Re: Are Beliefs Like Clothes?

Steve Witham (
Thu, 17 Jul 1997 23:56:09 -0400

Robin Hanson writes-

>Clothes are both "functional" and social. [...]
>Beliefs are also both functional and social. [...]
>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. [...]

"Large" or highly public topics like news, sports and politics have the
feature that lots of people (and therefore, probably people you might want
to talk to) have knowledge and opinions about them. So that makes these
topics Schelling points for conversation topics. Common ground, but of a
funny sort: you want to agree on the topic but disagree on the opinions
about it, to have a good argument. And a good argument reinforces your
sense of the importance of the topic, too.

But the social vs. practical impact is a much clearer explanation of the
same thing. Of course a high-social, low-practical topic will tend to
become popular, and popularity alone gives a topic social importance.
(And maybe the more cooks, the more spoiled the broth, so popular issues
are less likely to have practical decisions made on them? Bonus!)

The social vs. practical comparison answers a question about politics:
Why so much hoopla about such a pointless process? Because the pointlessness
makes it safe. In fact it's in the interest of both voters and
representitives to make government good at producing annoyance (stuff
to get angry and argue about) and bad at changing things (practical).

>The conflict between the functional and social roles of clothes has become
>less of a concern with the invention of new materials and designs, and as
>we have become rich enough to move to milder climates. Similarly, I think
>a key to reducing the conflict between the functional and social roles of
>beliefs is to better understand both roles, espcially the
>academically-neglected social role of beliefs. [...]
>Fortunately, innovation in clothes proceeded even without a deep
>understanding of either fabrics or the social and functional roles of
>clothes. Similarly, belief complexes and social institutions have evolved
>even without a deep understanding of the nature of computation and of the
>social and functional roles of beliefs. But there is reason to hope that,
>as with clothes, such evolution may proceed faster with a deeper
>understanding of these issues.

Here's an example that this is happening:
An X-Files T-shirt, with the slogan, "I Want To Believe," is:
o an indicator that I'm an independent thinker interested in wacky
ideas, and
o an indicator that I'm a skeptic with some scientific training, and
o an ironic meta-comment (maybe showing that people in general are
becoming more aware) about the social function of belief, and
o a damn fine practical piece of clothing.

In short, a desert topping *and* a floor wax. I rest my case.


>I agree that the social role of beliefs is also in a sense
>"functional", which is why I put this word in quotes in my first
>usage. Perhaps it would have been better to say "social" vs. "non-social"?

The thing I noticed was that you put "maintain privacy"
and "enhance our figures" in the "functional" category.

Anyway, thanks for a fresh idea!


--           Steve Witham          web page under reconsideration
"Philosophers have often attempted to analyze perception into the Given and
 what is then done with the Given by the mind.  The Given is, of course,
 Taken..." --Daniel Dennett