At long last Massimo Pigliucci—who (along with others) has criticized my lucubrations about philosophy on the grounds that I have no credentials in the field—can cease and desist. For, along with a genuinely credentialed philosopher, Maarten Boudry, I have a paper in press in a real peer-reviewed philosophy journal (Philosophical Psychology). It’s coauthored with Belgian philosopher Maarten Boudry. Street cred!
The paper is in fact a critique of a paper published last year in Cognition by philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen from Georgia State University (all references, links, and downloads below). That paper, “Religious credence is not factual belief” (also here on Academia), made the claim that religious beliefs were neither pure fantasy nor statements about reality, but rather “credences” that have only a quasi-factual character. I won’t summarize the exchange in detail, as you can read the papers for yourself, but here’s the abstract of Van Leeuwen’s paper setting out why he sees religious beliefs as different from factual beliefs:
I argue that psychology and epistemology should posit distinct cognitive attitudes of religious credence and factual belief, which have different etiologies and different cognitive and behavioral effects. I support this claim by presenting a range of empirical evidence that religious cognitive attitudes tend to lack properties characteristic of factual belief, just as attitudes like hypothesis, fictional imagining, and assumption for the sake of argument generally lack such properties. Furthermore, religious credences have distinctive properties of their own. To summarize: factual beliefs (i) are practical setting independent, (ii) cognitively govern other attitudes, and (iii) are evidentially vulnerable. By way of contrast, religious credences (a) have perceived normative orientation, (b) are susceptible to free elaboration, and (c) are vulnerable to special authority. This theory provides a framework for future research in the epistemology and psychology of religious credence.
This of course was welcomed by believers and accommodationists who, though they would delight in getting real evidence for God, at the same time try to insulate their God or their claims from any empirical testing by doubters. Van Leeuwen’s ideas were, for example, touted by Tonia Lombrozo at NPR.
However, Boudry and I thought that Van Leeuwen’s argument was flawed, and that all three points above (a, b, and c) were not always applicable to religionists, who in many circumstances act as if they really think their beliefs are true, and not just operative in special settings. So we wrote a response to his paper, and he’s responded to our response (this is how it goes in academia).
Since Van Leeuwen already put his response to our critique on Academia, even though our paper wasn’t yet out, Maarten just put our paper online, even though it remains in press. Ours is called “Disbelief in belief: On the cognitive status of supernatural beliefs.” Maarten is first author, and here’s our abstract:
Religious people seem to believe things that range from the somewhat peculiar to the utterly bizarre. Or do they? According to a new paper by Neil Van Leeuwen, religious “credence” is nothing like mundane factual belief. It has, he claims, more in common with fictional imaginings. Religious folk do not really “believe” – in the ordinary sense of the word – what they profess to believe. Like fictional imaginings, but unlike factual beliefs, religious credences are activated only within specific settings. We argue that Van Leeuwen’s thesis contradicts a wealth of data on religiously-motivated behavior. By and large, the faithful genuinely believe what they profess to believe. Although many religions openly embraces a sense of mystery, in general this does not prevent the attribution of beliefs to religious people. Many of the features of religious belief that Van Leeuwen alludes to (e.g., invulnerability to refutation, incoherence) are characteristic of irrational beliefs in general, and actually betray their being held as factual. We conclude with some remarks about the common failure of secular people to face the fact that some religious people really do believe wildly implausible things. Such incredulity, as evinced by Van Leeuwen and others, could be termed “disbelief in belief”.
Van Leeuwen’s reply to this paper is called “Beyond fakers and fanatics: a reply to Maarten Boudry and Jerry Coyne“, which is also online. We’ll reply to his reply (we haven’t yet done that), and then the dust will settle. There is no abstract to Van Leeuwen’s reply, but his argument is that religionists fall on a spectrum (as do the beliefs of a given religionist) between “fakers” (those who don’t believer a word of what they profess to believe), and “fanatics” (those who take all their religious beliefs as factual, just like they see the existence of airplanes as factual). That, however, isn’t what Maarten and I claim, as you can see from our paper. But you can read the exchange for yourself.
I’d welcome the thoughts of any readers, philosophers or not, who have the tenacity to plow through the entire exchange. But I maintain that I do have street cred in philosophy!
Boudry, M. and J. A. Coyne. 2015. On the cognitive status of supernatural beliefs. Philosophical Psychology: in press.
Van Leewen, N. 2015. Beyond fakers and fanatics: a reply to Maarten Boudry and Jerry Coyne. Philosophical Psychology: in press.