Two Roles for Belief Attribution

Belief attribution, both in philosophy and in ordinary language, normally serves two different types of role.

One role is predicting, tracking, or reporting what a person would verbally endorse. When we attribute belief to someone we are doing something like indirect quotation, speaking for them, expressing what we think they would say. This view is nicely articulated in (the simple versions of) the origin-myths of belief talk in the thought experiments of Wilfrid Sellars and Howard Wettstein, according to which belief attribution mythologically evolves out of a practice of indirect quotation or imagining interior analogues of outward speech. The other role is predicting and explaining (primarily) non-linguistic behavior -- what a person will do, given their background desires (e.g. Dennett 1987; Fodor 1987; Andrews 2012) .

We might call the first role testimonial, the second predictive-explanatory. In adult human beings, when all goes well, the two coincide. You attribute to me the belief that class starts at 2 pm. It is true both that I would say "Class starts at 2 pm" and that I would try to show up for class at 2 pm (assuming I want to attend class).

But sometimes the two roles come apart. For example, suppose that Ralph, a philosophy professor, sincerely endorses the statement "women are just as intelligent as men". He will argue passionately and convincingly for that claim, appealing to scientific evidence, and emphasizing how it fits the egalitarian and feminist worldview he generally endorses. And yet, in his day-to-day behavior Ralph tends not to assume that women are very intellectually capable. It takes substantially more evidence, for example, to convince him of the intelligence of an essay or comment by a woman than a man. When he interacts with cashiers, salespeople, mechanics, and doctors, he tends to assume less intelligence if they are women than if they are men. And so forth. (For more detailed discussion of these types of cases, see here and here.) Or consider Kennedy, who sincerely says that she believes money doesn't matter much, above a certain basic income, but whose choices and emotional reactions seem to tell a different story. When the two roles diverge, should belief attribution track the testimonial or the predictive-explanatory? Both? Neither?

Self-attributions of belief are typically testimonial. If we ask Ralph whether he believes that women and men are equally intelligent, he would presumably answer with an unqualified yes. He can cite the evidence! If he were to say that he doesn't really believe that, or that he only "kind of" believes it, or that he's ambivalent, or that only part of him believes it, he risks giving his conversational partner the wrong idea. If he went into detail about his spontaneous reactions to people, he would probably be missing the point of the question.

On the other hand, consider Ralph's wife. Ralph comes home from a long day, and he finds himself enthusiastically talking to his wife about the brilliant new first-year graduate students in his seminar -- Michael, Nestor, James, Kyle. His wife asks, what about Valery and Svitlana? [names selected by this random procedure] Ah, Ralph says, they don't seem quite as promising, somehow. His wife challenges him: Do you really believe that women and men are equally intelligent? It sure doesn't seem that way, for all your fine, egalitarian talk! Or consider what Valery and Svitlana might say, gossiping behind Ralph's back. With some justice, they agree that he doesn't really believe that women and men are equally intelligent. Or consider Ralph many years later. Maybe after a long experience with brilliant women as colleagues and intellectual heroes, he has left his implicit prejudice behind. Looking back on his earlier attitudes, his earlier evaluations and spontaneous assumptions, he can say: Back then, I didn't deep-down believe that women were just as smart as men. Now I do believe that. Not all belief attribution is testimonial.

It is a simplifying assumption in our talk of "belief" that these two roles of belief attribution -- the testimonial and the predictive-explanatory -- converge upon a single thing, what one believes. When that simplifying assumption breaks down, something has to give, and not all of our attributional practices can be preserved without modification.

[This post is adapted from Section 6 of my paper in draft, "The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief"]

[HT: Janet Levin.]

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