Belief-structures and belief-change

Here is a paper I wrote for one of my courses that deals with belief-structures and belief-change, something very relevant for us vegans and raw vegans to consider as we are very much in that business. This is written in the context of philosophy, especially pragmatism, so some things might not be totally clear to someone without familiarity with these subjects, but most of it should yield quite easily to an intelligent reader.

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Belief-structures and belief-change


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I recently heard the story of how you catch a monkey. The way to catch a monkey is to have a basket and a put a fruit in it, then you make a hole in the lid big enough for the monkey’s hand, but not big enough for the fruit. The monkey will grab the fruit, keep trying to get it out and while he’s doing that you sneak up behind him and catch him and even though he can see you coming up behind him he can’t let go of the fruit. When I heard this I went – “that’s philosophy”. The monkey is stuck within a certain language-game, or specifically paradigm, which doesn’t serve what is useful for him,  which ultimately leads to his demise. This process of how our mental patterns and language work to change our paradigm is just the use Rorty has put Davidson to.
According to Rorty there are three main theses in Davidson’s philosophy that have become the most well-known and associated with him (translation: there are three these that Rorty cares about). It is easy to see why as these theses have a direct counterpart in Rorty’s philosophy. These theses are not isolated, there is some crossover of information so while I have taken this in the most congruent order possibly, I could not totally exclude some crossover where some aspects in early theses are explained with information in later ones. The theses translated in Rorty’s jargon are as follows:

Anything can be made to seem either good or bad depending on the vocabulary used to describe it.
There is no big meta-vocabulary called “common sense” or “truth” that corresponds directly with all of reality, but many small vocabularies used to satisfy many small purposes.
How metaphor, in the form of private and public vocabularies, are used to transcend paradigms.

The first thesis is basically how to understand a paradigm from the outside, or facilitate it’s change or destruction. When we are trying to understand one paradigm in the vocabulary of another we are talking about equating certain words or concepts with each other, but this can never be done in all 100% of all cases, unless we are willing to sacrifice truth. Imagine that we have some Farscape-style translator microbes and we had a little chat with Sammy the shark and we said to him “Sammy, I was walking in the woods the other day and twig snapped and I was afraid”. Sammy wouldn’t have any clue what we were talking about, because he is a top of the food chain creature, he doesn’t have the neural circuits to understand fear. This is a classic paradigm clash, Sammy can’t ever understand this, we can refine the technology all we want, but his neural circuits that have developed through evolution won’t allow him to understand us. Sammy didn’t choose for this to be, in the same way we rarely, if ever, are in a position to consciously choose our paradigm or what accounts to truth according to it. In order for that to happen we would have to show that a language-game that has been played for some time can be dispensed with. But we are very unlikely to be able to show that this is the case as any language-game that has a history of use is likely to continue to have one. If we do discard this language-game it’s unlikely to be because some philosophical or scientific discovery, but because we have a new language-game that serves our purposes better and thus the old one fades away, because no one has a use for it anymore, e.g. in the future after the language-game of a secular culture has been around even longer we may dispense altogether with religious terminology.
The consequence of this thesis is an increased awareness of the role of persuasion, of showing as opposed to telling. It’s about inviting people towards a new way of thinking about things, rather than believing in strong knock-down arguments as being able to “prove them wrong” as the paradigm-wall will prevent the latter attempts from being translated. If we are successful in any paradigmatic enterprise, it’s because we put a lot of effort into the meta-skills of showing it as the better alternative, rather than “inherent” right or wrongs.
Let’s take veganism as an example. It’s a fantastic lifestyle and I applaud every activist that is out there and doing there work, but for the bulk of the population what they are saying has no relevance. They don’t believe that animals are worth even near the same consideration as humans and they haven’t been challenged to think about their health. Until we can bridge that paradigmatic wall, to find how we can invite them to think in a different way, veganism will likely remain an outsider theory. As a side note, I think that way is environmental issues, as the world spirals more and more into climate-change it will serve us better to adopt a language-game that puts less and less strain on the earth so it can heal from past and present abuses at a faster pace. That this language-game also are better for our bodies, minds and the animals themselves will come as a bonus.
The second thesis can be seen as a revolution against a theme in philosophy called “the correspondence theory”. The basic argument of the correspondence theory is a) that, while there may be several interpretations of any single thing there is one thing (and only one thing) that is true about it that to find this is out is our (divine) duty as philosophers and that b) there is a brute reality that we can come to know about the material world and the (hard) disciplines that deal with this brute reality are closer to the truth (more worthy) than those (soft) disciplines that deal with “mere opinion”.
According to Davidson this distinction is not really useful and should be replaced with a distinction between disciplines that are better or worse at doing a certain job. It’s not that virtual reality is a better science than literature, but for their specific purposes they are each the best. What they do is eerily similar, they study and create other worlds, but their approach is quite different and while there may be some crossover, it’s not much.
The consequences of this thesis is that we drop the idea of truth and reality as absolute yardsticks to find out truth and reality “as they are in themselves” and see them instead as yardsticks within each language-game or paradigm and we will use every one of them instead of being selective about them in order to make a more paradigmatic sense of the world.
This thesis can be seen in a framework of a criticism against rule-governed theories that try to explain the relations between people and the world in reference to rules. Davidson, Rorty and others have done great work there, but one must also remember as Daniel Whiting says that while these relationships cannot be explained by rules, it doesn’t mean that some form of realism would be useless or in fact is not necessary for language, communications and our relationships to each other and the world.1 It’s indeed a very good point. Anti-realism is not a viable opinion at all, realism must play apart, but the main reason that fundamentalism is a bad idea is not because it’s not necessary (though that plays a large part, why continue doing something you don’t have to do?). No, the primary concern that I see Rorty having it is that these theories of strong realism, whether the name is correspondism, fundamentalism or something else doesn’t matter, it’s basically the same thing in that they are potentially dangerous for the way we think about, and consequently act towards, the world and each other. If we see how things are as a large collection of language games, then every theory, or at least most of them, would have to have their own language game. This includes fundamentalism of course. In a holistic attitude, whether It’s pragmatism or Davidson’s theory doesn’t matter, it would be seen as ways of interacting that have come to take a certain shape and may change in the future. The natural flexibility of the language games are not only accepted, but taken for granted as a natural part. For a theory of strong, or maybe even moderate realism, this flexibility is a problem. If you are propagating a theory where an non-contextual truth is the goal of the pursuit you are freezing down the language game, it’s becoming rigid instead of flexible, which will work against, not towards, change and development. So while realism in some form will have to be accounted for, after all we don’t want to say there is no material reality, realism has inherent problems that are real, practical, dangers that needs to be accounted for and approached with caution.
Before heading into the third thesis we need to discuss an aspect briefly touched on above, namely how beliefs can be altered. According to Rorty there are three ways in which this can be done, each of them will put strains on earlier beliefs and how we deal with them will decide how the new belief will look like.
The first way is perception, we see something that introduces a new belief into the system, e.g. someone could see how things happen at a modern factory farm and see that his beliefs about how his food ends up at his plate does not match up with reality. This person could deal with this in a number of ways, he could simply abandon his old belief and explore the new one saying I was wrong, I’m going to become a vegetarian (or vegan), and indeed this is the response that many people have in this situation. Another way is for this person to create a number of new beliefs to “cage in” the unpleasant intruder so to speak. He could say that I was at a bad farm, the majority of farms don’t treat animals this way or he could say that he will only buy “organic”, “humane” or “grassfed” meat from now on so that the animals are treated well until the point they are slaughtered.
The second way a change can occur is by inference; something makes us realize that the beliefs we currently hold makes us obligated to hold mandates that we hold certain others, which may clash with our current ones. A good example of a way this would work is that I got information about how systemic pesticides cause a condition in bees known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) where they just leave the hive and go die somewhere. Before that I hadn’t paid much attention to the organic/inorganic discussion, but now realize that my position as a vegan means that as far as it is possible for me I should buy organic produce.
An example that goes in the other direction, where you instead drop an old belief, could be that one very religious person sees someone on a television-show making a case that Christianity demands a certain well-known attitude against gay people, or how the vatican acted against priests that have molested children. It’s possible this person could say, if that is what my religion amounts to, I cannot support it and he drops his religious beliefs (I am not saying this is the correct conclusion or interpretation, but merely one possible outcome).
While indeed excellent in their own right, the language-games that introduce these kinds of changes are quite fragmented and one-sided in their function. It’s really a realism “god’s eye” perspective that treat truth and language as one perfect entity, where while we may indeed learn more by putting the pieces of the language-games together in new ways, we can never create new ones, the space of language and truth can never become more than we have. This is where the third thesis (and third way of meaning change) comes in – metaphor.
Metaphor influences language-change by not having any meaning. Initially this sounds paradoxical, how could something without meaning do anything? However, it doesn’t mean that the metaphor is only undecipherable noise, but that it has no place in the language-games that have been played prior to it’s production. This is vital, because if it had a place then the meaning of the metaphor would be learnt along with the literal meaning as we learn the language and it would be impossible for metaphor to expand our language and beliefs. We see here a mechanism for how over a long course of time metaphor goes from an outsider position of being resisted by the dominant paradigm, to being accepted and then later on widely seen as self-evident. Let’s use the heliocentric world-view as an example, not because it’s better than others, but because it’s the most global, there really is no one who believes in the alternative. Galileo’s contemporaries weren’t too happy with him to say the least. This concept of the earth moving around the sun couldn’t be seen as literally true. It wasn’t possible, because this was stated within a paradigm of its opposite. This expression then could only be taken “metaphorically”, during this time frame it can only only be false, or more appropriately perhaps seemingly false. As time goes on, and we are talking hundreds of years here, the followers of the heliocentric model goes about their business redescribing portions of reality in the context of this new emerging language-game and people start talking about it as something that could be hypothetically true and after a little while longer they are widely accepted, sometimes globally (such as this one), usually only within select communities.
What happened here was something touched on in the first thesis, namely the strong link between psychology and language; we think through language, so the quality of our thoughts can therefore only be as good as the language we use. As the heliocentrists changed language by redescribing reality using their new, emerging vocabulary, the way people thought about reality changed parallel to this. This process has been replicated countless times by successful groups in history – black activists, gay activists and feminists to mention a few. They changed the way the language treated them from negative to positive and as this process continued people started thinking differently about them.
The consequences of this theory is that when we talk about change, we are talking about something very complex. Change may be extremely rapid in its observable state, but the unconscious psychological reasons that leads up to it is anything but. To really be able to understand, and more importantly, influence this we need to take a holistic approach that aims to investigate how the principal tool, metaphor, for this essential language-game (and paradigm) change comes to be used.
While there is much in Davidson that leads itself to a pragmatist interpretation as C.G. Prado has shown in Limits of Pragmatism there are also aspects of Davidson that points in a different direction that a pragmatist appropriation of his ideas needs to account for.2
One has already been touched upon by Whiting above, namely why some form of realism is not an optimal thing for us to have. Of the arguments remaining the strongest one, which by no means is original to Prado, is what I call “the truth and validation” argument; basically, unlike Davidson, Rorty has no theory of truth and no way of validating his theory. The first part of this is just blatantly wrong and the second is systematically problematic and I’m going to show how.
Unless we are dealing with a pure relativistic theory (which Rorty’s is not), where two opinions are just two opinions, where the rapist is just as right as the raped one in what constitutes lovemaking, there has to be a theory of truth. You cannot say anything and everything in every context, it just happens not to the theory of truth of realistic theories, but as language games and paradigms change so will what is counted as truth.
As for the validation argument, rather than being wrong or based on a misunderstanding of Rorty, I want to take that pointer from Prado and ask what validation really means? It would have to mean that something outside of the theory confirms that it is correct. In realistic theories this thing is “reality itself”, but a reality that is non-contextual in nature is just natural forces and organic material. There is not way this could validate a theory of truth. Truth is human culture, a relation between ourselves and the world or a political statement. We may have discovered that the earth rotated around the sun instead of the other way around, but that we discovered “the truth” of the same is different. So to answer the question, no Rorty doesn’t have a theory of validation, but neither does Davidson or anybody else.