Tuesday 16 May 2023

The Resilient Beliefs Project

Today's post is an interview with Paolo Costa, who is a researcher at the Center for Religious Studies of the Bruno Kessler Foundation and leads the Resilient Beliefs project, and Eugenia Lancellotta, who is a postdoctoral researcher on the project. We talked about the Resilient Beliefs project. 

Paolo Costa

KMH: What is the 'Resilient Beliefs' project all about?

PC & EL: It is a collaborative program involving 9 researchers in philosophy and theology and three different institutions: the Fondazione Bruno Kessler in Trento, in Italy, and the Universities of Innsbruck and Brixen in Austria. It is about hyper-robust beliefs, so to speak. By “hyper-robust beliefs” I mean beliefs that are especially resistant to criticism and change induced by counterargument and counterevidence. Now, these beliefs are often seen as irrational, because we tend to link rationality with revisability, flexibility, adaptability, etc. 

But, of course, people who change their mind too easily may also be regarded as feeble-minded and we generally appreciate people who hold onto their epistemically and morally reasonable beliefs when faced with adverse or dreadful circumstances. Since at least Plato’s time, skepticism is known to have both a constructive and a destructive side. So, the question arises as to what distinguishes a “good” resilient belief from a “bad” resilient belief. In order to satisfactorily answer this question, the first thing you need to investigate is of course the source of such robustness, whether it is psychological, epistemological, ethical, educational, or whatever. We are especially interested in shedding light on these aspects of the overall issue. 

Eugenia Lancellotta

KMH: How did you become interested in this topic?

PC & EL: It all began with a concern about the seemingly distinctive nature of religious disagreement. Most of us tend to think that arguing about religion is an especially delicate matter. Religious beliefs seem to delimit an area where it is best to proceed with great caution so as not to stir up conflicts, which may occasionally become violent or socially disruptive. 

Now, if this is the case, what is it about religious beliefs that makes them so difficult to handle cognitively? Is it because they are basically delusional beliefs, as most non-believers think? Or is it because they belong to that deeper set of beliefs which shape people’s identity and frame their relationship to reality? Or is it just a matter of telling good beliefs apart from bad beliefs? 

From these questions the more general issue took shape, of belief resilience and of a possible theory thereof. Are we always dealing here with biased beliefs? And when we say “biased beliefs”, do we necessarily mean “bad beliefs”? 

KMH: What is important about the topic and what do you hope it will contribute to ongoing work/debates?

PC & EL: Let us give you an obvious example. If a democratic form of life is premised on the ability to strike the right balance between firm principles and sincere acceptance of the irreducible pluralism of beliefs and opinions in a modern society, then understanding more about the resilience of beliefs may indeed be crucial to our future. 

In our multidisciplinary project, we would like to take some steps toward this goal by bringing together epistemology, religious studies, theology – in short, we want to move from religious belief to understand something more about strongly valued beliefs in general. 

The areas in which we hope to make some significant scientific contributions are the nature of conspiracy theories, the function of dogma in Christianity, and affinities and differences between peer disagreement and religious disagreement or between religious beliefs and pathological delusions.

KMH: The project seems quite interdisciplinary, particularly with theology and religion. What do you think that brings to the project?

PC & EL: Yes, it is a deeply interdisciplinary science project. Not only in the sense that it tries to bring different scientific disciplines into dialogue, but that it also tries to exploit and enhance contrastive points of view on the same phenomenon. We might call these stances subjective and objective, personal and impersonal, or, more appropriately, emic and etic. 

This is the focus of the panel we have organized for the next edition of the EuARe annual conference, which will be devoted precisely to the dialectic between insider’s and outsider’s perspective in the study of religion. You need this kind of bifocal gaze to understand what lies behind our most resilient beliefs.

KMH: What are your future plans for the project?

PC & EL: The project is taking off in these very months. The first articulated contributions are beginning to take shape and, in some cases, see print. We are also already planning events, including the big final conference. To be updated on our activities and all the results of our research just visit our website

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