Below some questions that it can be helpful to revisit every now and then when analyzing beliefs one holds:
Very few ideas we hold are ideas we come up with ourselves. What happens is that someone introduces us to an argument. Later on a counterargument is introduced. Often the timing of these things matter a lot; people are often more likely to pick the first side that’s presented to them, especially if they’re encouraged to invest in it early on. However one is also more likely to remember the last argument one heard than the first one. So it’s certainly worth asking: Who presented the idea to you first? How long ago is it? Did you last hear an argument in favour of your belief or an argument against it? If a belief is introduced to you by someone close to you, like a spouse or (if you’re young?) a parent – or someone you look up to and/or would like to impress – then you’re all else equal more likely to be biased and you should act as if the belief in question is less likely to be correct than it would be if a person you didn’t know had presented the idea to you.
How long have you held the belief? All else equal, you should be more skeptical about beliefs you’ve held for a long time. Beliefs we hold for a long time tend to be or become part of the wallpaper – and beliefs you’re not even aware that you hold may still influence you in various ways. If you don’t remember the answers to some of the previous questions, you shouldn’t just ignore them; a better idea would probably be to become more skeptical.
How confident are you that your belief is right? I don’t believe it’s particularly useful to quantify this kind of stuff in detail, but this is a question one should ask oneself from time to time. Changes in confidence levels are important, as are stationary confidence levels.
Do you consider this belief to be an important part of who you are? Could you imagine being wrong about this? What would being wrong about this belief imply? How many other beliefs you hold are contingent upon this particular belief of yours?
Do other people you know share your point of view? Have they influenced you (not just by introducing you to the idea)? Has belief convergence taken place? Do you know people who do not share your belief? Does the disagreement make you perceive them in a different light – how do you feel about people who do not share your belief? Have you ever felt/do you feel that people who hold different beliefs are ‘less worthy’, that they are ‘stupid’, or perhaps that they ‘don’t understand the issue’?
How much time have you spent thinking about the belief? How much of that time was spent gathering data? Which kind of data? Have you spent enough time and/or seen enough data to even have an opinion about this?
People who openly question your beliefs are much more likely to be useful to you when it comes to obtaining correct beliefs about the world than are people who do not. People who are more detached, who care less about specific beliefs, are also likely to be able to help you – they’re less likely to think of open disagreement as a personal attack or as a signal of tribal disloyalty that ought to be punished. Do you take advantage of this fact? Do you have ways to figure out if your belief is wrong, or whether a different belief might be better? If you do, do you use them optimally – could you use them better, or is it perhaps possible for you to find better ways to test your beliefs than the ones you use now?
Do you somehow stand to benefit from holding the belief you do? If other people held your belief, would that make you look good? Is the belief somehow very convenient?
Who other than you care about your belief? Is it important? How important is the belief in question when it comes to ‘real world stuff’? Do you care just because you care – or does your stance actually have major real life consequences? Could these be downplayed if you wanted them to be?
We can’t always ask these questions – they take time and effort, and if we had to think about all that stuff every time we were to make a decision we’d all starve to death. But questions such as these should enter the mind from time to time.
A ‘sufficient’/’proper’ degree of skepticism about your own beliefs will incidentally undoubtedly sometimes make you lose an argument you’d otherwise have won. I consider that outcome to be perfectly acceptable as arguments should not be about winning, but about learning new stuff. If you care a lot about whether you win or lose an argument, you’re arguing with the wrong people and/or you’re not arguing in an optimal manner.
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