Wednesday 17 July 2024

Resilient Beliefs, Religion and Beyond

On 11th and 12th April in beautiful Trento, the Foundation Bruno Kessler hosted the final conference of the two-year research project on Resilient Beliefs, organised by Eugenia Lancellotta and featuring a number of international speakers interested in conspiracy theories, religious beliefs, delusions, and similar phenomena.

Programme of the conference

The first speaker was Scott Hill (University of Innsbruck), highlighting problems for a prominent study on the use of "conspiracy theory". Hill started discussing Miranda Fricker's account of testimonial injustice and then argued that conspiracy theorists do not suffer from a credibility deficit. That is because the credibility they are assigned matches the credibility they deserve.

Scott Hill

The second speaker was Anna-Maria Asunta Eder (University of Cologne), also working in social epistemology, who discussed the phenomenon of learning from others and resisting the evidence of others. Eder aims to bring some issues widely discussed in the philosophy of science to bear on the complexity of testimony in epistemology, especially the role of non-epistemic values in how we respond to the evidence gathered by others.


Anna-Maria Asunta Eder

The third speaker was Gerhard Ernst (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen) whose presentation was entitled "Epistemology without hinges" and concerned the relationship of justification and knowledge. In particular, Ernst rejects the idea that justification needs to have a structure where there is a foundation. Instead of thinking about justification as a building with secure foundations, we should think of it as a journey which cannot take place without constraints and for which the question, "Where does your journey begin?" makes no sense.

Gerhard Ernst

After the lunch break, Eugenia Lancellotta (Foundation Bruno Kessler) discussed the resilience of extravagant beliefs. Lancellotta summarised the main results of the Resilient Beliefs project, considering three options: 

  1. Religion is a form of mass delusion.
  2. Religion is a form of adaptive wishful thinking.
  3. Religion is not only psychologically adaptive but also epistemically legitimate.

Lancellotta argues that religion is not pathological but it can be epistemically problematic, when it separates us from truth and reality. However, religious beliefs can be epistemically legitimate because they may favour contact with reality by pushing us to pursue possible realities.

Eugenia Lancellotta

Next on the programme, Naomi Kloosterboer (VU Amsterdam) addressed the problem of how to take people with extreme beliefs seriously. What does taking seriously involve? There is an aim that is about advancing truth and keeping an open mind. But there is also another aim: understanding the other person's perspective, filling in gaps in empathy and imagination. Is it possible to pursue the second aim without engaging with the first? Kloosterboer recommends a situated form of listening as a possible solution, which requires an understanding of our own situatedness: 

  1. What is our reaction to the other and how can we explain it?
  2. What are the implications of the discourse we use? Is it othering?
  3. How can I relate to the other? 

We move from learning from and learning about to learning with.

Naomi Kloosterboer

Last talk of the day was by Rick Peels (VU Amsterdam) on the resilience of extreme beliefs. Peels defined extreme beliefs as the beliefs that characterise fundamentalism, extremism, and conspiracist thinking. We tend to think of such beliefs as resilient to evidence in a way that makes them irrational or unjustified. But faith is considered as a virtue and it is resilient to evidence too. Why are some beliefs resilient to evidence and good, and other beliefs are resilient to evidence and bad?

Faith has multiple dimensions: a cognitive and affective one, but also a dimension of commitment. It promotes stability, integrity, and other good values but what does its resilience amount to? Peels argues that it sometimes involves resilience to evidence but it also involves resilience against extreme beliefs.

Rik Peels

In my own presentation (Lisa Bortolotti, Birmingham), I explored some reasons for the resilience of conspiracy beliefs and delusional beliefs. arguing that it is connected to their being identity beliefs that are insulated from counter-evidence and counter-argument due to the speaker having a different epistemological framework from the interpreter's, for instance a different conception of what counts as good evidence and who counts as an expert in the domain of the belief.

Summary slide from Bortolotti's presentation

The second day opened with Veronika Hoffman (Freiburg) who addressed the issue of precarious faith, when faith is warranted notwithstanding serious doubt. Can we have faith that something is the case when we have such serious doubts that it might not be the case that belief is impossible? One idea is that faith is possible if hope replaces beliefs: hope can function when there is doubt. But does hope warrant as well as motivate faith? Another idea is that faith is about assuming or desiring rather than believing, reflecting the fact that faith involves cognitive and affective dimensions, and action too.

Veronika Hoffman

In the online presentation by Bernard Nitsche (M√ľnster) the topic was the relationship between God and the World in different forms of theism, from relational theism to pan-en-theism. 

Bernard Nitsche

Last talk of the conference was by Gloria Dell'Eva (PTH Brixen) who discussed varieties of belief in God. Dell'Eva compared the ideas of the divinity in Jacobi and Spinoza, where Jacobi believes in a personal cause of the world (God as a person) whereas Spinoza rejects theism. Dell'Eva also introduced Von Sass's anti-theistic stance, according to which God shouldn't be anthropomorphised and shouldn't be seen as omnipotent but he is loving activity.

Gloria Dell'Eva

The conference was a great success in bringing together philosophers of psychology, theologians, historians of philosophy, and epistemologists and drawing attention to attitudes that seem to be resistant or insensitive to evidence.