Sunday, September 9, 2007

Collecting Conclusions

Over time, I have noticed one thing: students (well, people in general, obviously) like to "collect" conclusions like some people like to collect stamps or coins. What I mean is this: when you go through an argument for X in class, you can tell that some people who were disposed towards X in the first place now feel as if X, which they had already in the past "collected," was now authenticated because an argument exists for it. The argument could be awful, but that's fine with them, because all they were looking to do in the first place was collect X (or legitimate it) and put it in their "belief sack" and continue on their way.

It could be that they don't even understand the argument. That's fine too.Same thing happens in the reverse. You can tell that students who are wildly against X will refuse to believe X, no matter how many arguments you present for it, or no matter how many arguments you can muster against X. At some point in the past they "collected" X and no one is going to take X away from them.

This is fairly typical behavior, and there's nothing shocking or unusual about it. But in philosophy I always think that what we're trying to do is get people past that. Just because it's natural to do it doesn't mean we ought to embrace the practice. As I tell my students: if you like X, great. But you really shouldn't like X if there isn't a good argument for it. And if someone presents you with a really good argument against X, it should bother you, because now your belief in X should be shaken to some degree. You shouldn't just dismiss the argument without even trying to analyze it critically because you've already previously collected X and no one is going to take it from you. In other words, part of philosophy is about training people to appreciate the importance of attending to arguments for and against one's position. We don't just collect conclusions (which sounds more like the business of subjectivism) -- we assess arguments. The conclusions we end up with are the ones that stand up best over time.

Which brings me to my point: I don't think many philosophy students are all that different about the desire to collect conclusions than anyone else. I see this all the time, but noticed it specifically the other day in Modern Philosophy. After presenting Descartes' ontological proof in Meditation 5, my students were left without a clue as to how to critique the argument. But yet they (many of them, anyway) seemed entirely unmoved by the conclusion -- that God necessarily exists. I don't mean that I expected them to leave the room religious, but rather that I know many of them are not religious, or are at least skeptical that a proof can establish a deity. So I do expect them to be bothered by the argument and really try to figure out what's wrong with it. Instead, it seems to me that they had already "collected" the conclusion that God doesn't exist, or at least that no argument could establish it, and no one was going to rob them of that. But if this is true, then the only thing that makes a philosophy student different from everyone else is this: philosophy students collect stranger conclusions. But they'd still be belief collectors, just like just about everyone else.

Does everyone else experience this as well in their philosophy classes? Note please that I'm not trying to be overly critical of my students here. We all do this to some degree. But when someone points out to me that I've shrugged off an argument because it doesn't mesh with a "collected" conclusion I prize, I'm embarrassed about it. I'm not sure I sense that embarrassment in all of my philosophy students (some, but not all).

Any stories of your own? How do we get them to stop "collecting conclusions" without a sense of shame about it?


  1. I agree that this is distressingly common. (I worry, actually, about how often it occurs even with professional philosophers.)

    Technically, what you're describing are tendencies called belief bias and belief perseverance, and they're ubiquitous psychological phenomena. But my favorite name for it is " 'sounds right' epistemology" (which I found in a paper by Jonathan Haidt), according to which people evaluate a belief or conclusion depending on whether it "sounds right" (i.e. fits with their other beliefs), and then accept or reject arguments for the belief depending on whether they accept the belief.

    I'm not sure how effective this is, but I now tell my critical thinking classes that one major goal of the class it to train them away from a "sounds right" epistemology. Giving it a name, I think, makes it easier to point it out and condemn it. I also demonstrate in class tasks that psychologists use to test these biases, like Wason's 2-4-6 task (See I know, I know, it's Wikipedia, but it has a good explanation of the task).

  2. I agree with David that this is really common and it's a great idea to give it a name. I usually hear students expressing this sentiment by saying "that's logical" or, more commonly, "that's illogical!" So maybe we have Mr. Spock to thank.

    But let me put a different spin on Chris's students with the ontological argument. After all, it isn't necessarily a good thing if someone hears what seems to be a terribly convincing argument and doesn't change their mind. First of all, if they're just getting in to philosophy, they may have learned that what they previously thought was convincing isn't a terribly good guide. By getting away from a "sounds right" mentality, they start to understand that feeling convinced isn't necessarily all there is. After all, a lot of students' experience of the first few philosophy classes almost has to be hearing lots of convincing arguments followed by lots of convincing objections, then lots of convincing objections to those objections. It can take a while to get one's bearings.

    But second, even if they are skilled in critical thinking they may know that intellectual committments are hard to compartmentalize. As philosophers, we get pretty good at knowing which of our beliefs are independent of which other ones, but a non-spiritual student confronted with a convincing argument for the existence of God may not know whether their views on morality, science, and other things may have to change. Furthermore, they may not know whether they need to change their beliefs about the conclusion of the argument or rather the truth of one or more of the premises. They may even have a "Two Dogmas" view of their own conceptual scheme.

    So all this said, it certainly is nice when a student comes up and says they've changed some monumental belief based on your class. But those who don't say this may be more rational than we think, but may take a little more time in adjusting their beliefs than the others. To use a nerdy Linux metaphor, they're checking dependencies. Having a convincing argument in the back of your head can't be ignored forever, though. Pressure applied over a long enough time can have impressive results.

    So I think we're more effective than the conclusion collector may show. But in practice, I usually state at some point in the first week that (for the time being anyway) no one is going to put you in jail for having an opinion. It's good social policy to make sure that people are entitled to their opinions. But this doesn't entail that every opinion is as good as every other one. For that, you need reasons.

  3. I appreciate both responses here, and I'll have more to add on what David and Adam have said later on.

    But just a quick comment to clarify what I'm saying (and not saying) here. I'm certainly _not_ talking about the odd phenomenon that occurs when people don't change their minds as a result of a compelling argument against some conclusion that they've "collected" along the way. This phenomenon is pretty psychologically understandable, at least insofar as it conforms to the "conservativism" criterion for accepting/rejecting rival theories (pick the one that works best at retaining previously explained data/intuitions).

    What I'm getting at is something more distressing: the failure to be _bothered_ by the presence of such an argument, or the failure to think "I really should analyze this argument further, because it refutes my conclusion and I can't figure out what's wrong with it."

    In non-philosophy students, this is expected. But I'm saying that I see it all too often in philosophy students as well -- a shoulder shrug and a "well, I still believe what I did before, and I don't feel terribly compelled to investigate this argument further."

  4. This nice and short essay by Allen Stairs -- "A Right To Be Wrong" - could be helpful here.

  5. Hi! Thanks for the great post!

    It's interesting you bring up the ontological argument here, because I think this is one of the more distressing things for intro students to deal with in philosophy. It doesn't matter if I present logical critiques from Gaunilo or Kant. This has no bearing for them on whether the argument is valid or not. It's the very fact that philosophers are trying to logically prove the existence of God that is distressing to them.

    I think your broader claim about how students approach arguments that invalidate their conclusions is really interesting and true... but in some instances, like the ontological argument, students are perhaps baffled because reason and faith really are incommensurable. Most students do not experience faith as the result of a logical deduction. And students who are not faithful won't be convinced by an ontological argument because they never derived their disbelief from logic to begin with.

    For instance, I think I had more fruitful discussions about the basis for my students' faith (and mine tend to be quite religious) with Aquinas. That's not to say he converted anyone either, but I think most students' faith is based somehow on a feeling that there is some conscious being acting in their lives, and for an atheist, perhaps they've observed that the empirical evidence that believers point to can usually be explained in other ways, such as by science. So Aquinas is more in line with the type of reasoning that students would employ in their beliefs about God, since he looks out into the world for verification of God's existence, instead of using pure logic. This is just more in line with how students have come to their conclusions about faith. It is the same type of reasoning, so it's easier to apply to their own conclusions.

    Maybe a good analogy would be- Neurologists might someday unlock all the mysteries of consciousness with their analysis of the functions of serotonin, phermones, or whatever... but even if their conclusions are the same as philosophers' (or even if they are entirely opposed!) we still have our own type of reasoning to determine what constitutes consciousness. It's not to say we are convinced or unconvinced by neurological innovations. It's just that we are working within a different framework, so their arguments seem in many ways irrelevant to philosophical understandings of the self.

  6. Chris, your post raises so many hard issues and questions. But in terms of the phenomenon of students being not only unmoved but unperturbed by arguments purporting to refute beliefs they hold dear, there are some moves that can be made to discourage this.

    For instance, are there good examples from the philosophical literature of philosophers sincerely saying "I thought P for a long time, but then I encountered this argument for not-P and began to reconsider"? (I know there are such examples, but none come to mind right now.) Highlighting such examples might illustrate that a willingness to change one's mind is not a form of weakness, whereas I think the culture from which our students come has this strange fetish for integrity, as if changing one's mind (on rational grounds even!) is unforgivable apostasy. Think about how politicians get pilloried for flip flopping. What if a candidate simply saw an issue in a new light? (If you can't find examples from the literature, use yourself? That might be even more powerful.)

    Second, I've had some success by getting students to be uncomfortable with the consequences of abandoning argument. So for instance, in doing philosophy of religion in an intro course, I've started not with arguments for God's existence, but with James, Clifford, ethics of belief, etc., encouraging students to think about what the idea that 'religion is all a matter of faith' really means. If it's true, why should faithful people try to persuade others of their convictions? What can be said in favor of, say, Islam, against Christianity, etc.? (Julian Baggini has a nice chapter that follows this approach in his book Making Sense.) I've found that students do find the arbitrariness suggested by these questions troubling, and they then find taking arguments seriously makes a lot more sense. In other words, if you can help students envision how problematic it is to approach philosophical questions as if arguments were irrelevant, then they may come to appreciate the value of arguments, even arguments that run contrary to their own views.

    Finally, you might try forcing these issues with a bit of practical urgency. I have in mind here that there are some philosophical issues that are resolved (practically speaking) by consensus and collective decision making. Either a nation goes to war or it doesn't. Either we permit human cloning or we don't. And so on. Here it's harder for students to dig in their heels and embrace their collected conclusions. Because then they're in effect asserting that their collected conclusions (whatever they happen to be) should carry the day, without regard to arguments to the contrary. And students can find this troubling, since it's one thing to cling tightly to a collected conclusion with few practical implications, but another to cling tightly to it AND expect others to accept and act upon it even if they harbor sincere doubts about it. So you might introduce issues like this, perhaps accompanied by debates, etc., that highlight how awkward the 'collecting conclusions' stance is when dealing with sincere, actual adversaries.

  7. I see the kind of student you're talking about a little better now. I think I was taking a little too much from David's post in my first response. Of course I'm considerably less interested in defending the person who isn't bothered by good arguments for opposite conclusions (or counterarguments to their own?).

    I don't see too many of those students and would have an even harder time taking them seriously. As one of the other commenters has pointed out, it might provide a teachable moment about the ethics of belief.

    For the record, the Introduction to Philosophy text that I'm continually singing the praises of, Del Kiernan-Lewis' "Introduction to Philosophy: A Primer", does an excellent job of addressing this problem in his chapters on "Making Truth Your Aim", "Taking Your Worldview Seriously", and "Living Up to Your Own Intellectual Standards".

  8. The material might be difficult for some students. It's hard to see the merits of an argument if you don't understand it. In other words motivated reasoning is pervasive, the accumulating itself might be a sign of insufficient background. I make the point because I remember being very confused when I was first reading philosophy and being 16-17 didn't have much experience with argumentation in general. To be fair a lot of arguments have emotional valence, not necessarily in the nature of the topics but in the desire to be right and that strategy/heuristic/bias is a good way to avoid a crisis of confidence or blow to the ego.

  9. I just saw this, which is relevant to this discussion, and available for free:


    Metaphilosophy 38 (1), 55–70.

    * DALE LUGENBEHL11Department of Philosophy, Lane Community College, 4000 E. 30th Avenue, Eugene, OR 97405, USA

    1Department of Philosophy, Lane Community College, 4000 E. 30th Avenue, Eugene, OR 97405, USA


    Abstract: There is a tendency in philosophical discussions to see beliefs as belonging to specific people—to see things in terms of "your" belief, or "my" belief, or "Smith's" belief. I call this "personal attachment to beliefs." This mindset is unconscious, deeply ingrained, and a powerful background stance in discussion and thinking. Attachment has a negative impact on the quality of philosophical discussion and learning: difficulties in acknowledging error and changing beliefs, blindness to new evidence, difficulties in understanding new ideas, entrenchment in views, rancorous behavior, and the encouragement of competitive personal contests rather than collaborative searches for the truth. This article investigates the nature of attachment and traces out some of the undesirable consequences for classroom philosophical discussion, thinking, writing, and learning. It presents an alternative model to attachment and offers constructive suggestions for implementing the results of the investigation in the philosophy classroom and elsewhere.


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