Abstract: In this paper we offer a conjecture as to how it’s possible that people of identical epistemic integrity – by which we mean pretty close to none – can and do nonetheless arrive at polar opposite views about history, the environment, the ontological status of divine entities, and questions of similar real-world import. None of us comes out well. But neither do any of us come out worse than anyone else.


We have a theory – no, that’s too strong, so make that – we have a conjecture, about the relationship between hearing and belief-acquisition. By this we don’t mean that much of what we believe is the result of what we’re told. That’s just a duh. Rather we mean that the protocol by which we process sound, and the protocol by which we process candidates for belief, share a common structure. And that they share this common structure, if we can make the case that they do, explains a whole lot about why most of us believe the Spielberg depiction of the Holocaust and yet others claim it’s a Zionist myth, why some people angst about anthropogenic global warming while others think it’s a socialist hoax, and why Catholics hold that the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father and the Son – in Latin filoque – while the Orthodox insist that it proceedeth from the Father alone. 

If our conjecture is anywhere close to right, then the practical upshot of it is that arguing about the substance of these conflicting claims is a waste of everyone’s time and energy. If we want to disabuse you of your obviously mistaken view about this or that, then we need to get you to attend not to our evidence – evidence having no more to do with the case, tra la, than the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la – but to the evidence-independent elements in the protocol. 

As it happens, though not by design, we’ll be hitting two birds with this one stone. First, when we say “to attend to the protocol”, we don’t mean to change it. We mean to mess with its inputs. We say this because we don’t think it can be changed, and even if it could, we don’t think it should be. 

And second, when we talk about wanting to disabuse you of your mistaken beliefs, we also want to raise doubts about why, in most cases, we should bother. If it turns out that the only thing that matters about the things about which we disagree is that we disagree about them – and we’re going to argue that that includes all three of the aforementioned issues – then perhaps we should move on to things that do matter, if only a little, like which way the roll of toilet paper should face, or in an egg cup which is up, the big end or the little end.

Let’s start with how we hear.

It’s long since been known that somewhere between our eardrums and our central processors there’s a transducer that decides whether what we’re listening to is sound or language. If it’s sound it’s processed one way, if language another. This is why though we know what every other language sounds like, we don’t know what English sounds like. We don’t know what it sounds like because to us it’s not sound, it’s meaning. Sound has no meaning, and meaning makes no sound. 

We can wonder what this piece of meaning would sound like if instead it were a sound, but we can answer that question only by trying to reprocess it as sound. And for most of us that’s nigh impossible. So it’s not that the question, “What does this sentence sound like?” is meaningless. It’s that asking it is just a bit of fun we play with our heads, grist perhaps for a stand-up comedian like Louis C.K. 

 Our conjecture, then, is that we have something similar for transducing between candidates for beliefs that matter and candidates for beliefs that don’t. “This bridge is safe,” falls into the first category. “The Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father and the Son,” falls into the second.

In saying this we don’t mean to suggest, as would the logical positivists, that the cut is between material claims, which have truth-values, and metaphysical claims, which they regard as mere pseudo-propositions because they don’t. Even if they’re right, we’re not talking about philosophers here. We’re talking about ordinary people, and ordinary people don’t draw the distinction between material and metaphysical propositions and wonder which do and do not have truth-values. 

Rather what we mean by something mattering or not is its mattering or not to the person in question. Much of what matters to me doesn’t matter to you, and vice versa. So not unlike the transducer for sound – which will develop differently in different linguistic environments – the transducer for mattering is likewise trained by experience. We learn what matters and what doesn’t, and then our individual mattering transducers are informed by that learning. 

But mattering, or at least mattering-simpliciter, still doesn’t capture what we mean. One of us is Jewish, so whether the Holocaust happened or not might matter a great deal to him. And yet – and he can report this with absolute confidence – it nonetheless falls in alongside the filioque. So the sortal is not whether one has or takes an interest. Rather – or so we conjecture – it’s whether there’s anything one’s expected to do about it. 

If we found out – by which we mean came to believe – that the Holocaust was a Zionist myth, what exactly would we do about it? We can’t think of a single thing. You’re Catholic. If you found out – by which we mean came to believe – that the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father alone, what exactly would you do about it? You can’t think of a single thing either.

But now comes (what we’ll call) the first kicker. One of us has a lot of fun playing global warming skeptic with a couple of his true-believer Departmental hall-mates. “Suppose,” he’s asked them, “you managed to convince me. What have you been doing about it with which I’d now be motivated to join in? The three of us,” he continued, “drive virtually identical gas-guzzlers. The two of you fly rather than skype yourselves into your various Save-the-World conferences – and at that always in places like San Francisco, never Cleveland or Milwaukee. So I don’t think you’re going to ask me to give up my summers in Italy. As with Orthodox proselytizers vis a vis the filioque, and as with Jews vis a vis the Holocaust, the only behavioral change you seem to want from me is in what I believe.”

And, we suppose, in what we espouse. But in espousing global warming to others, what behavioral change would we be demanding of them other than in their espousal behavior towards yet others? The religious proselytizer is at least trying to save our souls. If we accept Jesus as our personal savior we’ll be saved from … well, something. But our colleagues are atheists. We’re destined to oblivion no matter what we believe.

And so this is why we place global warming alongside Holocaust denial and the filioque as falling on (what we might rightly call) the epiphenomenal side of the transducer’s sortal. It’s not that we don’t take an interest in global warming, though in fact we don’t. It’s not that we don’t have an interest in global warming. That we clearly do. It’s that our transducers have decided that nothing behaviorally hangs on it. By contrast what hangs on whether we do or do not believe that bridge is safe is whether we’ll step onto it or try to find another way across this creek.

The next piece of our argument is about what each of the two sub-protocols looks like. The protocol for adjudicating candidates for beliefs that matter is, if not well understood, at least well on its way to being well understood. This is the bailiwick of traditional epistemology, epistemology properly-so-called. Epistemology properly-so-called is beyond our concern here, except to observe that over the past several decades epistemology has reconceived itself as adjudicating (what it calls) a belief’s epistemic warrant, by which it means the degree to which a belief is likely to be true and why. But on the filioque side of the transduction, truth is largely irrelevant. Why would it be relevant, since nothing hangs on getting things right?

Well, not quite. Nothing hangs on our beliefs being true. But a great deal might hang on our getting them right. For what makes a belief right, on the filioque side, is whether espousing it puts us, or keeps us, in good standing with our tribe. Since we’re not interested in the truth-value of a belief, but rather – to borrow a term from the philosophy of language – its perlocutionary value, i.e. what holding the belief does for us, we’ll be looking not for its epistemic warrant but for (what we’ll call) its doxastic warrant. And doxastic warrant, though not exhausted by acceptability to one’s tribe, that’s certainly a large part of it.

By one’s tribe we do not meant those with whom we share a worldview or ideology, whatever those terms might mean. That it can’t mean that is a purely logical matter. For if our tribe were those with whom we share an ideology – Christianity, Marxism, Republicanism, environmentalism – and if we departed in any way from our subscription to that ideology, then by definition they wouldn’t be our tribe, and so we couldn’t be motivated by remaining in good standing with them. We grant that a common ideology might emerge within a tribe, though that would be rare. But in the same way that for Sartre existence precedes essence, tribe is ontologically prior to ideology. And etiologically prior to it as well.

Rather what we mean by our tribe – and this is certainly what the word meant before it became so widely metaphorized – are those upon whom we depend for our survival, delectation, and companionship. They’re the people who have our backs, and we theirs. They’re the people at whose table we eat, and they at ours. They’re the people in whose company we take both solace and delight, and they in ours .

Ideological unanimity is as rare as it is unnecessary. In fact all but a half dozen of those with whom one of us is in ideological communion – in his case fellow Hobbesians – he’s never met, never will meet, doesn’t particularly want to meet, and upon whom he depends for pretty much nothing. Certainly not for intellectual companionship. For intellectual companionship we seek out those with whom we can combatively disagree. For us a yes-man is an underling, and an underling isn’t a companion. 

So, what does the filioque side of the transduction look like? Like simplicity itself. What should we believe about the filioque? Whatever won’t get us killed when the Serbs come to ethnically cleanse our village. What should we believe about the Holocaust? Whatever won’t get us disinvited to every dinner party in town. What should we believe about global warming? Whatever won’t alienate us from the colleagues on either side of us in our hallway.

And now comes (what we’ll call) kicker #2. How much epistemic labor would we have to invest to have anything approaching an informed opinion about the Holocaust? More than we could muster in several lifetimes. But how much honest epistemic toil need we do to have the right opinion about the Holocaust? Virtually none. About the filioque? We don’t even need to know what it means. About global warming? We just need to learn how to nod knowingly at the appropriate junctures in our colleagues’ rants.

Does that mean we need simply fake it? Not at all. Dissimulation takes energy. And besides, dissimulation implies we hold a dissenting view, which we don’t. And provided we don’t, it’s far more energy efficient just to bring ourselves to believe, to be orthodox, which is just ancient Greek for right believing. 

And bringing ourselves to believe, provided we have no reason not to, is the easiest thing in the world. The Holocaust. Got it. It was nineteen Saudi Arabs. Check. The Koch brothers are devils. Agreed. 

Do we know any of these things? Of course we do. We know them because to deny them we’d be, respectively, anti-Semitic, one of those 9/11-Truther crazies, and one of them rather than one of us. And who is this ‘us’? The people on whom we depend for our survival, delectation, and companionship, in our case our colleagues down the hall. If instead our peeps were Monika Schaefer, a Holocaust denier, Tony Hall, a 9/11-Truther, and one of David Koch’s best buddies, and if we remained faithful, as we would, to your epistemic sloth, then we’d question the Holocaust and 9/11 and vilify anyone who vilified the Koch’s. 

What do we know about the Holocaust?

“We saw Schindler’s List.” 

What do we know about 9/11? 

“We missed the live coverage, but we saw the replay at least a dozen times on TV.”

What do we know about the Koch brothers?

“Never heard of ‘em until just now, but apparently they’re pretty nasty people.”

The objection to our conjecture is that it might describe the hoi polloi, but not anyone who’d be reading this, and certainly not anyone in this room. Well – and you must have anticipated this – we’re now at kicker #3. Ask yourself how much epistemic toil you put into the myriad things you believe. “Well,” you might say, “I may not have done any research into the Holocaust, but I have a pretty impressive shelf full of well-thumbed books on global warming. So yes, I’d say I’ve done my homework.”

By which you mean you’ve copped a lot of other people’s homework, each of whom has copped the work of still others, and so on. So the only thing we know without relying on an endless plagiarized chain of doxastic trust – and this applies to both sides of the transduction – is what we had for breakfast. And at that only if memory serves us well. 

Is this skepticism? Certainly not. There’s no other way we can decide what to believe. And if the test is in the pudding, this reliance, flawed though it may be, has served us pretty well. So there’s no shame in fessing up. Your tribe offered you a chain of doxastic trust and you grabbed it. That’s how you came to believe what you do, because there’s no other way you could.

What there is, however, is cause for a little humility. And this brings us to kicker #4. In your belief-acquisition vis a vis the Holocaust and global warming, yes you’ve slacked off a bit, but no harm no foul. Why no harm? Because both issues fall on the filioque side. But in cutting yourself this slack – that’s the polite word for sloth – decency dictates you cut the same for your interlocutors. Monika Schaeffer and Tony Hall came to their beliefs in exactly the way you came to yours, by relying on the chains of doxastic trust that their tribes offered them. If you think there’s something asymmetrical between your two ways of coming-to-believe, then you’re going to have to dig for that asymmetry, and that’s work you have neither the resources nor the inclination to do.

So are there any out-into-the-real-world consequences to our conjecture? We suspect there are. Our conjecture is inert on the bridge safety side of our transducers. But on the filioque side it should, because it’s designed to, take the wind, and therefore some of the vitriol, out of everyone’s sails. Most of what’s on the filioque side are “tale[s] told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, [but] signifying nothing.” And yet these tales that signify nothing can and do provoke a whole lot of something, including more than the occasional knife fight. 

We’re supposing, pace Monika Schaefer, there was enough killing in the Holocaust. We don’t think we need to add any more killing about it.

Categories: Papers My Wife Said I Should Have Published Long Ago

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5 replies

  1. “Considering how little we know the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous –and it is also essential [to our survival] [bolding mine].” (209)

    “For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs.” (209)

    Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A lot of beliefs are not evidence based because there are only so many hours a day, and we can’t spend most of them researching complex topics. So many of our beliefs could also be called our biases. As so many people we need to get along with also have biases, some similar to, some different from our own, our communications with them about these topics are delicate. Hence many of our beliefs are based on little more than the need for social belonging.

    In biblical times we had real tribes; today, virtual tribes. This enablesme to be a member of several different tribes. I can be on either side of Holocaust recognition or denial and also be on either side of global climate crisis/non-crisis and on either side of many binary or nuanced issues, depending upon who I’m talking to at the moment and the biases I perceive them to have. This enables us to be bias chameleons.

    What’s important to recognize in bias acquisition is the continuum between thinking and feeling. Much of what I read about the Koch brothers or climate science isn’t an appeal to my reason but to emotions of fear and anger. If I can make you fearful and angry at the Koch brothers and their supposedly evil conspiracy to do X, even if neither of us knows anything about them, then I can control your transducer. And that gives me the power to control the tribe, at least temporarily.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andrew Roman makes an interesting point that with the internet we can belong to many different tribes, tribes which would be incompatible if forced to deal with each other face to face. So I can be woke with my colleagues and unwoke with my friends. Should we be considering this hypocrisy? Not if in these two capacities I’m two different people. Hmm …

      Liked by 1 person

      • You are one person, having both intellectual needs for ideas to make sense to you and emotional needs to belong to one or more tribes, to which your belonging makes sense to them. This creates a dynamic tension between the fulfilment of each of these somewhat conflicting needs.

        When you figure out how to resolve this tension once and for all let everyone know.

        Liked by 1 person


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