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Imagination and Religious Credence

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - IRC (Imagination and Religious Credence)

Reporting period: 2015-06-01 to 2016-07-31

Many philosophers and cognitive scientists have a habit of using the word “belief” as though it refers to a single, simple sort of cognitive attitude. But if we take empirical evidence from cognitive science of religion seriously, we will see that this habit is a source of confusion. Just as it is a mistake in astronomy to assume that Venus and the North Star are the same kind of entity because they are both “stars,” so too it is a mistake in theorizing the nature of belief to treat what I call religious credence and what I call factual belief as the same type of attitude. I have already argued in my paper “Religious credence is not factual belief” (Cognition, 2014) that our best psychological theory of cognitive attitudes, in conjunction with psychological and anthropological evidence, will treat these two attitudes differently. The research aim of the project proposed here is to elaborate on my theoretical apparatus in a way that will serve philosophers and cognitive scientists interested in religious “belief.”
"Over the project, I accomplished the following.

A. Wrote or co-authored seven research papers.
B. Delivered research presentations at eight academic venues.
C. I wrote a book proposal for Harvard University Press.
D. Received a book contract from Harvard University Press.

A. Papers

1) “Do religious ‘beliefs’ respond to evidence?” (accepted/forthcoming, 2017) Philosophical Explorations

-This paper develops my research initiated in publication 3.

2) “Beyond Fakers and Fanatics: a Reply to Boudry and Coyne” (2016) Philosophical Psychology 29(4), 616-621

-This paper is a response to some published criticisms of publication 3.

3) “Interpreting Intuitions” (accepted/forthcoming, 2017) in Third-Person Self-Knowledge, Self-Interpretation, and Narrative, eds. Julie Kirsch and Patrizia Pedrini, Springer [co-authored with Marcus McGahhey]

-This piece argues that the intuitions prompted by philosophical thought experiments often do not have clear propositional contents.

4) ""Seeking the Supernatural: A New Theory of Agency-Detection in the Formation of Religious Belief"" [in preparation, co-authored with Michiel van Elk]

-This paper presents a new theory of how intuitive psychological systems for agency detection figure into the maintenance of religious attitudes.

5) ""Does 'thinking' mean the same as 'believing'?"" [in preparation, co-authored with Larisa Heiphetz and Casey Landers]

-This empirical paper presents experimental evidence that supports the hypothesis that speakers of American English use ""thinks"" differently from ""believes.""

6) ""Pretense as Representation"" [in preparation for publication]

-This paper presents a new theory of what pretend action is; pretending is a special class of representational behavior.

7) ""Imagining stories: attitudes and operators"" [in preparation for publication]

-This paper presents new research on the cognitive structures deployed in processing fictional stories.

B. Presentations

1. “Imagining Stories: Attitudes and Operators,” University of Konstanz, Germany, July 1, 2016.

2. “Interpreting Intuitions,"" Centre for Philosophical Psychology, University of Antwerp, Belgium, May 18, 2016.

3. “Pretense is Representation,” University of the Basque Country, Donostia, Spain, April 11, 2016.

4. “Props in the Clouds: on the Role of Agent-like Stimuli in Religious Practice,” Useful False Beliefs Conference (Project PERFECT), London, England, February 5, 2016.

5. Debate on Religious “Belief” with Maarten Boudry, Analytic Philosophy Seminar, University of Utrecht, Utrecht, Netherlands, January 13, 2016.

6. “Imagination and Sacred Value,” Rationality and Its Rivals Conference, University of Macau, Dec. 10, 2015.

7. Invited Workshop: Understanding Science Denialism, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC, July 9, 2015.

8. “Three Concepts of Imagining,” Society for Philosophy and Psychology (SPP), Invited Panel, Durham, NC, June 4, 2015.

C and D.

I contacted editor Andrew Kinney of Harvard University Press. With his guidance I wrote a successful book proposal. The due date of the manuscript is August 18, 2018.

State of the Art:

The psychology of religious attitudes and experiences has been a topic of rigorous exploration since William James wrote Varieties of Religious Experience. The relatively new field of cognitive science of religion has renewed this research program in illuminating ways that incorporate advances pioneered in the cognitive revolution, initiated by Chomsky’s work in linguistics. Cognitivist perspectives on ritual, theological correctness, representation of divinity, and magical explanation have emerged.

There is, however, still a theoretical gap. Researchers in the programs just mentioned use the term “belief” in indiscriminate ways that mask important differences. But I hold that “beliefs” vary not only in contents: more than one attitude hides itself under this broad term. So we need a theory of cognitive attitudes that distinguishes one from the other. My research has made progress in filling this gap.

Progress Beyond the State of the Art:

I have advanced the following view.

Cognitive attitudes are mental states that portray how the world is or might be, such as imagining, supposing, hypothesizing, acceptance in a context , religious credence, and factual belief. Human behavior, on my framework, is often guided by a two-map cognitive structure. Humans deploy factual beliefs about mundane aspects of the world (a chair is on the floor) in conjunction with secondary maps, like imaginings, that serve specific practical purposes, such as guiding make-believe play (a wizard is on the chair). The practical purposes an agent has—the practical setting she is in—activate the second map layer: make-believe play activates fictional imagining; inquiry activates hypothesis; arguments activate assumption for the sake of argument; and so on. The attitudes that form the second map layer in a given setting are secondary cognitive attitudes.

Many religious “beliefs” are secondary cognitive attitudes. These are religious credences. Empirical evidence suggests (1) they depend on practical setting (religious/ritual/existential uncertainty) to motivate action. (2) They are not evidentially vulnerable. And (3) they are prone to imaginative elaboration. So religious credences don’t guide thought or action in the routine manner of factual belief. But insofar as they do guide action, they make strong normative demands on agents: religious credences have perceived normative orientation and are identity-constituting attitudes.

Societal Implications:

Both hardcore atheists and religious apologists talk in ways that suggest that “beliefs” are all one sort of thing. Doing so gives them something to fight over, which makes the two parties strange bedfellows. Distinguishing religious credence from factual belief thus deflates the culture war. But it forces us to ask an old question in a new way: is religious credence rational? My work argues the answer is mixed. Given one’s aims, it is sometimes rational to make an irrational commitment to a cause; religious credence is a way of doing this. But this means one’s religious credences are in tension with self-knowledge; seeing them for what they are could break the spell of one’s commitment to the cause.