Some Brief Thoughts on (Semantic) Holism

I haven’t posted a blog entry for months, mostly because I have no idea what to write for my next entry. However, this time I do know what i’m going to write for this entry, but it’s going to be very brief. It’s more or less about my personal research about (semantic) Holism. Specifically, it’s the view that the semantic content of some belief is determined by it’s relation to the web of beliefs that it’s a part of. I’m in the stage where I’m asking myself a question that could be problematic for Holism.

In particular, the question is whether or not the phenomenon of contradictory beliefs (i.e. cognitive dissonance) poses a problem for Holism. This is where I need to introduce my distinction between interpersonal contradictory beliefs and intrapersonal contradictory beliefs are important. Interpersonal contradictory beliefs  are about contrary beliefs existing in different minds. So, belief that P and belief that not-P exist independently in different minds. Based on my superficial reading of Ned Block’s encyclopedic article about Holism, a large portion of the debate about Holism is about interpersonal contradictory beliefs posing a problem of making generalizations about psychology. Intrapersonal contradictory beliefs are contrary beliefs within a single mind. So belief that P and belief that not P exist within the same web of belief inside someone’s mind. In the light of this distinction, my question is really whether or not the phenomenon of intrapersonal contradictory beliefs poses a problem for Holism.

What motivates my suspicion that contradictory beliefs constitute a problem for Holism is the following. Suppose that inside someone’s mind there are two beliefs: belief that P and belief that not-P. Both beliefs possess meaning contrary to one another, so they cannot be semantically related to each other in the way that the concept “ancestor” is semantically related to “descendant”. However, according to Holism, a content of a belief is determined by it’s relation to the web of beliefs. If the belief that P is related to the rest of the beliefs that include the belief not-P, how can its content be determined by them?

I’m assuming that (intrapersonal) contradictory beliefs cannot determine each other’s meaning within a web of belief, but this is a huge assumption on my part. I’m also assuming that consistency is one of the requirements for beliefs to determine each other’s content, but this too is a huge assumption that could be faulty. Perhaps Holism does not require consistency as one of the conditions for beliefs to determine each other’s content. But, If Holism cannot account for contradictory beliefs, then I think this flies in the face of empirical psychology. After all, Cognitive Dissonance is one very well known phenomena when one becomes aware of one’s contradictory beliefs. Nonetheless, I can’t exactly know for sure until I do some further research. I am worried that given my ignorance and inexperience, my suspicion about holism maybe misguided. It would be nice if anyone could provide a helpful and constructive feedback.

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8 thoughts on “Some Brief Thoughts on (Semantic) Holism

    1. philonous13 Post author

      Yeah, Bobby Struck pointed this out to me in Facebook; it’s unusual to think that we can have contradictory beliefs like “jack doesn’t exist and jack exists.” I think what I meant is that we tend to have beliefs that are subtly inconsistent or in conflict with each other. I’m sure you know people who believe in one thing, but also believe in something else that isn’t consistent with it but they aren’t aware. For example, i’m sure you’re aware of people who believes abortion is wrong, but capital punishment is permissible and others point out the inconsistency given that capital punishment has a tendency for “miscarriage of justice”. This may not be the best example, but it serves to express my main point that people tend to have beliefs that are in conflict with each other. I think another good example could be cognitive dissonance. Specifically, we have cases of apocalyptic cult movements that believe the apocalypse arrives at a very specific point, but when they actually reach that point and observe no apocalypse they begin to deal with two contrary beliefs “Apocalypse will come in this moment” and “Apocalypse did not arrive.” Of course, people will rationalize it and eventually find ways to reconcile those beliefs. But I think the very moment they have a cognitive dissonance is where I start to ask whether or not this is consistent with Holism.

      Reply
      1. Aaron LaPointe

        Where does the ongoing project of developing a consistent set of beliefs fit in? In your apocalypse example, you allude to an eventual reconciliation between two beliefs, but isn’t this reconciliation the very process under consideration: the web of belief determining the content of a belief? It seems that holism could be consistent with contradictory beliefs if contradictory beliefs are thought of as intermediary states within an ongoing project.

  1. philonous13 Post author

    “Where does the ongoing project of developing a consistent set of beliefs fit in? In your apocalypse example, you allude to an eventual reconciliation between two beliefs, but isn’t this reconciliation the very process under consideration: the web of belief determining the content of a belief? It seems that holism could be consistent with contradictory beliefs if contradictory beliefs are thought of as intermediary states within an ongoing project.”

    Well, two points to make. First, I think I need to clarify what I mean by “web of belief determining the content of a belief.” In this context “determine” doesn’t necessarily mean that it merely causes a belief to have a certain configuration or property. It also means that the meaning of a certain concept is constituted by it’s relation to other concepts. For example, the concept “descendant” semantically requires another concept “ancestor” or within modern physics the concept “gravity” necessarily requires the Eisenstein relativity concept “space-time.” Holism states that any concept is similarly constituted by the rest of the repertoire of concepts. Simply put, if you observe someone possessing one concept, you can infer what other concept he or she possesses. Some extreme version of holism would say that in principle, the possession of a single concept can tell us the rest of the concepts someone has. What this implies is that a change in the meaning of one concept will requires the change of the entire or majority of the web of beliefs.

    Second, as for your point about the process of reconciling beliefs, We can agree that independently of holism almost anyone who comes across having inconsistent beliefs will eventually try to reconcile them (and sometimes succeed), but the issue is whether or not inconsistent beliefs are metaphysically possible for Holism in the first place prior to any reconciliation. If someone possesses two beliefs that are contrary to each other in some subtle manner, how can they semantically constitute each other’s meaning in a way that “descendant” and “ancestor” semantically require one another. Or, to put it another way, suppose that belief that P is constituted by it’s relation to the web of belief including the belief that not-P. The question is how it is metaphysically and semantically possible for belief that P to be constituted by the rest of the belief including belief that not-P.

    Just to avoid a potential confusion, Holism is not the same as epistemic Coherentism. Coherentism is the epistemic theory that a belief is justified if it is consistent with other beliefs. Holism is more or less a metaphysical/semantic theory about the nature of the mind: the meaning of beliefs or concepts are constituted by it’s relation to the rest of the beliefs.

    Reply
    1. Aaron LaPointe

      Is there some way that beliefs could be semantically related to all other beliefs, but only partially? Surely, when tracing back a belief to its origins the relationships with other beliefs are going to increase exponentially. Some beliefs will be more closely related to some than others. In the case of contradictory beliefs, these could arise from less closely related beliefs. Perhaps contradictory beliefs aren’t every strictly contradictory?

      Reply
      1. philonous13 Post author

        That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that. I suspect that a holist might take the strategy you suggested, but I don’t know if it was already done. This is why I have to do more research to see how a holist would deal with contradictory beliefs, because I don’t know if the question I’m posing constitutes a serious problem. Anyways, I’m going to start researching this issue pretty soon. In another blog I’ll probably let my readers know if my research confirms my suspicion or not.

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