Can you believe what you want? Suppose, for example, you would feel happier if you believed that most states will allow gay marriages within the present decade. So why not just belief it?
It was ages ago that this question first arose in my graduate student community. I think it was then thought that beliefs aren’t like actions and you cannot simply believe things for prudential reasons. I think it was also thought that there was a connection between belief and truth that underlies this. And a quick look at Phil Index suggests that this is still the standard line.**
I hope that’s why I find the possibility of the following case so startling.
Jones, a colleague who is fairly obviously highly talented in your field, is starting to get more and more recognition. You would feel better and less ego-battered if you thought Jones was a pathetic braggard and self-promoter, and so you do.
Of course, there are ways this could happen that the philosophical picture can accommodate. The “you” might be very bad at assessing evidence. Nothing in the philosophical picture denies that there can be cognitive deficits. Perhaps those going in for such beliefs have some disability that affects the kinds of evidence they can get. For example, perhaps they have asperger’s and actually tend to misread some situations. Or perhaps they hold general hypotheses that support the conclusion; for example, perhaps they really believe women cannot succeed in academia except by using inappropriate influence. Perhaps also they are quite malicious, so out of spite they act as though they have discovered some awful fact about someone, including telling others about the supposed fact. Or perhaps they have a very negative attitude and see everything in a grim light. (These aren’t all meant to be indepent of the others.)
The trouble sometimes though is that the explanation is at least as puzzling as the phenomenon. Could well-educated faculty really make such inferences? OK, he has aspergers, but does he really not get that there’s a different between disagreeing and lying?
So here’s another explanatory hypothesis I’ve recently encountered: Some people simply invent things about other people, but the inventions are manifested as beliefs. And they make them feel better. The inventors may be very bright, highly educated people; they are not assessing evidence, they can take in the facts, they do not have general biases necessarily.
There’s a background line that says they are narcissists, who have very fragile egos and a tendency to feel extremely painful shame, which they cope with by over estimating their own value and worth. Anyone who appears to succeed beyond them, or who has power over them, is potentially very threatening. When faced with others’ succeess they feel much better if they can believe something really bad about the person, and so they do. The other person becomes the object of the shame they might feel.
It might be that I saw something of this kind of thing happening clearly first when I was in a leadership role in faculty governance. If I got some attention at some point, that might well be followed by a string of people going to the board of regents with really fantastical tales about me. Truly, that does happen. Usually it is possible to try at least to explain it in terms of very poor reasoning, or an inability to interpret people correctly, or the projection of their own views and attitudes. But that’s going to take you only so far and in some cases you end up ascribing inferences that, rather than explaining anything, are themselves so puzzling.
So a new mode of explanation might open up: people can invent beliefs, with little or no evidence, and without the expected background beliefs or attitudes. They are fully beliefs, though, ones that get acted on and conveyed.
I’m writing about this topic for a couple of reasons:
(1) to welcome new faculty and hopeful graduate students to academia, where there are plenty of examples of success bringing on very negative rumors. There are constant assessments going on in our environments and not everyone is all that happy about others’ successes;***
(2) Women can be threatening in various contexts, and this may lead to our being the target of such inventions more often than others are. Being judged a real bitch when one pursues a point might be the product of one’s threatening breaking of the “women are nurturing” schema along with a consequent wounding of a narcissistic ego.
(3) to ask what others think of the explanation in terms of beliefs as inventions.
Perhaps I might add that, nice though it does sound, the idea that beliefs are sensitive to evidence and truth seems to be being questioned from a number of directions. I’m still surprised, though, by the possibility of beliefs as simple inventions that make one feel better. WHAT DO YOU THINK?
**The most recent example I found is: “Controlling Attitudes”, Hieronymi, Pamela, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 87, no. 1, pp. 45-74, March 2006
*** And of course sometimes the target of the bad rumors fully or nearly merits them.