Dillon Plunkett, Lara Buchak, and Tania Lombrozo
How do scientific explanations for beliefs affect people’s confidence in those beliefs? For example, do people think neuroscientific explanations for religious belief support or challenge belief in God? In five experiments, we find that the effects of scientific explanations for belief depend on whether the explanations imply normal or abnormal functioning (e.g., if a neural mechanism is doing what it evolved to do). Experiments 1 and 2 find that people think brain based explanations for religious, moral, and scientific beliefs corroborate those beliefs when the explanations invoke a normally functioning mechanism, but not an abnormally functioning mechanism. Experiment 3 demonstrates comparable effects for other kinds of scientific explanations (e.g., genetic explanations). Experiment 4 confirms that these effects derive from (im)proper functioning, not statistical (in)frequency. Experiment 5 suggests that these effects interact with people’s prior beliefs to produce motivated judgments: People are more skeptical of scientific explanations for their own beliefs if the explanations appeal to abnormal functioning, but they are less skeptical of scientific explanations of opposing beliefs if the explanations appeal to abnormal functioning. These findings suggest that people treat “normality” as a proxy for epistemic reliability and reveal that folk epistemic commitments shape attitudes towards scientific explanations.
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