Patrick Maher on Belief, Action, and Acceptance

Rational Belief: Rational Acceptance or Rational Action?

Patrick Maher in his book Betting on Theories (1993, chapter 6) notes two common assumptions about belief:

(1) An agent A believes in H just in case A is willing to act as if H were true.
(2) Sincere intentional assertion of H by A expresses A's belief in H

Maher interprets (1) as meaning that A is willing to bet on H at any odds. Unfortunately, certainty is rare, and it does not seem sensible to deem irrational every belief about an uncertain thing. Clearly belief in H cannot be equated with a person's "willingness to act as if H were true under all circumstances" and so (1) needs revision.

(1a) An agent A believes in H just in case A assesses the probability p of H and p is greater than some threshold t.

In (1a) a agent A is willing to bet on H given that H is probable enough, according to person P and that agent's threshold of belief. This is reasonable, but when combined with (2) proves problematic.

Maher argues (1) and (1a) are incompatible with (2), that belief is expressed by sincere intentional assertions, what he calls acceptance. The problem for Maher is that rational acceptance cannot depend (only) on probability, because any arbitrarily high probability (even that of unity) of a hypothesis H is neither necessary nor sufficient for a person's rational acceptance of that hypothesis, and arbitrarily low probabilities are also neither necessary nor sufficient for not accepting H. Instead, rational acceptance depends also on the informativeness and closeness of H to the truth. For example, one might accept a scientific hypothesis because it is close to the truth, even if one believes that the hypothesis has a probability of zero of being exactly true (if only because scientific hypotheses tend to be revised over time). But it would be rational to bet against H in the long run because it has a low probability of being exactly true! Maher concludes that, "the folk concept of belief appears to regard belief in H as a single mental state that is expressed both by a willingness to act as if H were true and also by sincere intentional assertion of H; and these are in fact two distinct states."

In sum, willingness to act as if H were true can reasonably be said to depend on the probability of H, but a person's acceptance of H depends also on the informativeness or closeness of H to the truth. Hence these two so-called folk notions of belief actually correspond to two different but related mental states about H. Incidentally, Maher also rejects another possibility, that belief is not a discrete qualitative state. Instead of saying that one either believes or does not believe something, one may talk about degrees of belief in H. But that will have to wait discussion for another day.

A final note on Maher's argument. Plausibly one could design an artificial agent such that (1a) and (2) are treated in the same way; in fact, based on my readings in artificial intelligence, I would argue that we already do. In such cases willingness to act as if H were true and acceptance of H as true might correspond to the same "mental" state in the agent. If one accepts Maher's arguments, these agents are not entirely rational agents. If they were, (1/1a) and (2) would not correspond to the same states, as Maher says. Hence it may be an uncharitable reading of Maher to suggest that he regards these as necessarily being distinct mental states in human beings, given that we are not purely rational agents!

A conundrum of rational action

Maher points out another of those conundrums of rationality: performing the calculations necessary to decide the rational thing to do in a given situation is frequently too costly to be rational. Indeed, frequently it is too costly to calculate whether calculating the most rational action in a given situation is the rational thing to do. Hence, the only rational thing to do in such situations is to do something, perhaps based on rules of thumb, or by just guessing. Maher argues that if one is fortunate to have accidentally chosen to do the right thing, one has acted rationally. But in general, in such situations one must be resigned to choosing the irrational course of action, even if one arrived at choosing that action by acting rationally and avoiding the costly calculation.

So what?

Maher is obviously concerned with rational agents, or more precisely, with the question of rationality itself, and not with agents per se. His arguments are not based on empirical research of actual animal behavior. There is no real good reason to expect empirical behavior to be always rational; and one might reasonably question why social scientists ought to pay attention to the issues Maher raises. Yet I think that there are some good reasons that they should be of general interest, if one first acknowledges that it is not a descriptive theory of action, but a prescriptive one, with particular applicability to how we think about science.

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Comment by Huon Wardle on December 9, 2009 at 4:24pm
I realised on review that my previous message wasn't particularly helpful because it unpicks the problem without proposing any apparent alternative though I (and I think others responding here) do have an alternative in mind, which is anthropology as the study of actions and meanings in context. The question with regard to Maher might be put better this way - 'if the theory is prescriptive only, then at what point and in what way does it intersect with a type of case or situation that is not purely 'prescriptive'? Or, if this is a prescriptive agent interacting with an analytically prescribed field of scientific action, when and on what terms does it meet with descriptive (describable) actuality?
Comment by Huon Wardle on December 8, 2009 at 2:36pm
But if the abstract relating concept/phrase for 'believe' is 'hold something to be true', then Bacon is saying something very strange when he says that there is a 'great' 'affinity' between 'fiction' and 'holding something to be true'. This would make him sound llike a post-modernist. As a C17 scientist, Bacon holds various things to be true, he is just opposed to fiction and 'belief'. Likewise the nobleman's statement becomes almost meaningless when translated as 'I hold it to be true that I had twenty pieces of that very gold'. The sort of thing babel fish would come up with. I don't disagree at all that there is a family resemblance between these uses of 'belief'/'believe' I simply contest the notion that there is an 'abstract' common referent. Historically, for example, it is difficult to agree with the idea that Bacon was not advancing anything new with his notion of the scientific intellect as one opposed to rumour, 'belief' and 'fiction'. Baconian ideas, like Hobbes' on society, emerge historically at the high point of the wars of religion in Europe. Bacon had strong leanings to Puritanism - with the concomitant idea of the self as direct witness to God, the necessity of freeing ones mind from idols and so on.
Comment by David Picard on December 8, 2009 at 2:10pm
I wonder if what is problematic is that we use the same term to define both a publicly sanctioned communicative action within the social-political realms of religious and other (incl. scientific) 'liturgy' AND as a personal disposition to reality and means to transform reality (through invocations, magical practice, prayer, violence, and 'working the ground'). I understand that many academics perform academia initially merely as a means to participate in life and in society (without existentially believing in the scientific doctrine (of materiality?)), which, in turn, as if it was a magical recipe, enables them - us - to affirm the person we belief we are, at a much deeper level. Belief relates here to an aesthetic dimension of personhood formed and cultivated through the socially sanctioned performance of belief (say in the goodness of rational reasoning, the idea of history, or of symmetry in nature). Through repetition and self-conviction (largely helped by the affirmative gaze of peers and society), one and the other may well give us the impression to be the same.

If "belief meant something significant with major consequences" within the specific historic context of monotheistic religions, the term has flown in the common sense including that of anthropological conceptualising, to approach and try to understand contexts in which the ontology of the term is alien. Ceremonies and 'everyday life' that I observe in South Western Madagascar may be in their structure closer to Chinese popular religion than to the monotheistic religions (or the monotheistic idea we have of these religions, which may be inaccurate when it comes to observe what actually happens when people practice). In the Malagasy context, people permanently seem to repeat or invoke both personalized and public forms that - well - they 'belief' or hope or know or fear will enhance their luck and transform reality according to their wishes. This is done both in private and as part of public or publicly visible practices (maybe 'performances' - but the concept seems inaccurate), with as a consequence to reassert, at these respective scales, the person being in the world. (das Dasein der Person, in German). Deceiving collectively held 'forms' (ways of fishing in the right way, of disposing of rubbish, of accessing certain spaces, of saying certain words, etc.) has consequences for both individuals and the collective in the immediate her and now, in that they become considered as - simplified - 'impure' (hoava, though the word impure is maybe misleading); they have to perform cleansing ceremonies. While there clearly are collective forms of doing things 'right' (which are often negotiable, often, but not always manifesting the social position of the subject), 'belief' is not an emic concept here. However a collectively held 'belief world' (as an analytical category, meaning as a category held by the anthropological observer) is being both present and tactically moderated to submit people into doing or not doing certain things in certain ways, and to reaffirm their social positions in society.

I have to reassert myself as a social being now and finalize two grant applications. And I really believe in the goodness of their problem statements while realizing, with a lot of curiosity, that many of those academics I esteem seem to share this belief. This seems both discomforting with regard to my individuality as a researcher (despite asserting a rational epistemology, I seem to follow a general fashion for ethnographic topics) and comforting with regard to the aspired outcomes of these grant submissions which - hopefully, knock on wood, be my Malagasy spirits with me - will go through and allow me to perpetuate the play.
Comment by Jacob Lee on December 8, 2009 at 1:26pm
@Huon

I could have pulled more examples from the text files of the Project Gutenberg archives. In fact I did, but I lost my work when the computer froze. No matter. It can be easily done.

Words can be put to many uses. But in each of these cases the effect of the word's use depends in part on the abstract meaning of the word, i.e. one believes something just in case one thinks its true, more or less. A word, phrase, or sentence may be described as having an abstract meaning, a meaning in use, and a content and effect(to use the machinery of situation semantics). An abstract meaning is a relation between types of discourse and utterance situations and types of described situations.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) writes "...that he that will easily believe rumours will as easily augment rumours and add somewhat to them of his own; which Tacitus wisely noteth, when he saith, Fingunt simul creduntque: so great an affinity hath fiction and belief."

What could Bacon mean by "he that will easily believe rumours" if not 'he that will easily hold rumours to be true"? Bacon as scientist does not privilege his use of language. His readers knew what he meant. He was not inventing anything new.

'I believe I had twenty pieces of that very gold for my share."
I had not thought to read the sentence as you have done, but it still seems to me that an underlying notion of belief as 'holding something as true' is what enables this circumlocution. What other circumlocutions would have been available?

You did not address the other quote from Lilly: "The Council could not believe it, until they had sent some ministers of their own, who affirmed the verity thereof." It seems pretty clear that in this case the author means that the Council was unwilling to believe (hold as true) a thing until it was affirmed by some ministers.

You wrote:
"'...We concluded it rather a speculation of the newsmen' This is the only case that might fit Maher's case. You could take a bet on the truth of this news or not and it might have consequences."

Actually, Maher distinguishes two kinds of belief. The kind of belief you would bet on, and the kind of belief that one would sincerely assert. Sentences beginning like, "I believe" would probably belong to the latter category.

But I must remind us again that Maher is talking about a model of rational agency. What does it mean for a rational agent to hold some proposition as true? Such a model is not fully applicable to real persons.
Comment by Huon Wardle on December 8, 2009 at 12:27pm
Of course ideal sentences are a standard recourse of analytic philosophy and cognitive psychology. My mini-polemic has to do with 'context of use' a la Malinowski. Only one of the dictionary usages you cite operates in a way similar to Maher's ideal example.

'a credulous man is a deceiver... Fingunt simul creduntque: so great an affinity hath fiction and belief' is the statement of a scientist who wishes to reserve a special domain for scientific knowledge vis-a-vis fiction and belief.

'I believe I had twenty pieces of that very gold for my share'. 'Believe' here is an eloquent circumlocution that signifies the high social status of a person who wishes to separate themself ethically from the money in question while displaying the transaction.

'Nay, wou'd you believe it, we ha'n't so much as a Tavern' is an exclamatory phatic type of statement that calls lightly on the idea of belief in the divine in order to emphasise a point about provincial lack of sophistication. The tone of voice in this example has almost certainly been invented as an ironic deprecatory reflection of the social 'type' being described.

"On Tuesday came a flying report of a revolution in Berlin, but no one believed it. We concluded it rather a speculation of the newsmen". This is the only case that might fit Maher's case. You could take a bet on the truth of this news or not and it might have consequences.

So, I was just restating the anthropological argument that 'analytic' case studies obviate context of use which has interpretive consequences of the kind John was talking about.
Comment by Jacob Lee on December 8, 2009 at 7:19am
@Huon Wardle

I recognize that there is a historical context in which "belief meant something significant with major consequences" as it relates especially to theology. First I concur with John McCreery as relates to the limits of that context. But it really isn't this simple.

First, a look through the English-language literature suggests that the words 'belief' and 'believe' have been used in this mundane sense for hundreds of years. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) writes "an inquisitive man is a prattler; so upon the like reason a credulous man is a deceiver: as we see it in fame, that he that will easily believe rumours will as easily augment rumours and add somewhat to them of his own; which Tacitus wisely noteth, when he saith, Fingunt simul creduntque: so great an affinity hath fiction and belief." William Lilly in his William Lilly's History of His Life and Times From the Year 1602 to 1681 writes "Whilst his Majesty was at Hampton-Court Alderman Adams sent his Majesty one thousand pounds in gold, five hundred whereof he gave Madam Whorewood. I believe I had twenty pieces of that very gold for my share." and "The Council could not believe it, until they had sent some ministers of their own, who affirmed the verity thereof." Thomas Baker's writes in his The Fine Lady's Airs (1709) "Nay, wou'd you believe it, we ha'n't so much as a Tavern in our Town." Elizabeth Davis Bancroft writes in a letter in the year 1848, "On Tuesday came a flying report of a revolution in Berlin, but no one believed it. We concluded it rather a speculation of the newsmen, who are hawking revolutions after every mail in second and third editions." This can easily go on of course. How exactly is Christian theology a backdrop for the use of this word?

Of course one might think that this is really besides the point. What about talk /about/ belief? I won't go into any depth except to note that serious philosophically talk about belief has been mostly divorced from theology for a long time. Maher has not 'denatured belief'. His is no innovation. Maher, a philosopher, not a cognitive scientist, is participating in a long ongoing conversation between philosophers. That is the most relevant context in which to understand him. To quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Contemporary analytic philosophers of mind generally use the term "belief" to refer to the attitude we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true." Apparently this 'small' notion of belief is taken seriously enough to warrant a 13,000 word entry in a respected encyclopedia, not to mention the reams written about it in books and academic journals, and the many many hours spent my very intelligent people thinking these things through. Yes, there is a basis for a respect of expertise that I am committed to.

I really am at a loss to understand the basis for your assertion that "'belief' here stands for a question about why other people are not as 'rational' as the cognitive scientist." What phantoms are we at war with here? In any case, Maher is a philosopher interested in probability and confirmation theory. The questions he is interested in include things like, "When is it justified to accept something as true?", "Is it irrational to bet against what one accepts as true?" "What is physical probability?" "In virtue of what ought one accept a scientific hypothesis as fact?" "What is a fact?"
Comment by Jacob Lee on December 8, 2009 at 6:13am
@John McCreery:

Yes,, belief can be a tricky thing to infer from an agent's behavior. Establishing the correlation between a behavior and belief requires first that we ascertain that the behavior is correlative to or causally related to having any belief at all, and second that ascertain just which belief it is correlated to. The first is hard enough. But the second is not picnic either because different mental states can lead to the same behavior.

What one could do is to posit that an agent's behavior is consistent with some model in which having such and such beliefs is correlated to, or plays a causal role in, the doing of those behaviors. But that is not the same thing as ascribing the beliefs to the agents in question.

I want to point out that Maher is not talking about real people, but about the abstraction of rational agency. Such an abstraction is a poor model of general human agency. I am not sure if Maher keeps this distinction between rational agency and real people adequately separate at all times, but I do think that it would be a good idea if we were to do it here.

For example, it is common for people to try out a variety of possible remedies in the hope that one or more may work. There is little evidence that they are sure that any particular remedy will work unless they have tried it before and been satisfied with the result.

For Maher an agent believes a hypothesis H in case the agent is willing to act on H because probability of H being true exceeds some threshold. In this case, it would seem that this person action-believes that the remedy will work. I'm not sure that this definition even requires any other kind of evidence of belief... and for Maher sincere assertion of H is a different kind of mental state.

This may seem to set too low a bar for what qualifies as belief. But perhaps it is still not low enough.
Comment by John McCreery on December 8, 2009 at 2:52am
Huon is right about there having been a earlier context in which "belief meant something significant with major consequences." It is, however, important to remember what that context was: Monotheism in its Christian and Islamic forms, in which Faith in the One God is the difference between eternal salvation or damnation after death and failure to believe what Faith -- as interpreted by this or that authority -- required could lead to imprisonment, torture or execution. If I seem to harp on the Chinese case, it is precisely because belief in this dogmatic sense has rarely, perhaps never, been a core issue in Chinese popular religion. In this case, the combination of polytheism and a cosmology in which spirits and mortals as both inside the same, self-sustaining natural order of things, has led to highly pragmatic attitudes; the primary concern about a god is whether it appears efficacious and judgments are based on a crude empiricism, reinforced by rumor. To this we can add that the Chinese imperial state was largely indifferent to what people believed or even what they did, so long as it was not organized on a large enough scale to be a political threat. It was, and apparently only briefly, under Communism (another classic monotheism with History replacing God) that the Chinese state became actively concerned with matters of belief. The well-documented resurgence of popular religion since liberalization demonstrates that earlier attitudes remain robust.
Comment by Huon Wardle on December 7, 2009 at 3:51pm
'Belief' here has been denatured by Maher to serve as a cognitive scientist's straw man. Belief has a historical contextual meaning, amongst other things, vis-a-vis notions and practices of heresy, doctrine, faith and sincerity as the practice of conscience. To be a little polemical, 'belief' here stands for a question about why other people are not as 'rational' as the cognitive scientist. The fact that belief has been imported into everyday matters of habitual thinking not only suggests the loss of the earlier context in which belief meant something significant with major consequences, but also the sense that its replacement 'rationality' has also lost its overarching value.
Comment by John McCreery on December 7, 2009 at 10:09am
As I have mentioned elsewhere, inferring belief from someone acting as if certain assumptions were true can be a tricky problem. In the case of Chinese popular religion and related healing practices, for example, it is common for people to try out a variety of possible remedies in the hope that one or more may work. There is little evidence that they are sure that any particular remedy will work unless they have tried it before and been satisfied with the result. Even then, the usual practice of trying out several remedies, virtually simultaneously, persists.

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