Why We Believe

A Journey Upriver to Truth (& More Effective Argument)

I have been discussing philosphy with a friend – most recently, reasoned argument specifically.  As this builds on several of my pieces here, I felt it worth sharing my latest conversation with my comrade in rhetorical arms. In what follows, I discuss why we believe what we do and the relevance to argument. My discussion is framed through my own take on The Pilgrim’s Progress — the exemplar Christian allegory.

I’m going to channel my inner Plato and create a philosophical metaphor for you. I want you to picture yourself in a small boat. We’ll call the boat ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. Your point of departure is a dusty little town at the mouth of a long and winding river. You’ve heard a rumour that there is a place way upstream called Truth, but it isn’t on any map and you are not at all sure the place exists. But you do have a chart in your possession, given to you by a bedraggled old sailor who staggered out of the local bar smelling of rum and disappointment. There is a place marked on this chart, a town called Sophia. The sailor told you that you have to go through this place if you are to ever find guidance to any destination further upriver.

Here Be Dragons

You are determined to get started. The boat is small — there is only room for one person. As you proceed upriver, you study the chart conscious of the sailor’s warning that there is any number of shoals, and shallows to avoid, and that the current will get progressively stronger as you fight your way upstream. These shoals and shallows are marked on the chart with an odd assemblage of names. One is called Bias, another is called Authority, another Emotion, yet another Fallacy  — something called Conventional Wisdom is also marked in bold letters. You work hard to stay resolutely in the middle of the stream, but you are worried about your engine. This engine is finicky, temperamental, tends to stutter, and occasionally stall. It has been made by an obscure company called Epistemology Inc. and seems altogether too small to keep pushing your boat forward.

Reasons for Holding Beliefs

Any person inclined to think deeply about the human condition, who wants to make it to Sophia (wisdom) has to keep this engine running. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that forces us to take a step back from the Big Questions (metaphysics) and examine why we believe what we believe — what are good grounds for believing what we do.

I am going to give you a list of common grounds for holding beliefs:

The prestige of influencers such as religious leaders, older mentors, gurus, peer interactions, desire for social acceptance, literary influences and most importantly — parents.

A feeling of certainty based on personal insight, as if one were to say
“I believe in free will because I am sometimes immediately conscious of freedom.”

Good Results
I believe it because it works. My beliefs have gotten me to where I am today and I am quite happy with that place. My beliefs make me more hopeful and my life more fulfilling. This mode of judging belief is called pragmatism.

This one comes in several flavors. We will get into this in more detail. When you create a chain of inferences based on some premises leading to a conclusion, you are reasoning.

There may be other grounds for believing what we do, but these are the main ones discussed by philosophers. 

All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Socrates is mortal.

That is a valid form of argument, and the conclusion can be called true unless my frantic quest to find the Fountain of Youth is successful and I personally invalidate the syllogism. 

There is deductive reasoning — things that are true by definition or are seen to be self-evident(2+ 2 = 4, all men are created equal), and there is inductive reasoning (observations based on our experience of the world around us, such as my wife will always hate grocery shopping because she always has).

Avoiding Unanchored Opinions

We were talking about arguments, and as often happens in this sort of Pilgrim’s Progress, we had to take a detour. We did this because an argument is almost always a conflict of opinions, and opinions about important matters are grounded in our values. If we don’t examine the grounds on which we base our beliefs we can still live rich and successful lives, but we are not living philosophically, and our opinions about important matters are unanchored, more insubstantial than they should be, more easily subject to malicious influence.

None of us are obligated to climb into that fragile little boat and fight our way upstream. We can all join the rheumy old sailor in the bar, order him another rum, and listen to him spin stories about his trip. He is a boastful old guy and is liable to tell you he made it all the way to Sophia, lived there a while, and only came back because the Town ran out of rum. He may be lying.