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Kerim's Triptych for Sunday June 30th, 2024

Kerim's Triptych for Sunday June 30th, 2024
Detail from The Common Place by René Magritte (1964)

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1️⃣ Two kinds of beliefs

Detail from The Common Place by René Magritte (1964)

I've long felt that one of the problems with discussions of conspiracy theories is the limited language we have for talking about whether or not people "believe" something. That is why I found this Manvir Singh article from April's New Yorker so intriguing. He looks at a number of scholars whose work is inspired by "the French philosopher and cognitive scientist Dan Sperber."

Sperber concluded that there are two kinds of beliefs. The first he has called “factual” beliefs. Factual beliefs—such as the belief that chairs exist and that leopards are dangerous—guide behavior and tolerate little inconsistency; you can’t believe that leopards do and do not eat livestock. The second category he has called “symbolic” beliefs. These beliefs might feel genuine, but they’re cordoned off from action and expectation. We are, in turn, much more accepting of inconsistency when it comes to symbolic beliefs; we can believe, say, that God is all-powerful and good while allowing for the existence of evil and suffering.

The first scholar is Neil Van Leeuwen whose book Religion as Make-Believe builds on this distinction:

He proposes that humans represent and use factual beliefs differently from symbolic beliefs, which he terms “credences.” Factual beliefs are for modelling reality and behaving optimally within it. Because of their function in guiding action, they exhibit features like “involuntariness” (you can’t decide to adopt them) and “evidential vulnerability” (they respond to evidence). Symbolic beliefs, meanwhile, largely serve social ends, not epistemic ones, so we can hold them even in the face of contradictory evidence. . . One of Van Leeuwen’s insights is that people distinguish between different categories of belief in everyday speech. We say we “believe” symbolic ones but that we “think” factual ones are true.

The other scholar is Hugo Mercier, whose book Not Born Yesterday argues "that worries about human gullibility overlook how skilled we are at acquiring factual beliefs" and that humans are actually quite "careful when adopting factual beliefs, and instinctively assess the quality of information, especially by tracking the reliability of sources."

One way that this can be demonstrated is by raising the stakes for holding a false belief. As Singh puts it, "Put money on the table, and people suddenly see the light."

In an influential paper published in 2015, a team led by the political scientist John Bullock found sizable differences in how Democrats and Republicans thought about politicized topics, like the number of casualties in the Iraq War. Paying respondents to be accurate, which included rewarding “don’t know” responses over wrong ones, cut the differences by eighty per cent. A series of experiments published in 2023 by van der Linden and three colleagues replicated the well-established finding that conservatives deem false headlines to be true more often than liberals—but found that the difference drops by half when people are compensated for accuracy. Some studies have reported smaller or more inconsistent effects, but the central point still stands. There may be people who believe in fake news the way they believe in leopards and chairs, but underlying many genuine-feeling endorsements is an understanding that they’re not exactly factual.

2️⃣ Metapersons

Illustration by Gabby Barucci

I've been meaning for a while to share this review of Marshall Sahlins’s final book, The New Science of the Enchanted Universe: An Anthropology of Most of Humanity.

Across most cultures, Sahlins observes, human life unfolds in continuous reference to other beings—supreme gods and minor deities, ancestral spirits, demons, indwelling souls in animals and plants—who act as the intimate, everyday agents of human success or ruin, whether in agriculture, hunting, procreation, or politics. These not-quite humans, or metapersons, can be found across all landscapes, from the Chewong “leaf people” in the Malay Peninsula to the Greenland Inuits, who had the idea that spirits animate each human joint and knuckle. Indigenous communities possess empirical knowledge about these spirit worlds, yet anthropologists often use the language of “belief”—or worse, “folk belief”—to describe them, an approach loaded with their own disbelief. Rejecting the obscurant category of “belief,” Sahlins asks: What if we saw metapersons as worthy of a science of their own? If we examine them as a ubiquitous global presence, and attempt to tease out general theories about their role in human political and economic life, what would this new science teach us?

Side Note: The author of the view, Anna Della Subin, seems to have written an interesting (and closely related) book herself: Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine. Accidental Gods "explores how deification has been a means of defiance for colonized peoples." Definitely putting this one on my to-read list as well! (For those who don't know, Sahlins wrote several books on the deification of Captain Cook.)

Returning to The New Science of the Enchanted Universe, Sahlins argues that there was a "seismic shift" in notions of divinity between the eighth and third centuries BCE. It was this period that the "foundations for the Vedic, Buddhist, Judaic, and (later) Christian and Islamic religions" were established by casting metapersons out of the human world and relegating them to "a transcendental ‘other world.’" This, left "earth alone to humans, now free to create their own institutions." This created a binary distinction between "enchanted" societies where metapersons still lived with humans, and "transcendental societies" where they no longer did. Of course, the distinction is never really binary, and there are still many ways in which transcendental societies remain enchanted, or seek some form of re-enchantment.

But what is really fun about this review is the last section, in which Subin recounts how other reviewers of the book "kept having encounters with the metaperson of Sahlins himself" - despite the book having been published posthumously.

3️⃣ Two

Two is a short (12 minute), made-for-TV, film by Satyajit Ray in 1964. Here is the description from Wikipedia:

The short film shows an encounter between a child of a rich family and a street child, through the rich kid's window. The film is made without any dialogue and displays attempts of One-upmanship between kids in their successive display of their toys. The film portrays the childlike rivalry with the help of world of noise and that of music.


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