A sociology of personal beliefs

In this post I shall consider the prospect of providing a sociological or humanised account of explaining beliefs in terms of background factors. In considering this humanised account which is essentially an ad hominem appeal, I would like to elicit how this is not a harmful kind of appeal, and how it should contrast with the commonly depicted ad hominem fallacy. In a sense, this is a more charitable address to what the ‘appeal to one’s character’ may have epistemically and perhaps morally.

Preamble: the question at hand

I recall during a lecture series on the theory of utopian social theories, that there was an empirical study that aspired to to understand why some people are politically conservative (general sense), I suspect that it was a study by Mannheim. Conservative (in the British party political sense) membership does normally have a following that often surprises me. For me, a default assumption that I was brought up with was that Conservative party membership typically composed of people interested in their personal wealth. I still think this is the case but in my mind that consisted in people who were upper-middle class; middle class; or major business figures. I came across a BBC programme where incumbent London mayor Johnson addressed one of his favourite historical figures; the great man of letters Dr. Johnson (a person who, incidently, has a significant number of roads, buildings and artefacts named after him in my local area – I should find out why).

The insight that I had recieved from Johnson (Boris) about the man of letters Johnson (Dr. Samuel), was that he was a politically conservative figure. What conservatism (small c) repersents for Dr. Johnson were the interests of the ‘little guy’ (Boris’ words not mine), such as the small business owner or the labourer interested in keeping some sense of wealth away from government control. Being brought up in a broadly left-wing environment, I nomrally considered Conservatism (big C) as anathema. The small c conservatism, however, challenges my more unfavourable notions of the conservative person. The question I arise is this: can we map on personal characteristics to political or ideological beliefs?


It is often said by many lecturers that ‘relativism’ is often portrayed by students as a default (and I add, lazy) point of view. Why should we listen to the results of one study or theory when we may grant that everything in some respect is
subjective? or we are only presented with one point of view among many?

This seems a lazy point of view in the sense that it seems to be a conversation stopper for them, and in a significant respect, the uneducated person, or even the learned individual, may find it difficult to find a good answer. It is here that we appeal to some rational precepts: perhaps we may address epistemic factors such as: the power of convincingness of any granted proposition; or the things that ground such convincing factors such as ceteris paribus clauses, inductive reasoning or the success of having certain beliefs. It seems lazy because it is an a priori rejection of any kind of point of view, one could address certain arguments with such a general objection without really engaging with the argument at hand, or epistemic norms. What are the conditions of a good answer?

There is a sense in which we may address the beliefs or ideologies that people may argue for in a largely rational sense, that is to say, in terms of the material that they present before us and how cogent they are as pieces of logical reasoning. As a philosopher, this would mean that I would consider a claim in terms of other empirical studies that may be relevant, or epistemological and logical precepts.

There is another sense, which is often adopted by sociologists and continental philosophers, that people may argue with a case like say, relativism, or perhaps, the validity of homeopathy; in a historicised, or humanised, way. In other words, an ad hominem appeal is made. Often it is said that the appeal of ad hominem (an appeal to the character of the agent) is seen as a non-rational and rhetorical address of an issue and is the tool of foolish journalism and not of rational argument. When one addresses the the issue of the sociology of personal beliefs; we may not need to take a position on whether the belief or ideology one holds is true or not, but rather, if it is fruitful to question if there are background factors to why they may beleive something that takes place outside the domain of being convinced by argument.

Ad hominem appeals to explaining beliefs

Consider the case of say, supporting football teams; if we were to understand the background factors of firstly why one individual ceteris paribus, may be a football support compared to another who is not; as well as mutatis mutandis, why one football supporter is a Gunner contrasted to a supporter of Spurs. There is nothing fallacious, I assert, in the want to appeal to explaining a person’s beliefs in terms of social background in such terms.

It would certainly be insightful to map the disposition to believe with the beliefs themselves. It would give us a sympathetic understanding of the moral background of others and the conditions which mutatis mutandis encourage them toward certain beliefs. This does not show that we are all too entirely different, but conversely, we are uniform granted that what is different in our background factors are indeed significant enough to differ our resulting beliefs. My reading on Kant’s moral anthropology points out a view that is suggestive of the significance of empirical knowledge of other people as to why we may understand things like (in Kant’s apprehension): why the British are so different to the French.

The fallacy of historicisingthe caveat to ad hominem appeals

What makes an ad hominem argument as normally construed fallacious is its form.

P1. Agent X believes y
P2. Background factors <a,b,c…> determines ‘X believes y’
P3. If X believes y because of background factors <a,b,c…>, then X is wrong
P3′. Because X believes y and background factors <a,b,c…>, then X is wrong

To sociologise personal beliefs concedes P1 and P2; but makes no assumption concerning the truth of any granted proposition y. There is nothing fallacious in the interest of understanding why one is different from others; but it is a pretention to hold that mutatis mutandis conditions do not apply and we have a strict uniformity of character; in contrast to the former conception of human moral uniformity that appeals to the capacity for beliefs and variables that determine beliefs. This is a subtle distinction that should not be ignored.


“Reality killed the Video Star”

I take it as a personal principle not to comment on current news affairs if a mature response is too premature. I shall leave that to good journalism. In this case I find a certain kind of irony that is fitting to mark the end of the decade and where we are in it.

At the end of last week, in the UK’s charts. Robbie Williams, of Take That and solo artist fame; had been beaten off the number one place in the album chart desite media attention towards him in the week. Wililams had been beaten off by what seems essentially a younger version of what Take That used to be; a manufactured boy band. I find this particularly a bittersweet phenomenon for the following reasons:

1. Take That and Robbie had entered the ‘old guard’ of popular music

In recent times, the former members of the boy band have gotten a fair bit older and have gained a more mature status. It is almost as if they are seen as rock stars as opposed to pop stars. What is the difference? Well, the superficial difference is that rock normally involves a lot more guitar, and rock music is symbolised by the guitar: the idealised virtues of bravura, masculinity, creativity and perhaps being edgy. Their maturity and hallowed place in the biographies of many of their fans have given them a special place in their memories, ask people questions like: did you go to the big Robbie concert at Knebworth in 03? or where were you when they broke up?; and we may find part of our own biographies within theirs.

It is this kind of hallowed status, being famous for being remembered, or already established, that gives a false sense of authenticity that we may forget their more plastic of origins. In a real sense, however, did Robbie establish his own reputation and worked to earn an independent career. This didn’t seem enough to make the barbarian hordes buy his album.

2. The album title of Robbie’s latest album

The title of Williams’ latest album is ‘Reality killed the Video Star’. This seems to be an obvious nod to the single by The¬† Buggles called ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. Probably a testament to wanting recognition for making a clever statement by means of a derivative assertion, perhaps Robbie unwittingly foresaw his own downfall. Let’s go back to 1981 for this discussion.

When MTV was first broadcasting in the early 80s, there was a cultural shift in the consumption and creation of music. Now, music had a different character in embracing television and cable/satellite subscription networks. It is well established that technological innovations can change our consumption and appropriation of music. Radio introduced masses to Elvis, Rock ‘N’ Roll and crooning. The introduction of music videos and the emergence of major television networks had shifted music yet again. A new generation had emerged, and the conditions of possibility for other musical and cultural innovation obtained.

I’m not quite sure what the phrase of Williams’ album could mean; insofar as whether Reality refers to some wider apprehension of social affairs insofar as popular music creates its own ‘bubble’ of a world, or is a simple reference to reality television. Probably both. I shall address the latter. The notion of reality television which emerged in the twilight of the 1990s, seems to have dominated the popular consciousness of this decade. I have been hoping for a long time to just ignore it and hope it will die a death, whether quick or elongated. I’ve lately developed a new policy of trying not to pay attention to that which is utterly beneath derision such that even mentioning it would raise the profile of the offending object.

The generation created by MTV and CD sales indeed did change the status of radio. I thought about this as nowadays the main way that I engage with the world is through listening to podcasts, most of which come from public radio stations (particularly the BBC). While I was born and grew up in the generation of music videos. I really quite prefer podcasting. These new technologies have crystallised in such a way that now civility can be maintained. The ‘new’ does not need to be grasped only by the barbarian horde, but the likes of twitter stars like Charlie Brooker or Stephen Fry (whether this is a new philistinism remains an open question).

Where will the next decade take us? Will ‘reality’ television coem to an end? Will competing cliques occupy non-overt but influential positions among the youth through the web? Will there come something even new and more hateful to supercede reality television that will make the latter seem like a moral and cultural vanguard?

Time will tell, but, you can also decide how it will turn out. There are many great podcasts available these days. I should recommend a few.

Sinistre* (based on conversations with Michael)

Why ‘Nazi analogies’ are a bad idea

Comparison to the Nazis or actions by the party are often made. I will not deny that there are times when a comparison is apt. I consider it a social faux pas , and inappropriate for a the following reason:

1. Demagogy: To make a Nazi comparison with something is basically a loaded assertion or allegation. The standard reaction to anything that the Nazis have done is unequivocal derision. This works well as a political or rhetorical device. Any good argument, or speech, should appeal to more rational tools than the intellectually impoverished appeal to demagogy.

2. The common logical fallacy: Comparison with the Nazi’s is often an equivocation with moral ascriptions ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. This is implicitly assumed in a lot of Nazi comparisons. To denigrate a proposal as associated with the Nazi’s in some way suggests that it is implicitly wrong. This asserts or posits as a question something that is basically asserted. This is what one may call ‘question-begging’. This is also an ad hominem response.

3. Lack of imagination: This is an objection that I consider not so much an argument but an appeal. In a practical light, given controversies in the past. It seems highly ignorant, for instance, to call a sense of alleged dogmatism or strict enforcement as being nazi-like. We could say that parking ticket officers are nazis; people who are pedagogic about seemingly archaic rules of grammar are nazi’s, or strict educators are nazis. This is more a lack of imagination than anything. If we are to consider such an expression to be synonymous with strictness or dogmatism; why not consider the anti-facists who in some respects are anti-liberal, to be ‘nazis’? I think that the more extreme of anti-facist campaigners would not appreciate this irony.

One caveat to make is that there are many instances, especially in metaethics, when an examination of the moral psychology of the period is of continuing interest. Historical analogies are also apt when addressing 20thC history, or toward our understanding of current affairs (considering the Berlin wall anniversary, for instance). Nazi analogies are being overused and used often perniciously. Genuine comparison becomes more difficult or apt to make for this reason


As I was thinking about this subject for a blog post, I thought of this possible and ignorant response that made me both fear being misunderstood and perniciously misrepresented. It is this kind of lack of appreciation for the ceteris paribus clause that is problematic with the Nazi Analogy.


“Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. “

Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. So says Richard Feynman, apparently. Alan Sokal, in a recent interview with Jullian Baggini, wrote that this analogy is suggestive of the lack of epistemic merit that philosophy has to the structuring and adding of new knowledge to physics. Analogies like this are apt for the contribution that philosophy has to physics, granted; but I have found it wanting in other cases.

A musician, who was largely an autodidact once said to me that he did not care very much for music theory as it did not fit with performance skills and apprehension as a musician. I fell silent, not bothering to tell him that he was playing music predominantly in a mixolydian mode, while utilising tritones, ostinati, parallel 5ths, 8ths, dominant sevenths, suspensions, passing notes, arpeggiations, and so on…

I can appreciate the view that being steeped in a particualr style limits one and the musical options that they have. I have recently started to play the guitar, and I like playing on blues scales. This is largely to impress my friends at my ability to naturally create riffs and hooks, but there is another sense in which I communicate my utter disdain for a style by its ease, there is a sense of comfort and familiarity when I play a ragtime. I’m not very good at sightreading Bach, even less if I attempted Beethoven or Chopin. Joplin and Lamb, by contrast, are a joy to practice at sight, this is because of my own insecurity as a piano player, but also there is a joy in seeing the immediate fruit of one’s labour by my immediate apprehension of the musical style and its playing ease. There is not as much ease, by contrast, in heavier romantic styles.

In short, sometimes knowing the rules of the game enhances our performance as players. This is certainly true for olympic or professional atheletes; who, while being introduced to a professional level normally at university or younger; sometimes furnish their career with a doctoral thesis that relates either to their performance or training as an athelete. Our inspiration may come from other things; engineers and technologists can sometimes draw their innovations from the observation of nature.

Coming back to the philosophy example, a later point was made that physics is just as successful and unhindered by philosophy. Physicists like Feynman and Wolpert are distinctly anti-philosophical, in contrast to the likes of Einstein, or if one really wants to go back, Newton. Newton after all, had written about his empiricist leanings and nature of his methodology. Kant reacts critically to Newton’s ’empiricist’ methodology, but not the results. This kind of philosophical engagement of a physicist, by the standards of the day, were by no means amateur and are taken seriously by philosophers today.

The so-called philosophically oriented physicists of the 20thC, by contrast, are not terribly interesting in terms of our contempoary philosophical tools. Einstein’s ‘Spinozism’ has been talked about by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, as a caveat so as not to be interpreted into religious terms. Having an understanding of Spinoza’s metaphysics, by contrast, is not even addressed. Spinoza’s approach to life was one of emotional calm against the overwhelming and sometimes uncontrollable temperaments that we suffer in life. One of the enjoyments that we can have in life is an apprehension of the unity of nature that is, in his metaphysics, how the nature of our inner consciousness subsumed in no small part to the larger reality as a whole, as well as the underlying propositional language that both support. This may sound mystical, but really, it is a form of naturalism. The two prejudices that Spinoza’s philosophy had were: admitting that his metaphysics was fundamentally correct, and we put scientific development and knowledge on a pedestal. None of this is really addressed in the ‘Einsteinian’ view so bastardised by the atheist popularisers.

Stephen Hawking’s own popular books try to establish a so-called philosophically interested reading of M-theory, string theory and general relativity. There are moments where his reading is somewhat patchy. But perhaps the real thing that is important, and that Hawking succeeds in, is making the current understanding of science understandable to a general public. This is what I would consider the most socially important thing that phyiscists can do outside of their work. Sokal’s perspective by contrast is one where physicists do their science between monday-saturday and then their speculation on a sunday. What succeeds about Hawking’s presentation is that the physics is presented in a manner that has religious and humanistic dimensions, rather than one of a technical ‘philosophical’ merit. Does the universe have a beginning? Does the universe have an end? What is our place in the grand order of things? Is there life beyond earth? Physics goes on well without philosophy’s involvement, however, it should be attributed to the death of the polymath that there are less physicists more interested in philosophy. The rise of continental philosophy that fails to acknowledge the work in physics with any real expertise is also a reason why physicists may dislike philosophy as a whole, that is the whole point of the Sokal hoax in a sense.

Perhaps the most interesting, and important thing that physicists can do for the public is to be understood. Conspiracies such as the moon landing being fake, or the belief that miniature black holes will destroy the universe; are harmful to science, harmful to reason and pander to a mindset that hurts rationalism and rationality.