Measuring Beliefs

10 August 2022 in Resource Center.

Measurement, it turns out, is an essential faculty for our comprehensivity, our emerging approach for reimagining our learning, philosophy, science, and life planning by taking seriously Buckminster Fuller’s guiding virtue of “the adequately macro-comprehensive and micro-incisive” as a principle for our lives. To help us tune in to the nature and importance of comprehensive measurement, this resource examines its application to assessing beliefs.

The previous resource on The Measurements of Life scoped interpretation and introduced the measurements of life schema from “The Design Way” by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman. This resource builds on that foundation. As frequently happens in comprehensive practice, the task is facilitated by adding another source to consider, namely, Rebecca Goldstein’s schema of core beliefs and by reviewing techniques from other resources. Our aim is to clarify the treatment of both beliefs and comprehensive measurement for our comprehensive explorations. Although beliefs are only one aspect of any tradition of inquiry and action, they are important enough that limiting our purview to beliefs will not diminish the effectiveness of our toolkit for comprehensive measurement.

Assessing Beliefs

Our approach to comprehensive learning invites us to consider all the experiences and all the traditions of all Humanity since there is no way to know which might provide a key idea or behavior that we might otherwise overlook. When practiced diligently, this broadly sourced approach to learning will challenge us to consider many unfamiliar beliefs. If we are to better understand the world and each other through engaging so many diverse traditions of inquiry and action, the comprehensive explorer is obliged to understand and situate these unfamiliar beliefs. How might we assess such beliefs?

In the resource The Ethics of Learning from Experience, we learned that Buckminster Fuller adopted the radical ethic of “[abandoning] completely all that I ever had been taught to believe” so that he could re-evaluate his beliefs on the basis of experience including the experiences of those others he trusted. We learned that George Pólya recommended The Inductive Attitude which advises that in order to learn from experience we should be ready to change our beliefs; however, he cautioned that “we have neither the time nor the strength to examine seriously all our beliefs. Therefore it is wise to reserve the day’s work, our questions, and our active doubts for such beliefs as we can reasonably expect to amend.” And we learned from Patricia Hill Collins that people may adopt “wrong” beliefs especially if they find them adaptable, if they help them to cope better, even if they contradict or hide some truths. After all, we might prefer the more effective belief to the truer one.

The comprehensive explorer finds themselves thrown into a sea of oftentimes unfamiliar beliefs. Should we test each belief against our own experience databanks as Bucky recommended? Should we practice “wise restraint” as Pólya recommended and only consider evaluating those beliefs as “we can reasonably expect to amend”? Should we examine the effectiveness of beliefs regardless of their veracity as Collins suggests? How should we measure the beliefs we encounter in our explorations?

Since the comprehensive explorer values understanding other traditions and peoples, we want to understand their beliefs and not just adopt or eschew them. So, we will want to examine some of their beliefs carefully enough to understand them even if we do not “seriously” evaluate them.

In the resource The Measurements of Life, we learned that all experiences need to be interpreted as there are many possibilities for “a picking and choosing of what is to be considered and in what way” as “The Design Way” by Harold G. Nelson and Eric Stolterman put it. Since beliefs are always embedded in a cultural context, interpreting beliefs in context is an important part of measuring or evaluating them. “The Design Way” then presented a fourfold schema for assessing “the worth of our lives” by examining the ways, qualities, standards, and spirit of life. Should we assess the beliefs we encounter in our explorations using the worth of our lives criteria from the measurements of life?

Yet another way to evaluate beliefs comes from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein:

Goldstein is mainly concerned, in this video, with what she calls core beliefs defined as those which we think we would change last even if presented with strong evidence. She identifies six kinds of core beliefs (the list is an acrostic where the first letter of each category spells N‑A‑T‑U‑R‑E):

  • Naturalizers: a coherent natural science is what should be believed
  • Aestheticizers: the beautiful is what should be believed
  • Theologizers: God should be the ultimate source of our beliefs
  • Unsolvers: what to believe has not yet been convincingly given by anyone
  • Reifiers: every question can be reified (made into a concrete abstraction) into a new believable category
  • Epistemoligizers: beliefs are limited to our ways of knowing

Goldstein and her interlocutor Robert Kuhn see value in each of these ways of assessing beliefs though, perhaps, many of us prefer one kind of core belief to the others. Goldstein invites us “to try to imagine what its like to be [each kind of believer]”. As she says, the “flexibility of mind” induced by her exercise would be valuable. I would add, especially for a comprehensive explorer who aspires to understand it all and each other.

Can you imagine what it would be like to adopt the core belief of a naturalizer, aestheticizer, theologizer, unsolver, reifier, and an epistemoligizer?

Goldstein’s list can help us clarify the basis for a belief by fitting it into her categories. Conversely, her categories can help us broaden our conception of the kinds of beliefs we might encounter. One omission from Goldstein’s list are the designers who believe that they can make real their intentions for a more desirable future (see the resources How to Create That-Which-Is-Not-Yet and How To Explore The Future). I also worry that her categorization risks the biases of Robert Sapolsky’s dangers in categorical thinking: 1) we can miss the big picture by focusing on boundaries, 2) we tend to underestimate differences when two cases happen to fall in the same category, 3) we tend to overestimate differences when cases happen to fall on opposite sides of a boundary.

In contrast, the measurements of life aims to help us broaden our considerations rather than pigeonhole them. The ways of life provides a basic taxonomy or list of terms which measures the worth of our lives by names. The qualities of life build upon these nominal measures by clarifying various nuanced incommensurable relationships in a qualitative analysis. Such analyses range from essays and reviews to literature surveys to historical or philosophical analyses to ethnography and ethology to interviews, focus groups, and case studies (see Leslie Curry’s exquisite short video course “Fundamentals of Qualitative Research Methods”). The standards of life are those qualities of life that are sufficiently clarified that we can find effective commensurable relationships that might be proven in randomized control studies, the gold standard for scientific research. So the ways, qualities, and standards of life each goes successively deeper into more clarifying relationships. Finally, the spirit of life challenges us as measurers to look deep into our hearts, spirits, minds, and souls to see if we can sense any significant but not-quite-nameable concerns that should affect our evaluation.

The measurements of life engages us in a comprehensive, whole of life approach to measurement. Its three demonstrative measures, the ways, qualities, and standards of life, serve as guideposts to help us identify a battery of specific measures at various levels of depth each of which might clarify aspects of how the various beliefs we encounter in our comprehensive explorations affect our lives. The spirit of life then measures the incisiveness of the more ostensive measures by asking, what of significance is missing from the story told by our demonstrative measures? Finally, because the disposition of the measurements of life is to assess the “worth of life”, it invites us to integrate all our measures into a wholistic judgment about our subject whether it be our beliefs, situation, projects, or objectives.

The word “judgment” used here is complex. It is often used in a coercive or demeaning way to which we bristle “don’t judge me!”. It can also be used in the narrow sense of decision-making. The notion of judgment I’m evoking and which I read in “The Design Way” attempts to accommodate all factors to provide an integrated multidimensional assessment to guide us. In comprehensive practice, judgment ranges from appreciative in formulating interpretations to the more intensive measurement or its synonym “evaluation” to the broader term “assessment” and to the broadest and most nuanced term “judgment” (see Chapter 8 in “The Design Way” which is the most comprehensive exploration of judgment I have seen).

Buckminster Fuller and George Pólya recommend empirical, experience-based, approaches to evaluate our beliefs. Patricia Hill Collins reminds us to consider how beliefs are used to make sense of and guide our life, not merely for their truth value. Rebecca Goldstein’s schema of core beliefs gives us six ways to evaluate beliefs. The measurements of life recommends both demonstrative and unformed, incipient, ineffable, or spiritual measures of the worth of our beliefs for our lives. Each of these tools provides guidance for evaluating or weighing our beliefs and those we encounter in our comprehensive explorations.

In which situations might which approach for measuring beliefs be appropriate?

Measuring Our Comprehensivity

As we learn, we accumulate a growing number of experiences from a growing number of traditions of inquiry and action. So, the number of beliefs we encounter and the number of tools we might use to evaluate them grows combinatorially. Our comprehensivity is how we put together or integrate all we have learned in breadth for context and all we have learned in depth for clarity. It gives us our inventory of concepts and perceptual lenses that becomes our interpretative toolkit. Even more, our comprehensivity forges a toolkit for our lives as all our kinds of inquiry and all the behaviors in our inventory of actions are built upon the traditions of inquiry and action which we have engaged in breadth or in depth. In fact, as we learned in the resource The Comprehensive Design of Our Lives, how we fashion our comprehensivity is how we shape this toolkit and thereby how we design our lives.

How can we comprehensively measure the beliefs we encounter?

Above we explored the empirical or experience-based approaches of Buckminster Fuller and George Pólya, the effective guidance concern of Patricia Hill Collins, the core beliefs of Rebecca Goldstein, and the measurements of life from “The Design Way”. In other resources, we considered other traditions that can also help us evaluate beliefs. T. C. Chamberlin recommends we use multiple working hypotheses in our evaluations. Tricia Wang recommends shifting perspectives for multiperspectival understanding. Wang also emphasized that the truth is always limited as it is always contextualized with a perspective, so we should be suspicious of the truth of beliefs. The approach of comprehensive comprehensions (developed in the resources Mistake Mystique, Crises of Ignorance, and Comprehensive Exploration, Comprehension, and Collaboration) recommends structuring our hypotheses with questions to build a fabric of thoroughly refined ignorance as a basis for improved judgment-making.

As we all know, many beliefs are in conflict with each other. Our comprehensive approach confronts us with many such conflicting beliefs which may seem irreconcilable. In the resource on Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox, we learned that by embracing and engaging the ambiguities, contradictions, and paradoxes that we encounter, we may gain access to the creative wellspring of great ideas and truths. Each of the tools mentioned could help us measure the beliefs we encounter in our comprehensive explorations.

What other tools for facilitating our comprehensivity might help us better measure beliefs?

Any such tool for evaluating beliefs that we identify, can be named. Naming, by the very act of distinguishing the tool, gives us a nominal measure which the measurements of life calls a way of life. It is possible that such a metric offers enough clarity that it might be considered a quality of life or even a standard of life. Regardless, every named tool for measuring beliefs fits into at least one of the three demonstrative categories of the measurements of life. So the measurements of life represents a comprehensive way to encompass any identifiable way of measuring beliefs.

Is the measurements of life approach adequate for accommodating any identified measure of beliefs?

As we comprehensively measure someone’s beliefs or those of some tradition of inquiry and action, we might be tempted to organize their pattern of beliefs into an abstract characterization or world-view. One scholar considers this approach necessary:

The notion of a world-view is of fundamental importance in any discussion of people’s beliefs, however rational they may appear on the surface. A world-view is a set of fundamental beliefs about reality used to evaluate a wide range of other, more particular, beliefs. World-views are often called metaphysical frameworks in academic circles…. World-views can be evaluated, compared and changed, but you cannot avoid having one.

— E. Brian Davies in “Why Beliefs Matter: Reflections on the Nature of Science” (2010), p. 2, 3.

It can often be helpful to identify and characterize a world-view. Those who are invested in a single profession, career, trade, art, identity, calling, mission, or vision for their lives may have a well-defined world-view. But, learners may not have a clear, fixed world-view. Many comprehensive explorers are considering multiple contradictory and paradoxical beliefs which might present difficulties in getting a fix on their world-view. Others may hold multiple conflicting fundamental metaphysical beliefs as hypotheses which they try out at different times. Others may be integrating so many new traditions and their beliefs that their world-view changes in rapid succession. Perhaps, world-views should be re-imagined as temporary, incomplete, dynamic, and fluid phenomena?

I would suggest that for many people the better characterization of their “metaphysical framework” would be a measure of their comprehensivity. To start we might organize a nominal listing (ways of life) of all they have explored in breadth for context and in depth for clarity as well as their intentions for further building their comprehensivity. If there is time and inclination, some of these traditions could be more deeply evaluated as qualities of life or as standards of life. We must also evaluate the spirit of life by looking deeply into our hearts, spirits, minds, and souls to try to sense any unformed or incipient or ineffable or spiritual concerns whose significance, if only we could name them, should affect our assessment. Eventually, we will have evaluated the worth of our life for each metric considered. Finally, we would integrate all these measures into an overall sense of the worth of our life of our comprehensivity. This would be our moment-in-time measure of our comprehensivity.

Does a comprehensive measure of your comprehensivity provide a snapshot-in-time glimpse of your ever-evolving world-view?

Is comprehensivity a better way of thinking of the influences on a person than a world-view?

The Vital Role of Measurement in our Comprehensivity

Comprehensive learning aspires to integrate more and more of Humanity’s traditions of inquiry and action to better comprehend the world and how it works. To make sense of all these traditions, all their experiences, stories, behaviors, beliefs, questions, and initiatives, we need a tool for comprehensive measurement. Given our always limited experience, we can never know if our survey has been broad enough to ensure that we have found the best way of measuring comprehensively. So far, the measurements of life from “The Design Way” is the best tool we currently have to assess beliefs, projects, objectives, and more. Moreover, we can use this approach to assess our current comprehensivity. The result may give us insights into how to refine our comprehensivity going forward to better design our lives. For all these reasons, comprehensive measurement is a vital tool for our comprehensive practice.

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 17 August 2022 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 1h51m video from the 17 August 2022 event:

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

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