Originally published 31 Aug 20
Here is an excerpt:
Of course, beliefs don’t exist only in a private mental context, but can also be held in place by our relationships and social commitments. Consider how political identities often involve a cluster of commitments to various beliefs, even where there is no logical connection between them – for instance, how a person who advocates for say, trans rights, is also more likely to endorse Left-wing economic policies. As the British clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell and his colleagues note in their preprint, ‘De-rationalising Delusions’ (2019), beliefs facilitate affiliation and intragroup trust. They cite earlier philosophical work by others that suggests ‘reasoning is not for the refinement of personal knowledge … but for argumentation, social communication and persuasion’. Indeed, our relationships usually ground our beliefs in a beneficial way, preventing us from developing ideas too disparate from those of our peers, and helping us to maintain a set of ‘healthy’ beliefs that promote our basic wellbeing and continuity in our sense of self.
Given the social function of beliefs, it’s little surprise that delusions usually contain social themes. Might delusion then be a problem of social affiliation, rather than a purely cognitive issue? Bell’s team make just this claim, proposing that there is a broader dysfunction to what they call ‘coalitional cognition’ (important for handling social relationships) involved in the generation of delusions. Harmful social relationships and experiences could play a role here. It is now widely acknowledged that there is a connection between traumatic experiences and symptoms of psychosis. It’s easy to see how trauma could have a pervasive impact on a person’s sense of how safe and trustworthy the world feels, in turn affecting their belief systems.
The British philosopher Matthew Ratcliffe and his colleagues made this point in their 2014 paper, observing how ‘traumatic events are often said to “shatter” a way of experiencing the world and other people that was previously taken for granted’. They add that a ‘loss of trust in the world involves a pronounced and widespread sense of unpredictability’ that could make people liable to delusions because the ideas we entertain are likely to be shaped by what feels plausible in the context of our subjective experience. Loss of trust is not the same as the absence of a grounding belief, but I would argue that it bears an important similarity. When we lose trust in something, we might say that we find it hard to believe in it. Perhaps loss of certain forms of ordinary belief, especially around close social relationships, makes it possible to acquire beliefs of a different sort altogether.