A different view on discussions

“You’re listening to me, but you’re not understanding me.”
“No, I’m disagreeing with you. That doesn’t mean I’m not listening to you, or understanding what you’re saying. I’m doing all three at the same time.”
Josh and Toby in “The West Wing”

I have received only a few comments on my blog postings, but the one regarding “The Incompetent Whore” got me thinking (yes, I seem like an arrogant and egoistic bastard, but I like my reply ;-)). I usually use the Skeptical Guidelines for discussions, but I recently re-read a good book chapter by Kuhn & Weinstock (2002) which proved to be very usable as well.

The topic of that chapter is epistemological believes (how do we know what we (think we) know) and the authors argue that evaluative epistemological thinking is the desired level to think (see table).

From: Kuhn, D., & Weinstock, M. (2002). What Is Epistemological Thinking and Why Does It Matter? In Hofer, B. K. & Pintrich, P. R. (Eds.). Personal epistemology: The Psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

But the authors also differentiate between different domains (see also Kuhn, Cheney, & Weinstock, 2000), and I think that this differentiation in

  • Judgments of Fact About the Physical World
    e.g., what are atoms made up of, how does the brain work
  • Judgments of Fact About the Social World
    e.g., why criminals go back to crime, why the Crimean wars began
  • Value Judgments
    e.g., whether people should takes responsibility for themselves, whether lying is permissible, whether the government should limit the number of children per family
  • Aesthetic Judgments, and
    e.g., which piece of music/painting/book is better
  • Judgments of Personal Taste
    e.g., whether warm summer days or cool autumn days are nicest, whether a stew is spicy or not

is a very important thought.

And I agree with the authors (if I remember their point correctly) that while evaluatist epistemological belief is necessary and desirable in the “higher” categories (judgments of fact about the social world and judgments of fact about the physical world), it becomes more difficult and ultimately undesirable on “lower domains”.

Personally I would say regarding the domains:

Judgments of Fact About the Physical World

Evaluatist epistemological believes are possible and desirable. Yes, we can never be sure that we understand the physical world (it could be an illusion). But given that we can make observations about the physical world, different positions differ in merit. We know through experiments and observation what works when and how, and this knowledge can be used. Michael Specter said it probably best with: “You’re entitled to your own opinion. … But you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

Judgments of Fact About the Social World

I would make no difference between the social world and the physical world in this regard. Not only because I am a social scientist — a psychologist — and would be out of a job if I did. 😉 As in the so-called “hard” sciences we can find out about human behavior and motivation via experiments and studies. It’s harder (particles don’t think and go straight ahead, study participants do and take unexpected turns), but it works. The main difference is that we cannot make deterministic assertions, but only probabilistic ones. We do not know what happens in every case, but we know what will happen in most cases. For example, we can say which rehabilitation measure will achieve the better results, but due to the complexity of the human being, it will not work in all cases.

Value Judgments

Value judgments sit on the fence, I think, and this is the most difficult domain. It’s about world views, about things we hold dear, about ways of living. Can one way be better than the other? In extreme cases, probably, but why would others choose to live this way? I think this is a very difficult area where social groups must negotiate how they want to live — or to use Michael Sandel’s words: “What qualities are worthy of honor and recognition?”. There is no inherent right or wrong here and it cannot be delegated (religious nuts will disagree here, so be it). Values in a society must be negotiated — and I agree with Sandel, it should be negotiated upfront and openly. It’s the level of debate, of persuasion, of essays and visions.

Aesthetic Judgments

Aesthetic Judgments are more personal. Sure, many people would argue that Shakespeare beats The Simpsons (to use an example from one of Sandel’s Justice Lectures), but ultimately, it’s a matter of personal preference (also different than personal taste). And while aesthetic appreciation can be learned (or indoctrinated), not all are willing to do so. In effect, yeah, one can argue for aesthetic merit, but there is a strong individual component here.

Judgments of Personal Taste

Judgments of Personal Taste are completely personal and non-negotiable. It’s different from aesthetic judgments that it is completely the personal preference that is important. And how can you argue what another person feels is wrong (well, you can, but it’s pointless). The only exception would be if the person is conflicted about what he feels (e.g., regarding his own desires), but if the person likes what he is doing there’s no point in arguing here.

I think that many discussions vary widely between these levels. It’s like in the Skeptical Guidelines — if you do not define your terms or what you are arguing about, you can talk very emotionally for ages but miss each other by miles.

So, when you next argue think about it: Are you arguing about the same thing, and on which domain level are you arguing?


Kuhn, D., & Weinstock, M. (2002). What Is Epistemological Thinking and Why Does It Matter? In Hofer, B. K. & Pintrich, P. R. (Eds.). Personal epistemology: The Psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kuhn, D., Cheney, R., & Weinstock, M. (2000). The development of epistemological understanding. Cognitive Development, 15, 309-328.

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