Abstract for Alabama talk

Posted on January 5, 2011


This talk is a run through the argument I plan to write up for a volume edited by Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry that’s in the works with Chicago University Press.

For God and Country, not necessarily for Truth: The noncognitive function of superempirical beliefs

Religions present a challenge to understanding as natural, cultural and cognitive phenomena. Why should they combine practical, ethical strictures with supernatural claims that, despite their often seemingly incredible content, garner heartfelt belief of the majority of humanity? Explaining this puzzle requires that the relationship between the truth and functionality of beliefs be considered.

The function of most beliefs is tied to their truth – when we look for a petrol station, it is essential that our memory of its location be accurate. In the case of ideologies – sets of beliefs whose function is to motivate prosocial behaviour – this connection breaks down. The function of ideologies is noncognitive. The reason is that, unlike other beliefs, ideologies function to motivate cooperation rather than to direct individual actions. The way they portray the environment does not have to be accurate, it only has to be good at getting people to work together. The difference means that, where the functionality of other beliefs is likely to be improved by attention to their truth, attention to the truth of ideologies is only likely to interfere with their function. An accurate understanding of a situation is by no means likely to also be the most effective for motivating cooperative behaviour. In order to maintain functionality, therefore, ideologies must be protected against potential counterevidence, i.e. rendered superempirical – the exact opposite of what is the case with beliefs whose functionality is tied to their truth.

The degree to which ideologies are superempirical depends upon the content of the claims they make as well as their social and methodological context. It is in respect of their content that religions are most suitable for ideological function. Since their claims are often practically impossible to investigate, their content is free to be shaped according to what best serves as ideology and what is most effective at being communicated in a culture of human cognisers. This helps religions to maintain the level of belief necessary for them to motivate the prosocial behaviour which lies at the bottom of their functionality. To do that, however, the faithful must think of religions as representing the world accurately. This means that all ideologies are parasitic upon normal beliefs. Recognition of their peculiar status potentially interferes with their functionality.