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A question to be answered at the very beginning of an "acceptance of evolution" research program

From correspondence between me and a group of very accomplished and reflective researchers who are not examining "acceptance" of human evolution:

What does it actually mean for someone to "believe in" evolution or "accept" evolution independently of how that person answers the belief/acceptance question as it is typically posed in an opinion poll or (invalid) "science literacy" quiz?

In general, is it sensible-- philosophically or psychologically-- to characterize as being the "same type of mental phenonomon" (1) an intentional state that reflects assent to or affirmation of some factual proposition that has no connection to any activity other than exactly that -- a disposition to express assent or affirmation to a survey or quiz item; and (2) an intentional state that reflects assent to or affirmation of some factual proposition that enables some independent, goal-focused activity?

E.g., right now I "believe" or "accept" that I'm sitting in a chair in front of my computer. That belief is bundled in w/ a bunch of intentional states that enable me to correspond with you.  

At the same time, if I check some registry in my mind, I can confirm I "believe"  that "Columbus sailed to America in 1492."  But that "belief" isn't enabling me to do anything; I never use it to anything, in fact.  

I'm sure there's some meaning in the proposition "Columbus sailed to America in 1492" & some meaning in the proposition "I believe Columbus sailed to American in 1492."  But I think it is facile to say that the intentional state that characterizes my assent to that proposition is the "same kind" of intentional state that characterizes my assent to the proposition that I'm sitting in a chair right now.

If those are "different kinds" of intentional states, then which of those two or which third one are you interested in studying when you try to explain "nonacceptance" of evolution?  

If the intentional state you are interested in studying, moreover, isn't one that enables someone to do things (scientific research on the natural history of humans, practice certain types of medicine, educate science students, transmit scientific information etc) that can be done properly only with an "action-enabling" sort of assent in evolution-- why exactly do you want to explain that?

I'm not saying there can be no worthwhile answer to that last question -- just that, by hypothesis, the answer can't be that you are trying to explain variance in any sort of intentional state necessary to do anything that depends on "accepting" the best available evidence of the natural history of human beings.

Would it be bothersome to discover that the form of intentional state of "acceptance" that is measured by the "46% believe..."opinion poll finding is one that has nothing to do with enabling anything? Or anything other than conveying that one has the sort of cultural identity enabled by answering a survey  or "science literacy" quiz item in a particular way by persons who either never do anything that depends on using the best evidence of the natural history of human beings or who do assent to or believe in evolution when they are doing those things?

I'm pretty sure most scholars who conceive of  "nonacceptance of evolution" as a "problem" to be "solved" never think about these things.  I think that is itself a phenomenon that it would be interesting to study!  

But in any case, I am pretty sure it is not possible to chart a reliable course for a research program here w/o having satisfactory answers to these questions.


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Reader Comments (4)

My current, disorganized thoughts (which will probably change in five minutes):

These two kinds of beliefs are indeed distinct things (but they're very frequently tied). And I think I'd divide them up a little differently than you do. The first kind I might call "expressive belief,"* in that it's the belief you want to affiliate yourself with for expressive purposes, even if you're only expressing to yourself. The second I might call "reliance belief," in that it's the belief you rely on when you have to do something that depends on actual facts. (Does that sound like a reasonable taxonomy, or is that too simple and rigid? And for the second one: is there an important distinction between a belief that you have a disposition to rely on and one that you're actually relying on at this moment?) Usually, there's not much separating the two. In the following conversation, it would take little effort to flip from one to the other: "Pop quiz: do you know where Hamden is?" "North of New Haven!" "OK, go to Hamden." ::goes north of New Haven::.

But what constitutes an "action that relies on a fact" is a tough question. You talk about the fact "enabling" the activity, but if someone takes out climate insurance that predicts rising temperatures, would that not be indicative of the second category of belief, even though it's not technically enabled by it? And if the KY farmer rants against climate change to his friends, the belief "enables" him, but the action seems indicative of the first category of belief. Importantly, what about voting? It seems to have components of both poll-answering and reliance/enabling.

On evolution: I think we're interested in both, but neither is our top priority. For the small group of students who actually grow up to be biologists of some stripe, we're mostly concerned with the second, sure. But for the generally educated populace, we want them to take science seriously, we want to foster a world where arguments based on the best science are credited, and we want them to be able to parrot back "random mutation and natural selection" so this knowledge is part of our culture. That seems more like the first.

But more than that we want students to understand how evolution works. And I would also separate "understanding" from *either* form of belief. I can understand the theory behind something even if I don't believe it's true in either sense, and my understanding is indicative of an educated mind which, characteristically, has the ability to comprehend processes. Fostering minds that can understand complicated ideas is one of the most central functions of education. Do you disagree?

* I googled this to see if it was a phrase. The first result is a paper called Korean Animal Entities with Supernatural Attributes: A Study in Expressive Belief.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMW


Yes, I agree: both "nonacceptance" & "acceptance" are action-enabling in Ky Farmer's case-- of different goals, identity expression & commercial success, that (arguably) are perfectly compatible in an integrated life. Same goes for Pakistani Dr..

For educatin, I think it is perfectly sensible to believe that education shoudl impart comprehension of evolution w/o worry about "belief"/"acceptance" given that students in students who use "nonacceptance" to be a person defined by such.

Education shouldn't, in liberal society, aim to mold cultural identity -- which is all that the "acceptance/belief" goal would achieve in that setting.

By equipping students w/ comprehension, education equips them to *do* the sort of things that can be done effectively only w/ acceptance of best evidence on evolution: be certain types of scientists & drs, science educators, science journalists etc.

If they can both "accept/believe" in sense of build assent to such evidence into bundle of intentional states that enable them to do those things & continue to bundle "disbelieve/not accept" into cluster of intentional states that enable them to be people who occupy roles that don't depend on use of such evidence & can be occupied w/o conflict w/ the former roles, I think it is illiberal to object.

Or such is my current admittedly incomplete & always provisional understanding.

April 23, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"If those are "different kinds" of intentional states, then which of those two or which third one are you interested in studying when you try to explain "nonacceptance" of evolution?"

1) I would want to study both intentional states.

"If the intentional state you are interested in studying, moreover, isn't one that enables someone to do things (scientific research on the natural history of humans, practice certain types of medicine, educate science students, transmit scientific information etc) that can be done properly only with an "action-enabling" sort of assent in evolution-- why exactly do you want to explain that?"

2) Because its part of a coherent picture and what is not action-enabling now may become action enabling tomorrow, and if you have a realistic model of reality, you are better prepared to deal with change. Also there is long term vs short term. Playing the short game with regard to the environment is what got us into this mess, but what is action-enabling in the long game is academic nonsense to a shortsighted person.

3) see above.

April 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

Related to this point, but maybe not exactly on topic...

I think the crux of our argument with Cognitive Dualism is that individuals may not "accept" a belief, but use information about that belief in an instrumental way. Yet, it is possible that the individual would not see this as contradictory, hypocrisy, or even as the same topic that serves different goals. Instead, they may see these as different and not mutually exclusive?

Taking evolution for example...

An individual may hold the belief that natural/sexual selection occurs, insofar that organisms that have certain characteristics will survive to reproduce (or will be selected based on characteristics to reproduce) which will lead to certain characteristics continuing on or becoming extinct. This belief is the instrumental one (or as MW has put it, the "reliance belief") that may assist doctors in making assumptions about mutating viruses. Or allows for some individuals to apply Darwinian principles to economics, etc (e.g., social Darwinism).

However, the expressive belief that humans were created as humans (no common ancestor with Apes, etc) does not have to seem like the same belief that natural/sexual selection occurs. For instance, Ken Ham's version of evolution (as I understood it from his debate with Bill Nye) is that God created basic categories of animal (this reminds me of essentialism in psychology). And although the characteristics/features/species within those categories have shifted due to evolution, they are essentially as they were created. So, humans may get taller, our skin may change colors, we may develop different digestive patterns, etc, but we are essentially still human.

Would we classify this as an instance of someone who is simply reverse-justifying their instrumental/reliance belief in Darwinian principles with their expressive belief in creationism? Or, are we focusing on the broader category (i.e., evolution) and saying that natural/sexual selection and human evolution (from earlier organisms) are one in the same?

If these are different, or at least perceived as different, they can each be both expressive and instrumental/reliance beliefs. Right?

April 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAsheley Landrum

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