Regulating Belief


Imagine a society -- call it Doxland -- where belief is subject to heavily social regulations. In Doxland, citizens are required every two years to show up at the BEC (the Bureau of Epistemic Credit) to renew their testimonial licenses. The process is threefold. First, they are required to upload all their digital data -- the contents of their emails, their web histories and social media posts, their word documents and excel files -- into a massive computer for analysis. The computer runs the data through its algorithms -- one that analyzes grammatical construction and range of vocabulary in texts composed by its author in order to determine literacy, one that checks views expressed against online research and resources, one that isolated contradictions and determined the general level to which such views cohere -- and delivers as its output a detailed report, broken down into sections like “strength of epistemic position regarding politics” and “level of expertise in domains X, Y, and Z.” There’s also a section entitled “The Cognitive Vice and Virtue Report,” and this is broken down into sections like “dogmatism and epistemic flexibility” and “areas of irrational confidence.”

This report is then submitted to a panel of experts whom the licensee must interview with. The panel checks the report for accuracy, fills in details where human judgments of competence are required, and reviews the subject’s epistemic credentials (perhaps she graduated from an institution with a rating of 72.4 in political thought, or received a certificate in local medicinal plant species world .08 points toward her civilian clinical competence score). When the interview process is done, the subject enters the final phase, Critical Self-Assessment.

In a quiet, well-lit room, she is given back her state-issued belief computing device (a sort-of laptop on which she’s required to do all research, communication, and work). The device contains a hard drive devoted to the subject’s beliefs, and she is now allowed to peruse those beliefs in light of the new information she’s received. Beliefs to which the licensing process revealed new and relevant information will appear in a massive spreadsheet with various columns, some of which will have new information. “The world economy is in a precarious position,” for instance, will appear in the same row as columns suggesting the subject increase confidence on her evidence, remove articles printed by “World Economics Weekly” from her reasons for believing this (the magazine was recently involved in an epistemic scandal and lost all approval ratings from the BEC), and defer to those with a credit rating of 42.3 and above on questions relating to this proposition should it come up for deliberation in the near future.

The subject can contest or ignore many of the suggestions offered, but typically people find them rather reasonable. The overly suspicious -- those who despise the process of epistemic accreditation in principle -- will often be penalized for universally rejecting these suggestions in a way reflected in their overall epistemic credit rating.

At the end of the day, the subject’s epistemic ID is updated to reflect the whole process. She’s given a general testimonial score (on a scale from 1 to 1,000) that reflects her general reliability regarding questions of communal interest. She’s also given certain special accreditations, and special sub-scores for those areas in which she’s been found to have special epistemic or cognitive competence. When she finds herself in a disagreement with a friend or family member, each takes out her epistemic ID and scans it with her belief computing device (or handheld proxy) and the dispute is resolved automatically. When faced with an expert in economics with whom I disagree, I’m given the option on my device to “Accept S’s belief that P and inherit her credential score of .98 of 1” or “Update your credential score on the basis of S’s testimony by __ points” or “Maintain prior credential score despite the expert disagreement.” The option selected in response to such a scenario will provide information that will be recorded for examination at one’s next epistemic license renewal. Too many experts dismissed? You may be diagnosed with a lack of epistemic humility, encouraged to reduce your confidence in the area of that disagreement, and find your epistemic credit rating to have fallen by a few points.

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Why does Doxland sound so dystopian? There are many features of it that I’d prefer to our current socio-political context. Perhaps what’s so disturbing to us is that belief formation has traditionally been thought of as an individual endeavor. We, autonomous deliberative agents that we are (or ought to be), are expected to opinions on all manner of thing. We’re supposed to make up our own minds, think critically, reflect and deliberate. In many ways, I think that individualist epistemic model is misleading. We rely on each other in ways that are becoming increasingly clear and unavoidable. On the other hand, though, there *is* something personal about belief formation. Beliefs are individualistic insofar as they each *belong* to one of us. I can rely on your testimony, but -- at the end of the day -- it’s *my* belief that I form or don’t. It’s my belief that I’m ultimately responsible for. Maybe Doxland is just a provocative thought experiment. Maybe it can help us reflect on the epistemic integrity of ourselves and other individuals and institutions in the communities we belong to, but there’s some principled reason why doxastic practices can’t (or shouldn’t) be regulated…

Here’s a twist, though: we live in Doxland. Not only that, but there are a number of unauthorized epistemic agents. Agents who think the system is corrupted -- who refuse to honor the traditional marks of epistemic authority and respectability. And not just a few, a significant number. Perhaps enough to elect Donald J. Trump President of the United States of America...