My wife turned me on to Andy Norman's book, "Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think." She's listening to it via the audiobook. I'm reading the print edition.
The Covid pandemic has taught us all a lot about immunity against viruses. Vaccines help us fight off a Covid infection by strengthening our defenses against the viral invader. Likewise, Norman argues, minds are prone to being infected by bad ideas.
Unfortunately, there is no way to get a shot that wards off bad ideas. Instead, his book describes ways we can protect our mind from being taken over by them.
Norman is a philosopher who developed his approach through many years of trying out ways to get his students engaged with the ideas he was teaching. I've shared a lengthy excerpt below from his The Ethics of Faith chapter. You'll see that Norman is a careful thinker who uses reasonable arguments to make his point.
Sure, that's what most of us aspire to. But often we fall short of that ideal, for reasons made clear in "Mental Immunity."
I liked how this excerpt ends with an important conclusion. Often we focus on whether a belief, faith-based or not, is true or false. That's important, but beliefs also can be useful or harmful. So a religious belief could be false, yet useful to the believer.
A related notion is that a belief can have "upstream" evidence and "downstream" implications.
Meaning, evidence from the real world can flow upstream and provide evidence for or against the belief. Separately, though, is the downstream effects that flow from the belief, whether or not the belief is supported by evidence.
This is why religious believers who comment on my blog posts often cite the benefits they've gotten from their beliefs. That's a downstream effect. Again, this may have little or nothing to do with the upstream evidence about whether the belief is correct.
Here's the excerpt.
Stories like these are the backbone of William James's defense of faith. He calls them cases "where faith in a fact can help create that fact." I call them cases of self-fulfilling belief. His point is that our attitudes frequently "run ahead of scientific evidence." And often, that's a good thing.
What are we to make of this argument?
For starters, we have to acknowledge that people need confidence, hope, trust, commitment, and resolve -- five secular cousins of religious faith -- and for many, religious talk works to bolster these attitudes.
Second, these attitudes tend to be conducive to mental health: a confident, hopeful, trusting, and resolute mind is healthy almost by definition.
Third, these attitudes are ingredients of what biologists call "prosociality" -- they tend to build social capital in ways that benefit not just the self but also others. We should all be grateful, then, for the well-meaning efforts of religious people devoted to building trust, hope, and moral commitment.
James saw that Cliffordian scruples could impinge on people's "right" to willfully boost healthy attitudes. For this reason he labeled evidentialism "insane." He had a point. For it would be unwise to prohibit all use of non-evidence-based mind hacks.
Suppose that a castaway on a desert island allows herself to believe that she'll be rescued. Suppose she does this in utter defiance of the evidence, but harms no one, while quadrupling her odds of survival. How could such believing be unethical?
I'd like, at this point, to apply my training in dispute resolution to mediate the centuries-old dispute between religious and secular outlooks. What if each side has a piece of the truth? What if we don't have to choose just one of these truths and throw out the other? What if, instead, we opened up a "both..and" alternative to the traditional "either...or"?
Many religious beliefs require the believer to willfully suspend disbelief. Belief that Jesus rose from the dead, for example.
The problem is that this involves the willful suspension of basic standards of cognitive accountability -- standards that apply in other domains. But what if there were genuine alternatives -- mind hacks that promote healthy, prosocial attitudes without requiring us to violate important norms?
What if we could have the benefits of religion without pretending to know things we don't really know?
Do such alternatives exist? I believe they do. Consider Defense Exhibit A, where "precursive" faith in a stranger's friendliness helps to bring about a friendship. James implies that the friendship "cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming," but is this true? Are there really no alternative paths to the hoped-for result?
Here, off the top of my head, are four:
Option 1: Infer from the evidence of past experience that any given stranger is likely to prove friendly. Here the belief is not definitive ("This stranger will prove friendly") but probabilistic ("This stranger is likely to prove friendly"). It has the virtue of being evidence-based, though, and can still have the salutary effects. (Notice, by the way, that blind trust in all strangers is probably more trusting than is warranted, wise, or safe. This observation shows that it makes sense to temper pro-social attitudes with evidence.)
Option 2: Admit that you don't have enough evidence of the stranger's friendliness (and thereby decline, on evidentialist grounds, to believe it) but all the while remain resolutely hopeful that the stranger will prove friendly. The hope can function in place of the belief and pave the way for the friendship, but without violating evidentialist scruples.
Option 3: Just commit to being friendly to strangers -- regardless of their likelihood of reciprocating the friendliness -- on the grounds that it's the right thing to do. On this approach, you needn't pretend to know something you don't really know; you simply act friendly because that's the kind of person you wish to be. The hoped-for friendship can then form without irresponsible believing entering the picture.
Option 4: Smile anyway.
The trust involved in Option 1, the hopefulness of Option 2, the moral commitment of Option 3, and the smiling demeanor of Option 4 are all dimensions of cognitive health. Arguably, they're what faith advocates have been after all along. But none of them are inherently religious.
And that's the point: the valuable aspects of religious faith can be had without willful self-deception.
The intellectually questionable supernatural trappings can be left behind, because there are honest, evidentially responsible ways to achieve the same result. The same healthy attitudes that religions have long been in the business of cultivating can be induced in other ways.
Is it fair, though, to describe religious belief as "willfully self-deceptive"? Does it invariably involve "pretending" to know things you don't know? Or pretending to believe things you don't really believe? Perhaps not. Perhaps sincere religious belief is none of these things.
The self-fulfilling beliefs James likens them to, however, are all of these things.
In Exhibit 1, a man pretends to know that a stranger will prove friendly. In Exhibit 2, a woman wills herself to believe that she has what it takes to do the job. In Exhibit 3, Cassius Clay psyches himself up with extravagant claims of his own greatness. In Exhibit 4, a woman helps herself to the comforting (and quite possibly delusive) belief that God will provide.
In fact, the way James defines it, faith is inherently delusive. For "faith in a fact" can only "create the fact" if the belief starts out false.
Think about it: James was arguing that it's okay to pretend that the not-yet-actual is already actual -- providing the pretense has the potential to change the world and, in so doing, mitigate the falsehood. There's no escaping it: James was endorsing willful dishonesty -- of at least limited duration.
Of course, he was also laying the groundwork for a revolutionary reinterpretation of religion. James showed us that we can understand religious wisdom as functionally useful even when it is not literally true. The first step is to recognize that religious beliefs are, at bottom, expedients for inducing desirable attitudes.
A religious claim doesn't have to be true to feel deeply right. The feeling of rightness can stem instead from its power to express allegiance. Also, believers throughout history have argued for religious claims on the grounds that they're useful.
Claims about heaven and hell, for example, are often explicitly defended on the grounds that they help keep people in line. More generally, religious claims also have a pragmatic usefulness that is mistaken for truth. The idea that "God will provide," for example, can be marvelously calming whether or not it is true. "Jesus loves me" may meet a psychological need more reality-based believing can't.
I was a Quaker for about a decade because my mother loved the Quaker idea that "there is that of God in everyone." She lacked upstream evidence that we are in fact God-infused but had a clear grasp of the idea's downstream consequences. By dignifying us all, the idea makes it harder to mistreat people. She liked it and signed us up.
There's a larger lesson here, and it applies to secular as well as religious beliefs.
Beliefs have both logical properties and causal properties. They can be true or false and they can be useful or useless. Likewise, they can be evidenced to this or that degree and they can be more or less harmful. Ethically speaking, all of these properties matter, and responsible agents take account of them all.
But here's the thing: they do so without confusing them. Useful does not mean true; nor does well-evidenced mean harmless.