“Our beliefs are playing all sorts of roles… social, moral, epistemic…” – Psychologist Tania Lombrozo – Sentientism Ep:168

Find our conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism podcast.

Tania is the Arthur W. Marks Professor of Psychology at Princeton University. She oversees the Concepts and Cognition Laboratory, which uses the empirical tools of cognitive psychology and the conceptual tools of analytic philosophy to study the human mind. Their research focuses on topics including explanation, learning, causal reasoning, and folk epistemology.  Tania is the recipient of numerous awards including the Stanton Prize from the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, the Spence Award from the Association for Psychological Science, a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation and a James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award in Understanding Human Cognition. She blogs about psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science at Psychology Today and for NPR’s 13.7: Cosmos & Culture.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” In addition to the YouTube video above the audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:

00:00 Welcome

01:49 Tania Intro

– #interdisciplinary  human #cognitivescience

– Links to #epistemology & #ethics  “I came to cognitive science from a background largely in philosophy of science & epistemology”

– Questions at the boundary of empirical psychology & philosophy “how can we know things, what is knowledge, what does it mean to understand, how do we acquire understanding, how can we make the correct decisions”

– “We can learn a lot from #philosophy “

– What makes a compelling explanation & why we are so motivated to explain

03:57 What’s Real?

– “Because I am a psychologist I’m deeply sceptical of my own introspective sense”

– Growing up in a #Jewish household and “I still identify as Jewish”

– Jewish identity, community, ritual… “at the same time I feel like theistic beliefs just played pretty much no role in that at all”

– Prayers: “They certainly talk about god, they certainly talk about occurrences that seem very, very implausible… but that just seemed to me to be not deeply connected to what was valuable or important about that religious identity growing up”

– “That sounds somewhat foreign to many people I know from other religions where belief is really at the core of what it means to have a particular kind of a religious identity”

– Not speaking Hebrew “you’re able to get to a certain point where something might have meaning for you… before you actually know what it means”

– “I definitely had experiences of actually reading the translations and being taken aback by them… this is what I’ve been saying?”

– Hebrew School “I told my parents that it I thought it was a waste of time and I didn’t want to keep going”

– In high school “sought out Jewish education on my own… I discovered I was the only person there whose parents hadn’t forced them to be there… it was a miserable class”

– “I had a Jewish wedding… one of the conversations that we had with our Rabbi was that we didn’t want god to be mentioned”

– “Threading that needle… preserve some elements of a tradition that’s meaningful… how to do it in a way that’s consistent with other values that I hold.”

– “I think I’m a straightforward boring naturalist”

– “I have no doubt that I routinely employ all sorts of background assumptions that I have not subjected to scrutiny & that I could not give good evidence based arguments for…”

– “I have tried to cultivate the view that people are basically good… but can I give you arguments for why that’s true?”

– “I don’t knowingly hold any supernatural views”

– We think about whether beliefs are true but “beliefs play lots of other psychological and functional roles… to define groups.”

– “That’s one of the things that religious beliefs can do – they can signal who’s on your side, who’s in your ingroup and who’s in your outgroup”

– Emotional roles – to comfort ourselves “most people think they’re better than average”

– “Beliefs… have all these other goals too… make us feel good… facilitate social interactions… create communities… support moral behaviour…”

– “You wouldn’t really go in expecting beliefs to be narrowly beholden to evidence & argument & reason”

– “All sorts of things that influence our beliefs besides evidence and reason… social environment is going to play an enormous role”

– “Overwhelmingly people believe some of the same religious things that their parents believe… reliable agents?… want to fit in?… that’s your community?”

– The Ethics of Belief “A moral reason to believe or disbelieve something?”

– Loyalty to a friend vs. evidence that friend is guilty of a crime… “These sorts of factors shouldn’t really affect what we believe is true – but maybe they should affect how we act in the world?”

– Philip Tetlock: modes of cognition: Intuitive scientist, intuitive lawyer (making a case for a conclusion), theologian (policing the boundaries of what’s sacred)

– “Most of the time we’re engaged in a balancing act where we have lots of goals”

– Intuitive vs. reflective, system 1 vs. system 2 “it’s typically a mistake to think of those as ways of reasoning that entirely dominate a given episode of reasoning or entirely characterise the way a person approaches reasoning”

– When epistemology goes wrong: religion, pseudo-science, conspiracism, non-human animal ethics

– Conflict of interest monitoring “where we do typically go wrong are cases where we have some other motivation to believe something… other than what’s true… how we grew up… feels familiar, want to be regarded a certain way…”

– “When there are… “reasons”… where those reasons aren’t truth-tracking”

– From Tania’s research “We found that people prefer some kinds of explanations over others… people prefer simpler explanations”

– “Participants who are actively trying to explain are more likely to discover it [when there is a simple pattern to discover]… but when you put them in a world where there is no simple underlying pattern… people who are actually trying to explain learn less well”

– Useful epistemic heuristics (like looking for simple explanations, agency detection) that can go astray “the problem is we don’t know in advance”

29:24 What & Who Matters?

– A “moral conversion” at 17-18 yrs old, reading “All Animals are Equal” by Peter Singer. “I just thought – oh, this just seems right… I became vegetarian at that point”

– “It was a good argument… and feeling like accepting that argument had clear implications for how one ought to act in the world”

– “You ought to make decisions based on some sort of cost/benefit analysis that takes into account all affected parties… a relatively uncontroversial starting point”

– “The criterion for what should count as being in your moral circle… is having experience or sentience”

– Utilitarianism

– “Well of course animal suffering should be part of the calculus – that’s just clearly bad”

– Many of my wonderfully weird guests “I read it and it was obvious and I did it” 😊

– Pescetarian mum “I grew up in a household where a vegetarian diet was not anomalous… of course you can have a healthy & balanced vegetarian or vegan diet… my mum would know how to cook that”

– “A common sense extension of sympathy… I grew up in a community where if somebody had kicked a dog in front of anybody… that would have been an outrage – then they would have gone to eat their hamburger”

– “Most of us start out with and perhaps lose [sympathy for non-human animals]”

– “It also aligned for me with going to college and having more control over what I was eating”

– “The boundary to vegan… is a little bit more complicated for me”

– Challenges and trade-offs “every single kids birthday party is cheese pizza and chocolate cake… what are the social consequences going to be for my kids?”

– “I cannot say with confidence that we’re drawing the line in exactly the right way… I don’t think there’s some sharp boundary… I just have no idea how to weight those things”

– “What is going to be the most persuasive case for veganism or near veganism for other people?… exemplars who are 100%… people who are managing to make it work in their lives by having some flexibility? I honestly don’t know the answer.”

– The relationship between moral views and factual views

– “[if] people feel they have a moral reason to hold a belief they believe it despite taking themselves to have less evidence for it”

– “To the extent somebody thinks that believing in god is a morally valuable belief to have… they might hold it to a lower evidential standard”

– “Other animals being sentient…”

– “People who eat meat will often downgrade the properties of the organism that they just ate… less likely to attribute… sentience to a cow if they just ate beef”

– “You start with the view you want to be justified – then you fill in the factual conditions that you need to be true in order for you to feel OK about your action”

– “If we want to engage in a particular behaviour… we’re going to tend to want to hold the beliefs that make that behaviour justifiable”

47:10 A Better Future?

– “I wish I knew the answer to this”

– The varieties of experience, aggregation, computing over experiences “crustacean suffering vs. snake suffering vs. human suffering – then you have humans who vary in their experiences… then you add the trade-offs… that’s really complicated”

– “Having the right moral beliefs and the right factual beliefs about the world isn’t going to be enough if it doesn’t translate into the right behaviour”

– “Behaviour change is really hard – having the right beliefs and intentions doesn’t seem to be sufficient… exercise and diet”

– “It’s the actually getting yourself to do it part” Akrasia / the problem of behaviour change / will

– “It’s not enough for people to have the right beliefs and the right values”

– The PHAIR conference

– Persuasion “You want to understand why people hold the beliefs that they do… you’re not going to get real engagement if you don’t understand the foundation for somebody else’s belief – what led them to that and why”

– “Being prepared to listen as a starting point”

– “Our beliefs are playing all sorts of roles… social, moral, epistemic… if we can get people to recognise that and to find other ways to serve those non-epistemic roles that might liberate them to allow their factual beliefs to just play the factual role”

– “In some sense I believe that my kids are the best kids in the world… but in what sense do I believe that… I was just saying I love my kids… a lot of the things we say to each other are like that… what they really want to do is express a value… express a feeling… can they express that value or that feeling in some other way so that they don’t have to force it onto the belief?”

– Expressive responding in political surveys like Trump vs. Obama’s inauguration attendance “What you’ll find is that people will respond to these seemingly factual question in a way that closely tracks their party ideology”

– “If you only give people an opportunity to express something that’s really important to them through that factual question they’re going to use that factual question to basically tell you ‘I like Trump or I don’t like Trump or something like that’”

– “Can you give them an opportunity to express that in some other way… just recognise that what your values and preferences are – and all those other aspects of your identity don’t have to be tied up to that fact”

– “This is part of the reason why issues like anthropogenic climate change are so complicated and intractable… because they’ve not been allowed to be strictly factual claims about the world – they’ve gotten tied up with your ideology and your political identity”

– “How to separate the epistemic belief function of beliefs from these other things – and give people other avenues for those other things”

– The “Actively open-minded thinking” dimension “roughly it tracks your willingness to expose yourself to opposing ideas, to opposing evidence… it’s useful to remind ourselves of that”

– “Be somewhat proactive in making sure that you are exposing yourself to other ideas, to other arguments… easier said than done”

– JW: “Why do psychologists still have cognitive dissonance when they understand it so well?… you’re still human”

– “A lot of the psychological mechanisms that psychologists are trying to characterise are not ones that we necessarily have direct control over… we are developing strategies for circumventing them”

– “Because we feel like we have direct access to what’s going on in our heads we think we see everything that’s there and have control over it – but both of those are errors”

– “How are we going to make progress?”

– Optimistic on the technology, less optimistic on the human behaviour and collective action front “it’s a really hard problem and I don’t see people investing”

– COVID19 pandemic “We saw large-scale immediate investment in the relevant natural science… I don’t think we saw anything close to that in terms of large scale investment in the psychological, sociological, political things that we would need to understand in order to be able to navigate something like a major pandemic effectively”

– “Part of the reason I’m not more optimistic is that I do not see governments making the investments in social scientific infrastructure the way that maybe is sometimes made in natural scientific or medical infrastructure… but it’s going to be crucially important”

– “Taking a moral philosophy class did result in change… including extending moral concern to animals”

– “Maybe sustained engagement with arguments and evidence over a longer period of time does have an effect”

– “The main predictor of whether or not someone would shift their moral views was the extent to which they decreased their reliance on their initial intuitions and emotions in how they answered that question”

– “One of the things that happens from a certain kind of education and engagement with reason and evidence is that you start to question your immediate default intuitive reactions to things – your immediate emotional reactions – and maybe realise that those are not reliable guides to what’s true in many important domains”

– “Maybe there’s an optimistic lesson there… one argument’s not going to do it… one piece of evidence isn’t going to do it.. but maybe longer term sustained engagement can have systematic effects”

01:08:58 Follow Tania


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