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The Structure of Beliefs

Philosophers 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 that skill.

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 discussion board;

K: "A 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."

J: "You 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?"

K: "What 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 destroyed."

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.

A diagram showing the relations between the parts of K's arguments.

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 beliefs.

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.

TRY THIS: 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:

Argument 1
Argument 2
Premise 1: To have universal harmony everyone would have to agree on one belief Premise 1: There are few natural resources
Premise 2: There are many different beliefs Premise 2: People compete for resources
Premise 3: People disagree about the different beliefs Premise 3: competition for resources causes disharmony
Premise 4: It is not possible to force everyone to agree with on one belief
Conclusion: 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.

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  2001© Jon Dorbolo