Sunday, 5 September 2010

Belief and Philosophy

Before going into the substantive content of this posting I should first like to announce the launching of an exciting new site: Philosophy TV. It is clearly modelled on Blogging Heads but it is not focused on current affairs topics but rather on matters of philosophical dispute. The first one featured prompted some thoughts on my own part that led me to decide to write this posting.

In the first debate we have two contemporary philosophers who discuss a question of considerable interest. This concerns what is going on when people explicitly announce certain beliefs that many of their actions and dispositions fail to support and the substantive debate then centres on different characterisations of this tension. However, rather than attempting to resolve the actual debate between Tamar Gendler and Eric Schwitzgebel on this question I would prefer to shift the debate somewhat by looking at some points that are shared between them and which help to define some aspects of contemporary epistemology that bother me.

Firstly, the debate centres on what is meant by ascribing "beliefs" to someone. The "belief" model that both participants, to a certain degree, are questioning is one that assumes we can say what someone believes by attending to the pattern of things they are liable to say and the reasons they give for saying them. In both cases, the tension is noted between these avowals and the behaviours and dispositions to behave that people have. Such tension then motivates the two different accounts. The noting of the tension and the attempt to generate views that deal with it is what makes the discussion novel. What is not novel, however, is a fixation on "belief" itself. This fixation is partly concerned to move away with concerns with "knowledge" but also has its roots in a generic Humean kind of view. Gendler towards the end directly cites Hume and the framing of the discussion around the findings of contemporary empirical psychology is one that also ensures the fixing of the Humean model since much contemporary "empirical psychology" already includes a number of fundamental and unquestioned philosophical assumptions.

Secondly, although the move in the discussion towards the example of what is involved in responding to such an important matter as racial understanding is a shift from standard examples such as belief that something is red and is interesting in re-framing questions in ways that appear more substantive still there are large areas of "belief" that appear not to be addressed. So, in ordinary speech, when people speak of "belief" they are indeed referring to things like the racial example or to political beliefs or to religious beliefs. But when we look at topics of religious and political beliefs it strikes me that there are some large questions that the predominant model does not deal with. For example, if someone is a believing Christian, then, according to the group they belong to, they have signed up to a number of propositions as things they take to be true. But in what sense is it the case that this is really what they have done? What does "belief" mean in such a case as opposed to the more mundane levels where philosophical analysis usually focuses? It isn't just that there is apparently quite a lot involved in belief in a religious group's doctrines or that the scope of them is very large. It is also that there are no items picked out in the world by these beliefs (or this is largely true, some cases complicate the matter). Since this is so what is "believed in" is not something that is open to check by any of the means taken to be standardly appropriate in the more mundane cases. There are similar problems with political beliefs since these are capable of mutation in such subtle ways that they never clearly map the world. So I find the philosophical debates about "belief" curiously isolated from what often, in the area outside philosophy, are normally taken to be key cases of "belief".

The third problem, connected with the second, is why it is that philosophical analysis of "belief" seems to be so insistently tied to looking at what is going on with particular individual believers. There exist "belief systems" and one question that has always intrigued me concerns the sense involved in stating that large numbers of people "believe" something to be the case. In one sense there are some apparently unproblematic examples. So the majority of people who have at all considered it hold the belief that the world is a sphere and that it rotates around the sun. It is true, even with this belief, that there are complexities. Anyone aware, in any degree of detail, of cosmology and astronomy, will have a more sophisticated sense of such a matter than the majority who are not so aware. Similarly, those exposed seriously to phenomenology or to concentrated philosophy of science will have a different but also deeply reflective view of these matters that is again different to the view of the majority. So even here there is a sense in which the majority don't "believe" in the propositions in question in the same way as the separate sophisticated groups just mentioned. Even more is this the case with bodies of "beliefs" that have apparently embraced large numbers of people with religious beliefs and political ideologies foremost. In such cases there are amazing levels of difference between people and a genuine puzzle, for me at least, what sense it makes to claim all these different levels converge on the same "belief".

Somehow, however, these questions about philosophical analysis of belief never seem to be raised or related to as substantive problems. So I thought I would lay that out as a point that might be worth consideration in future philosophical discussions.

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