes the historical/psychological explanation as thereby debunking the belief. But the two needn't (and shouldn't) be treated as incompatible in this way. So I didn't really mean for my criticism to extend to orthodox history of science.


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