- Akratic Feelings
It sometimes seems to us that our judgments about what we ought to believe diverge from what we in fact believe. I may be perfectly aware that I am not particularly risking my life by flying, for instance, and yet, as I tighten my seatbelt in preparation for takeoff, I may nevertheless embrace the seemingly paradoxical thought that I am likely to die in a matter of mere seconds. In moments like this, it can feel to us like we are experiencing a failure of rationality, as we seem to embrace a belief that we ourselves judge to be unreasonable. That is why philosophers have characterized these kinds of cases as akratic believing. Certainly, they leave us with that same funny feeling, that familiar dread that borders on self-loathing that we get in cases of practical akrasia. In the practical case, we behave akratically when we freely act against our better judgment, like when I tuck into a second piece of cheesecake even though I judge I ought not to.
Acting against our better judgment may be irrational, but the behavior is not incoherent. We can make sense of practical akrasia, in part, because individuals have multiple and even conflicting desires, hopes, and goals. Thus, although I sincerely want to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle, right now I want nothing more than the delicious taste of cheesecake. In the epistemic case, however, things are different. The most straightforward reason for thinking that we cannot believe against our better judgment is captured by the notion of transparency, according to which the deliberative question whether to believe that p inevitably gives way to the factual question whether p (Moran, 2001; Shah, 2006). Transparency picks up on the idea that, when it comes to belief, we do not have multiple goals. In the epistemic case there is only one goal, which is to believe that which is true, and if that’s right then to judge that P is true just is to believe that P and thus to reject not-P. Hence, the impossibility of believing against what one judges to be true.1
Certain philosophical accounts of epistemic akrasia (e.g., Adler, 2002) advance a similar argument but fail to provide an alternative explanation for what is going on in these cases that feel akratic, even if they are not. In Akratic Believing (2017), I do just that. I look at current research on psychological trauma that shows that traumatic experiences have a profound impact on our sensorimotor reactions, which can become maladapted in light of traumatic and otherwise extremely difficult life experiences. With individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders we see this manifest in the dysregulation of our neurobiological systems, namely, those systems that impact our ability to regulate affect. In these cases, when something in the environment triggers a reminder of a past trauma the body returns to the event, so to speak, and the individual experiences a somatic reaction that is attuned not to her current environment but to these influential events from her past. As van der Kolk (2006, p. xx) has argued, this autonomic response is “subcortically initiated,” which is to say that the triggered response is non-cognitive. It is not reasoned or deliberative, but is instead embodied or somatic. And yet, these somatic [End Page 355] experiences may be functionally similar to beliefs in that they carry a representational load, which is why we sometimes mistakenly interpret our own somatic responses as cognitive. That helps to explain why these situations feel akratic to us, even though they are not. It also explains why we cannot reason ourselves out of these responses. Because somatic responses are not, in the first place, cognitive, they are immune to rational persuasion; any evidence that speaks against them is idle.
Claire Pouncey (2017) and Julia Tanney (2017) each offer illuminating responses to my paper. In her reply, Pouncey objects to this claim that somatic responses are immune to rational persuasion. This objection points to an ambiguity in my paper that I am happy for the chance to clarify, for what I mean by that...