Sunday, January 07, 2007

Better Reasoning I: Beliefs and Arguments

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Our beliefs are crucially important to us. They quite literally determine who we are! To cite some simple examples, people have beliefs about their names, their personal histories, their likes and dislikes, the people they know and a host of other topics.

Some beliefs are more important than others. For example, should a person learn that certain beliefs about their parents are incorrect, this can be devastating. By contrast, being mistaken about the name of the good pizza place is much less traumatic.

Interesting questions arise though when it comes to determining what to believe. Ideally, our beliefs should not be random. Instead, we should have good reasons for the beliefs we hold. Consider that case of your belief about your name. You probably hold this belief on the basis of the language used by your friends and relations, when they address you. You can also check places like your birth certificate, driving license and passport, should any doubts arise. Not all beliefs can be checked out as easily.

If we accept the idea that we should have 'good reasons' for the beliefs we hold, then the question becomes 'What is a good reason?' Traditionally, the best kinds of reasons come from arguments. Now, it is important to realise that this use of the term 'argument' is a little different from the vernacular use of the word. In normal use, an 'argument' often involves two people disagreeing over a particular topic. Sometimes this kind of argument can get heated, a bit nasty and in extreme cases may even involve people throwing things. However, this is not the sense in which the term 'argument' is used here. In the current context, the term 'argument' means,

An argument is a set of propositions, the premises, which are offered in support of some further proposition, the conclusion.

This is one of those cases where philosophers have given a normal word a rather special meaning and then forgot to mention this fact to others. Understanding an argument in this sense though is the first step in getting a handle on better reasoning. Holding beliefs that are supported by strong arguments can lead to our making much more rational judgements and living better lives.

Even when one already has a firmly established set of beliefs on a topic, it can be useful to assess the arguments that can be given to support those beliefs. This is the case because there may be mistakes in arguments for important beliefs, that one has overlooked. It is also the case that the rationality of certain beliefs may change over time, due to new information, or changing circumstance. The case on one's belief about what the name of today is, provides a fairly trivial example of why beliefs should be checked from time to time. Similarly, a person's belief that they wish to pursue a career in medicine may be changed when they discover the new fact that they cannot stand the sight of blood.

Another reason that the arguments used to support beliefs should be examined more closely, is because from time to time inconsistencies in one's beliefs may appear and need to be resolved. To cite a common example, most people believe that they should not do things which are unhealthy to them. Most people also believe that smoking is unhealthy. Yet, as their are still people who smoke, it would seem likely that these individuals will have inconsistencies in their belief sets.

Beliefs and their relationships to arguments, understood in a slightly technical sense, have been introduced. The next thing that needs to be looked at will be different types of arguments. This will be the topic of the next post in the series.

The CP

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