Degrees of Belief

I’m not sure why this paper showed up and lingered in my tabs, but it did. I vague recall thinking “oh that sounds interesting!” then being disappointed.

It starts with a weird argument for why the topic (the metaphysical status of beliefs) is worth exploring. But the arguments seem pretty…weird. One is to help formal epistemologists avoid having to say “all out belief” or “binary belief” instead of just “belief” and then taking about degrees of confidence rather than degrees of belief. I guess I’m losing some aspect of being a philosopher because that sounds like a really dumb reason to write a paper.

We then see one rebuttal of a supposedly common argument:

Assumption 1: The property of having confidence that p is identical to the property of having belief that p.
Assumption 2: ‘Belief’ and ‘confidence’ pick out the same thing.

They then infer that since the property of having confidence, or the thing picked out by ‘confidence’, comes in degrees, it follows that belief comes in degrees.

However, no reasons are given for Assumptions 1 and 2. They seem to just be assumed. Now, on the face of things, belief and confidence do seem to be similar sorts of mental entities; perhaps they are identical. On the other hand, our having formed different words for them is some evidence that they are distinct. So, as it stands, I see no convincing argument here that beliefs come in degrees. We will have to look elsewhere for better arguments.6

Now I want to say, “are you kidding me”. First I want to know is how common this argument is. Next I want to know what problems this eliding causes, if it exists. Finally, I want to know whether the author has even seen a thesaurus. Multiple words for the same thing happens all the time.

But it gets worse:

Consider (i). One can talk of much hope, little confidence, much desire, and so on. For any paradigm propositional attitude that comes in degrees, higher or lower degrees of that attitude can be attributed to a person by way of an occurrence of a mass noun. This is inductive evidence for (i).

Consider (ii). One cannot ascribe higher or lower degrees of belief to a person with ‘belief’. (5) does ascribe belief by way of a mass noun, but this only ascribes a number of single beliefs to a population, not a degree of belief to a single individual. Whenever belief is ascribed to a single person by way of a noun, it is by the occurrence of a count noun and not a mass noun. That is why (3) and (4) do not make sense. From (i) and (ii), it follows that beliefs do not come in degrees.

Say what? We easily say that I have a strong or weak believe or that this belief is stronger than that one. And language is quirky! Consider temperature! It canonically comes in degrees! But I can’t say that I have much or little temperature!

Just no.

And, you know, people ask “Ok you believe P, but how much do you believe it?” “100%!”

“Do you believe it more or less than you believe the earth is round?” “Oh much less.”

So I remember now why I gave up with irritation. If you are going to argue from natural language to metaphysics (which I find weird in this day and age) and even if we accept confining yourself to English (which is bad) a minimal constraint should be a systematic linguistic analysis! Not a couple of cherry picked examples and some blather about mass vs count terms!

(Note that I don’t believe my example prove that belief does have degrees because I am not a silly person. I recognize that people might well talk about things in funny ways!)

In any case, I would have thought a metaphysical paper would have explored the, you know, metaphysics. Eg looked at the ontological aspects of beliefs. One might explore whether neuroscience dictates some aspect of the metaphysics of belief. (If beliefs supervenes on excitation dispositions they have a natural degree aspect in us independent of evidential strength.)

I’m so grouchy.

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