O.P. Recommends: Some Pragmatic Considerations Against Intellectualism about Belief, by Eric Schwitzgebel

A Trail in Redwood Park, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsAs you may have noticed, I often recommend pieces by Eric Schwitzgebel; of course, that’s because his work is fantastic, and I’m always looking forward to his new posts.

This one’s about understanding why and how we believe, and especially, what our behavior reveals about the true nature of our beliefs. Schwitzgebel offers a succinct and to my mind, convincing criticism of the idea that we have certain beliefs but just often fail to live up to them. Instead, he places the emphasis on observing behavior as a more reliable and accurate indicator of what we in fact do believe.

This is a sobering thought, since it means that the way we like to comfort ourselves when we don’t behave as we think we should isn’t really valid: ‘I meant well! And I’ll do better next time because I really believe in….’ This kind of excuse it always readily available to us in the intellectualist model of belief as Schwitzgebel describes it, but really, what’s the practical use of saying we believe something something then if we consistently give ourselves this kind of ‘out’?  In this way, it’s closely related to the Socratic argument that there’s no such thing as weakness of will, since if we actually believe something, it makes no sense to think we actually could act otherwise. And it seems to me to go beyond pragmatism: if belief and behavior are considered separately, the former seems to lose a good deal of meaning, seeming a disembodied, impersonal thing that doesn’t seem so much to describe the actual world, or an actual person so much as something very abstract, very removed.

But it’s also an encouraging thought. For one, it helps us be more honest about who we really are and why we do what we do; as Schwitzgebel points out, this understanding of belief makes us more responsible for not only our reactions but our beliefs, and therefore gives us more control over them. Which ties into: this view of belief fits in neatly with the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach to self improvement. Perhaps our intellect tells to us that there’s a better way to behave, or that there’s a proposition we should accept since upon consideration, it appears to be the truth, but the way we act so far doesn’t accord with this intellectual discovery. How to resolve this uncomfortable cognitive dissonance? Why, change our behavior! Not only will it change our habits over time, it helps turn our intellectual considerations into conviction, or part of our mental makeup as not only thinking, but believing beings.

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Sources and inspiration:

Schwitzgebel, Eric. ‘Some Pragmatic Considerations Against Intellectualism about Belief, The Splintered Mind blog, April 07, 2016.

Stroud, Sarah, “Weakness of Will“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition) Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

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