Research Workshop: "The Shifting Sands of Belief: how what you believe depends on what you feel, and why it matters for understanding belief, emotion, radicalization, polarization, and believing badly"

David King (UC Santa Barbara)

Friday, April 12th, 2024 (12:10-2:00 PM) Science North (53) Room 213


The aim of this talk is to theorize the interplay between belief and emotion, which I call the belief-emotion nexus. At the core of the analysis is an error management theoretic account of the emotions. Error management theory is an approach to evolutionary theory that posits that the need to avoid certain costly errors will be reflected in the structure of the relevant entities the model is applied to. The error management account of the emotions I advance here predicts that they will bias our belief formation, revision, and retention practices in a manner that is error avoidant, even at the expense of false beliefs. I unpack how different emotions affect our cognition in different ways and provide evidence that our belief formation, revision, and retention practices are biased in exactly the way that the model predicts. I explore the interplay between belief and emotion that such a system allows, arguing for the existence EB-Cycling, wherein the two-way interaction between beliefs and emotions exhibits a self-reinforcing structure, which can occasionally result in a runaway error pileup that can be epistemically disastrous. I make the case that EB-Cycling goes a long way to explaining polarization, radicalization, religious extremism, and a wide range of phenomena that Neil Levy calls believing badly. Finally, I utilize the theory of the belief-emotion nexus I have offered here to weigh in on some classical philosophical questions, like whether our emotions can be said to be “rational,” and the evidentialism-pragmatism debate, arguing that full appreciation of the belief-emotion nexus reveals these debates to be somewhat confused.


David King is a PhD candidate at UC Santa Barbara. His primary research interests lie at the intersection of mind and ethics, with most of his projects either being about phil mind issues that are of ethical import or ethical issues where the relevant literature would benefit from being better informed by cognitive science and a careful study of its presumptions about the nature of the human mind. His dissertation is aimed at doing such work on the topic of belief, with completed chapters on actions in conflict with beliefs, constraints on mental architecture for making sense of our belief attribution practices, the relation between beliefs and persons, the ethics of belief, and the effects of emotion on belief formation. Time permitting, he hopes to add an additional chapter on neurodiversity. He is also guilty of reckless and willful hobbyism across a number of research areas in philosophy and cognitive science. In particular, he has been very interested in the philosophy and cognitive science of meaning in the past year, with a paper on crises of meaning in preparation for publication, which he has co-authored with one of his mentees from UCSB’s RMP program.

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