“Why bad beliefs happen to good people” – Philosopher Neil Levy – Sentientism Episode 143

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism Podcast.

Neil is a professor of philosophy with research interests spanning philosophy of mind, psychology, free will, moral responsibility, epistemology, and applied ethics. He is Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and professor of philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney. From 2010, he was head of neuroethics at the Florey Institutes of Neuroscience in Melbourne.

He has written many papers and books, including “Bad Beliefs: Why They Happen to Good People“ (open access and free to read!)

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.” The audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:
00:00 Welcome

  • Is Neil a #Sentientist ?

02:05 Neil’s Intro

  • Perpetual winters between Oxford & Sydney
  • Philsophy of applied ethics, free will, epistemology
  • Neil’s episode on #DecodingTheGurus re: intellectual virtue signalling

03:55 What’s Real?

  • Brought up #jewish “very much a cultural thing… synagogue twice a year” in #southafrica Africa
  • Jewish Saturday school
  • Moving to #Australia & attending religious school
  • At 11-12 “This doesn’t make much sense to me – this god business. I’ve been a convinced #atheist ever since”
  • “Being religious can be perfectly reasonable”
  • Subjective rationality “how well are you processing your evidence given where you are?”
  • “People are much more rational than we think… even #QAnon supporters… they’re completely wrong… but if they believe what they’re saying… they’re rational given where they start”
  • #Trolling & #bullshit
  • “We’ve got lots of evidence people don’t believe what they’re saying”
  • #Determinism & #freewill & “the epistemic condition on responsibility”… “nobody does have that kind of control over their beliefs… they’ve done the best they can with the evidence available to them”
  • “Criticism comes cheap… so does praise”
  • “Luck explains so much” constitutive & present luck
  • “It gives us more to do… of the sort of things philosophers aren’t good at”
  • Teaching critical thinking, logic, fallacies “people get better… but they don’t get better at using it outside the classroom”
  • “In the classroom I give you evidence… they stipulate it… you just accept it”… “But in the real world you’re faced with the continual problem… should I trust the evidence?”
  • A key reason people don’t update beliefs given new evidence is because “they just don’t trust the evidence in the first place… and you can formally model why they shouldn’t… given what they already believe”
  • The “capital punishment views” experiment
  • “If somebody shows me a prima facie plausible study showing that… all dogs have 5 legs… I’m going to think… that it’s bullshit”
  • Bayesianism
  • Gullibility, dogmatism, #skepticism
  • #QAnon , #Antivaxx , #homeopathy : JW “The same individual is able to be completely gullible when it comes to one set of propositions… at the other extreme can be completely denialistic about another set of sources”
  • “I don’t like these terms… gullibility, open-mindedness, skepticism,
  • Kripke’s defending dogmatism re: #astrology
  • Climate change denial: “Everyone should dismiss it… except climate change scientists… only if it makes some sort of sense should they engage with it”
  • “We’ve got to rely on domain experts… then we’ve got to take their word for it… that does leave us vulnerable.”
  • Lysenkoism in the USSR causing crop failures “telling farmers to do things that didn’t work”
  • “What we’ve got to focus on is making sure that the political & social contexts are such that the domain experts can do their stuff”
  • Risks of the hubris of experts: “They’re lay people on everything else”
  • “Have our own domains of expertise and have warranted relations of trust between domains”
  • Some sympathy for the antivaxxers & climate change denialists “they can point to reasons why they shouldn’t trust… some of those are good reasons”
  • Even #vegan atheists aren’t automatically right about everything else 🙂
  • “The main reason I believe most of the things I believe is because someone I regard as reliable told me”
  • “I think I’m right about lots of stuff – but that’s not a reflection of my virtue – that’s a reflection of my luck”
  • #Moralluck

26:03 What Matters?

  • “I’m anti-foundationalist generally” & giving up the idea of absolute certainty
  • “I don’t think we can have perfect actions”
  • “We’re thrown into a world in which things have value for us… we can be sceptical of them… but the scepticism has less power than the value itself”
  • Moore’s response to solipsism “here’s one hand… here’s another”
  • “The idea that nothing matters… requires an idea of ultimateness that maybe doesn’t make sense… maybe ultimately nothing matters… the universe will suffer a heat death… That’s kind of sad but it’s not the perspective to ask about… [instead] Is my life going better or worse?… is the world going better or worse from the perspective of the beings in that world?”
  • Why should we care about others? “I’m not sure that’s a challenge we should be in the business of trying to meet”
  • Is morality ultimately selfish? “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed”… “That’s a crass confusion of the proximate and the ultimate levels of explanation… the ultimate explanation might be because it’s in our interests to care… but that doesn’t mean we don’t care.” Just as sex might be ultimately about procreation but can also be about pleasure
  • “You can explain things without explaining them away”

34:02 Who Matters?

  • Assumed & implicit #Anthropocentrism
  • “I think of at least some of them [non-human animals] as moral agents as well as moral patients”
  • Insect & mollusc sentience?
  • Two different bases for mattering morally: sentience & having a point of view
  • Converting from continental to analytic philosophy
  • Peter Singer’s “sentience is what matters for non-human animals… gives you a concern with suffering but not life”
  • The idea that: “It would be fine… to get a kitten… make it’s life a good kitten life… and then painlessly kill it” and the #Thanos snap
  • The reason painless killing of a sentient being is itself wrong is if that being has “a unified point of view”
  • David Chalmer’s P-zombies “doesn’t have the capacity for phenomenality at all but has a point of view… I think would count as a moral agent and a moral patient… at least close to as morally significant as I am – maybe completely”
  • “I think that phenomenality does less work than philosophers have thought”
  • “I was at Monash University at a time when the entire philosophy department was convinced by Peter [Singer] that they should be vegetarian but almost none were.”
  • “They found it difficult – I didn’t”
  • “I did find it harder to give up cheese – which I did years later”
  • “I have no lived sympathy with those people who say they find it really hard… these days in particular… At least if you’re living in the UK or Australia”
  • “What doesn’t make it easy is social pressure… you know that veganism is highly stigmatised” 😊
  • “Very online atheists are nothing like most atheists… they’re much more aggressive… maybe something like that is going on with veganism too”
  • The parallels between journeys towards atheism & veganism re: intellectual / ethical thought vs. social norms
  • How strongly held ethics can lead to warped epistemology
  • The dangers of motivated reasoning (“veganism cures cancer!”) even if our motives are good

49:07 How Can We Make a Better Future?

  • Would everyone adopting Sentientism solve all the world’s problems?
  • “I don’t share your optimism… I’m actually quite deeply pessimistic… because of climate change… vested interests but also the collective action problem”
  • “We’ve left taking it [climate change] seriously late and we’re now going to have to spend literally trillions on adaptations and, even so, there’s going to be a lot of death”
  • “Veganism is one of the few things individuals can do that actually make a difference”
  • “We need to take much better care of the environment… the natural environment… but also the institutional and social environment… and the informational environment”
  • “Caring about other animals matters not just for their sake but for our own”
  • Land use, emissions, zoonosis, pollution impacts of animal agriculture
  • Structuring the informational environment to enable collective action and collaboration
  • “Peer review in science is hugely flawed but… it has elements that can work… that needs to be rolled out across many different social structures… collective co-operation… that channels conflict”
  • The airline industry’s safety culture: total transparency re: mistakes and a collective focus on not making them again
  • Virtue epistemology “good thinking as dependent on character traits which are at once intellectual and ethical… like respect for arguments, respect for people, humility”
  • “I’m not even sure ethics is a separate subject…”
  • Free will and the philosophy of action
  • “The things [epistemology & ethics] leak into each other.. they’re porous… they’re not things we should be trying to have hard and fast boundaries between”
  • “The criticisms of virtue signalling are often overblown… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with indicating your values… as part of establishing trust relationships with each other”
  • “It can become a kind of pathology when people build their entire identity around a kind of signalling of their good qualities”
  • The danger of virtue signalling identity being driven by bad incentives (e.g. maximising the number of Twitter followers)
  • Bad Beliefs, Why They Happen to Good People” and many of Neil’s other papers and books are open access and free to read!

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at

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Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.

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