Monday, September 20, 2010

Symbolic Beliefs vs. Literal Beliefs

There's a good chance that right now you're asking "is a 'symbolic' belief a meaningful concept at all?" At least in a behavioral sense, it clearly is, in the same way that any false belief, or even a fictitious character, can motivate action (did you see the South Park Imagination Land episode?)

On the other hand, in the sense that words and sentences mean something, it would seem symbolic beliefs are just false beliefs, correct? Julian Sanchez recently addressed this question when he talked about fringe beliefs of both U.S. political wings: "...fewer than half of respondents in the South were willing to say [that Obama was born in the U.S.] with confidence...comparable numbers of Democrats during the Bush Administration told pollsters that they thought Bush had foreknowledge of 9/11—or at any rate were uncertain about whether he did...Yet I can't help but notice that, however much people may have expressed intense disdain for Bush, you did not really see a lot of behavior consistent with millions upon millions of people being seriously convinced that their president was a treasonous mass murderer." This has something in common with delusions in mentally ill people: a person might insist (even violently) that spies are chasing them but won't take obvious steps to avoid danger, like changing their path to work, moving, or skipping town immediately.

That is to say, delusional people often don't fully endorse their own beliefs, much like young Earth creationists aren't bothered by the fact that they invest their money in oil companies that decide where to drill based on decidedly old-Earth science, or they go to creationism-denying doctors. It would be nice if human brains had an "Apply Change" button we could click when we obtained new data, and the new information would be propagated throughout our database. No one is perfect at this, but some of us are much better than others, and it's even possible that an inability to cross-check beliefs is one of the main underlying attributes of delusional minds. Whether or not it leads automatically to delusion, an inability to cross-check is certainly no friend to cognition, according to the General Social Survey. Razib Khan recently had an interesting post showing that people with strongly inconsistent beliefs (e.g., atheists who believed in an afterlife) were less intelligent.

Sanchez considers symbolic beliefs synonymous with doublethink, but I think doublethink is usefully applied to more aggressive compartmentalization of two or more on-their-own coherent propositional beliefs. A less charitable way of describing symbolic beliefs would be to say that really, when people say "Bush had foreknowledge of 9/11" or "Obama wasn't born in the U.S." these people just vaguely mean "I don't like [fill in name]" and are willing to sign on to group-held claims that no one thinks too hard about, as long as those claims make fill-in-name look bad. In this sense, symbolic beliefs are the equivalent of holding up your index finger and jubilantly shouting "We're number one!" at the end of a football game that your team has unexpectedly won. In most such cases, the team in question isn't even number twenty-two, but arithmetic probably hasn't stopped many people from shouting this particular content-less victory exaltation. These are animal noises, the incidental syllables of which have only residual semantic value.

The problem is that politics (and morality, and deciding how to live together with other humans) is not a football game. No one knows when to take these symbolic beliefs "symbolically" or when to take them seriously, least of all the people that espouse them. Giving a pass to people who insist on demonstrably untrue beliefs is a dangerous form of sophistry. "Symbolic beliefs" are really just especially poorly-endorsed delusions.

No comments: