Human life is full of decisions, including significant choices about what to believe. Although everyone prefers to believe what is true, we often disagree with each other about what that is in particular instances. It may be that some of our most fundamental convictions in life are acquired by haphazard means rather than by the use of reason, but we all recognize that our beliefs about ourselves and the world often hang together in important ways.
If we believe that whales are mammals and that all mammals are fish, then it would also make sense for us to believe that whales are fish. Even someone who (rightly!) disagreed with our understanding of biological taxonomy could appreciate the consistent, reasonable way in which we used our mistaken beliefs as the foundation upon which to establish a new one. On the other hand, if we decide to believe that Hamlet was Danish because we believe that Hamlet was a character in a play by Shaw and that some Danes are Shavian characters, then even someone who shares our belief in the result could point out that we haven’t actually provided good reasons for accepting its truth.
In general, we can respect the directness of a path even when we don’t accept the points at which it begins and ends. Thus, it is possible to distinguish correct reasoning from incorrect reasoning independently of our agreement on substantive matters.
An excessive reliance on emotively charged language can create the appearance of disagreement between parties who do not differ on the facts at all, and it can just as easily disguise substantive disputes under a veneer of emotive agreement. Since the degrees of agreement in belief and attitude are independent of each other, there are four possible combinations at work here:
1. Agreement in belief and agreement in attitude: There aren’t any problems in this instance, since both parties hold the same positions and have the same feelings about them.
2. Agreement in belief but disagreement in attitude: This case, if unnoticed, may become the cause of endless (but pointless) shouting between people whose feelings differ sharply about some fact upon which they are in total agreement.
3. Disagreement in belief but agreement in attitude: In this situation, parties may never recognize, much less resolve, their fundamental difference of opinion, since they are lulled by their shared feelings into supposing themselves allied.
4. Disagreement in belief and disagreement in attitude: Here the parties have so little in common that communication between them often breaks down entirely.
We’ve seen that sloppy or misleading use of ordinary language can seriously limit our ability to create and communicate correct reasoning. As philosopher John Locke pointed out three centuries ago, the achievement of human knowledge is often hampered by the use of words without fixed signification. Needless controversy is sometimes produced and perpetuated by an unacknowledged ambiguity in the application of key terms. We can distinguish disputes of three sorts:
• Genuine disputes involve disagreement about whether or not some specific proposition is true. Since the people engaged in a genuine dispute agree on the meaning of the words by means of which they convey their respective positions, each of them can propose and assess logical arguments that might eventually lead to a resolution of their differences.
• Merely verbal disputes, on the other hand, arise entirely from ambiguities in the language used to express the positions of the disputants. A verbal dispute disappears entirely once the people involved arrive at an agreement on the meaning of their terms, since doing so reveals their underlying agreement in belief.
• Apparently verbal but really genuine disputes can also occur, of course. In cases of this sort, the resolution of every ambiguity only reveals an underlying genuine dispute. Once that’s been discovered, it can be addressed fruitfully by appropriate methods of reasoning.
If deception is the process of misleading others in order to get them to accept something as true even when it is false, then self-deception is the process of misleading yourself so that you will accept something as true even when you should acknowledge that it is false.
An important thing to watch for in arguments – both our own and those offered by others – is the influence of bias or vested interest. Both are variations on the same sort of problem, although there are differences that require mentioning each separately. Bias occurs any time that facts are interpreted in a way that unreasonably favors one position over another; vested interest is a cause of bias in which one will personally and specifically benefit if people adopt a particular position.
It is also important to listen when someone points out possible biases because, quite frankly, we often aren’t good at noticing when we have biases that influence our thinking. Biases inappropriately influence our reasoning, but much of the time we tend to think that our perspective is the only correct one — a perspective which everyone should have. Thus, whatever “biases” we have represent biases everyone should have.
(Austin Cline at atheism.about.com)
Sometimes, people seem to think that the more they repeat an idea, the more likely it is that someone else will believe it. In other words, they are trying to convince people of something not based upon reasons or evidence, but instead upon sheer repetition. But why do some think that such a tactic will work?
Very often, debates become embroiled over what appear to be very minor issues. Sometimes this may be appropriate and sometimes it may not – when it is not, there is a strong possibility that no further productivity will occur in the discussion. When someone moves a discussion into an inappropriate and unproductive focus on minor issues, he can be accused of pedantry.
Strictly speaking, pedantry is not simply a deep concern with details; instead, it is a concern with details at the expense of genuinely important and significant issues. Sometimes, the details are the important issues. A person with an abiding interest in important details is not a pedant, according to the standard definition.
Instead, being called a pedant is used pejoratively as a claim that someone is avoiding the issues that are central to the discussion — perhaps even deliberately in an attempt to evade acknowledging his own faults and errors, or that someone else’s position is actually more reasonable. For example, a person might avoid dealing with someone’s arguments and instead point out that the argument contained a couple of grammatical errors.
It would be nice if people formed beliefs based on hard evidence and reason, but they don’t. Some elements of belief formation aren’t rational but they are understandable — trust in traditional authorities like teachers, family members, religious leaders, etc. Other may also be understandable but far less justified — one’s own personal self-interest, the interests of their social and ethnic groups, the protection of one’s self-image, a need to maintain a consistency with other beliefs, etc.
There are a lot of different rhetorical and reasoning tricks that people can use to exercise the aforementioned control over their beliefs to bring beliefs into alignment with their self-interests or preserve that alignment. People can’t voluntarily “choose” beliefs by an act of will, but there is a lot they can do to influence how beliefs form or develop: evidence is weighted in a particular direction to produce a preferred outcome, certain sources of information are preferred while others are ignored, fallacies are used to dismiss certain ideas or sources, weak anecdotes are used instead of rigorous scientific studies, etc.

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