The Spinozan Model of Belief-Fixation

A form of Cartesianism still pervades both philosophy and common sense. The idea that we can understand a proposition without believing it is almost a dogma in contemporary thought about belief-formation. Let’s call the view that we can understand a proposition without forming a belief about it the Cartesian Model of Belief-Fixation. In direct contrast, we have the Spinozan Model of Belief-Fixation, which says that when we understand a proposition, we automatically form a belief about it.

It just seems so obvious that I can understand the proposition that the Earth is flat without believing that the Earth is flat. The Cartesian Model captures at least a decent portion of our common sense conception of the belief-formation process. However, there is experimental evidence that tells against the Cartesian Model and counts in favor of the Spinozan Model.  I will provide some links to papers that explain the anti-Cartesian experimental evidence at length at the end of this post.

One form of experimental evidence against the Cartesian Model comes from the effects of cognitive load on belief-formation. The Spinozan Model takes believing and disbelieving to be outputs of different cognitive processes, so cognitive load should affect them differently, which is exactly what we see in the literature. The basic idea is that, for the Spinozan, believing a proposition is the output of an automatic, subpersonal cognitive system, whereas disbelieving a proposition requires cognitive effort on the part of the believer. So, cognitive load will affect disbelief in ways it cannot affect belief, since belief-formation is a subpersonal, automatic process.

The upshot of the Spinozan Model is that we cannot avoid believing propositions we understand. We cannot understand a proposition, suspend belief until we evaluate the evidence, and then form a belief about that proposition. The Cartesian Model captures this intuitively attractive picture of our doxastic processes very well. On the Cartesian Model, we can take the belief-formation process apart before beliefs form but after we understand a proposition. But on the Spinozan Model, we cannot detach understanding and belief.

What sorts of implications does the Spinozan Model have? Well, consider epistemology. We do not have the ability to evaluate the evidence for or reasons to believe a proposition prior to believing it, so the basing relation seems to be in trouble. We may be able to base our beliefs on our evidence in some cases, such as in perception, since the beliefs will be the automatic outputs of a cognitive system that is connected to our perceptual systems in a way that probably constitutes something resembling a basing relation between our perceptual experience and our beliefs about it. However, when we go higher-order, we seem to be able to evaluate our reasons for belief prior to forming beliefs, which is what the basing relation requires in this domain. But we cannot do this if the Spinozan Model is true. We automatically believe what we understand, so we do not necessarily base our beliefs about things on our available reasons or evidence. Another epistemic worry comes from constitutive norms of belief. If there are certain constitutive norms of belief that require things like believing for what seem to the believer to be good reasons, then the Spinozan Model runs roughshod over those norms.

Things aren’t completely bleak for the Spinozan epistemologist, though. We can still shed our beliefs through a process of doxastic deliberation. So, our beliefs can be sensitive to our available evidence or reasons, but only once we already form them and they come into contact with the rest of our web of beliefs. So, we can, through cognitive effort, disbelieve things. However, the process of disbelief be open to cognitive load effects, among other things. Cognitive load will be present in many parts of our day-to-day lives, just think of a time when you were slightly distracted by something while trying to accomplish a task. So the process of disbelieving something is not necessarily easy. But the ability to shed our beliefs opens the door to substantive epistemic theorizing within a Spinozan worldview. So all is not lost.

The Spinozan Model also has moral and political implications. For example, let’s consider a Millean Harm Principle for free speech: the speech of others should be restricted if and only if it is to prevent harm to others. The Harm Principle needs to be understood epistemically, so in terms of what people reasonably believe will prevent harm to others. So, if it is reasonable to believe that a person’s speech will harm somebody, then that person’s speech should be restricted. The question of who gets to restrict that person’s speech is a difficult one, but perhaps we can assume that it is the state, just if it is a legitimate authority. Now let’s unpack the kind of harm at play here. I won’t pretend to give a complete analysis of the sort of harm at play in this Harm Principle, but I can gesture at it with an example. People in the anti-vaccination movement spread, through their speech, various conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation that leads people who would otherwise have vaccinated their children not to do so. The children sometimes contract diseases that would have been easily prevented with vaccines. Those diseases at least sometimes cause harm to those children. So, the speech of at least some anti-vaccination advocates leads, at least sometimes, to at least some children being harmed. I take this to be a paradigm case where it is a serious question whether we should restrict the speech of such advocates.

Now let’s bring in the Spinozan Model. If the Spinozan Model is true, then when anti-vaccination advocates post misinformation on Facebook (for example), people who read it will automatically believe it. Since those people understand those posts, they believe them. Now, such beliefs will persist in the mental systems of people who either avoid or are unaware of information that counters the anti-vaccination narrative. Some of those people will probably have children, and some of those people with children will probably not vaccinate them. The fact that it is so easy to cause other people to form beliefs with harmful downstream effects should give us pause. Perhaps, assuming that some form of the Harm Principle is true, there is a good case to be made that we should restrict certain people’s speech about certain topics. The case is only strengthened when we become Spinozans about belief-fixation.

Another thing that the Spinozan has something to say about is propaganda. If the Spinozan Model is true, then we are quite susceptible to propaganda. By inducing cognitive load effects, we become especially open to retaining beliefs based on propositions we understand. For example, news programs can induce cognitive load effects through things like news tickers at the bottom of the screen, constant news alert sounds, various graphics and effects moving around the screen, and other such things that occur while news is being read out to listeners and watchers. Those paying close attention to their screens become open to cognitive load effects, which makes disbelieving what we automatically believe especially difficult. So, we end up retaining a lot of the beliefs we form when watching the evening news. Whether this is a problem depends on the quality of the information being spread through the news outlet, but if that outlet is in the habit of putting out propaganda, then things are pretty bad.

There are surely other implications of the Spinozan Model of belief-fixation, but I’ll rest here. For those who find the model attractive, there are clearly tons of research topics ripe for the picking. For those who find the model unattractive, defending the Cartesian Model by trying to explain the experimental evidence within that framework is always an option.

Further reading:

How Mental Systems Believe

Thinking is Believing

You Can’t Not Believe Everything You Read


Seemings Zombies

Let’s assume that seemings are sui generis propositional attitudes that have a truthlike feel. On this view, seemings are distinct mental states from beliefs and other propositional attitudes. It at least seems conceivable to me that there could be a being that has many of the same sorts of mental states that we have except for seemings. I’ll call this being a seemings zombie.

The seemings zombie never has mental states where a proposition is presented to it as true in the sense that it has a truthlike feel. Would such a being engage in philosophical theorizing if presented with the opportunity? I’m not entirely sure whether the seemings zombie would have the right sort of motivation to engage in philosophizing. If we need seemings or something similar to them to motivate philosophical theorizing, then seemings zombies won’t be motivated to do it.

But do we need seemings to motivate philosophizing? I think we might need them if philosophizing includes some sort of commitment to a particular view. What could motivate us to adopt a particular view in philosophy besides the fact that that view seems true to us? I guess we could be motivated by the wealth and fame that comes along with being a professional philosopher, but I’m skeptical.

Maybe we don’t need to adopt a particular view to philosophize. In that case we could say that seemings zombies can philosophize without anything seeming true to them. They could be curious about conceptual connections or entailments of theories articulated by the great thinkers, and that could be sufficient to move them to philosophize. I’m not sure whether or not this would qualify as philosophizing in the sense many of us are acquainted with. Even people whose careers consist of the study of a historical figure’s intellectual works seem to commit themselves to a particular view about that figure. Kant interpreters have views about what Kant thought or argued for, and my guess is those views seem true to those interpreters.

The seemings zombies might still be able to philosophize, though. Maybe they would end up as skeptics, looking down on all of us doing philosophy motivated by seemings. We seemings havers end up being motivated by mental states whose connection to the subject matter they are motivating us to take stances on are tenuous at best. The seemings zombies would then adopt skeptical attitudes towards our philosophical views. But I’m still worried, because skeptics like to give us arguments for their views about knowledge, and my guess is a lot of sincere skeptics are motivated by the fact that skepticism seems true to them. I could just be naive, though; there may be skeptics who remain uncommitted to any philosophical view, including their skepticism. I’m just not sure how that’s supposed to work.

One reaction you might have to all of this is to think that seemings zombies are incoherent or not even prima facie conceivable. That may be true, but it doesn’t seem that way to me.


 

Mental Incorrigibility and Higher Order Seemings

Suppose that the phenomenal view of seemings is true. So, for it to seem to S that P, S must have a propositional attitude towards P that comes with a truthlike feel. Now suppose that we are not infallible when it comes to our own mental states. We cannot be absolutely certain that we are in a certain mental state. So, we can make mistakes when we judge whether or not it seems to us that P.

Now put it all together. In cases where S judges that it seems to her that P, but she is mistaken, what is going on? Did it actually seem to her that P or did she mistakenly judge that it did? If it’s the former, then it is unclear to me how S could mistakenly judge that it seems to her that P. Seeming states on the phenomenal view seem to be the sorts of mental states we should be aware of when we experience them. If it's the latter, then it is unclear whether higher order seemings can solve our problem.

If a subject is experiencing a seeming state and judges that it seems to her that P, then there has to be some sort of luck going on that disconnects the seeming state from her judgment such that she does not know that it seems to her that P. Maybe she’s very distracted when she focuses her awareness onto her seeming state to form her judgment and that generates the discrepancy. I’m not really sure how plausible such a proposal would ultimately be. Instead, if the subject is not actually in a seeming state, then we need to explain what is going on when she mistakenly judges that she is in one. One possibility is that there are higher order seemings. Such seemings take first order seemings as their contents. On this view, it could seem to us that it seems that P is the case.

The idea of higher order seemings repulses me, but it could be true. Or, in a more reductionist spirit, we could say that higher order seemings are just a form of introspective awareness of our first order seemings. But I am worried that such a proposal would reintroduce the original problem linked to fallibility. If I can mistakenly judge that it seems to be that it seems to me that P, then what is going on with that higher order (introspective) seeming? The issue seems to come back to bite us in the ass. But it might do that on any proposal about higher order seemings, assuming we have accepted that we are not infallible mental state detectors. Maybe we just need to accept a regress of seemings, or maybe we should stop talking about them. Like always, I’ll just throw my hands up in the air and get distracted by a different issue rather than come up with a concrete solution.

Nyāya Substance Dualism

In an earlier post, I went over an argument for the existence of God that was formulated by philosophers in the Nyāya tradition. Here my aim is to provide a brief summary of some Nyāya arguments for substance dualism, the view that mental and physical substances are radically distinct.

The categories of substance and quality were fundamental to Nyāya metaphysics. A substance is the concrete substratum in which qualities inhere. An apple, for instance, is a substance, and redness is a quality that inheres in it. Substances can be complex and made up of parts (like an apple) or simple and indivisible (like an atom).

Nyāya held that in addition to physical substances, there are non-physical ones. Our individual soul – that is, our Self – is a non-physical substance. Like atoms, individual souls are simple and indivisible, and hence eternal (since destroying an object is the same as breaking it up into its constituent parts, and simple substances do not have any constituent parts). Consciousness, and different conscious states like desires and memories, are qualities that inhere in the substantial Self.

The primary philosophical adversaries of Nyāya belonged to two different camps. The first was Cārvāka, which claimed that only physical substances exist, that the mind does not exist apart from the body, and that the self is reducible to the totality of the body and all its functions. The other was Buddhism, which rejects physicalism but denies the existence of the substantial Self. Buddhism replaces the idea of the Self with a stream of momentary causally connected mental states. Nyāya was engaged in a protracted series of debates with both Cārvāka and Buddhism. Versions of the arguments I summarize in this essay were developed and defended by Nyāya thinkers such as Vātsyāyana (5th century), Uddyotakara (7th century) and Udayana (10th century), among others.

Against Physicalism

Nyāya came up with a number of arguments against physicalism. The one I focus on here has interesting similarities to arguments found in contemporary debates within the philosophy of mind. It can be stated like this¹:

(P1) All bodily qualities are either externally perceptible or imperceptible.

(P2) No phenomenal qualities are externally perceptible or imperceptible.

(C) Therefore, no phenomenal qualities are bodily qualities.

The argument is deductively valid, so let us examine the premises. As the term suggests, externally perceptible bodily qualities are features of the body that can be directly perceived by external agents. Color is an example of an externally perceptible quality. Everyone who can see me can see that the color of my body is brown. An imperceptible quality is a feature of the body that cannot be directly perceived, but can be inferred through observation and analysis. Weight was a common example used in Nyāya texts. You cannot directly perceive my weight, but if I stand on a weighing scale, you can know my weight by looking at the number displayed by the scale. P1 states that all physical qualities are exhausted by these two categories.

Let us movie on to P2. Phenomenal qualities are the features of conscious experience: the subjective, first person what-it-is-likeness to have an experience. The experience of color, pleasure, pain, desire, and memory are all examples of phenomenal qualities. P2 draws on the intuition that phenomenal qualities are essentially private.

To say that phenomenal qualities are not externally perceptible is to say that I cannot immediately know what it is like for you to have an experience. I have direct access to externally perceptible qualities of your body like color, but I don’t have direct access to your phenomenal qualities. I may be able to infer based on your behavior that you are in pain, but I don’t experience your pain in the immediate, first person manner that you do. The contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel made a similar point in his classic paper What Is it Like to Be a Bat? We may be able to observe how bats behave, and how their organs, brain and nervous system work, but we can’t know what it feels like, from the inside, to be a bat. Only a bat knows what it is like to be a bat.

If phenomenal qualities aren’t externally perceptible, perhaps they are imperceptible qualities like weight. But this is extremely implausible. Phenomenal qualities are not externally perceptible, but they’re clearly internally perceptible. The whole point is that I have direct perceptive access to phenomenal qualities – my conscious experiences are given to me in a basic and immediate fashion. Even if I don’t know that my experiences are veridical, I always know what the features of my own experience are. Thus, phenomenal qualities are not imperceptible.

Since phenomenal qualities are neither externally perceptible nor imperceptible, they are not physical qualities. If physicalism is the thesis that only physical substances and their qualities exist, and the above argument is sound, we must conclude that physicalism is false.

Against No-Self Theory

The above argument by itself does not get us to the kind of substance dualism that Nyāya favored. Buddhists, after all, are anti-physicalists, but they do not believe that the Self is an enduring substance that persists through time. Instead, Buddhists view a person as nothing more than a series of sequential causally connected momentary mental states. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, and more recently, the British philosopher Derek Parfit, came to roughly the same conclusion.

Again, the Nyāya canon has several arguments against the Buddhist no-Self theory, but I will touch on just two of them here. The first of these is that the Self is necessary to explain the first person experience of recollection or recognition. The intuition here is something like this: If I notice a tree and recognize that it is the same tree I saw a few days ago, there has to be a subject that was present both during the first experience and the second one for recollection to occur. Similarly, if the desire to eat a banana arises in my mind at t2 because I remember that I previously enjoyed eating a banana at t1, there has to be a subject that existed during the initial experience that occurred at t1, and persisted through time until the recollection at t2. Without the Self – a substance that endures through these different points in time – the experience of memory is a mystery.

The Buddhist response was that causal connections between momentary mental states could explain the phenomenon of memory. If the mental state at t1 is causally connected to the mental state at t2, that’s all that’s needed for the mental state at t2 to recall the experience at t1. The Nyāya rejoinder was that causal connections were not sufficient to account for how a mental event can be experienced as a memory. When I recognize a tree I saw few days ago, it isn’t just that an image of the previously perceived tree pops into my mind. Rather, my experience is of the form: “This tree that I see now is the same tree I saw yesterday.” In other words, my present experience after seeing the tree involves my recognition of the previous experience as belonging to myself. Similarly, my current desire to eat a banana is based on my recognition of the previous enjoyable experience of eating a banana as belonging to myself. One person does not experience the memory of another, and in much the same way, one mental state cannot remember the content of another. So a single entity that persists through time must exist.

The second argument for the Self takes for granted what we might call the unity of perception. Our perceptions aren’t a chaotic disjointed bundle despite the fact that they arise through different sense organs. There’s a certain unity and coherence to them. In particular, Nyāya philosophers drew attention to mental events that are characterized by cross-modal recognition. An example would be: “The table that I see now is the same table I am touching.” We have experiences that arise through different channels (in this case, my eye and my hand), but there must be something that ties these experiences together and synthesizes them to give rise to a unified cognitive event. In other words, the Buddhist no-Self theory might be able to explain the independent experiences of sight and touch, but for the object of both experiences to be recognized as one and the same, there must something else to which both experiences belong, and which integrates the experiences to give rise to the unified perception of the object. Again, it seems we must admit the existence of the Self.

Needless to say, all these arguments were (and remain) controversial. The debates between Buddhist and Nyāya philosophers got extremely complex over time. They involved increasingly fine-grained analyses of the phenomenology of recollection/recognition, and increasingly technical discussions on the metaphysics of causation. Similar debates took place between other orthodox Indian schools of thought that believed in the Self (Mīmāṃsā, Vedānta, etc.) and their Buddhist no-Self rivals. A good place to start for further reading on this subject would be the collection of essays in Hindu and Buddhist Ideas in Dialogue: Self and No-Self.

Notes

[1] The argument I’ve presented here is based on Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti’s formulation in Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition.