Now, Linker shows educators, activists, business managers, community leaders—anyone working toward fruitful dialogues about social differences—how potentially transformative conversations break down and how they can be repaired. Starting from Socrates’s injunction know thyself, Linker explains why interrogating our own beliefs is essential. In contrast to traditional approaches in logic that devalue emotion, Linker acknowledges the affective aspects of reasoning and how emotion is embedded in our understanding of self and other. Using examples from classroom dialogues, online comment forums, news media, and diversity training workshops, readers learn to recognize logical fallacies and critically, yet empathically, assess their own social biases, as well as the structural inequalities that perpetuate social injustice and divide us from each other.
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Critical Thinking for Social Justice
By Maureen Linker
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2015 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
The Web of Belief
How Beliefs Are Formed and Organized
In this book we will focus primarily on examining our beliefs about social identity and social differences. Before we begin that investigation, it will be helpful to think about the process of belief formation generally and the following kinds of questions: How do you form beliefs? How are your beliefs organized? When you give up or change a belief, how does that work? How are new beliefs added? We will begin this investigation by considering some basic perceptual beliefs and then move on to value judgments and moral beliefs. I will steer clear of social beliefs until we have an outline of the basic processes of belief formation and language acquisition. So, this is just a promise that we will get there by the end of the chapter. When I ask you to consider simple nouns such as "cup" and "furniture," remember that we are moving toward understanding more complex concepts such as social privilege and group distinctiveness.
For centuries, philosophers and more recently psychologists, neuroscientists, and cognitive scientists (the term "cognition" refers to human thinking and reasoning processes) have been working together to investigate very fundamental questions about how we form beliefs and have been proposing theories and models to provide us with some answers. One important contributor to this work was the Harvard philosopher W. V. O. Quine, who has been described as "arguably the greatest American philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century and who revolutionized the study of knowledge, logic, language, and mathematics."
In "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," now considered a classic paper, Quine introduced a model of belief structure that he went on to develop and refine in his later work. He referred to this model as "the web of belief." The basic idea behind Quine's model is that our beliefs are interrelated in a systematic way, much like a spider web. If you pick a location at any one point on the web, you can trace a path to any other point on the web.
If we think of our beliefs like points on the web, then every belief is interrelated and interconnected. Quine says that a change in the web, such as when we come to hold a new belief or give up a belief that we held previously, will produce effects through the entire system. He notes, however, that not all changes are equal. Beliefs that are at the outer edge of the web or are on the periphery have less impact and are easier to change than beliefs at the core. But Quine says that in principle, all of our beliefs can be revised. The beliefs at the core are the ones that we are least likely to revise, though, even in the face of counterevidence. The beliefs at the periphery are the ones that we have very little problem giving up or changing.
To understand the difference between peripheral beliefs and core beliefs, think of something that you believe but don't feel strongly about or for which you do not have lots of convincing evidence. For instance, you might think that President Barack Obama is six feet two inches tall because you remember reading it somewhere, though you can't remember where exactly. Now imagine a friend, who is obsessed with details about the American presidency, mentioning to you that President Obama is six foot one. You say, "Are you sure? I remember reading that he was six foot two." Your friend replies, "According to the medical exam released by the White House press secretary on February 28, 2010, the president is 185 centimeters, or six foot one." If your inclination is to respond "Oh, okay then, I guess I was wrong," your response is evidence that your belief in Obama being six feet two inches tall existed on the periphery of your web of belief, and for that reason it is easy for you to revise your belief. According to Quine, this means that there will still be some effect on your overall web even if the belief was peripheral. You may, for instance, believe more strongly now that your memory for measurements isn't that great, or your belief that your friend is a reliable source for presidential information might increase. The point is that even though it was easy to revise that belief, it still has some effect on your whole system of belief.
Now, imagine a belief that lies at the core of your web — something that was established in your belief system early in your life, has been extremely well confirmed, and is centrally connected to many of your other beliefs. This could be something like believing that you know your own first name. If a friend tried to convince you that your name was really something other than what you say it is, you would most likely find those attempts to be futile. You would insist that you have a copy of your birth certificate, you have firsthand direct experience of being called the name since early childhood, your parents continue to use the name to reference you, and so on. That is, you have a much higher and more stringent standard for evidence when it comes to beliefs that are at the core of your belief system. You will work hard to discount or deny any counterevidence, according to Quine, because a change in a core belief will have very significant and far-reaching effects on your overall web of belief. In this way, Quine says, we are conservative about revising our beliefs. The term "conservative" in this sense is not political conservatism but rather conservative in terms of not being inclined to change things, of wanting to maintain the status quo. Quine argues that once we have acquired and integrated core beliefs, we hold tight to them and resist revising them to avoid having to reconsider almost everything we believe. That is why when something happens that causes us to eventually revise a firmly held core belief, many of us feel that we are no longer sure what to believe. People who have had the unfortunate experience of being deceived by someone they loved and trusted will often report that they were no longer able to trust their own judgment or the behavior of others. It is often difficult for us to accept evidence that will undermine a core belief because the readjustment to our entire system of belief is so substantial and far reaching.
Quine concludes that our reluctance to change and revise core beliefs is actually a very successful evolutionary strategy that we inherited from our early ancestors. The idea is that early humans who held tightly to beliefs such as fire is hot or cutting skin is bad had much better survival rates than those who needed to continue testing and challenging those beliefs. In this way, a kind of "mattering map" emerged in our system of beliefs. What matters most lies at the core of our web, and what matters less lies at the periphery. Over time such beliefs as fire is hot and others having to do with pain and pleasure or basic survival emerged at the core for most humans. However, given that humans have also migrated and traveled to different parts of the Earth and faced different conditions and utilized different resources, different groups of people prioritized different kinds of beliefs. For people who settled in desert regions, for instance, beliefs about sand and heat and snakes would take priority over beliefs about rain and cold. For people in mountainous regions, beliefs about heights and the dangers of winds and storms could take priority over beliefs about water or sand. It is not the capacity to form beliefs and organize them in a weblike system that makes us different as humans. Rather, what differs to a greater or lesser extent is how human groups have prioritized some beliefs at the core, others at the periphery, and still others as an intermediary that links the core and the periphery together.
So far, we have been outlining briefly how beliefs are formed and how they might vary across people and regions even if the mechanism for forming and organizing beliefs is something we share as humans. In all the examples we have considered so far, from the height of the president to your name to the conditions of deserts or mountains, the beliefs were based on perceptions and memories of perceptions. These kinds of beliefs are empirical, meaning that we justify or verify them through observation and direct experience. But we have other beliefs within our web that are not simply the result of observation and sensory experience but instead are the result of inference and evaluation. For example, if you believe that it is wrong to steal something from a friend, this belief was not simply the result of you observing that stealing from a friend is wrong. You may have observed a theft or may have seen someone who was visibly upset after a theft, but your belief that it is wrong is a moral judgment based on a set of values that you hold.
Like empirical beliefs, values are another kind of belief within our web. Values come in two varieties. The first variety — such as stealing is wrong — is a moral belief. Moral beliefs often lie at the core, which means that they are generally very difficult for us to revise. The second type of value, aesthetic judgments or matters of taste, can be located in the core, in the intermediary, or even on the periphery of the web. For instance, if you think that a particular hat looks good on you and then a friend with a better sense of fashion objects, you might have a very easy time giving up or revising your belief that the hat looks good. On the other hand, if you believe that it is morally wrong to harm an innocent child, then it will be almost impossible for you to give up that belief no matter the circumstances or the reasons someone might use to persuade you. This is because strong moral convictions often occupy the center of our web of belief. Again, your moral and aesthetic values, like your empirical beliefs, will be uniquely organized within your web because you have your own mattering map. Someone who cares deeply about aesthetic judgments, such as an art critic or a designer, will likely have more aesthetic values located in and near the core of her or his web and will argue passionately to preserve her or his aesthetic ideals. Someone who has little to no moral sense, such as a sociopath, will not have moral beliefs at the core of her or his web but instead will have beliefs about effective ways to control and manipulate others. What matters to you arises from your personal history, including your genetic and health history, your family of origin, your social system, your culture, your environment, and your own ability to think and reason. Not everyone's web looks alike, but it is important to note that we all seem to have some overlap in terms of beliefs and their location within our web. Our web will likely have more in common with our family, friends, and social groups than with strangers, but even still, if we can communicate to some extent with a person or group, we must share some overlap in our webs of belief.
As evidence of this, consider that most of us are convinced by the things we see or witness. We find it very hard to be dissuaded of something when it is right in front of our eyes. In addition, many of us are relatively peaceful, nonviolent people who go about our day without physically or even verbally abusing others. We are generally law abiding and honest in the sense that we go to school, work, and family gatherings without stealing things, physically harming people, or committing crimes. Of course, these kinds of things unfortunately do happen, but they are not the norm. Most of us are living our lives day to day sharing many of the same basic values and peacefully pursuing our goals. We may face moral dilemmas, but the fact that they are dilemmas is evidence that we have moral standards and are troubled by some choices we have to make. If we did not have some common core of values, moral dilemmas wouldn't bother us — we would just do what was most convenient or most beneficial to us personally. So while it is true that our empirical beliefs and value judgments differ, there are some important overlaps and commonalities that connect us all so that we generally make sense of the world and each other. Think about how much we all coordinate with each other when we are driving in traffic. Certainly accidents happen, but for the most part people observe traffic patterns, stop at red lights, go at green lights, and make room for cars that are entering and leaving the highway. Consider too how much we coordinate basic moral expectations. When we are at school or work, we respect other people's property, don't steal things off their desks, and don't raise our voices or physically harm the people we have to work with just because we may disagree with them. These kinds of behaviors may seem so obvious to you that you wouldn't count them as moral. Yet a basic commitment to respecting other people and the things that matter to them is a foundation for moral thinking and action.
When we are not able to effectively coordinate with other people and we fail to make sense of the world and each other, the impasse or incongruence gets much more attention than our steady stream of successes. The inability to make sense to each other undermines our very humanity, since meaningful communication distinguishes us from other animals. So when we can't understand each other or we contradict each other, it gets our attention. To not be understood, to not make sense to others, evokes strong reactions, from frustration and anger to sadness and despair. It is not surprising then that these points of conflict are often what stand out when people think about different belief systems. But what I hope I have established is that these kinds of conflicts, while significant, should not eclipse the fact that in many less emotionally charged ways, we collaborate, communicate, and cooperate every day with a whole host of people whose beliefs systems are not identical to our own.
Now that we have described the web of belief, the different positions in the web (core, intermediary, and peripheral), and empirical beliefs and value judgments, we have the start of a picture of belief acquisition and belief formation. You come to this book with your own unique web of belief. This web began to form when you were in your infancy and you were able to associate causes with effects. When you cried and someone answered your cries with food or comfort, you formed beliefs about the efficacy of crying. Shortly before your first birthday you began to understand words, and around that birthday you started to produce them. Around eighteen months of age, your language changed in two ways: vocabulary growth increased, and you began to learn words at a rate of one every two waking hours — and you kept on learning at that rate or faster through adolescence. Between the last part of your second year and the middle part of your third year, your language bloomed into fluent grammatical conversation. This happens so rapidly that it overwhelms the researchers who study language acquisition, and no one has yet worked out the exact sequence. Sentence length increases steadily, and because grammar is a combinatorial system, the number of syntactic or grammatical types of sentences increases exponentially, doubling every month and reaching the thousands before your third birthday. At the same time your web of belief, sensitive to new data and new experiences, is forming and organizing these words, sentences, and ideas into a belief system.
The picture I have painted thus far traces the formation of our web of belief with our experiences in the world and our capacity to understand and express ourselves using language. Language, then, is the expression of our beliefs. This makes sense, because when I make a claim like "Today is Thursday," you assume that I believe that today is Thursday. Most everything we claim we believe unless we are intentionally being dishonest or trying to fool someone. Even if I say "I'm not sure whether I liked the movie," I am still expressing the belief that I am not sure whether I liked the movie. Our claims are so much an expression of our beliefs that when someone actually says outright that he or does believe something like "I believe that today is Thursday," it sounds as if that person is not certain. When we converse with each other, we assume that what someone says is what he or she believes. That is why if you ask a friend "Do you know what time it is?" and he responds with "I believe it is 2 p.m." rather than "It is 2 p.m," you interpret him in the first case as being unsure and in the second case as simply believing it is 2 p.m. Our assertions and claims are expressions of the beliefs within our web of belief.
Excerpted from Intellectual Empathy by Maureen Linker. Copyright © 2015 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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