Belief, Control, and Evidence: Miriam McCormick’s Believing Against the Evidence
1. Two Connected Puzzles about Belief
It seems, when we come to consider the notion of responsible belief, we are faced with a puzzle. First, we approve and disapprove of some people’s beliefs, and not just in terms of whether we think they believe truths or falsities, but whether they’ve appropriately arrived at those beliefs. We ask, “How could you believe that?” or “What in the world makes you think so?” And yet we also realize that our beliefs are not up to us, as we, it seems, cannot directly control whether we believe, say, the moon is spherical or water is wet. Now, given that we cannot morally praise or blame people for things they cannot control, it seems we have a problem of sorts. How is it that we can both acknowledge that we don’t have direct control over our beliefs and nevertheless praise or blame people on the basis of their beliefs and the reasons they have for them?
A related puzzle arises for the conditions for belief assessment, good or bad. A longstanding view has been that the judgment of responsible belief is entirely a matter of how well the belief fits the evidence (and only the evidence) at hand. Call this view evidentialism, and there are many concerns about the evidentialist’s stark commitment. There are many beliefs, it seems, we may hold that themselves have little or no evidential backing. They may even run contrary to the evidence. But they may help us be better people. It may be a faith in the goodness of others, an unshakable optimism about our own capacities. And these commitments may, even when unrewarded with successful action or proper treatment by others, still be good attitudes to have, good beliefs that lead to good actions. Call this view pragmatism.
These two puzzles, that whether or not it makes sense to morally assess beliefs and what criteria are appropriate for assessment, are old puzzles, and they constitute the core issues of the problem area of the ethics of belief. The ethics of belief is a domain in the liminal zone between two of philosophy’s historically central, but usually distinct, subject areas: epistemology and ethics. In many ways, the name for the problem area displays the puzzles, as it seems there is a cross-categorical judgment one must make in producing practical or moral judgments about theoretical movements of reason. Moral categories are for actions, theoretical categories are for representations, and these seem, at least on their face, not to overlap. How is the ethics of belief even possible?
2. McCormick’s Two-Part Argument
Miriam McCormick’s project with Believing Against the Evidence is to answer the two puzzles of the ethics of belief. Her book has two parts, each devoted to one of the two problems. McCormick first argues that if we are to normatively assess beliefs, we must determine what beliefs are for. Establishing this “teleological framework” requires that we see what role belief has in a complete human life. For the most part, McCormick is in agreement with the evidentialist’s thought that beliefs aim at truth, so beliefs should be formed with that goal in mind—i.e., on the basis of good evidence. However, she believes that evidentialism’s default role with belief management is due to truth’s “practical value.” Given that there are many reasons that may bear on whether a belief is desirable, given its practical consequences, “it is possible for practical considerations to override the evidential (reasons) in favor of believing it” (31). Two important consequences follow. The first is the purely instrumental value of truth. As McCormick frames it:
If we lived in a world where true beliefs had no benefits, then, in my view, a proposition being true would not count at all in favor of it being believed. (45)
The second consequence is that in cases where believing the truth (or in accord with what the evidence points to as the truth) has bad practical consequences, we are permitted to believe otherwise. In particular, McCormick identifies what she calls “meaning-making beliefs”; exemplary are:
- AIDS patients who did not believe according to the evidence that they have a short life expectancy had longer lives than those who believed according to the evidence.
- Plane crash survivors who hold on to the belief that they will be rescued.
- The belief that one’s child (as opposed to a stranger) is a drug dealer.
- The belief that humans have a greater capacity for love and kindness than evil.
Not all of these meaning-making beliefs are on equal footing, however. Only the last, on McCormick’s view, is permissible without qualification. McCormick characterizes our freedom with regard to these meaning-making beliefs as:
When it comes to questions about . . . what if anything provides meaning or significance in life . . . we have some flexibility in what we can permissibly believe. (56)
Further, McCormick includes what she calls “framework beliefs,” that resist radical skeptical challenge, such as:
- The belief that there is an actual world of external objects
- The belief that one’s children are not automata
Once we have seen the role that belief plays in our living complete lives, McCormick holds, we see that a kind of pragmatism follows, one that puts belief into contact with a flourishing and meaningful life.
To the second puzzle, how it is even possible to normatively evaluate beliefs (which she calls “the puzzle of doxastic responsibility”), McCormick makes the case that, though we do not have direct control over what we believe, we nevertheless are capable of appraising and finding fault with each other’s beliefs. We are responsible for “the mechanisms that issue in evidentially based beliefs” (114). This is first because we can change our first-order beliefs about what we’ve seen, remembered, heard, or inferred, on the basis of reflecting on whether those sources were functioning well under the circumstances. And so, if one discovers that someone believes something on the basis of an acknowledged badly functioning perceptual system, we would think that person is blameworthy. The second reason is that we internalize these practices of holding each other to account, and so we have developed not only those reflective capacities of epistemic (and moral) self-monitoring, but we internalize how others monitor us.
McCormick concludes by noting that because she sees both practical and theoretical norms as eudaimonistic, responsibility for our actions and the character we reveal with them is symmetric with the way we are responsible for our beliefs and the intellectual character we display in assessing, assenting, and maintaining them. “That we correctly hold each other responsible for the views we have about what is true, worthy, and good, reveals that we can exercise control over these central aspects of what we are” (123).