Individual Differences in Personal Epistemology

As the world has become smaller, people increasingly have recognized the wide variety of ways in which individuals differ. Most focus on the content of differences in how people think, feel, and act. However, it equally is true that people differ in how they think. That is, even if two people agree about some issue, vast differences in how they think about that issue often are evident.

From a philosophical perspective, “epistemology” concerns how people think about what is true. From a psychological perspective, what may be of most interest is that people differ in how they approach this task, however. For example, as discussed by Laird Edman, professor of Psychology at Northwestern College in Iowa, many psychologists who study personal epistemology believe that individuals develop thinking skills in a roughly stage-like fashion. At the lowest level, individuals view knowledge as certain and absolute; these people believe that single correct answers exist for all questions. As a result, such individuals often defer to authorities who they presume know the truth. At a middle level, people recognize that uncertainty is part of the knowing process. However, conclusions often are not reached because it seems that “all truth is relative.” At the highest level, people recognize that uncertainty is part of knowledge, but based on the best evidence and reason they can muster, they reach tentative conclusions. They are capable of understanding and respecting others’ views while still holding firmly to what they believe.

These differences seem evident in accounting for many individual differences in personal religiousness and spirituality. Some think in all or nothing terms. Others think very relativistically. Relatively few appreciate differences and form tentative conclusions based on their own personal assessment of the evidence available and their own internally guided reasoning process.

Much of this was in my mind when I listened last week to an interview with Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, on Krista Tippett’s public radio program “Being.” Mouw believes many people today either (1) have convictions with no civility or (2) have civility with no convictions, thereby mirroring the first two levels of personal epistemological development discussed above. In a pluralistic world, however, Mouw believes, and I agree, that there are many advantages to “convicted civility” in which individuals have well-reasoned convictions while at the same time are capable of understanding and honoring someone else’s perspective. As Parker Palmer once suggested, however, this requires a good deal of maturity, as individuals would need to shift from being reactive to being reflective. As Walter Mischel writes, this may actually require activation of a completely different way of processing information – tapping particular systems in the brain – going from an emotional “hot” system to a cognitive “cool” system. The interview with Mouw is well worth a listen and can be found at the following link:

http://being.publicradio.org/programs/2010/restoring-civility/

The notion of “convicted civility” raises the possibility that individuals may be capable of holding deep personal convictions while also being capable of listening, honoring, and learning from others different from them. I imagine that this practice would revolutionize relations across political parties, countries, and religions. It may be one of the answers capable of addressing some of the major underlying causes of problems in the world today.

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