Archives For group belief

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Bucharest, m.dentith@episto.org.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 48-52.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-43y

Image by David Grant via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Sometimes, when it is hard to review a book, it is tempting to turn in some kind of personal reflection, one demonstrates why the reviewer felt disconnected from the text they were reviewing. This review of Bernard N. Wills Believing Weird Things – which I received three months ago, and have spent quite a bit of time thinking about in the interim – is just such a review-cum-reflection, because I am not sure what this book is about, nor who its intended audience is.

According to the blurb on the back Believing Weird Things is a response to Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things (Henry Holt and Company, 1997). Shermer’s book is one I know all too well, having read and reread it when I started work on my PhD. At the time the book was less than ten years old, and Shermer and his cohort of Skeptics (spelt with a ‘K’ to denote that particular brand of sceptical thought popular among (largely) non-philosophers in the U.S.) were considered to be the first and final word on the rationality (more properly, the supposed irrationality) of belief in conspiracy theories.

Given I was working on a dissertation on the topic, getting to grips with the arguments against belief in such theories seemed crucial, especially given my long and sustained interest in the what you might call the contra-philosophy of Skepticism, the work of Charles Fort.

Times for the Fortean

Fort (who Wills mentions in passing) was a cantankerous collector and publisher of strange and inconvenient phenomena. His Book of the Damned (Boni and Liveright, 1919) is an early 20th Century litany of things which seemed to fall outside the systemic study of the world. From rains of frogs, to cities floating in the sky, Fort presented the strange and the wonderful, often without comment. When he did dare to theorise about the phenomena he cataloged, he often contradicted his previous theories in favour of new ones. Scholars of Fort think his lack of a system was quite deliberate: Fort’s damned data was meant to be immune to scientific study.

Fort was hardly a known figure in his day, but his work has gained fans and adherents, who call themselves Forteans and engage in the study of Forteana. Forteans collect and share damned data, from haunted physics laboratories, to falls of angel hair. Often they theorise about what might cause these phenomena, but they also often don’t dispute other interpretations of the same ‘damned data.’

John Keel, one of the U.S.’s most famous Forteans (and who, if he did not invent the term ‘Men in Black’ at least popularised their existence), had a multitude of theories about the origin of UFOs and monsters in the backwoods of the U.S., which he liberally sprinkled throughout his works. If you challenged Keel on what you thought was an inconsistency of thought he would brush it off (or get angry at the suggestion he was meant to consistent in the first place).

I was a fan of Forteana without being a Fortean: I fail the Fortean test of tolerating competing hypotheses, preferring to stipulate terms whilst encouraging others to join my side of the debate. But I love reading Forteana (it is a great source of examples for the social epistemologist), and thinking about alternative interpretations. So, whilst I do not think UAP (unexpected aerial phenomena – the new term for UFO) are creatures from another dimension, I do like thinking about the assumptions which drive such theories.

Note here that I say ‘theories’ quite deliberately: any student of Forteana will quickly become aware that modern Forteans (contra Fort himself) are typically very systematic about their beliefs. It is just that often the Fortean is happy to be a systemic pluralist, happily accepting competing or complimentary systems as equally possible.

Weird and Weirder

Which brings me back to Believing Weird Things. The first section concerns beliefs people like Shermer might find weird but Wills argues are reasonable in the context under which they developed. Wills’ interest here is wide, taking in astrology, fairies, and why he is not a Rastafarian. Along the way he contextualises those supposedly weird beliefs and shows how, at certain times or in certain places, they were the product of a systemic study of the world.

Wills points out that a fault of Skepticism is a lack of appreciation for history: often what we now consider rational was once flimflam (plate tectonics), and what was systemic and rational (astrology) is today’s quackery. As Wills writes:

The Ancients do not seem to me to be thinking badly so much as thinking in an alien context and under different assumptions that are too basic to admit evaluation in the ordinary empirical sense (which is not to say they admit of no evaluation whatsoever). Further, there are many things in Aristotle and the Hebrew Bible which strike me as true even though the question of ‘testing’ them scientifically and ‘skeptically’ is pretty much meaningless. In short, the weird beliefs I study are at minimum intelligible, sometimes plausible and occasionally true. [4]

Indeed, the very idea which underpins Shermer’s account, ‘magical thinking,’ seems to fail the skeptical test: why, like Shermer, would you think it is some hardwired function rather than culturally situated? But more importantly, how is magical thinking any different from any other kind of thinking?

This last point is important because, as others have argued (including myself) many beliefs people think are problematic are, when looked at in context with other beliefs, either not particularly problematic, or no more problematic than the beliefs we assume are produced rationally. The Psychology of Religion back in the early 20th Century is a good example of this: when psychologists worried about religious belief started looking at the similarities in belief formation between the religious and the non-religious, they started to find the same kind of ‘errors’ in irreligious people as well.

In the same respect, the work in social psychology on belief in conspiracy theories seems to be suffering the same kind of problem today: it’s not clear that conspiracy theorists are any less (or more) rational than the rest of us. Rather, often what marks out the difference in belief are the different assumptions about how the world is, or how it works. Indeed, as Wills writes:

Many weird ideas are only weird from a certain assumed perspective. This is important because this assumed perspective is often one of epistemic and social privilege. We tend to associate weird ideas with weird people we look down upon from some place of superior social status. [10]

The first section of Believing Weird Things is, then, possibly the best defence of a kind of Fortean philosophy one could hope for. Yet that is also an unfair judgement, because thinking of Believing Weird Things as a Fortean text is just my imposition: Fort is mentioned exactly once, and only in a footnote. I am only calling this a tentatively Fortean text because I am not sure who the book’s audience is. Ostensibly – at least according to the blurb – it is meant to be a direct reply to Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. But if it is, then it is twenty years late: Why People Believe Weird Things was published in 1997.

Not just that, but whilst Believing Weird Things deals with a set of interesting issues Shermer did not cover (yet ought to have), almost everything which makes up the reply to Why People Believe Weird Things is to be found in the Introduction alone. Now, I’d happily set the Introduction as a reading in a Critical Thinking class or elementary Epistemology class. However, I could not see much use in setting the book as a whole.

What’s Normal Anyway?

Which brings us to the second half of Believing Weird Things. Having set out why some weird beliefs are not that weird when thought about in context, Wills sets out his reasons for thinking that beliefs which aren’t – in some sense – considered weird ought to be. The choice of topics here is interesting, covering Islamophobia, white privilege, violence and the proper attitude towards tolerance and toleration in our polities.

But it invites the question (again) of who his intended audience is meant to be? For example, I also think Islamophobia, racism, and violence are deeply weird, and it worries me that some people still think they are sensible responses. But if Wills is setting out to persuade the other half of the debate, the racists, the bigots, and the fans of violence, then I do not think he will have much luck, as his discussions never seem to get much further than “Here are my reckons!”

And some of those reckons really need more arguments in favour of them.

For example, Wills brings out the old canard that religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are one and the same (presented as ‘religious faith’ and ‘scientific faith’). Not just that, but, in chapter 6, he talks about the things ‘discovered’ by religion. These are presented as being en par with discoveries in the sciences. Yet aren’t the things discovered by religion (‘humans beings must suffer before they learn. … existence is suffering’ [48]) really the ‘discoveries’ of, say, philosophers working in a religious system? And aren’t many of these discoveries just stipulations, or religious edicts?

This issue is compounded by Wills specification that the process of discovery for religious faith is hermeneutics: the interpretation of religious texts. But that invites even more questions: if you think the gods are responsible for both the world and certain texts in the world you could imagine hermeneutic inquiry to be somehow equivalent to scientific inquiry, but if you are either doubtful of the gods, or doubtful about the integrity of the gods’ prophets, then there is much room to doubt there is much of a connection at all between ‘faith’ in science and faith in scripture.

Another example: in chapter 8, Wills states:

Flat-Earthers are one thing but Birthers, say, are quite another: some ideas do not come from a good place and are not just absurd but pernicious. [67]

Now, there is an argument to be had about the merits (or lack thereof) of the Flat Earth theory and the thesis Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. Some might even claim that the Flat Earth theory is worse, given that belief might entail thinking a lot of very disparate institutions, located globally, are in on a massive cover-up. The idea Barack Obama is secretly Kenyan has little effect on those of us outside the U.S. electoral system.

None of this is to say there aren’t decent arguments to be had about these topics. It is, instead, to say that often these positions are stipulated. As such, the audience for Believing Weird Things seems to be people who agree with Wills, rather than an attempt by Wills to change hearts and minds.

How to Engage With Weird Beliefs

Which is not to say that the second half of the book lacks merit; it just lacks meat. The chapters on Islamophobia (chapter 8) and racism (chapter 9) are good: the contextualisation of both Islamophobia and the nature of conflicts in the Middle East are well expressed. But they are not particularly novel (especially if you read the work of left-wing commentators). But even if the chapters are agreeable to someone of a left-wing persuasion, all too often the chapters just end: the chapter on violence (chapter 10), for example, has no clear conclusion other than that violence is bad.

Similarly confused is the chapter on tolerance (chapter 11). But the worst offender is the chapter on the death of Conservatism (chapter 14). This could have been an interesting argument about the present state of today’s politics. But the chapter ends abruptly, and with it, the book. There is no conclusion, no tying together of threads. There’s hardly even any mention of Shermer or skepticism in the second half of Believing Weird Things.

Which brings us back to the question: who is this book for? If the book were just the first half it could be seen as both a reply to Shermer and a hesitant stab at a Fortean philosophy. But the second half of the book comes across more as the author’s rumination on some pertinent social issues of the day, and none of that content seems to advance far beyond ‘Here are my thoughts…’

Which, unfortunately, is also the character of this review: in trying to work out who the book is for I find my thoughts as inconclusive as the text itself. None of this is to say that Believing Weird Things is a bad or terrible book. Rather, it is just a collection of the author’s ruminations. So, unless you happen to be a fan of Wills, there is little to this text which substantially advances the debate over belief in anything.

Contact details: m.dentith@episto.org

References

Fort, Charles. The Book of the Damned, Boni and Liveright, 1919

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things, Henry Holt and Company, 1997

Wills, Bernard N. Believing Weird Things, Minkowski Institute Press, 2018

Author Information: Raimo Tuomela, University of Helsinki, raimo.tuomela@helsinki.fi

Tuomela, Raimo. “The Limits of Groups: An Author Replies.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 28-33.

The pdf of the article refers to specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3QM

Please refer to:

In their critique Corlett and Strobel (2017) discuss my 2013 book Social Ontology and comment on some of my views. In this reply I will respond to their three central criticisms that I here formulate as follows:[1]

(1) Group members are said in my account to be required to ask for the group’s, thus other members’, permission to leave the group, and this seems to go against the personal moral autonomy of the members.

(2) My account does not focus on morally central matters such as personal autonomy, although it should.

(3) My moral notions are based on a utilitarian view of morality.

In this note I will show that claims (1) – (3) are not (properly) justified on closer scrutiny.

Unity Is What’s Missing In Our Lives

Below I will mostly focus on we-mode groups, that is, groups based on we-thinking, we-reasoning, a shared “ethos”, and consequent action as a unified group.[2] Ideally, such we-mode groups are autonomous (externally uncoerced) and hence free to decide about the ethos (viz. the central goals, beliefs, norms, etc.) of their group and to select its position holders in the case of an organized group. Inside the group (one with freely entered members) each member is supposed to be “socially” committed to the others to perform her part of the joint enterprise. (Intentions in general involve commitment to carry out what is intended).

The members of a we-mode group should be able to count on each other not to be let down. The goal of the joint activity typically will not be reached without the other members’ successful part performances (often involving helping). When one enters a we-mode group it is one’s own choice, but if the others cannot be trusted the whole project may be impossible to carry out (think of people building a bridge in their village).

The authors claim that my moral views are based on utilitarianism and hence some kind of maximization of group welfare instead of emphasizing individual autonomy and the moral rights of individuals.[3] This is a complex matter and I will here say only that there is room in my theory both for group autonomy and individual autonomy.  The we-mode account states what it takes for people to act in the we-mode (see Tuomela, 2013, ch. 2). According to my account, the members have given up part of their individual autonomy to the group. From this follows that solidarity to the other members is important. The members of a paradigmatic we-mode group should not let the others down. This is seen as a moral matter.

The Moral Nature of the Act

As to the moral implications of the present approach, when a group is acting intentionally it is as a rule responsible for what it does. But what can be said about the responsibility of a member? Basically, each member is responsible as a group member and also privately morally responsible for the performance of his part. (He could have left the group or expressed his divergent opinion and reasons.) Here we are discussing the properly moral and not only the instrumental or quasi-moral implications of group action and the members.[4]

A member’s exiting a free (autonomous) group is in some cases a matter for the group to deal with. “What sanctions does a group need for quitting members if it endangers the whole endeavor?” Of course the members may exit the group but then they have to be prepared to suffer the (possibly) agreed-upon sanctions for quitting. Corlett and Strobel focus on the requirement of a permission to leave the group (see pp. 43-44 of Tuomela, 2013). It is up to the group to decide about suitable sanctions. E.g. the members may be expected to follow the majority here. (See ch. 5 of Tuomela, 2013).

Furthermore, those who join the group should of course be clear about what kind of group they are joining. If they later on wish to give up their membership they can leave upon taking on the sanctions, if any, that the group has decided upon. My critics rightfully wonder about the expression “permission to leave the group”. My formulations seem to have misleadingly suggested to them that the members are (possibly) trapped in the we-mode group. Note that on p. 44 of my 2013 book I speak of cases where leaving the group harms the other members and propose that sometimes rather mere informing the members might be appropriate.

How can “permission from the group” be best understood? Depending on the case at hand, it might involve asking the individual members if they allow the person in question to leave without sanctions. But this sounds rather silly especially in the case of large groups. Rather, the group may formulate procedures for leaving the group. This would involve institutionalizing the matter and the possible sanctioning system. In the case of paradigmatic autonomous we-mode groups the exit generally is free in the sense that the group itself rather than an external authority decides about procedures for exiting the group (see appendix 1 to chapter 2 of Tuomela, 2013). However, those leaving the group might have to face group-based sanctions if they by their leaving considerably harm the others.

In my account the members of a well-functioning we-mode group can be said somewhat figuratively to have given up part of their autonomy and self-determination to their we-mode group. Solidarity between the members is important: The members should not let the others down – or else the group’s project (viz. the members’ joint project) will not be successful. This is a non-utilitarian moral matter – the members are to keep together not to let each other down. Also for practical reasons it is desirable that the members stick together on penalty of not achieving their joint goal – e.g. building a bridge in their village.

People do retain their personal (moral) autonomy in the above kind of cases where entering and exiting a we-mode group is free (especially free from external authorities) or where, in some cases, the members have to satisfy special conditions accepted by their group. I have suggested elsewhere that dissenting members should either leave the group or try to change the ethos of the group. As said above, in specific cases of ethos-related matters the members may use a voting method, e.g. majority voting, even if the minority may want to challenge the result.[5]

Questions of Freedom

According to Corlett and Strobel, freedom of expression is largely blocked and the notion of individual autonomy is dubious in my account (see p. 9 of their critical paper). As was pointed out above, the members may leave the group freely or via an agreed-upon procedure. Individual autonomy is thwarted to the extent that is needed for performing one’s part, but such performance is the whole point of participation in the first place. Of course the ethos may be discussed along the way and changes may be introduced if the members or e.g. the majority of them or another “suitable” number of them agree. The members enter the group freely, by their own will and through the group’s entrance procedures and may likewise leave the group through collectively agreed-on procedures (if such exist).

As we know, autonomy is a concept much used in everyday life, outside moral philosophy. In my account it is used in “autonomous groups”, in the simple sense that the group can make its own decisions about ethos, division of tasks, conditions for entering and exiting the group without coercion by an external authority. Basically, only the autonomous we-mode group can, through its members’ decision, make rules for how people are allowed to join or leave the group.[6]

Corlett’s and Strobel’s critique that the members in autonomous we-mode groups have no autonomy (in the moral sense) in my account cannot be directed towards the paradigmatic case of groups with free entrance, where the group members decide among themselves what is to be done by whom and how to arrange for the situation of a member wanting to leave the group, maybe in the middle of a critical situation. Of course, a member cannot always do as he chooses in situations of group action. A joint goal is at stake and one’s letting the others down when they have a good reason to count on one would be detrimental to everyone’s goal achievement. Also, letting the others down is at least socially and morally condemnable.

When people have good reason to drop out, having changed their mind or finding that the joint project is morally dubious, they can exit according to the relevant rules (if such exist in the group). The feature criticized by the present authors that “others’ permission is required” is due to my unlucky formulation. What is meant is that in some cases there should be some kind of procedure in the group for leaving. The group members are socially committed to each other to further the ethos, as well as committed to the ethos. The social commitment has, of course, the effect that each member looks to the others for cooperative actions and attitudes and has a good reason to do so.

My critics suggest that the members should seek support from the others – indeed this seems to be what the assumed solidarity of we-mode groups can be taken to provide. However, what they mean could be a procedure to make the ethos more attractive to them and leading to their renewed support of the ethos, instead of pressuring them to stay in a group with an ethos that no longer interests them. Of course, the ethos may be presented in new ways, but there still may be situations where members want to leave and they have a right to leave following the agreed upon procedures. Informing the group in due time, so that the group can find compensating measures, is what a member who quits can and should minimally do. The authors discuss examples where heads of states and corporations want to resign. It is typically possible to resign according e.g.to the group’s exit rules, if such exist.

Follow the Leader

On page 11 the authors criticize the we-mode account for the fact that non-operative members ought to accept what the operative leaders decide. They claim that e.g. a state like the U.S., on the contrary, allows, and in some situations, even asks the citizens to protest. They are, of course, right in their claims concerning special cases. Naturally there will sometimes be situations where protest is called for. The dissidents may then win and the government (or what have you) will change its course of action. Even the ethos of the group may sometimes have to be reformulated.

Gradual development occurs also in social groups and organizations, the ethos evolves often through dissident actions. When the authorized operatives act according to what they deem to be a feasible way, they do what they are chosen to do. If non-operatives protest due to immoral actions of the operatives, they do the right thing morally, but if the operatives act according to the ethos, they are doing their job, although they should have chosen a moral way to achieve the goal. The protest of the non-operatives may have an effect. On the other hand, note that even Mafia groups may act in the we-mode and do so in immoral ways, in accordance to their own agenda.

The authors discuss yet another kind of example of exiting the group, where asking permission would seem out of place: a marriage. If a married couple is taken to be a we-mode group, the parties would have to agree upon exit conditions (if marriage is not an institutionalized and codified concept – what it, nevertheless, usually is). As an institution it is regulated in various ways depending on the culture. The summarized critique by the authors on page 12 has been met this far. It seems that they have been fixated on the formulation that “members cannot leave the group without the permission from the other members.” To be sure, my view is that group members cannot just walk out on the others without taking any measures to ease the detrimental effects of their defection. Whether it is permission, compensation or an excuse, depends on the case. In protesting we have a different story: Dissidents often have good reasons to protest, and sometimes they just want to change the ethos instead of leaving.

It’s Your Prerogative

At the end of their critique the authors suggest that I should include in my account a moral prerogative for the members to seek the support of other group members as a courtesy to other members and the group. I have no objection to that. Once more, the expression “permission to leave the group” has been an unfortunate choice of words. It would have been better e.g. to speak of a member’s being required to inform the others that one has to quit and be ready to suffer possible sanctions for letting the others down and perhaps causing the whole project to collapse.

However, dissidents should have the right to protest. Those who volunteer to join a group with a specific ethos cannot always foresee if the ethos allows for immoral or otherwise unacceptable courses of action. Finally, my phrase “free entrance and exit” may have been misunderstood. As pointed out, the expression refers to the right of the members to enter and exit instead of being forced to join a group and remain there. To emphasize once more, it is in this way that the members of we-mode groups are autonomous.  Also, there is no dictator who steers the ethos formation and choice of position holders. However, although the members may jointly arrange their group life freely, each member is not free to do whatever he chooses when he acts in the we-mode. We-mode acting involves solidary collective acting by the members according to the ethos of the group.

In this note I have responded to the main criticisms (1)-(3) by Corlett and Strobel (2017) and argued that they do not damage my theory at least in a serious way. I wish to thank my critics for their thoughtful critical points.

Contact details: raimo.tuomela@helsinki.fi

References

Corlett, A. and Strobel J., “Raimo Tuomela’s Social Ontology”, Social Epistemology 31, no. 6.  (2017): 1-15

Schmid, H.-B. “On not doing one’s part.” Pp. 287-306, in Psarros, N., Schule-Ostermann, K. (eds.) Facets of Sociality. Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag, 2007

Tuomela, R. The Importance of Us: A Philosophical Study of Basic Social Notions. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Tuomela, R. The Philosophy of Sociality, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Tuomela, R. Social Ontology, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Tuomela, R. and Mäkelä, P. “Group agents and their responsibility.” Journal of Ethics 20. (2016): 299-316

Tuomela, R. and Tuomela, M. “Acting As a Group Member and Collective Commitment”, Protosociology 18, (2003): 7-65.

[1] Acknowledgement. I wish to thank my wife Dr. Maj Tuomela for important help in writing this paper.

[2] See Tuomela (2007) and (2013) for the above notions.

[3] I speak of utilities only in game-theoretic contexts. (My moral views are closer to pragmatism and functionalism than utilitarianism.)

[4] See e.g. Tuomela-Mäkelä (2016) for a group’s  and group members’ moral responsibility, Also see pp. 37 and 41 of Tuomela (2013) and chapter 10 in Tuomela (2007).

[5] As to dissidents I have discussed the notion briefly in my 1995 book and in a paper published in 2003 with Maj Tuomela (see the references). Furthermore, Hans Bernhard Schmid discusses dissidents in we-mode groups in his article “On not doing one’s part” in Psarros and Schulte-Ostermann (eds.) Facets of Sociality, Ontos Verlag, 2007, pp. 287-306.

[6] Groups that are dependent on an external agent (e.g. a dictator, an owner of a company or an officer commanding an army unit) may lack the freedom to decide about what they should be doing, which positions they should have, and the members may be forced to join a group that they cannot exit from. My notion of “autonomous groups” refers to groups that are free to decide about their own matters, e.g. entrance and exit (possibly including sanctions). Personal moral autonomy in such groups is retained by the possibility to apply for entrance and exit upon taking on possible sanctions, influencing the ethos or protesting. The upshot is that a person functioning in a paradigmatic we-mode group should obey the possible restrictions that the group has set for exiting the group and be willing to suffer agreed upon sanctions. Such a we-mode group is assumed to have coercion-free entrance to the group and also free exit from it – as specified in Appendix 1 to Chapter 2 of my 2013 book. Here is meant that no external authority is coercing people to join and to remain in the group. A completely different matter is the case of a Mafia group and an army unit. The latter may be a unit that cannot be freely entered and exited. Even in these cases people may act in the we-mode. In some non-autonomous groups, like in a business company, the shareholders decide about all central matters and the workers get paid. Members may enter if they are chosen to join and exit only according to specific rules.

Author Information: Chris Dragos, University of Toronto, chris.dragos@mail.utoronto.ca

Dragos, Chris. “Justified Group Belief in Science.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 9 (2016): 6-12.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3aV

Please refer to:

spirits

Image credit: garlandcannon, via flickr

Silvia Tossut (2016) offers an insightful reply to my criticism (Dragos 2016) of Rolin (2008). I first recap the debate and address two of Tossut’s objections. I then concede to a third: in Dragos (2016) I mistake Rolin’s (2008) argument as a token of a more general argument I reject in a larger project. Now properly understood as a different sort of argument, I apply a criticism offered by de Ridder (2014) to Rolin’s (2008) argument. With considerations from Wray’s (2016) reply to Dragos (2016), I close by addressing a fourth objection from Tossut.  Continue Reading…