A dialogue concerning the following proposition: ‘All of our actions are based upon beliefs’ (in the context of ideology and education)

  • (Person A) Why do we feel tempted to say that ‘all of our actions are based upon beliefs?’
  • (Person B) Because we cannot be certain about anything? If we cannot be certain about anything, then presumably we must simply believe certain propositions to be true.
  • But it only makes sense to talk about certainty when there can be doubt. What would it actually mean for me, for example, to say, ‘I doubt that the world is real’? How could I live as if that were true? How would people react? People might assume that they had misunderstood something; People might assume I was making a joke; People would say I was insane, or delusional, and my loved ones would insist I see a doctor; or people would think I was lying. Where no doubt about a fact is possible/logical, we can call it a ‘brute’ fact.
  • But there can always be doubt, for example, in the evidence in support of the effectiveness of a particular method of teaching.
  • Yes, but of what does this doubt consist?
  • I might doubt that I have understood the evidence correctly; I might doubt whether I have missed another important piece of research.
  • Firstly, both these facts are checkable, and therefore you are either right or wrong – so this is not a matter of belief. Secondly, if we must act without having a clear picture of all the evidence, which we frequently must, then, so long as we act upon the evidence we have, then we are not acting without a reasonable justification.
  • But then are we still not acting based on a belief?
  • At this point, I would distinguish between:
    1. a justification that is based on the best evidence available to me at the time
    2. a justification based on a hunch,
    3. a justification based on some form of tribal identity.
    4. a justification that is a generalisation.

No one could reasonably criticise (1). They could criticise (2), (3), or (4) especially if either overrode (1).

  • But presumably you only believe that this is the best evidence available to me at the time?
  • No, again, if the evidence suggests a correlation in favour of using method M to teach topic T, then to deny what I had read would amount to either disbelieving, or misunderstanding a ‘brute’ fact. (NB: A brute fact is not eternally brute. It is only brute so long as there is no reason to doubt.)
  • But could the researcher not be lying? Surely you believe the research in that sense?
  • This is certainly a more difficult question. Firstly, if I have no reason to doubt the integrity of the research then it is tautologously true to say that it makes no sense to doubt it. The tricky part is in defining what counts as ‘a reason to doubt’ in this situation. A reason may be, for example, that the research supports conclusions that too conveniently meet the unscrupulous desires of the company that funded the research – we might say it all feels too contrived. In such a situation, we still have methods available to establish the integrity or not of the research.
  • But in this situation, can we still talk in terms of best evidence available? Surely, we would need to choose to either believe it or not?
  • I would argue that it is still not a matter of belief, so much as a matter of a peculiar kind of virtuous bet. I make such a bet, not because I believe it will win, but in the hope it will win. (I say this is a virtuous bet, because in such a situation one must choose something – unlike at a casino where you can choose not to bet at all!) So long as the status of my justification is honest, my actions are moral. My actions become immoral if I begin to deceive myself or others – if I try to bet my way out of gambling debts, knowing full well that the odds are stacked against me; if I tell others that I know that a certain outcome will occur, when I can only really hope it will.
  • But are we not forever in a situation whereby decisions need to be made, even if just in the sense of twist or stick? To stick is just to choose, and thus support, the status quo. So isn’t the idea of a virtuous bet meaningless, if all decisions are virtuous bets?
  • The issue still concerns the quality of the justifications for change. I’d say that it cannot be a virtuous bet if you are choosing between vague generalisations. All too often, the changes that are suggested are a morass of entangled vague generalisations – e.g. imagine someone says ‘we must use enquiry based learning because it encourages deep learning’. The terms are vague to the point of being almost useless; nothing is pinned down. There isn’t even a real bet to be made since there is no clearly defined choice. If there’s no clearly defined choice then any claims are unfalsifiable and a bit meaningless. The same is true if a politician states the following: ‘The free market will solve all of educations problems, and therefore I will privatise all education’. Firstly, this politician can’t possibly know this, and thus s/he is being dishonest. Secondly, again, the terms are hopelessly vague – free, market, solve… almost every word requires some form of clarification if we are not to be talking past each other. If, however, someone suggests to me that I should explicitly teach my year 7s to use conjunctions to improve their essay writing, then we have something that we can sensibly debate and seek evidence for. In most contexts, phrases like ‘I believe in socialism’ or ‘I believe in the free market’ amount to nothing more meaningful than ‘I like blue’. There’s no argument to be had since there are no criteria by which we can judge better or worse. (Having said that, to accuse someone of being ideological is all too often a vague generalisation too, and thus meaningless.) I do however, think that it is possible to not be ideological in the senses of making judgements based on what I can actually see, rather than on hunches, tribal identities, or generalisations.
  • OK, even if I accept all this, is ideology not inescapable in the sense that we may not agree on our sense of purpose, on what we are trying to do; are our values not inherently ideological.
  • A value is another confused term. Again, it is often used to describe something vague – I believe in Social Justice. This is tantamount to saying, I believe that people ought to be good. Of course you do! It is analytically true that being good is something one ought to be. But we think we are saying something much more meaningful. We have a terrible tendency to want to see things from very high in the sky, from a distance. But from a distance we can’t see any of the details which are actually important. The answers are in the details, in the particulars of the dirt at our feet. Perhaps this tendency is driven by our dissatisfaction at how things currently are, and that dissatisfaction can be something noble, but we must also be humble enough to accept that a. we cannot know the future, and b. moral obligations are largely very specific, tiny requirements: be a bit more patient with little Jonny; try a new method to explain multiplying negative numbers; stand up to your manager when s/he says something fraudulent or meaningless.
  • OK, last question: what about hunches, are these not beliefs?
  • These are a messy notion, but still, I would say no. A hunch is based on imponderable evidence. I.e. evidence that we cannot/have not yet put into words. This does not mean that such evidence does not exist, but that it may not be communicable. The difficulty with acting on a hunch is that others may unfairly believe you to be being prejudice, or ideological, and you won’t be able to describe why you are not. All I can say on this point, is that one must attempt to make the imponderable ponderable, and be honest to oneself about what one has seen.

4 thoughts on “A dialogue concerning the following proposition: ‘All of our actions are based upon beliefs’ (in the context of ideology and education)”

  1. Thanks very much for this Bernard – I know I said I’d respond in a blog of my own, but I’m in the middle of writing a lot of other stuff at the moment, and I’m not sure how I’d ‘present’ this discussion on my own blog, so it’s simpler to comment here – if you don’t mind it getting a bit long!

    There’s a lot of wisdom subtle observation in the above – so thanks for that! I’ll start by taking some isolated reflections from your dialogue, and then, if you don’t mind, I’ll paint a brief outline of my alternate take on things.

    Firstly, I know that I triggered this blog through a willful reference to ‘beliefs’ underpinning opinions, ideologies etc. I now do regret this, and have what I consider a better formulation of what I was trying to get out (below!), but your dialogue does lead me to the passing question – what do you actually consider a ‘belief’ to be, and can you give an example of one? I ask this because you seem to banish the word out of all existence with ‘hopes’, ‘hunches’, ‘bets’ etc.

    Secondly, I’m interested in how clearly we can demarcate justifications based on ‘evidence’ versus some of the other justifications you mention. For example, if I hold the opinion (I won’t say believe) that the world was created 4500 yrs ago, because that is what I’ve been taught by the elders in my ‘tribe’, and my life experience up to that point has led me to trust (I won’t say believe) their teachings as reliable guides, am I not drawing on the ‘best evidence available’ to me? Or if two people are giving me two conflicting accounts of something which happened, and there is something subtle in the body language of them which leads me to intuit that one of them is being more honest than the other, would the consequent ‘hunch’ that that person is telling the truth in this instance not also amount to the ‘best evidence available’ to me in that instant? (Assuming that I’ve got nothing else to go on of course).

    Or, if I find a chicken ripped apart in a farm yard, and I know that there are a lot of large rats around, but I’ve never heard of a rat attacking chickens, but I did hear of a fox attacking a chicken once, so I decide that the chicken has been ripped apart by a fox, would my inferred ‘generalisation’ not also be me effectively making a judgement on the ‘best available evidence’ I have?

    I suppose what I’m saying is, how do we ever set a universal benchmark for what is an acceptable level or kind of evidence for personal knowledge?

    Now, onto my own fresh formulation for what I think I was trying to get at previously, and it effectively replaces the word ‘beliefs’ with ‘pre-suppositions’ (a curse on Twitter for the piece-meal way in which our discussion originally started!)

    So – since the discussion came out of the mention of ‘ideology’ let me start by saying that an ‘ideology’ is simply a system of ideas which fit together coherently. However, let’s then add that an ‘ideologue’ is someone who relies on their system of ideas independently of external evidence. If the system of ideas does have a firm basis in evidence however, does that mean that it can simply cease to be called an ideology, and now just be called ‘reality’ (or some such)?

    Let’s look at two simplistic ideologies, both of which appear to be fundamentally composed of several ‘evidentially true’ propositions:

    Proposition 1) Different people are able to achieve different things
    Proposition 2) Different people need different things.
    Proposition 3) It makes sense to match-up the needs and abilities of different people to benefit everyone
    Proposition 4) The matching-up of needs and abilities will most ‘fairly’ be done through active intelligent coordination.

    Proposition 1) People want the freedom to consume a wide variety of things
    Proposition 2) People can consume a wide variety of things if producers are free to make a wide variety of things
    Proposition 3) It makes sense to match-up the wants of people with the production capacities of people to benefit everyone
    Proposition 4) The matching-up of producers with relevant consumers will most ‘fairly’ be done through them being allowed to freely negotiate together as they wish.

    Now, both of these ideologies seem to follow a similarly clear and reasonably evidential logic, based around very similar notions (consumption and production), but the outcomes of them (Communism and Capitalism) are quite different, and significantly because of the pre-suppositions regarding what ‘fairly’ means.

    I would argue that however evidentially true any proposition is, its import to us is based on the pre-suppositions which we bring to the table, in the form of underlying values and the pressures of wider circumstances beyond the situation being discussed (there are ALWAYS wider circumstances). However much we chip away at these pre-suppositions, debating them and using evidence to shore them up as firmly as possible, this will always bring into the light new pre-suppositions, underpinning the previous ones, and inevitably drawing on increasingly personal and subjective points of view.

    Discussions about the ‘right’ things to do in education will be no different, irrespective of the scientific ‘hard’ evidence which is produced to support one proposition or another.

    That’s my perspective on it anyway! Thanks again.



  2. Chris, I feel terribly rude that it has taken me so long to reply! Thank you very much for your excellent comments!
    I like the description ‘banished out of all existence’! In a sense, of course, I think that the word ‘belief’ is used in a perfectly sensible way in every day language. Unfortunately, it has come to mean, and I was treating it here as, something like ‘a superstition’, but I think that is because of a common misunderstanding as to how language works. In this sense, an example of a belief would be not walking under-ladders, etc… (In all honesty, I’d like to reclaim the idea of ‘belief’ from this meaning, and so will probably henceforth use ‘superstition’ instead.) And I think that something becomes *superstitious* depending on how it is used. For example, one can *believe* the creation story, in an entirely non-superstitious way, and meaningfully use the metaphors and figures of speech contained within it, but then if one wants to be a creationist palaeontologist, one is likely to be a superstitious palaeontologist.

    I perfectly understand your conception of belief as pre-supposition, but I would argue that you’re looking at it in the wrong way. I would call this view ‘foundationalist’ in the sense that it has the appearance that you are trying to dig ‘deeper’ and ‘deeper’ until you find bedrock. But I think that to do this is a misunderstanding. For me, that bedrock is the point at which you cannot conceive of the opposite. If I say it is raining, that statement is justified by the fact that is raining. -if you were to argue, ‘ah but surely you only *believe* it is raining?’, then we get into a kind of ‘matrix’ situation, whereby all reality is questionable. But I don’t think that this is a really meaningful question, a meaningful sense of doubt. On the other hand, I completely agree that a brute fact is necessarily incomplete. Incomplete does not mean unjustified, however. The sentence ‘it is raining’ is perfectly justified, but it is not raining everywhere and forever. This incompleteness is based in the fact that it is the context which justifies our sentences.

    Thus, instead of using the notion of ‘presupposition’ to question the two ideologies you described, we can use ‘incompleteness’. The ideologues for both sides would fail to recognise that their own premises, whilst true *in some senses* were necessarily incomplete, and thus, what they could *do* with them was limited. I hope that this makes sense.

    Thanks again for your comment, and I am so sorry that it took me so long to reply!
    All the best,

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks very much Bernard – I think your points about ‘bedrock’ and incompleteness are excellent. I will try to carefully integrate them into the ways I think about things.


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