Friday, January 25, 2019

Nonsummativism about group belief

Here is a quick argument that a group can believe something no individual does. You hire a team of three consultants to tell you whether a potential employee, Alice, is smart and honest. The team takes on the task. The team leader first leads a discussion as to which of the other two team members is best qualified to investigate which attribute, and unanimous agreement is reached on that question. Both of these then investigate and come to a decision. The team leader writes “Alice is” on a piece of paper, and then passes the piece of paper around to the second team member, who writes down the attribute she investigated or its negation, depending on what she found, followed by “and”. The leader then passes the piece of paper to the third team member, who writes down the attribute they investigated or its negation, followed by a period, without reading (and hence being biased by) what was written already. Job done, the leader without reading folds the paper in half and hands it to you, saying: “Here’s what we think.”

You open the paper and read the verdict of the consulting team: “Alice is smart and not honest.” The team agrees unanimously that the division of labor was the right way to produce an epistemically responsible group verdict, but nobody on the consulting team believes or even knows the verdict. The team leader has no opinions on Alice: she delegated the opinions to the intelligence and integrity experts. The intelligence expert has no view on Alice’s integrity and vice versa.

One could say that the team doesn’t believe its verdict. But to issue a verdict that one does not believe is to fail in sincerity. But there need be no failure in the above procedures.

(My own view is that when we say the team “believes” something, we are using “believes” in an analogical sense. But the points stand.)


Kenny said...


I assume you are interested in this question in part because of questions about corporate religious belief. Some people (including Terence Cuneo, if I recall correctly) have suggested that a person could honestly recite the Creed during the liturgy without believing every part of it, because one is not professing one's own belief but rather participating in the church's profession of belief. So the question whether one believes everything one is saying is not the right question. The right question is the more complex question: is one being honest/sincere in joining oneself to a community that professes these beliefs?

Your case here involves the other members of the community having no opinion about some of the matters the group believes. This lines up nicely with a traditional Catholic understanding of implicit faith, which I assume you endorse: instead of having an explicit belief in the proposition, the group member simply has a willingness to go along with the group's determination. But what about the case where the group member suspects the group has got it wrong but is, for practical reasons, prepared to go along anyway? Or the case where the group member firmly believes the group has got it wrong (but is still willing to go along)?

It seems that as long as the group's decision procedure is sufficiently well-defined none of these cases affects the question of what the group believes. But my question is, at one point does it become dishonest for the dissenter to 'sign off' on the group's final report? In the original case, where the member has no independent opinion but trusts the group's procedure, it seems to me there is no problem. Where the individual has a contrary opinion, or even a suspicion to the contrary, I'm less sure. Certainly there's some point at which trust in the group breaks down and the dissenting individual has an obligation to (e.g.) defend Alice's honesty. But perhaps that is the real issue: whether the question is important and the disagreement strong enough for the individual's trust in the group to break down. What do you think?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I wasn't thinking about the religious case at all. But now I am.

The current Catholic English version of the Nicene Creed starts: "I believe" ("Credo" in Latin, I assume). This is an explicit change from the previous (mis)translation of "We believe". I take the correction to indicate that we Catholics are individually professing all the articles of the creed.

That still allows for some flexibility, in that one can profess an article of the creed without understanding it. I.e., one can believe that the article is true without believing the article, much as we can believe a sentence in a mathematics paper to be true without believing the sentence, because one lacks the concepts to grasp the sentence but one trusts the author's expertise.

Thus, no doubt, many Catholics say "consubstantial with the Father" without knowing what "consubstantial" means (do *I* know?). But they still should think that what the Church means by the words is true. If they don't think that, they should be silent.

Kenny said...

Actually, though, the version of the Creed approved by the second Ecumenical Council in 381 had the plural:

I don't know when exactly the Western version got to be singular, The Creed is given with the singular in the Council of Trent, but presumably that's just reporting what version of the Creed was in use in Western churches at that time and is not the point where the alteration originated.

This may be related to the fact that I've always seen the view I was describing associated with Eastern Orthodoxy, though I don't know how common (or not) it might be in that tradition.

In any event, if I understand you correctly, your position is that insofar as the Catholic Church uses the Creed in the singular it has to be interpreted as a profession of individual belief rather than as participation in a profession of group belief. As a result, the question I was raising turns out not to be relevant in the way I thought.

Alexander R Pruss said...


And of course even "we" can be understood in two ways: as applying to the group qua group and as applying to each individual member of the group. The original context of the creed was the bishops professing together at a council. In that context, given the fact that the council was there to ensure orthodoxy in the first instance at the level of the bishops, it seems plausible to think that each bishop saying the creed was expected to believe each item in the creed to be true.

A related point is the way that both in the Catholic and the Orthodox traditions, eventually many liturgies have been in languages that have come to be more or less opaque to the participants (Old Church Slavic, Koine Greek, Syriac, Latin, etc.; similarly, no doubt significant numbers of Jews pray in a Hebrew they do not understand well). Thus it is particularly important that one be speaking the prayers according to the Church's understanding of them.