Problems of Religious Luck, Ch. 4: "We Are All of the Common Herd: Montaigne and the Psychology of our 'Importunate Presumptions'"

In Problems of Religious Luck: Assessing the Limits of Reasonable Religious Disagreement (forthcoming)
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As we have seen in the transition form Part I to Part II of this book, the inductive riskiness of doxastic methods applied in testimonial uptake or prescribed as exemplary of religious faith, helpfully operationalizes the broader social scientific, philosophical, moral, and theological interest that people may have with problems of religious luck. Accordingly, we will now speak less about luck, but more about the manner in which highly risky cognitive strategies are correlated with psychological studies of bias studies and human cognitive ecology. Chapter Four is concerned with connections between psychological study of biases and heuristics, and the comparative study of fundamentalism. The first section looks at work by psychologists and philosophers on our bias blind spot. Later sections ask, ‘In what ways might biases and heuristics play a special role in aiding our understanding of, and response to, fundamentalist orientation?’. The judgments we make in ignorance of our own biases Montaigne calls our importunate presumptions, and he suggests a host of practical factors that make them appealing. Montaigne, as I discuss in the first section, associates many of our errors with one or another kind of presumption, often about our similarity or differences from others, or from God. Our obvious psychographic diversity, and the polemical ground dynamics involved in our ‘culture wars’ are compounded on the agential side by the invisibility of our biases to ourselves. A number of person and social biases are described that plausibly affect all of our beliefs in domains of controversial views, religious views included. The second section continues to study of how etiological symmetry (similar patterns of belief-uptake) gives rise to religious contrariety (diverse narratives and theologies) in testimonial faith traditions, and what the implications of this are for philosophy of religion, generally, and for an improved comparative study of fundamentalism, in particular. Utilizing the work of philosophers such as Rachel Fraser and psychologists such as Emily Pronin and her co-authors, I offer a four-step genealogical account for how etiological symmetry so easily gives rise to religious contrariety. This account begins with the narrative nature of testimony in the Abrahamic family of religions, and how narrative content confounds our “source monitoring.” My genealogy also introduces what I term biased-closure inferences (BCI) as one of the key enablers of religious exclusivism and absolutism. These are the seemingly ‘logical’ but actually very self-serving inferences people often make, inferences from their own belief being true, to any belief contrary to it being false. Those who claim unique truth, epistemic access, and/or virtue and religious value for the home religion are no exception to the broad pertinence of bias studies across domains of controversial view. The proximate causes of belief are all that we can study, and in these there may be significant etiological symmetries. Yet those groups themselves, especially to the extent that they are exclusivist, are tunnel-visioned on claims of doctrinal uniqueness: on content differences of a theological sort. Comparative philosophy is met with the puzzlement that symmetric or essentially similar doxastic strategies should give rise not just to cognitive diversity, but to what we can call polarized or polemical contrariety, contrariety of a kind where each view adamantly rejects all others. Arguably, the more that theologies offer explanations of a counter-inductive sort, or profess counter-inductive thinking as exemplary of faith, the better evidential ground there for inferring that bias involved in the acquisition or maintenance of beliefs. This provides more substance to the question of when censure, and etiological challenges to faith-based beliefs are philosophically well-motivated.

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Guy Axtell
Radford University


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