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.

Wednesday 10 July 2024

Inquiry Under Bounds

Today's post is by David Thorstad on his new book Inquiry Under Bounds (2024 OUP). 

Herbert Simon held that human cognition is shaped by a pair of scissors. The blades of the scissors are our internal and external bounds.

Internally, we are bounded by our limited cognitive abilities and the costs of exercising them. We cannot execute arbitrarily complex cognitive operations, and the operations we do execute compete with others for scarce resources. 

Externally, we are bounded by our environment. The environment determines the cognitive problems we are likely to face and the results that cognitive strategies will have when applied to those problems. 

The study of bounded rationality asks what rationality requires of agents who are both internally and externally bounded.  

Simon also held that the fundamental turn in the study of bounded rationality is the turn from substantive to procedural rationality. Many of our most important cognitive bounds are felt most strongly as bounds on cognitive processes, rather than the attitudes that they produce. As a result, theories of bounded rationality should spend less time asking normative questions about attitudes such as belief and preference, and more time asking normative questions about the processes of theoretical and practical inquiry that produce them.

If that is right, then the fundamental task for a theory of bounded rationality is to develop a theory of rational inquiry for bounded agents. We need, that is, a theory of inquiry under bounds.

Inquiry under bounds sets out to motivate, develop, defend and apply a theory of rational inquiry for bounded agents. The book proceeds in four parts.

Part 1, Rationality at the crossroads, situates bounded rationality against a competing Standard Picture on which rationality is a matter of consistency or coherence.  Part 1 develops five characteristic claims of the bounded approach: that bounds matter normatively; that rationality is heuristic, procedural, and environment-relative; and that the right theory of bounded rationality should vindicate many seeming irrationalities as the results of boundedly rational cognition.

Part 2, Norms of inquiry, develops a theory of rational inquiry to clarify, defend and apply these and other claims made by the bounded tradition. This theory, the reason-responsive consequentialist view, combines three elements: a consequentialist theory of rightness, a reason-responsiveness theory of rationality, and an information-sensitive reading of deontic modals.

Part 3, Justifying the account, gives three arguments for the reason-responsive consequentialist view. The argument from minimal criteria holds that the view is our best hope for meeting three minimal criteria on an account of bounded rationality. The explanatory argument shows how the view recovers plausible explanations of normative data that have troubled other theories. The argument from vindicatory epistemology holds that the view is our best hope for recovering a range of compelling vindicatory explanations for the rationality of seemingly irrational thoughts and actions.

Part 4, Applying the account, uses the reason-responsive consequentialist view to clarify and defend the characteristic claims about bounded rationality made in Part 1. It also explores a concessive reconciliation between bounded rationality and the Standard Picture.  The book concludes by considering applications to the epistemology of inquiry, as well as generalizations to practical philosophy.

The book is available open access from Oxford University Press here (LINK). 

Wednesday 3 July 2024

Agency and the Manic Point of View

This post is by Elliot Porter. Elliot is currently a teaching fellow at the University of Birmingham. He is interested in personal autonomy, the philosophy of madness and mental health, and broader themes in social and political philosophy.

Elliot Porter

Autonomy is not much of a folk concept: few people commiserate with their friends over how their autonomy has been disrespected, in quite those terms. Still, it’s something that everyone cares about. We take it as a slight when our view of what is good or reasonable is overlooked. 

Mill has something like autonomy in mind when he tells us that someone’s mode of living is the best “not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode”. At the heart of our interest in autonomy, lies an interest in our perspectives – what seems good or worthy to us.

But not every perspective gets a hearing. Mill’s principle is conditional on our possessing “any tolerable amount of common sense and experience”. We mustn’t abandon anyone to their freedoms, of course, but qualifications like this can hide a multitude of sins. Mad Studies is rich with discussions of what it takes to get taken seriously. 

Mania, in particular, is a fascinating case. Occasionally, mania sees us cast as visionaries, whose words should be hung upon (and sometimes, who should be discouraged from seeking treatment). More often, the manic point of view gets lost, seen as symptom when it is trying to be testimony. What makes perfect sense from an insider perspective can seem disjointed and unintelligible from the outside.

My recent paper, Mania, Urgency, and the Structure of Agency, identifies something distinctive in manic points of view that could help secure recognition. Close attention to the reports of people who experience mania reveals something distinctive in the way our reasons look to us when we are manic. Normally, reasons are facts that tell us something about what we should do. They pile up, for or against, some action or attitude, and we can carefully sift through them and weigh up what we should do. But sometimes we don’t get to deliberate, sometimes, matters are urgent.

I suggest that the phenomenology of mania turns, in large part, on a pervasive sense of urgency. This sense changes the way we see and handle our practical reasons. Even if we have all the time in the world, some things are morally urgent, or even artistically urgent, in a way that tells us to act, now. Urgent reasons pre-empt others. If matters are urgent, we don’t get to deliberate further. It’s not only superfluous, it’s an inadequate response to urgent reasons.

This, I suggest, is the view of practical reasons revealed by testimonies and observations of mania. When we’re manic, the same facts that normally speak in favour of writing a novel or buying an outfit become demanding in the way urgent reasons are. Manic points of view can seem disjointed or arbitrary from outside, but once we understand the way considerations can pre-empt each other, an intelligible picture of the moral world comes into sharp focus.

Understanding the perspectives of people with minority minds can be desirable in its own right. We can all see each other straight in a way we might not otherwise, and perhaps we will all feel more at home in the social world. But more hangs on perspective recognition than inclusion.  

If we are to enjoy any tolerable degree of autonomy, we must be seen by our peers as someone with a perspective, whose view of reasons sets a standard against which our own actions can be judged. Without this recognition, we can’t raise an idea, remonstrate with others, or even recommend a good book.