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).

Leave a Comment