Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Neil Levy on "Do religious beliefs respond to evidence?"


Neil Levy (pictured above) is Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University (Sydney) and Senior Research Fellow at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford. Here, he replies to last week's post by Neil Van Leeuwen. Neil Levy's post draws on themes from his paper recently published in Cognition.

There are two central strands to Neil Van Leeuwen’s post (hereafter NVL). One is the claim that there is a class of representational state (in the post he focuses on religious belief, but in his paper in Cognition he suggests that ideological beliefs belong to this class too) which fail to be evidentially vulnerable in the same way as more mundane beliefs. The second strand is the one developed in his paper in Philosophical Explorations, arguing that we best understand the limited signs of evidence responsiveness exhibited by these beliefs in terms of a kind of imaginative play. People who respond to evidence with regard to their religious beliefs typically do so because the apparent evidence is assigned a role within a circumscribed Evidence Game.

The suggestion that we sometimes engage in a game of make believe unbeknownst to ourselves in the way NVL suggests is fascinating and deserves exploration. It may even be true. As he mentions, Tanya Luhrmann’s subjects seem to take such an attitude toward their religious beliefs, and some people who profess belief in UFOs or ghosts may be only half serious in their beliefs. It is noteworthy, though, that Luhrmann’s subjects were at least half aware that their attitude to their religious beliefs had an element of playfulness; we should be careful about generalizing from this sample of charismatic Christians to other believers. Luhrmann’s sample is whiter, better educated and more affluent than most religious believers worldwide, and WEIRD people differ in important and relevant ways from other people. In particular, being educated correlates with a higher capacity to detect contradiction. It may be that WEIRD people can maintain their religious beliefs only by taking a semi-serious attitude toward them, but this attitude is not typical of religious believers.


NVL holds that religious beliefs are distinguished from more mundane beliefs not in virtue of their content but in virtue of the attitude people take to them. It is perfectly possible to take the attitude typical of mundane beliefs to a religious proposition and the attitude typical of religious beliefs to a mundane claim, he maintains. However, it is important to his account that there is a strong correlation between content and attitude. According to him, we can quite reliably infer the attitude that someone will take to a proposition from the content. I am very sceptical that this is the case. Part of the reason for my doubt is scepticism that there is any such thing as ‘religion’. There is no unified package corresponding to religion. Rather, there is a grab bag of different concepts, supported by different mechanisms: a collection of fragments, rather than a package.

Instead of a package, there are different propositions, some of which processed more fluently than others. It is processing fluency that explains the properties that NVL attributes to religious and ideological belief, but processing fluency does not correlate with belief content. It correlates with (because it is partially explained by) properties like difficulty of imagining the proposition, centrality to the web of belief, the degree to which the proposition is one that is linked to the person’s self-conception, and so on. Factual claims may be extremely hard to imagine. Thus, for instance, people with college level education in evolution often make inferences about natural processes that conflict with the claims of evolution; not because they reject these claims, but because they are difficult to represent. Even extremely mundane propositions like the proposition that a die will roll a particular number is sensitive to fluency of processing.

Conversely, some religious claims are processed very fluently across most contexts and therefore have the kinds of properties that NVL thinks are the province of non-religious claims. Ordinary people must inhibit creationist theories of speciation to guide their behaviour by scientific theories. Even scientists give evidence of such inhibition. Since we often fail to notice the need for such inhibition, unsurprisingly the religious representations often guide inference. This lack of correlation between content and the kinds of property NLV thinks are characteristic of religious beliefs is just what we should expect, given that there is no unified domain corresponding to religion.

NLV has drawn our attention to the surprising instability that beliefs often exhibit and the variety of attitudes that agents may take to belief content. As he suggests, we may need to enrich our mentalistic vocabulary to explain the phenomena he highlights. I remain unconvinced that his explanation of these properties is the right one, but he has done us a service in opening up this territory for exploration.

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