Structure of Beliefs
are often interested in identifying and examining the reasoning
that leads people to hold the beliefs that they have. Here is a
point I am very interested in making clear: we can gain much about
how we and others think by attending to the structure of the system
of beliefs. In my experience, many people are well able to identify
and react to the beliefs of others. They are much less used to examining
the structure underlying the beliefs. The later is one skill that
philosophers are good at, and I hope to help you further develop
Let's consider what a belief is. Beliefs can be
expressed as claims or statements. Yet, we can make a claim or a
statement without believing it (we can be doubtful or uncommitted).
To believe, is to have both the claim and an attitude towards that
claim. The attitude towards the claim can be summed as saying "this
statement is true." We can call this attitude "assent."
To have a belief is to have at least two things: a claim and assent.
We can represent this picture of belief as follows:
This conception of belief opens many possibilities.
We can see that a statement and our assent to it may be separated.
We can also see that our assent may come in degrees of strength:
a very strong belief has a high degree of assent, weaker beliefs
have lower degrees of assent. It is also possible that our interpretations
of the statements involved may vary; from person to person and also
from moment to moment for ourselves. Obviously, belief is complex
matter (note how often you hear people say about
beliefs something like; "it is very simple." I
think that what they mean by this is essentially; "my assent
for this claim is very strong.")
Adding to the complexity is the relations that beliefs
have to one another when they form a system. We can investigate
the structures of belief systems by examining how the parts fit
together. Let's consider an example that was posted on a course
lot of people think that there place in the world is to dominate
it. I think we are Stewards of the land. God put things on the
earth for our use, and God put us here to take care of it, and
protect it. Being part of a greater whole is to know what we are
here for. I don't think that letting go of fear and desire would
make life any better. Fear gives us limitations and restraints
on what we do. With out fear we would not have a fear of using
up all of our resources. And with out desire we would not have
motivation. Universal harmony would be a wonderful thought but
it is all ready too late for that, we need to protect and live
with what we have."
say; "Universal harmony would be a wonderful thought but
it is all ready too late for that". Can you fill us in
more on what you are thinking here? How do you know it is too
late? Was it once possible?"
I mean when I say that it is too late is that there is so much
hate and violence in the world it would be pretty much impossible
to reverse that. There are so many different beliefs that to have
universal harmony everyone would have to agree on one belief.
We should not force people into thinking one way, it would never
work. I also think that there are so few natural resources to
live in universal harmony. We can never rebuild what we have already
Involves the expression of several beliefs - even
an indication of a whole system. A philosopher can do several things
with such expressions. One of these is to analyze the structure
of the reasoning involved. A chain of reasoning in which one of
the claims is supported by others is known as an argument.
This is a different use of the word "argument" than you
may be used to. What is of importance is to figure out, from the
words provided, what the individual beliefs are and how they fit
together to form a system of reasoning. I think that the main belief
being supported here by K has this statement; "Universal
harmony is not possible." Several of
other statements given are connected to this main belief. You can
see that they are connected because they use common words (i.e.
they conceptually overlap) and there are logical relations among
them (i.e. some follow from others, or are presented as if they
do). I've draw a picture of the two chains of reasoning -- arguments
-- that I find in these passages.
The boxes show individual claims. Some of these
claims are taken directly from the text, others are constructed
as implicit in the text (they are needed to make this interpretation
of the arguments work). This analysis is my interpretation of the
author's words and reasoning.
Please note how different this approach is from
that of the debate and verbal contest. In making this analysis I
am doing my best to give a fair and accurate interpretation of the
author's thought. I am reading between the lines, making my own
judgments, and rephrasing aspects of what the author said. But I
am doing this in order to gain a better understanding of the structure
of the author's beliefs. How can I tell whether I am close to the
author's intended meaning? Well, I can ask her and show her my interpretation
and we can discuss my interpretation and her meaning. In this way
we can come closer to understanding one another. Much closer, I
think, than we can by simply accepting and rejecting one another's
Perhaps people's beliefs are
so different and individual that we cannot ever share a univeral
set of beliefs. From a philosophical perspective, however, that
does not prevent us from pursuing better understanding of the beliefs
of others and our own. To do so will involve an effort to see and
figure out the structure and system of beliefs.
can you do the same with another posting in the class? Do this -
take a posting or a group of postings from another student. Analyze
an argument (chain of reasoning) that you find in it. Post your
interpretation of that chain. Note that interpreting the structure
of a chain of reasoning need not involve your evaluation (your agreement/assent
or disagreement/dissent) about it.
Drawing the picture of the reasoning structure will
be best. Do this with paper and pencil. If you can scan it and post
it, or develop with a image editing tool, great. If you cannot do
so, then another method will work fine. Use the Standard Form
for argument analysis which is simply to list the premises (support
statements) and the conclusion (the main statement being supported).
The above arguments will be rendered in standard form as follows:
1: To have universal harmony everyone would have to agree on
1: There are few natural resources
2: There are many different beliefs
2: People compete for resources
3: People disagree about the different beliefs
3: competition for resources causes disharmony
4: It is not possible to force everyone to agree with on one
Universal harmony is not possible
Standard Form does
not show the structure of the arguments as well as the diagram method
does, but it is very effective in identifying all of the parts.
Use Standard Form and Diagram Form as ways to represent the structures
of beliefs and you will achieve a new level of communication with
others. Try it.