Re: Are Beliefs Like Clothes?

Sarah Marr (
Mon, 14 Jul 1997 10:01:20 +0100

At 22:07 13/07/97 -0700, Robin Hanson wrote:

>Clothes are both "functional" and social.


>Beliefs are also both functional and social. Functionally, beliefs help
>us choose our actions, given our preferences. But many of our beliefs are
>also social, in that others see and react to our beliefs. So beliefs can
>also allow us to indentify with groups, to demonstrate our independence
>and creativity, and to signal our wealth, profession, and social status.

Robin, I can't help think your analysis is wrong to omit some analysis of
communication and interaction in its discussion of belief (and, indeed, of
clothes.) Without the communication of your belief to another through some
form of interaction, vocal or otherwise, it does not serve a social
purpose. Moreover, since this interaction is a choice, it is a
manifestation of the functionality of the belief system, within your model.
The dichotomy between functional and social roles of belief is therefore
blurred: one function of belief is social differentiation.

>For example, a belief that the local sports team will do well can help me
>associate with my locality... <snip>...A belief that UFOs are aliens could
>help me signal that I'm an independent thinker...

Both these are good examples of my point, the second particularly: the
belief could help you _signal_ that you're an independent thinker. But it
is the signal which acts to fulfil a social role, and that signal is part
of the function of the belief.

Your definition of 'function' seems reflexive: a function is something
which acts on the 'wearer' of clothes or belief, whereas a social role is
something which involves the 'wearer' and at least one other. But I think
that the interaction of 'wearer' and other, necessary for a social role, is
as much a function as is the more reflexive warmth of the clothing, or
'inner contentment' of belief.

>For subjects with little social monitoring and strong personal penalties
>for incorrect beliefs, we expect the functional role of beliefs to
>dominate. Beliefs about small military missions or small engineering
>projects come to mind. But for subjects with high social interest and
>little personal penalty for mistakes, we expect the social role of beliefs
>to dominate. Consider beliefs about large elections or beliefs addressing
>abstract philosophical, religious, or scientifc questions.

That assumes that the social role is less important than the functional
role merely because of the size of the 'society' involved. Why should that
be the case? Consider the mass suicides of cult members. These are small
societies, yet it is the social role, I would submit, which causes the
society following its leader and destroying itself. Perhaps the key here is
your phrase 'with little social monitoring': social is a relativistic term;
societies are myriad, inter-linked, sub-classed and interactive. An
argument based around the societal function of belief cannot presume a
single society against which to measure things such as monitoring.

>If people could wear a parka undetected underneath a bikini, bikinis might
>be in fashion in the Arctic, and Arctic folks wouldn't need to trade
>off the functional and social roles of clothes.

One could argue that there is no trade-off at the moment. Warm clothes
function to keep the wearer alive, but also allow the wearer to move in an
outside environment and hence socially interact with others. (And I would
argue that this is a function of the clothes.) If your implication is that
the wearing of bikinis would allow the people of the Artic to fulfil a
further social role, then I think it is based on very Claifornia-centric
cultural beliefs: attraction is a very culturally-relative thing, and I'm
sure the people of the Artic have there own 'bikini-substitute'.

>Similarly, if people
>could choose their external behavior independently of their internal
>beliefs, then internal beliefs would never need to be anything but our
>best computationally-feasible estimate of the way things really are. But
>since it is typically hard to say one think and believe another, the
>functional and social roles of beliefs do conflict.

Consciously it is very easy to say one thing and believe another; in ones
everyday actions and interactions it may be more difficult. But does that
mean that the functional and social roles of beliefs conflict? I don't see
why that should follow. As I argue above, the social role of belief is one
of its non-reflexive functions. Furthermore, whilst belief may drive social
interaction, so may social interaction drive belief; Saul becomes Paul on
the road to Damascus. If one has a belief and acts upon it, where is the
conflict? If one wishes to act in a certain way but is prevented from doing
so by ones own belief system then one has a choice to make between amending
ones belief system or not acting in that way. But that is a choice to be
made, and, more likely than not, is one which will be made within the
context of the pre-existing belief system: belief system therefore informs
social action, and vice-versa. There is a dialogue between the two, not a


>espcially the academically-neglected social role of beliefs.

This is an area in which that are huge amounts of anthropological
literature available. Indeed, given the nature of ethnographic study, one
is almost forced to construct any paper on the basis of social role.

>the social costs of mistaken beliefs about politics and UFOs probably
>can't be reduced...

Which society? Mistaken in whose opinion? (Perhaps we should find
'mistaken' books and burn them?)


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