Cognitive Scientist, French National Center for Scientific Research; Co-author (with Dan Sperber) of The Enigma of Reason
Reflective Beliefs

Do Christians believe that God is omniscient in the same way that they believe there’s a table in the middle of their living room?

On the one hand, we can refer to both attitudes using the same term—belief—and Christians would readily assent to both.

On the other hand, these two beliefs behave markedly differently.

The belief about the living room table is, so to speak, free to roam around our minds, guiding behavior (we must go around the table, we can put dishes on it) and our inferences (a child might use it as a hiding place, its size limits how many guests we can have for dinner).

By contrast, the belief about God’s omniscience seems more constrained. It guides some behaviors—for instance verbal behavior when quizzed on the subject—but not others. Believers in God’s omniscience might still try to hide actions or thoughts from God. They sometimes try to attract his attention. Believers in God’s omnipotence may still imagine God attending to prayers one after the other.

That people behave and draw a variety of inferences in a way that ignores or contradicts some of their beliefs is, to some extent, common sense, but it has also been experimentally demonstrated. This is true for a variety of religious beliefs, but also for many scientific beliefs. You have learned in school that the earth revolves around the sun but you may still think of the sun as rising in the east and setting in the west.

To help explain these apparent contradictions, Dan Sperber has introduced a distinction between intuitive and reflective beliefs. Intuitive beliefs are formed through simple perceptual and inferential processes. They can also be acquired through communication provided that the information that is communicated is of a kind that could have been acquired through simple perception and inference.  For instance, if someone tells you they have a table in their living room, you can form an intuitive belief about the table. Intuitive beliefs are the common stock of our minds, the basic data on which we rely to guide our behavior and inference in everyday life—as do many other animals.

However, humans are endowed with an extraordinary capacity to hold a variety of attitudes towards thoughts. You can believe that Bob is Canadian, but you can also doubt that Bob is Canadian, suppose that Bob is Canadian for the sake of an argument, attribute the belief that Bob is Canadian to someone else, and so on. Most of these attitudes toward a thought do not entail believing the thought—if you doubt that Bob is Canadian, you clearly do not believe that he is. Holding some of these attitudes toward a thought, however, amount to treating this thought as a belief of yours: for instance if you believe that there is a document proving that Bob is Canadian, or if you believe that Susan, who told you that Bob is Canadian, is to be trusted in this respect, then you have in mind compelling reasons to accept as true the thought that Bob is Canadian. At least initially, this thought occurs in your mind not as a free floating belief, but embedded in a higher order belief that justifies believing that Bob is Canadian. This makes your belief that Bob is Canadian reflective in Sperber’s sense. In such trivial cases, of course, you may disembed the thought that Bob is Canadian from the higher order belief that justifies it, and accept it as a plain intuitive belief free to roam around your mind. You may even forget how you initially came to know that Bob is Canadian.

In the same vein, if you are told by someone you trust in this respect that God is omniscient, you should come to hold yourself, in a reflective way, the belief that God is omniscient. However, by contrast with the case of Bob being Canadian, it’s not clear how you could turn the belief in God’s omniscience into an intuitive belief free to roam in your mind. The very idea of omniscience isn’t part of the standard furnishing of our minds; omniscience cannot be perceived, or inferred from anything we might perceive; there is nothing intuitive about it. When we think about agents, we think of them as having cognitive and sensory limitations, things they know and things they don’t know, things they can see and things they can’t see—because that’s how normal agents are. As a result, the belief in God’s omniscience is stuck in its position of reflective belief; it cannot be disembedded and turned into an intuitive belief. In this position, it is largely insulated from our ordinary inferences and from guiding mundane behavior.

If the belief in God’s omniscience is stuck in this reflective status, how can it still influence some of our actions? Through the intuitive belief it is embedded in: the belief that someone you trust in this respect believes God is omniscient. This higher order belief has been acquired through intuitive processes that calibrate our trust in others, and it can be used in guiding inferences and behaviors—for instance by making a Christian affirm and agree that God is omniscient.

The word “belief” collapses together at least two functionally different attitudes: intuitive and reflective beliefs. That some of our most cherished beliefs are reflective helps solve some apparent paradoxes, such as how people can hold contradictory beliefs, or ignore much of their beliefs in their actual practice. By drawing attention to the differences in the cognitive mechanisms that interact with intuitive and reflective beliefs—and the intuitive beliefs in which reflective beliefs are embedded—it also offers a more sophisticated and accurate picture of how our minds work.