Critical Thinking: Arguers and Systems of Belief

In the last post we gave a formal definition to an argument:  a set of reasons and evidence that support a conclusion.  We also discussed the two main components of an argument: the premises and the conclusion.  Recall that the conclusion is the central claim that the arguer is trying to make.  If they do their job well, they will support that claim with relevant premises (i.e., reasons and evidence).  If they don’t, they might as well just be waiving their hands in the air and jumping up and down.

In this next section we will look at how certain facts about the person or group making an argument influences various aspects their argument.

Arguers and Systems of Belief
As much as many of us would like to think we are objective thinkers, we often are not.  Hume famously argued that “reason is slave to the passions.”  The general idea is this:  We begin with a position that we are emotionally attached to and we collect evidence and arguments to support what we already believe.  This is as opposed to how most people think they operate; that is, collect evidence and consider reasons and then see where that leads.  There is a wealth of psychological research showing that Hume was right about most people, most of the time.

Mommy, Where do Beliefs Come from?
As we go through our early life, we uncritically acquire a “web” of beliefs based on experiences.  How we experience the world, and the types of experiences we have depend heavily on things out of our control.  Typical elements that form our system of belief include: race, culture, socio-economic class, attractiveness, gender, education, family life, religion/non-religion, nationality, geography, and so on.

Often, before our ability to reason develops, may of these beliefs become central to our identity.  To have them shown to be false would be to admit that something important to our identity is false.  Having our identity come under scrutiny is often an emotionally painful experience and so we vigorously protect the beliefs that form the core of our identity–often ignoring contravening reasons and evidence.

So, why does this all matter?  Because when it comes to arguments about things that are really important to us, our arguments are often driven by emotion rather than reason and even-handed evaluation of reasons and evidence.  So, on such issues, instead of entering the debate with the attitude, “well, lets look at the reasons and evidence for both positions and evaluate which is best,” what often happens is we enter a debate with a pre-existing particular position.  We then use arguments to defend the position that we already held–no matter the relative quality of argument for the other position.

In other words, we are emotionally attached to a conclusion before any real critical thought begins.  From that conclusion, we use argumentation, reason, logic to arrive where we already were!  Our reason is slave to the passions; i.e., reason serves to justify the positions we already hold.  Or, to paraphrase Hume again, “man is not the rational animal but the rationalizing animal.”

(Note: There are several recent trends in psychology and philosophy that argue that rather than having a distorting effect, emotions play an important role in various domains such as social and ethical reasoning.)

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with holding a position on an issue, however, what is important is to be aware of how our web of beliefs and emotions influence our ability to effectively argue for a position and evaluate the issue

Elements of a Web of Belief
As critical thinkers we need to pay close attention to how a person’s web of beliefs influences the assumptions they will make; that is, what sorts of things will they take for granted. For example, in the abortion debate, opponents of abortion will often take it for granted that a fetus is a person.  This assumption stems from many facts about their personal history.  Such facts might include: race, religiosity and religion (or lack of), gender, sex, education, career, and socio-economic class.

Some proponents of abortion might even agree that fetus is in some ways a person.  But for them the desires of the autonomous woman carrying the fetus outweigh those of the fetus.  But is this a scientific question where someone in a lab coat can put all the fetus’ desires into a beaker and put all the pregnant woman’s desires into another then put them on a scale and measure which have more weight?  No.  To demonstrate that one set of desires has more weight than the other requires argument–and that argument must begin from common premises if opposing sides are to have any hope of agreement. 

For many people in this debate, the answer to this question will depend heavily upon the different elements that helped to build that individual’s web of beliefs.  Their position will likely not come out of having spent month studying the academic literature on the issue and carefully evaluating the arguments on all sides.  It is for this reason that arguers must seek and begin with common ground with their opponents.

Why Do the Elements that Build Someone’s System of Belief Matter?

How to Win an Argument
What is interesting is that based on a person’s web of beliefs we can sometimes “reverse engineer” some of the elements that influenced their web of beliefs and also identify what many of their unstated assumptions are.  Doing so can be an important step in deciding how to engage with the arguer.

If our goal is to show our opponent why his argument is problematic or persuade him to our point of view, you must be able search for and identify common ground from which you can build to your conclusion rather than his.  If you both begin from different assumptions, no progress will ever likely be made!

A key to bringing someone to your point of view is to find common assumptions (premises) and show how your conclusion, rather than your opponents follows from these assumptions.

How to be a Philosopher
A true philosopher seeks truth above all else–or at least (non-foolish) consistency.  While we can use our understanding of systems of beliefs and the elements that form them, we can also use this information on ourselves.

It would be foolish to think that magically we are the only ones without ideological blind spots and unexamined assumptions!  Introspection on how our own gender, culture, religion/non-religion, family, education, career, peer group, etc… shape the way we experience the world (and in turn our beliefs and assumptions about it) is a valuable exercise. Doing so allows us to see where we have uncritically accepted certain views.

I can give a recent example in my own life.  Because I grew up agnostic/atheist and most of my friends are agnostic/atheist, for most of my life I’ve tended to see religion as a harmful thing.  However, over the last half-year or so, I’ve seen and experienced religion in different contexts beyond something to criticize.

My study of the role community in restoration of criminals to productive members of society has led me to see religion as a (positive) powerful force for bringing the elements of community necessary for restoration.  While I doubt you’ll find me in the pews any time soon, re-evaluating some of my assumptions about religion has changed my system of beliefs and many of my fundamental assumptions toward religion.

Interestingly, it was the emotional impact of reading about and experiencing (I went to a church with a friend to experience it) how the community elements of religion can change lives for the better in ways that might be much more difficult (but not impossible) for secular society.   In short, this is more evidence that much of what Hume said was right.  It is our emotions that lead our reason, not the other way around.

Next week we will read an article by J. Haidt, a psychologist, who gives empirical evidence for Hume’s idea that we often can’t change peoples deeply held views by reasoning, it must be through emotion.

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