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Friday, March 13, 2009

On a Certain Kind of Philosophical Error

In this posting I would like to offer two examples or thought experiments taken from recent works that both illustrate a certain kind of erroneous thinking to which contemporary philosophers seem too prone.

The first example comes from Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), p. 179. Joyce has us imagine that there are two pills:

1. A pill that will make you believe that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo.

2. A pill that will make you believe that Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo.

Joyce claims that finding out that I had ingested pill 1 should make me doubt whether Napoleon really had been defeated at Waterloo. This is offered as an example where knowledge of a belief’s origin can supposedly undermine it. This last point is not one I would necessarily disagree with. Jon Elster, in his book Sour Grapes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 15 and 140, makes the very good point that the rationality of holding a belief depends at least in part on how it was acquired: The problem is, Joyce does not really think through all that this implies.

My finding out that I had ingested pill 1, in the absence of any other relevant information, would not disprove my belief: I still have at least a 50 % chance of being correct, and just as good reason to maintain my original belief as to jettison it. The belief induced by the pill may notwithstanding tally with the facts that obtain regardless of the existence of the pill.

Even more important for what I’m trying to get at is that, without knowing exactly how the pill operates, it’s difficult to understand how it could induce such a belief without many other beliefs being presupposed, especially beliefs surrounding the core concepts concerned, concepts such as “Napoleon”, “battle”, and “Waterloo”. I must know much about these before I can come to believe (in any full sense) in what either pill 1 or 2 induces. Put another way, it is difficult to see how pill 2 could induce the requisite belief in someone who lived before, say, 1780, or who lives in an isolated culture that knows nothing of early nineteenth century European history.

My second example comes from an otherwise very interesting book by Nomy Arpaly entitled Merit, Meaning, and Human Bondage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 111 ff. An evil genius called Dr. Nefarious (I do love the name!) can control my actions by instilling in me desires and beliefs which cause me to do his bidding, without awareness on my part. Dr. Nefarious implants in me the desire to assassinate the Canadian Minister of Sports and Recreation (as well as, perhaps, the belief that this would be for some reason a good thing).

Now think about what would be involved here. The desire implanted must be irresistible (because we’re assuming it to be motivationally efficacious). What else about my motivational and cognitive set must be the case in order for this to happen? What other things must I be brought to believe, desire, and value? It seems to me that practically my whole mental history must change.

The mind is too holistic, too seamless for Dr. Nefarious’ plot to work without it entailing a far-reaching breakdown and alteration in my self-identity. Otherwise, if the desire is implanted, while all else about me remains unaltered, the desire will seem alien, out of place, and as such, uncompelling. Unless I already identified with the desire to kill the Minister, I posit that said desire would lack the requisite efficacy.

Of course, there are lesser schemes that Dr. Nefarious could pull off, like giving me the efficacious desire for cheesecake. But he could do so only by accepting most of my psychology just as he found it – I happen to like cheesecake, and a sudden craving for it would by no means seem alien. Dr. Nefarious’ possible schemes, then, are quite limited. To get me to do things far removed from my existing motivational dispositions would require something more akin to psychological replacement.

The moral of both these examples is that beliefs, desires, values, etc. should not be spoken of as if they were isolable entities which can be simply injected into someone’s existing psychology. A person’s psychology must be construed more holistically. We could imagine the unlikely case where two people have the same set of desires, beliefs, etc. but who acquired them through quite different life histories: their beliefs and desires would be integrated quite differently, based on their differing experiences. We could thus imagine that removing a certain belief from the first person would have different effects than if it were removed from the second.

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