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Arguments beyond Reason

Rationally Justifying the Exploration of the
Psychological Bases of Beliefs

by Jeff Meyerhoff

'... truth thus rests in the end on belief and, even
more ultimately, on the affective attitudes.' [1]
Donald Davidson

It's commonly thought that once the participants in a rational discussion have exhausted all rational means of coming to agreement there is nothing more to do except to agree to disagree. By following a line of thought justified by current outcomes in contemporary analytic philosophy, I argue that there is a further investigation that rational discussants can pursue which is called for because our deeply held beliefs are held for non-rational rather than rational reasons. I further argue that this exploration into the basis of belief — rather than the belief itself — does, contrary to the genetic fallacy, affect truth and objectivity. While distasteful for most intellectuals to contemplate, the basis of individual beliefs in personal psychologies makes necessary the individual and joint exploration of the irrational.

The genetic fallacy says that the origin of a person's intellectual views plays no role in determining the validity of those views. The validity lies in whether the views are valid according to the criteria of valid knowledge claims, such as agreement with the facts, consistency or the way the world is. For example, Heidegger's psychology and beliefs as a Nazi sympathizer tell us nothing about whether his philosophy is true or false, right or wrong. Those who refer to the psychology of the believer to undermine the validity of a thinker's beliefs are said to be using an ad hominem analysis and committing the genetic fallacy. According to the genetic fallacy, a psychological explanation of why someone believes as they do is beside the point; it could be an interesting empirical investigation in the field of psychology, but it is thought to play no role in determining what is true.[2]

The genetic fallacy assumes that there is a right representing that some beliefs do and that we can determine which beliefs represent rightly and which do not; that reality impresses itself upon some people, making their beliefs true, and is missed by others, necessitating finding another origin for their mistaken beliefs. Yet in philosophy it is readily admitted that we do not have a theory of truth or an epistemology which has been conclusively proven to be true.[3] Moreover, the very project of explaining our connection to, and knowledge of, a reality beyond us has been brought into serious doubt.[4] Finally, the very question of the existence of reality is "hotly debated."[5] If we take seriously this historical failure to reach consensus on our connection to, knowledge of and the existence of reality we have to conclude, for now, that it is false to compare an imagined right relation to reality which makes some beliefs true and a mistaken relation that makes other beliefs false.

If we examine our reasons for believing what we believe beyond the reason-giving we do to defend our beliefs we find the animating core which motivates us to have the beliefs that we have and deploy the reasons that we do. The reasons we give for believing as we do are not the real reasons we believe because they always ultimately end in circularity, regress or assumptions.[6] Since all belief-systems if pursued far enough will end in circularity, regress or assumptions we cannot say that reasons are what ultimately cause us to believe. There must be something else which causes us to adopt our particular chain of reasons or web of beliefs. Since in terms of their ultimate rational foundation our belief system is as good as an opposed belief-system, there must be something else which causes us to choose, and which holds us to, our particular belief-system. What is characteristic of us is not only the combination of beliefs we have woven together, since everyone does that with greater or lesser originality, but why we adhere to this, rather than that, belief-system. In our rational discussions there is a way in which we completely miss the point since it is not the reasons we are deploying that cause us to believe. If we are trying to convince another person or challenge our own beliefs then we should, for more efficiency, go to the source of the belief, which is the emotional and psychic need to have the world be the way we believe it is.

According to Pascal, "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know." In contrast, I am arguing that the subterranean psychic world of the heart lying beneath reason that gives our beliefs their animating force can be better known. The many tools of psychological analysis developed over the course of the 20th century can be used for self and other analysis in a productive way. Normally, if this kind of analysis of another is deployed in a rational argument it is a sign that rational argumentation has broken down and some other reason for our opponents' mistaken obstinacy must be found. But because all of us ultimately adhere to our beliefs for non-rational reasons, this kind of psychological analysis of belief can be used to understand those reasons. Using a depth psychological approach to understand the psychological origins of belief we can uncover the reasons beyond reason that cause us to believe.

An illustrative example of this kind of investigation is conveniently ready-to-hand: my own psyche. I have discovered that I contain an uneasy mix of a dominant Chomskyan-Marxian, socialist, political-economic worldview and a subterranean and unintegrated (Ayn) Randian libertarianism. The socialism has part of its psychic origins in an unfair familial structure which allotted the intrinsic good of attention unfairly. I was in a rigged competition with an older sibling in which I didn't get the goods. The resulting unconscious frustration and anger caused me to be relentlessly critical of any status quo. The socialist ideal of a fair distribution of goods acts, in adulthood, as a political corrective to a personal need and a standard by which to measure a political-economic reality that never measures up. Marx's impassioned writings against capitalist competition offers an inspiring social and economic ideal and, on another level, a symbolic relief from a sibling competition I was resigned to losing.

This same situation produced a shadow political-economic vision. The lack of familial goods caused disappointment and withdrawal. A false self-sufficiency was created since caregivers could not be relied upon and healthy dependency seen as a danger. This false self-sufficiency thinks of itself as a healthy autonomy. The need to not need anyone and to "pull myself up by my own bootstraps" laid the foundation for an anti-socialist, uncompassionate libertarianism which believes that "it is every man for himself."

Notice that the shadow worldview is described more negatively as a pathological outcome. It wouldn't describe itself in that way as evidenced by those who hold such views as their dominant belief-system. So a further exploration here would be how one political-economic vision gained ascendancy and the ways in which the dominant vision holds sway through an invidious characterization of the subordinate worldview. The speculation then suggests itself: what would it be like experientially to actually be that shadow self?

These two political-economic outlooks could be integrated into a libertarian socialism which Chomsky has described. And they are integrated, to a small degree, on the level of political ideals and when forming opinions on current political events. But on a deeper level they remain largely unexamined. The emotional substructure of belief animates the political beliefs and holds them within certain bounds. The political views can be refined and broadened on the intellectual level through the usual means of reading, discussion and political action. But an additional method is to explore the psychic terrain from which these beliefs grew and upon which they are still dependent. As long as this is not done these beliefs will repetitively have to do the psychic work of satisfying primary needs in never-quite-satisfying secondary ways. The examination of the shunned Randianism may release new energies and create a novel political integration, or it may just allow a deeper more sympathetic appreciation of the character of an alien view. There's no guarantee that an integration of the other may result.

An example of this broadening and deepening which did not result in a change in belief can be found in George Lakoff's study of liberal and conservative mindsets.[7] In studying conservatives, Lakoff, a liberal, tried to appreciate the alien conservative views as sympathetically as possible and, while not changing his liberal views, reports a much greater understanding of why conservatives believe as they do and a deeper understanding of, and commitment to, his own liberal beliefs. Greater insight resulted from an exploration of the experiential basis of beliefs. New political encounters will be engaged with a different understanding and produce different knowledge and the creation of different truths.

An interactive, as opposed to an individual, psychological analysis of beliefs would allow us to pursue debate beyond disagreement. The purpose of rational argumentation is to determine what is true or right.[8] When two or more people debate, the goal is to gain agreement; if they come to agreement they are done. This often does not occur. If the debate ends in disagreement what are the debaters to do? They must agree to disagree. I am proposing that there is more to be done.

The predominant way of thinking regarding rational debate is that the debate participants share the same objective world which is the guarantor of reaching truth. If the debaters follow rational procedures of argumentation in an unbiased fashion then they should eventually come to agreement about whatever matter they are discussing because all participants should agree that the most rational understanding of the issue will represent best the one reality that the participants are trying to get right using their reason.

For those non-realists who believe there is not one reality we share, another neutral guarantor of correctness might be thought to be our criteria for valid knowledge claims. It may be hoped that our criteria of valid knowledge claims, such as simplicity, plausibility, consistency, adherence to the facts and coherence, could provide a neutral criteria of validation, but here too a rational foundation for these values is missing. Hilary Putnam argues that even seemingly neutral rational criteria such as simplicity, plausibility, consistency and coherence are themselves values - epistemic values — which cannot rationally ground their primacy as standards for evaluating thought.[9] So it can be argued that even the criteria of evaluation are, ultimately, not rationally defensible.

The goals of truth and objectivity still play a prominent role in this expansion of rational argumentation despite the proposed immersion in psychological and emotional subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Because we will continue to employ common criteria for evaluating ethical and knowledge claims we will continue to have objectivity. Objectivity within a discussion will be gained through the overlap of the participants' criteria of validation. If two or more people share criteria of validation then they can determine what they will call "objectively true." Two people who share no criteria of validation (if this is even possible) could not even have a discussion since they would share no objective world in common.

As stated before, there are a number of competing theories of truth, each with successful and problematic aspects and continuing debates. What we know now about truth is that it is being determined and re-determined in an ongoing fashion in the myriad reflections and discussions occurring both publicly and privately every day. An approach such as the one I am describing, which alters the character and resolution of such reflections and discussions, will alter what is determined to be true. Since there is, as of yet, no supreme determiner of what is true which is provable to all, these ongoing and ever revisable determinations of true are determining truth. In that way, contrary to the genetic fallacy, the investigation of the psychological causes of beliefs and justifications affects what is determined to be true by altering what people think is true and what they think is the best method for determining what is true.

This psychology of beliefs allows more of the ingredients of truth creation to be brought to consciousness and creates more self and other knowledge. This knowledge is not only intellectual knowledge, because the exploration of the psyche invariably produces experiential knowledge as the emotional roots of belief are touched. Becoming more intellectually and emotionally conscious creates better thinking, better being and better acting.


1. "The Structure and Content of Truth," Journal of Philosophy 87, no. 6 (1990), (326).

2. Ben-Ami Scharfstein in his psychological study of great philosophers and their ideas writes "I have no qualms in accepting this formal answer" "the formal answer that nothing in the truth or value of an idea is affected by the circumstances of its origin. These circumstances help to explain just how the idea was arrived at and what its contemporary nuances were, but in themselves they have no bearing on its truth or falsity." The Philosophers, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), p. 380.

3. In Roger Scruton's mainstream account of philosophy he describes five major competing theories of truth. Modern Philosophy, New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 97-111. Joseph Margolis gives a short history of philosophy's lack of success in these areas in The Unraveling of Scientism, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003), pp. 1-18.

4. See Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press, 1979).

5. Miller, Alexander, "Realism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta(ed.)

6. Bailey, Alan, Sextus Empiricus and Pyrrhonian Scepticism, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 135-136. Priest, Graham, Beyond the Limits of Thought, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

7. Lakoff, George, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

8. Of course this is not the case if the social situation requires winning an argument such as at a doctoral defense or at a conference panel discussion where reputations, status and job furtherance are at stake.

9. Putnam, Hilary, The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2002).

© Jeff Meyerhoff 2004