Believing Maurice Bloch on doubting, doubting him on believing

My friend Maurice Bloch and I have been arguing since even before we first met in the 70s. What makes it worthwhile is that there is much we agree on, and, once in a while, one of us causes the other to change his mind on some issue. There has been one issue however where I have failed to convince Maurice (and reciprocally, of course); it is about an old argument of mine regarding the disunity of beliefs. Since my 1982 paper “Apparently irrational beliefs”, I have argued that we should distinguish two mental attitudes toward a belief content, an ‘intuitive’ and ‘reflective’ belief attitude. Intuitive beliefs are experienced as plain knowledge of fact without attention and generally without awareness of reasons to hold them to be facts. Reflective beliefs are held for reasons that are mentally entertained. These reasons can be of two kinds: the authority of the source of the belief, or the sense that their content is such that it would be incoherent not to accept them.

I have also argued that we should distinguish two kinds of belief contents: ‘propositional’ and ‘semi-propositional’. A propositional belief content is one that is understood well enough by the believer for ordinary purposes: she knows well enough what the belief presupposes and entails in ordinary situations. For instance, Joan’s belief that coal burns or her belief that she does not speak Swahili have a propositional content in this sense. A semi-propositional belief content is one that is only half-understood: the believer, however strongly committed to the belief itself, has limited commitments as to what it presupposes and entails, even in ordinary situations. For instance Bill’s belief that he has a guardian angel or that a budget deficit is bad – he knows little economics – have a semi-propositional content in that sense. (I am not denying that there are unclear and borderline cases.)

So, combining types of belief attitude and type of belief content, there could be, in principle, four categories of beliefs:

Intuitive beliefs of propositional content Intuitive beliefs of semi-propositional content Reflective beliefs of propositional content Reflective beliefs of semi-propositional content

However, I have argued, there are no intuitive beliefs of semi-propositional content: that category is empty! Semi-propositional contents are not like facts to us; we don’t intuite them, we believe them for a reason, i.e., we always hold them reflectively. Moreover, given that their exact content is somewhat obscure, it is unclear whether it would incoherent either to accept them or to reject them. Hence the main reason for holding such half-understood beliefs has to do with the authority of the source.

As children (and even as adults) we often encounter ideas which are hard to understand and impossible to evaluate on the basis of their contents but which are put forward by people whom we trust. A child is told for the first time that there are negative numbers! Initially she does not quite understand what these numbers might be, even if she understands that they are written with a minus sign, and that one can use them in various arithmetic operations. Negative numbers don’t seem to cohere with what she took numbers to be. Still, for what she understands, maybe they cohere after all. Given that she is told about negative numbers by the teacher whose authority in the matter she does not question, she does, in a sense believe that there are such things. I would say that her belief is a reflective belief of ‘semi-propositional’ content. After many encounters and exercises with negative numbers, her uncertainties about them may be reduced to point where, to all practical purposes, the content of her belief has become propositional and her belief attitude has become intuitive. So, the reflective attitude provided her with a transition toward a sufficient understanding, a way of keeping in memory a piece of information that she did not yet fully understand or know how to use.

Other hard to understand belief contents that are accepted because of trust in the authority of the source may never become sufficiently understood to end up being treated as plain facts. For instance, the child is told – and believes – that God is everywhere, and the uncertainty about what this means is not going to be resolved by any experience or arguments. The belief may be strong, but the content is partly mysterious (I just saw the other day a poster put by adults who presumably believe that God is everywhere and that read: “Don’t turn your back on God!”)

Typical examples of reflective beliefs of semi-propositional content are of course ‘religious’ beliefs held because of the authority of the religious community or of its leaders (I put ‘religious’ in scare quotes because Maurice and I agree that this is a potentially misleading shorthand description for a variety of phenomena that do not come under a single and specific explanation).

Maurice has been adamant: ‘religious’ beliefs are typically intuitive. They are just as obvious to the believers as the most mundane beliefs. For the Zande, for instance, witches are just as obviously part of their environment as are cows. And I keep telling Maurice that a belief may be wholly familiar and self-evident to a believer and still not be intuitive as I have defined the term. It is held with attention to reasons for holding it, making it in my terms a reflective belief. The Zande, I maintain always hold their beliefs about witches and witchcraft-events with awareness of the reasons and often with attention to these reasons. These reasons are, for instance, the authority of divinatory procedures which itself is based on the authority of the diviners, and so on, with no good parallel in Zande beliefs about cows and cow-events. But Maurice denies that there is that difference, and we drink some more wine and talk about something else.

But now the same Maurice Bloch beautifully illustrates in his post about “Doubting among the Zafimaniry” an idea that is as close to mine as one side of a coin is close to the other. He recounts how he provoked conversations among his Zafimaniry hosts in Madagascar on philosophical topics: Is language necessary for thought? Do animal think? Having such a conversation encourages a reflective attitude to all the beliefs discussed, whether they were held intuitively of reflectively: one is now looking for reasons and arguments. And indeed, some people found sensible arguments in favour of the view that language is not a necessary condition for thought, and that animals think. People who had not known how to answer these questions were happy to accept these arguments and conclusions.

Then, Maurice asked whether tree think, and whether people think when they are asleep and when they are dead. And here people had no simple way to reconcile cultural views about these matters implicit in their ritual practices with commonsense considerations that would have been consistent with what they had argued before. So, instead of enjoying the doubts raised by Maurice’s question as an occasion to find ways to dispel such doubts, they had, this time, to leave the matter hanging. As he writes:

“What I now think was being expressed was something like this: “We are in area in which we are in doubt and where we shall remain in doubt. Those in authority are expressing an opinion but we cannot pass judgement on their views as we are in an area beyond our competence. We listen to them with respect but that does not remove our doubt, nor should it”.

I would say that Maurice had forced them to confront the semi-propositional character of some of their beliefs (more precisely of some of their commitments implicit in their ritual practices), beliefs that they could only justify by deference to authority. I would suggest that their doubt was not about whether to believe or not to believe: appeal to authority was sufficient to support the belief, it was a doubt, better left dormant, about the very content of the beliefs.

(Note that in cultures with exegetical traditions, the interpretation of semi-propositional belief contents becomes the object of arguments. These typically are in favour of interpretations that are themselves semi-propositional, and hence the exegesis never comes to a conclusion (except by the use of legal or military force).)

So, I believe Maurice should grant me the distinction between two types of reflective attitudes to beliefs: a reflective attitude appropriate for propositional beliefs and where the reasons envisaged for holding these beliefs are arguments in favour of their propositional content (which must, for this, be well enough understood); and a reflective attitude appropriate for semi-propositional beliefs where arguments for the beliefs, inasmuch as they need to be explicitly given at all, are based on authority, and where arguments about the content are bound to be inconclusive, which may be a reason to avoid them altogether as do the Zafimaniry.

I’ll make it easy for Maurice: He may grant me that this distinction is appropriate but correctly point that I have not given any new argument for my claim that semi-propositional contents can only be believed reflectively, that is for a reason – and typically for a reason of authority. He may then persist in claiming that these semi-propositional belief contents can be and are in fact believed intuitively. A chaque jour suffit sa peine. And what shall we drink now?


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    Ophelia Deroy 31 May 2010 (10:21)

    Fascinating questions ! I am often puzzled by the philosophical notion of belief, which doesn’t seem to correspond to the rich repertoire of attitudes we have. Mixed beliefs are as frequent as mixed feelings. But as Maurice and you seemed to have shared many bottles and thoughts on the topic, i need a little help to catch up and grasp the (dis)agreement(s). I guess I’m wondering what kind of inference you draw from conversations : does it reflect the contents of people’s beliefs, or the way they believe a fully propositional content? For instance, if they stop engaging or remain silent in the argument, this shows (for Dan) that the content of their belief is semi-propositional, whereas for Maurice it shows that they are more careful toward (that they less strongly believe) a propositional content. The two options are apparently possible, but how are we supposed to know whether a particular case is an instance of the first or of the second ? If one option is theoretically implausible, why ?

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    Benjamin Eilers 1 June 2010 (00:49)

    A helpful summary for my own reference. Correct and clarify if I have this wrong! reflective: beliefs held after some explicit mental entertainment. intuitive: experience of fact without awareness or attention. propositional: understood well-enough for practical purposes. semi-propositional: held, but without full consideration of necessary conditions and consequences of the statement of the belief. First thought: perhaps the latter categories don’t properly partition? Dan says he understands that there are fuzzy boundaries here, but I think, more significantly, that the definitions given aren’t along the same axis. Propositional beliefs are labelled so by virtue of practical understanding. Semi-Propositional by a failure to expound on logical consequences. It seems to me that a belief could be completely located within both the propositional and semi-propositional categories under this scheme. Second thought: Dan’s claim “there are no intuitive semi-propositional beliefs” is logically equivalent to “all intuitive beliefs are propositional.” Using the given definitions, this becomes “all beliefs that are held without any conscientious acceptance are held with more or less full understanding of their practical implications.” Put this way, I think I have to agree with Maurice!

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    José-Luis Guijarro 5 June 2010 (12:13)

    Well, not necessarily wrong, but perhaps a little misguided. As far as I am aware of Dan’s distinction, [b]intuitive[/b] (or directly stored and retrieved) representations and [b]reflective[/b] (or embedded into attitudinal representations) beliefs are not distinguished by just their origin as their name may seem po imply. The important categorisation aspect is the way you store them at one given moment and how you use them: either to think WITH them, or to think ABOUT them. So, some beliefs may travel from one category to the other according to the way we envisage them. For instance: if I am debating an issue with fellow chomskyans, my belief that there is an innate language organ will function as an intuitive belief, and my argumentations will take it for granted as if it were a fact. However, if I am having an argument with a person who does not appreciate Chomsky’s ideas, I will use that innate language organ representation as an hypothesis that I am going to try to defend with strong arguments. The same with the belief of the roundness of the Earth and the heliocentric solar system. In our times it is normally a fact with which we have no quarrel, although in Galileo’s time it almost made him a human toast, for it was strongly negated by the wise pyromaniacs who hated people contradicting them. Maybe I am pushing things a bit too far, but that’s [i]the[/i] way I have understood Sperber’s distinction until now. To my mind, it is a very useful distinction and a lot clearer than the one that Bloch put forward in his blog, especially if you connect it, as Dan does it, with the idea of representations having propositional or just semi-propositional content. So, from my vintage point, I am not sure whether I agree with Bloch or not; I am certain, though, that I understand Sperber’s ideas a lot more (and find them explanatory at that!)

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    Maurice Bloch 7 June 2010 (15:59)

    The blog I posted was a shortened version of a paper I am writing to which I have given the title: “Types of Shared Doubt in the Flow of a Discussion.” The point of this title is to argue that the characterisation of beliefs by analytical characteristics misses the very nature of knowledge in a naturalistic setting. This was a pro anthropology blog and an anti philosopher blog. Knowledge is always in the midst of flow and the examples I give are about smooth transformations in social and material settings. This is what we should study. There are no boundaries between what my co-villagers were saying about pigs, trees, sleep and ancestor spirits but the situation was changing. Doubt could only be understood as a point in the flow. In a sense this is a bad example because of the artificiality of the situation I had created, so let me turn to less odd situations. As an experienced agriculturalist I put compost in my garden. As I do this I suppose (am I right?) Dan would say that I am acting on a propositional intuitive belief. I certainly am not aware of the people on whose authority I am basing my action although in fact I am probably following good trusted advice. However, if my cabbages do not grow properly, I begin to think about why this is so. I realise I cannot explain to myself fully the connection between compost and healthy cabbages. My intuitive belief gets retrospectively re-evaluated as a Sperber reflective belief. I turn for advice to my bio-chemist friend and I am completely lost when he begins to explain, using funny terms, but I focus in when he tells me what to do.. Have I now moved to the world of semi propositions? As a believer in the power of ancestors I always pour a bit of rum on the ground before drinking. It is like putting compost. Every I know does the same. I fall ill. I scratch my head trying to remember when I forgot the libation. I re examine my actions. I go so far as to try to understand why pouring drinks on the ground would please the ancestors. I ask a wise man and his explanation is either “This is not the sort of thing we can know” or what he says is so obscure I only half understand it but I want to do whatever he says since I want to get better. We seem to be in the world of semi propositions. Scratch an intuitive belief and it becomes reflective. Scratch a propositional belief and it becomes semi-propositional. Let me come clean why I am uncomfortable with Dan’s argument. Neither Dan or I believe in the existence of witches, God, ancestors and all that sort of thing. But for Dan, generous as he is, it seems impossible that people can be so silly, as to believe in such things. For my part I don’t think either that they are silly, but unlike Dan, I believe we always live in a semi-propositional world, though sometimes we struggle fairly successfully to be clear, and so there is nothing so special about ancestors etc…

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    Dan Sperber 8 June 2010 (15:01)

    [b]To Ophelia:[/b] I fully agree with Ophelia’s point that “the philosophical notion of belief… doesn’t seem to correspond to the rich repertoire of attitudes we have. Mixed beliefs are as frequent as mixed feelings.” So, if we want to study credal attitudes empirically, as anthropologists or as psychologists (or better as both anthropologists and psychologists), it is not going to be a simple matter. In particular, no, I don’t hold that you can infer from people’s conversation, and in particular from their assertions and their silences, the way in which they understand and believe specific contents. I cannot speak for Maurice, but I would be surprised if he held that when people remain silent about the contents of a given belief, this shows that they “believe less strongly.” After all, religious wars have shown that people are willing to die for article of faith that they themselves acknowledge are hard or impossible to fully grasp. [b]To Benjamin Eilers:[/b] Let me try to clarify: Reflective beliefs are held not just with initial but with ongoing awareness of one’s reason to accept them. Intuitive beliefs are currently held without active awareness of one’s reasons to accept them. Many of our beliefs start as reflective beliefs and become intuitive. A propositional beliefs is held in such a manner that the believer knows what would make the belief true or what would make it false, or, equivalently, that she knows what the belief entails, not necessarily in the absolute, but so far as it is relevant to her. A semi-propositional belief is held without this kind of knowledge. So, the two categories do partition. Sorry if my formulation was not clear. If you are interested in greater detail, and in several arguments for disputing the existence of intuitive beliefs of semi-propositional content do look at my article [url=]“Intutitive and reflective beliefs”[/url]. [b]To José-Luis:[/b] Thank you! [b]To Maurice:[/b] I agree – in fact, I insist – that one can take a reflective attitude to any consciously held intuitive belief. I would also argue that one can believe the same content both intuitively and reflectively. So to use Maurice’s metaphor, yes, “Scratch an intuitive belief and it becomes reflective,” that is, you start trying to articulate reasons to hold this belief, as the Zafimaniry villagers did when scratched by Maurice. It takes much more scratching to have a propositional belief become semi-propositional, that is to cause you to realise that you really don’t understand something you thought you understood well enough. Philosophers get paid to perform this kind of scratching because it is difficult! For instance, most people use “know” in a confident manner to refer to true beliefs. Plato is credited with having shown, in the Theaetetus, that knowledge has to be not just any kind of true belief but justified true belief: if you believe today, June 8, 2010, that it will rain on June 8, 2011 in Athens and it rains on June 8, 2011 in Athens, you will have had a true belief, but it will not have been knowledge, because you lacked a proper justification. Edmund Gettier has famously shown that even ‘justified true belief’ is not good enough. Suppose I look at a public clock and it indicates 11:15. On that sound basis, I am justified in believing that it is 11:15 and, in fact, it is 11:15! However, it so happens that the clock has stopped working and has been indicating 11:15 for quite a while. I just happened to look at it at 11:15. Do I [i]know [/i]then that it is 11:15? Gettier and most philosophers say I don’t, and so on. Do you see the point of this kind of scratching? Yes? Admit, it, you are a philosopher! Let’s go back to ordinary people. Are their beliefs about So-and-so knowing this-or-that semi-propositional beliefs because they are unaware of Plato’s and Gettier’s problems about the meaning of ‘know’? I believe not. Ordinary people use “know” quite sensibly in their interactions, for instance in deciding who to trust, who to hold accountable, and so on. People don’t mistake lucky guessing for knowing. Most case of true beliefs anyhow are cases of justified true beliefs, and there are more instances of Gettier problems in philosophical journals than in a whole human life. Gettier problems can safely be ignored, to all practical purpose. So, even a philosophically difficult notion such as ‘knowledge’ is used robustly and propositionally (in my sense) by ordinary people. Unlike Maurice, I don’t believe we live in a semi-propositional world. What makes cognition adaptive is that it gives us a lot of plain information – i.e. practically propositional knowledge – about our environment. In a ‘semi-propositional world’ (if the notion makes any sense), we would not survive long enough to enjoy any such debate.

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    Benson Saler 8 June 2010 (22:25)

    Dan Sperber’s 1997 distinction between intuitive and reflective beliefs deservedly attracted attention. It is a plausible and useful distinction. A number of people have adopted and adapted it, and various similar distinctions are now on record with somewhat different vocabularies. See Ilkka Pyysiäinin, “Intuitive and Explicit in Religious Thought,” Journal of Cognition and Culture 4 (1): 123-150, 2004 for a partial list and some discussion. But while Sperber’s distinction (with or without some modifications suggested by others) has been, and remains, influential, it is my impression that his notion of “semi-propositions” has been less successful. I don’t want to speculate here as to why that may be the case (assuming, of course, that my impression is warranted), except to observe that that idea, and some other aspects of Sperber’s treatment of “belief,” appear to fall within the purview of the classical mental state theory (or “occurrence” analysis) of belief. I regard that theory as an effort to refine Western folk belief-desire psychology, and I am impressed by the objections that various philosophers have entered respecting it, and the different advocacies offered in substitution.Indeed, some of the dispositional theorists of yesteryear sought to downplay requirements for “propositions,” and nowadays we have some truly non-standard applications of the term belief (e.g., Daniel Dennett). In any case, one should be aware that philosophers don’t all agree on what one is talking about when one talks about “belief.” Belief really is a can of worms!

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    Paulo Sousa 9 June 2010 (17:27)

    Great discussion. It would be interesting to see how exactly Dan’s distinctions apply to Maurice’s comparison between cabbages and ancestors. Here is a simplified attempt (Dan and Maurice, please tell me whether what I’m saying here is misleading in any respect): 1. The content of the cabbage-belief example involves something like the following lawful association: COMPOST IN GARDEN LEADS TO HEALTHY CABBAGES The belief here has a propositional content in Dan’s sense because, although the ‘theoretical entities’ that establish the link between the two events may not be understood, for all practical purposes, this is not relevant. It is an intuitive belief because it can is stored in the belief box just as the representation COMPOST IN GARDEN LEADS TO HEALTHY CABBAGES (as a plain ‘probabilistic fact’). It is contingently an intuitive belief because it may become reflectively entertained when discussing why the association between these two events occur. The content of the ancestor-belief example involves something like the following lawful association: NOT RUM ON THE GROUND BEFORE DRINKING LEADS TO UNFORTUNATE EVENTS The belief here has a semi-propositional content in Dan’s sense because its second part is underspecified (which type of unfortunate events? when? where?). Besides that, the appeal to ancestors as a ‘theoretical entity’ that establishes the link between these events is relevant, but it cannot help make it clearer (how do ancestors act?). This is necessarily a reflective belief because it cannot be stored in the belief box simply as the representation NOT RUM ON THE GROUND BEFORE DRINKING LEADS TO UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (as a plain ‘probabilistic fact’). It’s always stored embedded in some context of justification.

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    Dan Sperber 13 June 2010 (01:22)

    [b]To Benson Saler[/b]: Thanks to Benson Saler for the kind comments on my intuitive/reflective beliefs distinction. Benson is right that my other, related distinction between propositional and semi-propositional belief contents has not been as well received. His comments illustrate the fact that I have failed to make myself properly understood on the issue. ‘Proposition’ evokes – and is often use do denote – structured, sentence-like objects that have the property of being true-or-false. This is not how I use the term! There is a broader sense where a proposition is a function from possible worlds to truth-values, and, when I talk of proposition, this is what I mean. Note however that I do not normally talk of ‘propositions’, but of the property of being ‘propositional’, by which I just mean ‘true-or-false’. I never talk of ‘semi-propositions’ but only of the property of being ‘semi-propositional’, that is, of being similar to objects that are propositional without being such an object (this is vague, but less so when ‘semi-propositional’ is applied to beliefs or utterances). Consider beliefs or statements that are merely vague: there are possible worlds at which they are neither true nor false. Still, they are true-or-false at most possible worlds, and the worlds at which they are not can be characterised: for instance “a monochrome object o is blue” may be neither true nor false at the worlds where the shade of o is at the border of blue and neighbouring colours but it is unproblematically either true or false at all other possible worlds. Such vague beliefs and statements are propositional in a common, slightly extended sense of the term. Most vague beliefs are propositional enough for ordinary cognitive and practical purposes. On the other hand, semi-propositional beliefs or statements, as I understand the term, are not just vague, they have no truth-value at most possible worlds and there is no clear or even vague characterisation of the range of worlds at which they have no truth-value. To take a paradigmatic example of a semi-propositional belief, what would be an non-circular characterisation of the worlds at which the dogma of the Holy Trinity is unproblematically true? The theories of beliefs to which Benson Saler alludes and that deny that beliefs have propositions as their contents deny this with respect to propositions seen as structured, sentence-like objects. Such theories are in no way incompatible with what I am saying. Moreover, they do not offer in and of themselves a way of handling semi-propositional beliefs. [b]To Paulo Sousa:[/b] Maurice’s compost example is not the best one to discuss the issue, because it is not clear whether most compost users entertain it intuitively at all. I did not when I had a garden and used compost. I was very aware all the time of my reasons for doing so and they involved a certain amount of deference to authority and of desire to be like other compost-users rather than like chemicals-users. I am not denying that there may well be people whose belief in the efficacy of compost is intuitive; I am just suggesting that the example is not clear enough to serve a good illustration of the distinction. I suspect that Maurice used it to illustrate his claim that the distinction is not a good one, but, if so, this is a question-begging illustration. Take another better example: watering the plants. Most gardeners know though repeated experience that failure to water plants (in specific and well-known conditions) puts them at risk of drying and dying. The link between lack of water and drying is quite easy to grasp. Compare that to Maurice’s other example of one’s failure to pour some rum on the ground before drinking having bad effects. Each and every time people with such a belief pour some rum before drinking there is, I would argue, some, if only minimal, awareness of abiding by a cultural norm, of doing something that We the So-and-so do. There is no easily or even painstakingly grasped causal link between failing to pour rum and misfortune. The issue is typically left to inconclusive speculation or better simply ignored; it is matter for Maurice’s second type of doubt. If gardeners were to learn that in another society with the same ecology, people do not water plant nor have any other way to prevent them from drying, they would be very puzzled or more probably incredulous, and would expect anyhow the plants in that other place not to do as well. If rum pourers were to learn that, in some other society, people don’t pour rum at all before drinking, nor use any substitutive practice, they would not be particularly surprised, nor would they automatically infer that bad things must happen in that society because of this failure to pour rum. It should not be too hard to see that the use of compost stands, for most people, somewhat between these two examples. Watering the plants is quite generally, based on intuitive and propositional beliefs. Pouring rum on the ground is, I would argue, quite generally based on reflective and semi-propositional beliefs. I would argue more generally that making these distinctions is not only correct but also relevant to our understanding of what is happening. Arguing against the distinction is, I would maintain, arguing for more shallow understanding.