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« Slovic elected to NAS!! | Main | What does "believing/disbelieving in" add to what one knows is known by science? ... a fragment »

Cognitive dualism and beliefs as "dispositions to action" ... a fragment

From something I'm working--and working and working and working--on . . .

4.1. Beliefs as action-enabling dispositions

Imagine an astrophysicist who is also a mother and a member of a particular close-knit community.  Like any other competent scientist (or at least any who examines macro- as opposed to quantum-physical processes!), she adopts a Laplacian orientation toward the objects of her professional study. The current state of the universe, she’ll tell you, is simply the penultimate state plus all the laws of nature; the penultimate state, in turn, is nothing more than the antepenultimate one plus all those same laws—and so forth and so on all the way back to the big bang (Laplace 1814).  This understanding is gospel for her when she sets out to investigate one or another cosmic anomaly. She hunts for an explanation that fits this picture, for example, in trying to solve the mystery of massive black holes, the size of which defy existing known principles about the age of the universe (Armitage & Natarajan 2002). Nothing under the heavens—or above or within them—enjoys any special exemption from the all-encompassing and deterministic laws of nature.

In her personal life, however, she takes a very different view—at least of human beings. She explains—and judges—them on the assumption that they are the authors of their own actions.  Her attributes her children’s success at school, for example, to their hard work, and is filled with pride. She learns of the marital infidelity of a friend’s spouse and is outraged.

By viewing everything as determined by immutable, mechanistic laws of nature, on the one hand, and by judging people for the choices they make, on the other, is the scientist guilty of self-contradiction? Is she displaying a cognitive bias or some related defect in rationality?

Definitely not. She is using alternative forms of information-processing rationally suited to her ends.  One of her goals is to make sense of how the universe works: the view that everything, human behavior included, is subject to immutable, deterministic natural laws reliably guides her professional investigations. Another of her goals is to live a meaningful life in that part of the universe she inhabits. The form of information processing that attributes agency to persons is indispensable to her capacity to  experience the moral sensibilities integral to being a good parent and a friend.

The question whether there is a contradiction in her stances toward determinstic natural laws and self-determining people is ill-posed. As mental objects at least, these opposing stances don’t exist independently of clusters of mental states—emotions moral judgments, desires, and the like—geared to doing the things she does with them. There is no contradiction in how she is using her reason if the activities that these forms of information processing enable are themselves consistent with one another—as they surely are.

The individual in this example is engaged in cognitive dualism. That is, she is rationally applying to one and the same object—the self-determining power of human beings—alternative beliefs, and corresponding forms of information processing, suited to achieving diverse but compatible goals.

We start with this example for two reasons. One is to emphasize the lineal descent of cognitive dualism from another—the philosophical dualism of Kant (1785, 1787, 1788).  The two “beliefs” about human autonomy we attributed to the astrophysicist are the two perspectives toward the self—the phenomenal and noumenal—that Kant identified as action-enabling perspectives suited to bringing reason to bear on understanding how the world works, on the one hand, and living a meaningful life within it, on the other. Kant saw puzzling over the consistency of the self-perspectives featured by these perspectivs as obtuse because in fact the opposing orientations they embody don’t exist indepedently of the actions they enable—which clearly are fully compatible.

The other reason for starting with the astrophysicist was to remark the ubiquity of this phenomenon. The opposing perspectives that we attributed to her—of the all-encompassing status of deterministic natural laws, on the one hand, and the uniquely self-governing power of human beings, on the other—are commonplace in modern, liberal democratic societies, whose members use the opposing “beliefs” these perspectives embody to do exactly the same things the astrophysicist does with them: make sense of the world and live in it.

Our astrophysicist both does and doesn’t exist.  She’s no one in particular but is in fact everyone in general.

There’s no need to confine ourselves to composites, however.  Decision scientists, it’s true, have paid remarkably little attention to cognitive dualism, misattributing to bounded rationality forms of information processing that aren’t suited for accurate perceptions of particular facts but that are for cultivating identity-expressive affective dispositions (Kahan in press).  In other scholarly domains, however, one can find a richly elaborated chronicle of the existence and rationality of the two forms of information processing that cognitive dualism comprises.

Developmental psychologists, for example, are very familiarity with them. Children, they’ve shown, not only devote considerable cognitive effort to internalizing confidence- and trust-invoking forms of social competence. They also frequently privilege this form of information processing over ones that feature “factual accuracy.” E.g., a child will often choose to defer to an information source with whom she shares some form of social affinity over one whom she recognize has more knowledge—not because she is biased (cognitively or otherwise) but because she has assimilated the kind of decision she is making in that situation to the stake she has in forging and protecting her connections with members of a social group  (Elashi & Mills, 2014;  MacDonald, Schug, Chase & Barth 2013; Landrum, Mills, & Johnston 2013) .

Researchers have also documented the effect of cognitive dualism in studying of how people who “disbelieve” in evolution can both comprehend and use what science knows about the natural history of human beings (Long 2011). Religiously oriented students, e.g., who don’t “believe in” evolution can learn it just as readily as those who do (Lawson & Worsnop 1992). The vast majority of them will make use of that knowledge simply to pass their school exams and then have nothing more to do with it (Herman 2012); but that’s true for the vast majority of their fellow students who say they “believe” in evolution, too (Bishop & Anderson 1990). 

Some small fraction of the latter (the evolution believers) will go on to do something in their life—like become a scientist or a physician—where they will use that knowledge professionally. But so will a small fraction of the former—the students who “don’t believe in” evolution (Hameed 2015; Everhart & Hameed 2013; Hermann 2012). 

These latter individuals—let us call them “science-accepting disbelievers”—are displaying cognitive dualism.  Science-accepting disbelievers are professing—but not just professing, using—disbelief of evolution in their personal lives, where it is a component of a complex of mental states that reliably summon affective-driven behavior that signifies their commitment to a particular community.  But in addition to being people of that sort, they are or aspiring to become science professionals who use belief in evolution to achieve their ends as such (Everhart & Hameed 2013). 

When queried about the “contradiction, science-accepting disbelievers respond in a way that evinces—affectively, if not intellectually—the same attitude Kant had about the contradiction between the phenomenal and noumenal selves. That is, they variously stare blankly at the interviewer, shrug their shoulders in bemusement, or explain—some patiently, other exasperatedly—that the evolution they “disbelieve in” at home and the one the “believe in” at work are, despite having the same referent, “entirely different things” because in fact they have no existence, in their lives, apart from the things that they do with them, which are indeed “entirely different” from one another (Everhart & Hameed 2013; Hermann 2012). In a word, they see the idea that there is a contradiction in their opposing states of belief and disbelief in evolution as obtuse.


Armitage, P.J. & Natarajan, P. Accretion during the merger of supermassive black holes. The Astrophysical Journal Letters 567, L9 (2002).

Bishop, B.A. & Anderson, C.W. Student conceptions of natural selection and its role in evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 27, 415-427 (1990).

Elashi, F.B. & Mills, C.M. Do children trust based on group membership or prior accuracy? The role of novel group membership in children’s trust decisions. Journal of experimental child psychology 128, 88-104 (2014).

Hameed, S. Making sense of Islamic creationism in Europe. Public Understanding of Science 24, 388-399 (2015).

Hermann, R.S. Cognitive apartheid: On the manner in which high school students understand evolution without Believing in evolution. Evo Edu Outreach 5, 619-628 (2012).

Kahan, D.M. The Expressive Rationality of Inaccurate Perceptions. Behavioral & Brain Sciences (in press).

Kant, I. & Gregor, M.J. Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals (1785).

Kant, I., Critique of pure reason (1787).

Kant, I.. Critique of practical reason (1788).

Landrum, A.R., Mills, C.M. & Johnston, A.M. When do children trust the expert? Benevolence information influences children's trust more than expertise. Developmental Science 16, 622-638 (2013).

Laplace, P. A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1814).

Long, D.E. Evolution and religion in American education : an ethnography (Springer, Dordrecht, 2011).

Lawson, A.E. & Worsnop, W.A. Learning about evolution and rejecting a belief in special creation: Effects of reflective reasoning skill, prior knowledge, prior belief and religious commitment. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 29, 143-166 (1992).

MacDonald, K., Schug, M., Chase, E. & Barth, H. My people, right or wrong? Minimal group membership disrupts preschoolers’ selective trust. Cognitive Development 28, 247-259 (2013).


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Reader Comments (5)

I think that 'cognitive dualism' itself is ill posed. At the molecular level or cellular level, 'rational decision making' does not exist. What we call rational is a property of millions of neurons voting the same way. For the assumptions about astrophysics, the neurons vote that the Universe can be predicted from mathematical rules. This hypothesis may be true or not. It has not been shown to be wrong yet.. Similarly, the putative astrophysicist, in her personal life, uses millions of different neurons to come to a 'rational' decision about how to behave. There are not simple rules for this decision making. Whether it is personal or professional decision, she acts on the cumulative conclusion of lots of neurons. If that decision is wrong, her neurons adjust themselves so that the next decision is less likely to be wrong. Some of her (and our) decisions are called rational and some are not (usually because proof of rationality is more complex than we want to think about); but at the cellular level it is just neural pulses that are neither rational or irrational and that are not different whether we label the process rational or not. One hint about rationality is that the proof that her conclusions on astrophysics are rational is much longer than we are willing to complete. The proof would include justifying lots of implicit assumptions that we ignore routinely.
We have been seduced by the simplicity of certain rules of physics. Beyond physics there are rules but not simple ones.

June 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield


Anything we observe is necessarily consistent with things happening at the cellular level of the brain -- we know that thinking is happening in the brain & that it consists of cells. What we observe at the cellular level of the brain, in turn, can't be the basis about anying we observe in thinking unless we correlate the two. So I'm not sure where to go w/ any of this...

I guess what I mean to say is that I don't see how just looking at the brain can generate observations that help us understand what rationality is or what sorts of information processing exhibit it. Anything we can observe happening in the brain is just an observable indicator of something we *can't* see directly--rationality. As a result, while we can certainly use brain-observational data to help us sort things out, I don't see how any account that says, "but that doesn't jibe with what we know about cellular structure of brain" can give us reason to discount any inference we draw based on non-brain observations-- since the latter validate everything we learn w/ the former.

Help me out here.

June 8, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Dan, jolly interesting post.

>'The vast majority of them will make use of that knowledge simply to pass their school exams and then have nothing more to do with it (Herman 2012); but that’s true for the vast majority of their fellow students who say they “believe” in evolution, too (Bishop & Anderson 1990). [Para] Some small fraction of the latter (the evolution believers) will go on to do something in their life—like become a scientist or a physician—where they will use that knowledge professionally. But so will a small fraction of the former—the students who “don’t believe in” evolution (Hameed 2015; Everhart & Hameed 2013; Hermann 2012).'

Indeed they will. All good. But there's a couple of earlier assumptions that I think are significant issues. So in here...

>'The opposing perspectives that we attributed to her—of the all-encompassing status of deterministic natural laws, on the one hand, and the uniquely self-governing power of human beings, on the other—are commonplace in modern, liberal democratic societies...'

...the word 'opposing' for instance. This word has crept into your description despite that in addition to deployments not being contradictory (which means not opposing in practice), these perspectives may not even be opposing in theory. The 'immutable laws' of evolution predict a vast biological and cultural polymorphism, to an extent whereby it is known that *individual* behavior could never deduced via any possible equation aided by any known technology and / or investigatory method that we currently know of, or likely will know of for the forseeable future. This includes all genome knowledge and brain scan knowledge and cultural knowledge extrapolated forward and pretty much any assistance that we can conceive of even in our dreams. The polymorphism is not just a feature of statistical distribution (which is bad enough), it is dynamically maintained (as a survival advantage) by a raft of mechanisms ultimately based on selection, which also means it will change as our evolutionary trajectory proceeds, in a way that is not predictable by statistics. As our cultural evolutionary trajectory is part of the mix, polymorphism may not only stay 1 step ahead of us, our increasing knowledge of the mechanisms may also change how they work. Until we get clever enough to predict exactly what our own evolution will do next, on the level of every individual and therefore unambiguously the next selection criteria, our knowledge and the reality could never stay in sync regarding these changes. Hence for anyone science orientated, it would be highly illogical to approach prediction of *individual* behavior on the basis of 'immutable laws'.

This may be a moot point, because I doubt the bulk of the population spend a whole lot of time making sense of their world via the concept of immutable laws. Even in highly technical areas (one of which I work in), 'suck it and see' seems to be a major principle, even if sophisticated simulation is now the latest version of sucking it; this reduces the risk / cost when real sucking has to occur. Nevertheless, there is no implication that the 'immutable laws' are in 'opposition' to using different approaches when thinking about the behavior of individuals (e.g. your above school success or infidelity examples). The 'immutable laws' say there is absolutely no option but to take different approaches. These may still include some scientifically informed assessments (for instance as percolated into general knowledge from psychology), yet such are still bulk guides that would require much refinement that can only be gained through a direct interaction and knowledge of the individual concerned. Not to mention that cultures, whether secular or religious, are probably much more important than immutable laws in framing people's understanding of the world. For instance a particularly distasteful secular culture which eugenics / science helped spawn in the early twentieth century, governed how a lot of modern thinking folks in democracies thought the real world worked. Which leads to...

Another word I have difficulty with from the above passage, is 'self governing'. Since when did most of the population assume people are self-governing? Listen to any gossip, where for instance your outrage example may have been expressed, and speculation about every possible outside influence on the transgressing individual will typically be passed through in an attempt to understand causation. Such would typically include poor parental control, a bad school, mixing with the 'wrong crowd', a bullying husband, too many fey or capricious folks in the ancestral tree etc. Outrage may still be the outcome, but formulas like this will always be executed, and show that in the absence of any possible help from 'immutable laws', a logical process employing a tier of reasonable approximations can often get some grip on the issue. This logic also emphasizes the things that are *not* self-governance, they are mostly *outside* influences. And while people's own agendas will be woven into such gossip, some consensus view will arise. A huge factor in the values being judged consensually will be culture, and people constantly assess individuals based upon the latter's perceived culture. This is an assumption of another rule that is effectively outside of 'self-governance', it is social governance if you will. In fact this technique can often be employed to an extent of way overdoing it, i.e assuming all folks of a certain culture have stereotypical characteristics. Due to rather more balanced understanding in modern liberal democracies, biased assumptions of this kind are somewhat attenuated, yet are still a big factor and possibly even a dominant one.

So in making sense of people, folks constantly use rule systems that do not assume arbitrary self-governance, and do represent a logical train that in the absence of any possible help from 'immutable laws', is nevertheless a reasonable approximation to what those laws might say if ever they could be resolved, at least within the context of the wider social information available. And regarding making sense of their world, 'immutable laws' are not 'all encompassing', even within modern liberal democracies. And within both these categories, culture counts, even secular cultures and cultural traits exhibited by those who believe themselves to be shining examples of modern thinking liberal folks. So I think the distinction between the two modes of thought you speculate on, are at best heavily blurred, and maybe mostly overlapping; in the generic case there is not 'opposition' between them.

I don't believe any of this impacts the limited case of the students quoted at top. They are doing actual things that are indeed opposing. Yet your example of the astrophysicist does not seem to be representative of their situation, and the above issues do impact your assumption below:

'Our astrophysicist both does and doesn’t exist. She’s no one in particular but is in fact everyone in general.'

I don't believe you can say this phenomenon is exhibited by 'everyone'. While no doubt it is a spectrum rather than a digital effect, the students being at an extreme end, you would need strong evidence regarding where on this spectrum the bulk of the population ('everyone') stands. They may not be detectably above the noise regarding this behavior, which means effectively that they don't exhibit it. This is not to say they aren't *capable* of exhibiting it; there's nothing intrinsically different about the quoted students and the population at large. I think it's more the case that circumstances rarely conspire to meet the enabling criteria (which may be about two opposing cultures as well as culture opposing science knowledge). If they do, we ought to be able to easily find many more examples where the effect is obvious, ones which are more applicable to mainstream situations than is the case for the tiny minority represented by the cited students.

June 9, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

This variation of pragmatist thinking--"whatever you think, it's ok as long as it serves your ends/goals" is circular (thus self-"verificating" and self-validating), partialistic, and unphilosophical in its approach. It's philosophically contradictory and unsatisfying and at the same time it's in one way or another psychologically (pragmatically) necessary to function (as human imperfect and contradictory automaton).
Interestingly, in a deterministic world, both would exist at the same time:
- The believe in e.g. determinism or other things we subjectively hold to be (relatively) true as truth A.
- And the pragmatic, functionalist bias B that functions (more or less effective) as safeguard from disturbing/irritating truths.

One more of potentially endlessly fractalised (varied) (and finitely structure-patterned) examples of human contradiction, the inner ones and the social ones.

August 6, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSebastian Landthaler

@Sebastian ... Well, that's a cheerful way to look at things ... Presumably it is an error of some kind to say that cognitive dualism has any normative upshot on its own; it has to be assessed in relation to whatever it is one is being enabled to form dualistic stances. But presumably sometimes what's enabled has value? Consider the case of the astrophysicist?

August 6, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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