A few of my own bizarre beliefs:
- Panpsychism - consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe itself.
- There are living cells on Venus which explain the unknown absorbers and presence of phosphine.
- As we explore the solar system, we will find evidence of von Neumann probes on asteroids.
- There will be nuclear weapons used in war in the lifetimes of many readers, and we don't talk about this nearly enough.
- We are not good at knowing what will seem strange to others.
- These beliefs are not central to identity.
As for #2 - I can't speak for Bergman but I know that, if I encounter a strong argument against panpsychism, or data from a probe in the Venus clouds showing a completely mundane abiotic process that produces phosphine, not only would I probably change my mind - I would not become hostile and defensive, as if I were being personally attacked. Resistant, disappointed, a bit embarrassed to have been wrong in public - sure. But not angry. Whereas I think if you were to engage a devil driver and explain why their belief may be wrong, I predict they would become hostile and defensive, as if they were being personally attacked. Same for antivaxxers and birthers.
This underlines the core difference in two types of beliefs. There are actual hypotheses - what a belief ideally always is, able to be updated by new information – and then there are the tribal team cheers of religion, politics, or conspiracy communities.
If we think of beliefs as a good materialist should, we think about what is actually going on in the nervous systems, and how the behavior of the organism differs systematically in a way that can be categorized or at least placed on a spectrum. Notice that it's not merely isolated "trapped priors" we're dealing with here - antivaxxers and devil drivers don't just calmly reject arguments and information and continue to believe what they already believed. There is community, identity, and emotion involved.
I therefore think we should consider whether the "beliefs" of devil-drivers and antivaxxers are truth claims at all, or something else.** At the very least we should consider whether their utility is more as tribal team cheers than as truth claims.
The implication here is that the superficial content of the belief is not the only determinant of whether it is a functional, updateable belief (a hypothesis) or a tribal team cheer. For example: say I learn that there is going to be a meeting of a local club to discuss the phosphine and unknown absorbers in the Venusian atmosphere. Excited to talk about it with like-minded people, I attend. At the meeting I find people talking about how they just know in their hearts there is life on Venus, that NASA is trying to hide the evidence, and that they don't care what additional evidence the probes might find. In fact when I suggest we send more probes they are actively hostile!*** Whereas the club members and I would both say "There is life in the Venusian atmosphere", I have a hypothesis, they have a tribal team cheer, though the superficially the content of the claim is the same. (The hypothesis IS just the content of the claim; the tribal team cheer is a cake of social behaviors with the words of the truth claim as icing.)
In fact, focusing on the process of belief, rather than the content of the belief itself, is what we do in psychiatry. If someone is convinced his wife is cheating on him with absolutely zero evidence, even if she confides "actually I did have a drunken one-night stand ten years ago but he doesn't know about it" - that's still a jealous delusion. He doesn't have a good reason to believe it. The Venus club's stated belief is a community and identity device, not a cognitive tool for explaining the world. Hence bizarre statements, in the rare occasion when they are discussing it with people from outside their community, like "I just feel that it's true", "this is offensive", and "this is a personal attack."
Because it's easy to be confused by tribal team cheers which do indeed look like truth claims, especially when the tribal team cheer-ers are loathe to admit that it's not really a truth claim, it's worth identifying the tribal cheers as something different from hypotheses.
You're probably familiar with the idea of a shibboleth. For me, the belief in Venusian life is a hypothesis; for the club, it's a shibboleth - or at least, much more of a shibboleth than a hypothesis. A belief is like to be more shibboleth than hypothesis, the more of these characteristics it has:
- Avoidance of any testing
- Anger at questions, as if somehow being personally attacked
- Formation of identity around the belief
- Reason for belief is emotional
- Association with community around the belief
Devil-driving, birtherism, and antivaxxer-ism are shibboleths. Panpsychism is a hypothesis. In the future of epistemology, people may be amused but charitable that we did not make this distinction, just as we think of people five centuries ago who didn’t understand that dolphins are not fish.
*It's worth pointing out that the types of beliefs we articulate, when asked what our most surprising beliefs are, are generally about the external world, not internal beliefs like "I'm unlovable" or "I can't accomplish important things" - even if we're frequently aware of such beliefs, we guard them closely. I think this is more likely out of fear of the impact on others' opinions of us, rather than a shrewd calculation about what people want to hear about.
**At one point there was a debate in psychiatry as to whether delusions are really beliefs. My argument is that they are indeed something neurologically and behaviorally different, though this is an academic or semantic distinction at this point.
***Compare to eg creationists, who often spend much more time talking about how their enemies are suppressing them than providing actual arguments and data, making predictions or trying to do something pragmatic and useful with their "theory". Where are the creationist biomedical companies?