Dan Kahan (and Herrnstein Smith) on the nature of belief

Last week Dan Kahan presented to the Annenberg Public Policy Center. He highlighted the ‘Pakistani Dr.’ paradox–where someone apparently both believes and disbelieves in evolution/climate change. Money quote:

The appearance of contradiction reflects a mistaken model of how “beliefs” figure in reasoning.

The mistaken model is that “beliefs” are mental objects akin to factual or empirical propositions that can be identified exclusively with their states-of-affairs referents: “natural history of humans”  or “scientific theory of same originating in work of Darwin”; “global temperature  trends over last decade” and “impact of burning fossil fuels on the same.”

It makes sense to treat “facts” (essentially) that way for purposes of scientific inquiry, and “beliefs” about them as summaries of our assessment of the best available scientific evidence, I agree.

But “inside of people’s heads” it doesn’t make sense to think of “beliefs” being isolated proposition bits switched to either a “true” (“1”) or “false”(“0”) position.

That passage reminded me of Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s critique of ‘Rationalist Beliefs’ in Chapter 3 of Natural Reflections. Here are the highlights:

The term “belief” embraces a host of quite varied phenomena ranging from discrete, verbally framed creeds to vague mental images and more or less general ongoing behavioral/perceptual dispositions. The division of that experientially and physiologically heterogeneous array into two distinct and differentially processed types of belief [i.e. rational/irrational] appears quite arbitrary.

Rather than posit discrete innate mental categories and/or sharply distinctive types of cognitive processing to account for them, we could see such phenomena as evidence of the continuously shifting configuration of our ideas and impulses and their context-sensitive weighting and emergence.

We are all aware of the diverse array of ideas and dispositions that we carry around in our own heads (and bodies): creedal statements learned in childhood, emotion-laden memories and habits, academically acquired knowledge, individually worked out convictions that vary in strength and articulateness from one context to another, vagrant images, transient impulses, and so forth. In the face of such evidence of the fluidity, variability, and heterogeneity of cognitive states, cognitive processes, and mental content-types, the continued invocation and deployment of static, atomistic, logicist, and dualistic conceptions of belief by philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists is itself a revealing example of the peculiar (and officially irrational) operations of human cognition.


  1. I already replied to a later post. This question of belief is really deconstructed in psychoanalysis. The moment you articulate your beliefs you are dealing with the level of the conscious. Beliefs, I have experienced, true beliefs, are on the level of the unconscious connected to our habits, practices and actions. That’s why it’s sometimes silly to articulate ideologies because ideologies, in reality, operate at the level of the unconscious, not the conscious or even the subconscious. In this way, beliefs are not related to creeds, beliefs, images, or dispositions. Those are related to the conscious and subconscious depending on which aspect. Rather beliefs, in psychoanalysis, are not part of our conscious but spill out of the unconscious connected to the framework created by our actions, habits, practices.

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