APU Everyday Scholar Podcast

Why Do You Believe What You Believe? Steps towards Healing Divisions

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and
Steven Schultz, Faculty Member, Philosophy

Political and social issues have seemingly created a polarizing divide among people who adamantly profess their beliefs and often adamantly protest against anyone who disagrees. But are our divisions really so wide? In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU philosophy professor Steven Schultz about the fact that people rarely examine why they believe what they believe. Learn the difference between having an informed position versus a personal opinion and why it’s so important for people to assess their own biases and worldviews so they can critically examine the evidence and reasoning behind their beliefs. Also learn how to find common ground with people who have different beliefs in order to have a constructive, intellectually honest, and open conversation.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to professor Steven Schultz, philosophy faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. Today our conversation is about people talking about things they do not know. Great having you here, Steve.

Steve Schultz: Thank you, Bjorn. Glad to be here.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. This is a great conversation and I think it’s only, of course, appropriate for today’s political environment. Beyond today’s political environment, every political environment. So the first question is, why do people talk about things, such as force and passion, about things they do not truly know anything about?

Steve Schultz: I think a lot of this goes back to what Socrates observed about the unexamined life not being worth living. What he was really getting at was how so often throughout our lives, we live so much of our lives based on our own unexamined assumptions and beliefs. We tend to get very set in those assumptions and beliefs, and as he said, never really step back to critically examine those to first figure out what exactly is it that we do fundamentally believe and then more important on top of that, well, why do we believe what we believe?

So I think that’s what drives a lot of this is people living their lives more along the lines of assumed belief than really looking at examined belief and understanding what they believe and why they believe the things that they believe.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I really like that because it takes a while before I think, as humans, we realize what we believe. For so many of us, we inherit beliefs, either through family or culture or country, and it’s very easy to honestly not even think about what they are, where they came from, if they’re “good or bad.” In many ways, there is no good or bad sometimes. That really leads us to the next question is what is the difference between personal opinion and an informed position?

Steve Schultz: One of the things that I always try and get across, particularly in my classes, is trying to create an understanding of that distinction. A lot of what we see are people living their lives based on their personal opinion, again, really not thinking about why they believe what they believe, not really doing very much gathering of evidence, examining evidence, critically thinking about things. So, a personal opinion is more just an individual’s unexamined assumption about a thing.

Contrast that with a person having an informed position, where with an informed position it’s more the person has taken the time to think about their own thinking and really critically examine their own thinking and understand what is it that I actually believe? Why do I believe what I believe, and what is the evidence that leads me to that conclusion? Is that evidence good? Is that evidence bad? With an informed position, that’s really getting at taking the time to critically reflect on our own thinking and looking for the evidence to be able to form a good conclusion.

For example, as opposed to personal opinion of, “Well, I’ve just decided I don’t like X” and I never really take the time to think about why is it that I don’t like X. Do I really even have any good reasons for not liking X? Is there any evidence that actually supports that?

One of the things that I often see is like the tail wagging the dog, where somebody will form a conclusion. If they even look at evidence, try and cherry pick evidence that supports the conclusion they already made instead of following the correct path of, “Well, let’s first look at the evidence and see what the evidence tells us, and then make an informed decision on the evidence of having examined everything. This is what I believe about whatever the topic may be, and this is why I believe it. I know I’ve looked at the evidence. I’ve thought about it. I’ve examined it and I know I have a really good basis for my belief.”

Again, as opposed to, “I’ve just gone with my feelings or whatever and decided whether I like X or not and really haven’t thought about it.” So I think that’s the big distinction between personal opinion and an informed position.

Again, I keep coming back to Socrates. That’s what he was really trying to get at talking about the unexamined life not being worth living and in his method of demonstrating that, by asking people questions in public and very quickly showing that what they thought they knew, they really don’t know anything and they’re just operating off of assumption that having that informed position is important.

We know what we believe and we know why we believe it. And we know we have good reasons for believing what we believe. As opposed to what we see so many times in the media today and things like that, where we see a lot of talking points. Whichever side it is, we’re just supposed to accept that without really taking the time to examine the evidence.

One of the things that I always like to tell students is when you’re looking at a particular issue, you have your position and that’s no problem to be for or against something. That’s no problem at all. But as you’re looking at the evidence, it’s important not to just look at the evidence that supports your position, but look at the other evidence. Try and find the very best evidence that argues against your position and see if you can overcome that evidence, if you have good arguments that would overcome that.

Because maybe you might just be wrong in your position. Maybe you haven’t really informed yourself. And if you do, maybe that would actually lead you to changing your position. We want to try and get to the point of having an informed position instead of, as we so often do, just operating off that very surface-level personal opinion.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love how you’re talking about personal opinion and informed position. And just like you said, most people go through life with loads of personal opinions. They have a personal opinion about everything, about politics, about pizza, about which car is the best, how people should live their lives, all personal opinions versus informed positions. And we’ll get to these questions in just a second, but about critical thinking and problem solving, I think is very, very important. But before we get there, what are worldviews and how do they relate to this issue?

Steve Schultz: This is another one of those very foundational things that I think is really at the root of this discussion and of why people get so cemented in their opinions and really don’t want to change, is we need to start at a very fundamental level and understand that every person just by virtue of being a human being has a worldview, which is basically their outlook on how does the world operate?

And whether people realize it or not, everyone has a certain view of metaphysics and everyone has a certain epistemology. So with metaphysics, despite what the new ages try and say, it’s really nothing esoteric. It’s simply when the compiler of Aristotle’s work got to that part, it was after physics, metaphysics. So that’s the name he gave to it. But it’s really just the branch of philosophy that looks at the nature of being. What does it mean for something to exist? There’s various different schools of thought on metaphysics, on the nature of existence.

But all of us have some understanding of what it means for something to exist. And then very much coupled with that really a person’s metaphysics tends to drive their epistemology, which is their belief about the nature of knowledge. So those two really fit together and really go together.

Everybody has that. Everybody has a particular belief about how things operate and why they operate the way they do. But again, the problem is that for most people, it’s an assumed worldview. It’s an implied worldview, and they’re not really taking time to think about, “Well, what is it did I fundamentally believe about how the world operates? How does all of that fit together?” And if we understand our worldview, our worldview is going to give us certain assumptions and certain biases, and those are not necessarily bad things, but we want to be aware of them.

We want to be aware of our own assumptions in our own biases. Having that awareness allows us to, again, to critically examine those things to think about, “Well, does that make sense?” And especially if we’re faced with something new, understanding our assumptions and biases can help us understand what our reaction to that is.

As you said, we grow up in a certain environment and we have a certain way that we’ve become used to looking at things. So we’re going to have a natural tendency when we’re faced with something new or something different to fall back on our basic assumptions.

So again, if we know what we’re bringing to the table in terms of assumptions and biases, that can help us maybe be aware of some of our own limitations in our thought. And again, be able to think about those things a little bit more critically and perhaps come up with different approaches and think about different ways to look at whatever that particular thing is.

So I think taking the time to think about our own worldview, reflecting on our worldview, reflecting on how we understand the nature of reality, I think that also very helpful in helping us not only understand our positions, but also be able to better understand where other people are coming from if we understand we have a worldview, they have a worldview. Where do we match? Where do we differ? How can we best actually talk to each other so we can have some meaningful conversation?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m glad you talked about, of course, the plurality of different views, because as in any country, everybody believes different things. I’m not even talking about religion. I’m talking about politics. I’m talking about what team people support. There’s so many different things that people support. Now, do you find that people often will acknowledge that a belief they had was wrong and change, or do people double down on their biases and their assumptions?

Steve Schultz: I think it really depends on the person. Unfortunately, I think we have a tendency to get very entrenched in our positions and often seem to be unwilling to acknowledge if we’re wrong. But I think that is a very important thing though, to have that intellectual honesty, to have that openness to new ideas, to be able to see, “Oh, well, maybe I was wrong,” and that’s okay.

I think that’s one thing we’re losing sight of in our society today that somehow if I’m wrong or I disagree or whatever, that somehow I’m inherently a bad, horrible person, which is not the case at all. I mean, maybe we just disagree. That’s okay. Maybe I made a mistake in my reasoning. Maybe I didn’t have all the evidence, so my position is going to change. That’s okay. That does not inherently reflect on us as a human being.

And I think that’s one of the problems that we see is there is this tendency to take that as a personal affront. Instead of having that willingness to say, “Well, yeah, I was wrong and this is what I learned from that. I think that also contributes to a lot of the things that we see going on in our society today, especially with the polarization and so many people refusing to budge from their positions, even the face of overwhelming facts, not wanting to acknowledge the facts, or even really have a meaningful conversation.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m glad you brought all that up because the next question is about polarization. And to me, one of the most important things we can do as people is to learn from the person across from you. And if you can learn from them and gain new information and then your own position maybe changes, that’s fine. It’s okay to change your positions.

I don’t know if you remember, and I apologize, I can’t remember which election cycle this was, but they were talking about flip-floppers where certain political candidates would flip-flop. But I would hope that say you have some belief when you’re a teenager or 20, and then as you age in your thirties and forties and fifties, and for politicians in their sixties and seventies, I would hope that your view of the world and your positions would change somehow.

There are some core things that will stay with you your entire life. That’s of course understandable, but we all change. The world changes, the society changes, and so we are all flip floppers in our own ways and it’s okay. We’re not giving up anything by changing our positions on any number of things. And so the next question is how does the polarized nature of today’s media environment exemplify this reality?

Steve Schultz: That’s really what we are seeing. And again, just this entrenchment, people getting just so entrenched in their own ideas and becoming so unwilling to even talk about something. And I think we see that a lot in the media where the media tends to sort of decide on a certain message and that’s the message and it’s just not going to change, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what evidence there is to the contrary. I’ve seen clips before where there’s multiple different media on different networks and different things and they’re all saying the same exact thing, almost like somebody has scripted it and this is the message, and this is what you’re supposed to put out there, which again, doesn’t really help anything.

As I grew up in the age of Walter Cronkite, as an example where I had no idea of Walter Cronkite’s politics when he was giving the news. I think he made an honest effort to try and legitimately convey the facts and leave it up to the viewers to make their own decisions. And I think that we’ve seen a lot of, within the media in particular, a lot of mixing of what used to be factual news reporting with what used to be considered editorial or opinion, a lot of stories that should be factual stories being given an editorial spin. And instead of allowing the viewer to make their own decision, to make up their own mind, it’s like, “Well, this is how you’re supposed to think.”

In some cases it’s very, very explicit. In some cases it’s maybe a little bit more subtle, but there’s particular words that are chosen that very clearly seem like you’re supposed to come to a particular conclusion.

So I think that doesn’t help us at all in our society today. It just reinforces the polarization. Where, again, we should be open to different ideas and different learning. As I mentioned earlier, this idea that somehow if you don’t agree with me, then you’re a bad person and you need to be entirely canceled. Well, that’s crazy.

Some of the best discussions I’ve had have been with people with whom I completely disagreed, but we did agree to have an honest conversation. We found common ground that we could talk about, and we had a great conversation. Even though ultimately we didn’t see eye to eye on positions, but we had a great conversation. We had a great exchange of ideas and both of us walked away from that conversation being good friends and liking each other and having no animosity towards each other. Just realizing that human beings, real diversity means we’re not always going to agree with each other. We’re going to have differences of opinions and that’s okay.

As long as the other person’s difference of opinion doesn’t involve trying to eliminate the other side, it’s okay to not agree with each other. It’s okay to have diversity of thought. That should be a good thing. We should be willing to put ideas out in the public square and the best idea ultimately wins out. If you can give the best argument and the best evidence, then your idea ultimately wins out. And again, if side A’s argument wins out, well, that doesn’t mean side B is somehow fundamentally bad. It’s just side A had the better argument.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m glad you talked about all the polarization because today’s media environment is for lack of a better description, disappointing. It’s one of those things where I haven’t watched cable news in years and I don’t ever want to. I recommend people don’t watch cable news because it’s called cable news, but it’s really just cable opinion. They have very specific shows that are actual news, and they give straightforward news with a slightly right or a slightly left perspective on it.

But then you have all of the opinion shows, which are largely trash on the right and the left, because then they, and this is just my perspective, they tell people how they should think versus here’s information and do what you want. Do more research, most importantly. And unfortunately the last 10, 15 years, those media companies have really helped influence how a lot of people think.

Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had just with my neighbors. We all get along. People disagree with me. It’s great. But you watch the media, you watch cable news or, heaven forbid, you watch it or you observe Twitter. And it seems like the world is ending. The great American empire is crumbling, et cetera, et cetera.

And in the same respect, Twitter is a terrible thing. Only a small percentage of people actually tweet, and those people are of a very specific ideological bend. And so it is not a reflection of the country, but yet the news always loves to grab tweets and they always love to grab these random tweets. They reflect some people’s thoughts, of course, but are they the majority? Oh gosh, no. But are they extreme and do they afford your ideas? Yeah, they probably do. And today we’re speaking with Steven Schultz and we’ll be right back after a short break.

And so what can be done with people’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills so they can have better, more constructive conversations?

Steve Schultz: I think the most important thing is really a recovery of critical thinking itself. As I talked about earlier, we seem to have this misunderstanding in society today that opinion equals fact, and that my opinion is my critical thinking when it’s really not. It’s just what I feel about something. It’s not even what I think about something. And I like to make a distinction between thinking and feeling because so many times people say, “I feel,” when they actually mean, “I think.” Feelings has to do with either sensation, “I feel cold,” or subjective emotion, “I feel sad.” Whereas thinking has to do with the use of reasoning and the intellect.

So we want to help overcome this. We want to truly be in the realm of critical thinking. We want to, especially if it’s a hot button issue, we want to understand, yeah, that’s entirely designed to inflame our emotions. We see the commercials on TV that they’re clearly just trying to play at our emotions, which is a logical fallacy. So when we see those kinds of hot button things that we know they’re completely intended to make us react emotionally and not even think about it. “Oh, how can that person be saying that? They must be a horrible, awful person, so I don’t even need to listen to them.”

Understanding what is being done to us can be very helpful and can help us think, “Okay, I need to step back, get the emotions under control here, and actually critically think about this, whatever the subject is.” Again, going back to looking at evidence, looking at all of these sorts of things, and trying to really truly understand it. I think one of the most important things that we can do, I mentioned earlier about having conversations with people where we really completely disagreed on positions, and we really didn’t see eye to eye on things, but we had great conversations.

One of the other reasons we were able to do that is we tried to find common ground. Even with the person that I radically disagree with, I’m sure I can find something that both of us enjoy. I mean, even if it’s I like dogs and the other person likes dogs, we have some kind of common ground that we can start from.

We even see, yes, neither one of us, even if we don’t agree, clearly neither one of us is this horrible, awful person who is just the bane of the earth or something. Trying to find that common ground so we can have some basis for a conversation again. At the end of the day, if we ultimately don’t agree with each other, we don’t agree, but we could still have in between there, we can still have a good conversation and maybe even pick up things that we can think about, food for thought, having a better understanding of where the other person is coming from and those sorts of things.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m really glad you talked about critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Now, do you think most people have good critical thinking skills and how can they help improve their critical thinking skills?

Steve Schultz: Unfortunately, I don’t think they do. For whatever reason we seem to have lost sight of the importance of teaching critical thinking in school. They’ve never really been taught how to think critically. It seems like they’ve been told that whatever they believe, regardless of if it has any basis in reality whatsoever, that that’s reality and no one can tell them any different, but really that just goes back to opinion.

But I think, again, learning to recognize, taking that time to critically think about our own thinking and trying to understand what do we believe, why do we believe it, does it make sense, starting with ourselves, starting with a good self-reflection of ourselves, to understand where we’re coming from. Because if we understand where we’re coming from then that can help us better engage with another person. And again, having that sense of where they’re coming from and being able to find that common ground.

But I think overall though, with critical thinking, it’s very important that we be willing to put emotion aside, to dig into things, to do our own homework on things, to dig out the facts for ourselves, to dig out evidence for ourselves and take a look at that evidence.

And again, evidence on both sides of whatever something might be to really inform ourselves and have a really good understanding of things. And again, especially because so much of the information that is being directed toward us, as you said earlier, is really being sent to us in a way that it’s trying to make our decisions for us instead of, “Hey, here’s the information. You process it and make your own decisions.” I think that’s, in the face of what we see today, I think that’s very important.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree. For the last question is how can we move forward as a country with such distrust as seen in the media? I would say in most people’s local environments, their cities, their towns, the people they know. It’s not nearly as much distrust. And I think it’s more of a rarity, and the national media because of what I would say, the financial incentives, help create that distrust. So how can we move forward as a country?

Steve Schultz: I think what you mentioned earlier is very important of getting them off Twitter and not informing ourselves via Twitter, and learning to be really good consumers of media information. Going along with Twitter, as you said, there’s so many “news stories” that I’ve seen today that are nothing but a bunch of tweets from various people, and that’s supposed to be journalism.

As you said, really, it doesn’t matter if so-and-so tweeted whatever. That’s really here nor there. I think starting with recognizing those things is very, very helpful. One of the things that I think is very interesting is John Paul II, two of his encyclicals, faith and reason, and the splendor of truth, in there he talked about the importance of truth. And how when a society starts to abandon the concept, that there is at least some objective truth. That as that goes away, we lose that common foundation that we can share together as all human persons.

If we abandoned the concept of truth, then we abandoned that foundation that connects us together as human beings all across the world and really throughout time. He talks about in there how we would end up in exactly the kind of situation where we see today, that if we abandon the concept that there is truth, then all we end up with are just various polarized groups who think whatever they have defined as the truth is the truth, we lose that commonality. We lose that foundation from which we can have a conversation. So I think working to recover a concept of truth is important that there is some objective truth. If there wasn’t, then that would mean that things like science and even medicine are ultimately pointless because we wouldn’t even be able to know anything.

Yet, we do know things. So that would seem to indicate there is at least some objective truth and that it is knowable. I think that recovery of truth is very, very important as part of this, to be able to correct these things. I also think what you brought up is also very important of looking at our local communities and seeing that in most cases, our local communities are not as bad as the media would want us to believe. And also that we, as human beings, have far more in common with each other than what the media would try and have us believe and trying to divide people and you’re in this group and you’re in that group.

For example, I think pretty much everybody, regardless of where they are in the world, they want to be able to have a safe environment for their family. I don’t think anybody would object to that at all. I think despite the media’s and different group’s attempts to try and divide us and try and say, “Oh, you’re this group and that group’s against you, you can’t do have anything to do with that group,” I think in reality, if we look past that, we find that we do have far more things in common. We do have things that we can have with which we can form a basis to again, have those conversations and try to talk to each other and try and understand each other.

As I said, maybe we don’t agree on everything. And again, that’s perfectly fine, but at least we had the conversation and we understand we have far more in common with each other than we do different with each other.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. Really excellent conversation today, Steve. Any final words?

Steve Schultz: Appreciate you having me.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Today, we were speaking with Steven Schultz about people talking about things they do not know. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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