On the Justification of Belief -- An Introduction to Epistemology for Skeptics

by William A. Wisdom

This is the actual text of the talk given by Bill Wisdom at the February 2, 2003, PhACT meeting.

[NOTE: The numbers between paragraphs are not footnotes, but identify the locations at which to insert the "additional remarks", whose texts appear at the end of the paper. In most cases, these are remarks omitted from the talk to save time, but which fill out the argument of the talk.]

I'd like to ask you to hold any substantive questions or comments until the end of my talk. If we get into discussions during the talk, I fear that I won't be able to finish. But if you don't understand something that I say, or if I talk too fast, feel free to shout out a remark to that effect. Now some of this material will be rather abstract, and so will probably require close attention. It is Philosophy, after all. So at the end I'd be happy to clarify, illustrate, or elaborate on anything I say in my talk.

As a philosopher with over forty years of interest in logic and science, I've been startled by the sloppiness of many self-styled skeptics when it comes to talk about knowledge claims, and the justification of belief generally and the justification of religious belief in particular.The systematic study of these--of the nature of knowledge and of the justification of beliefs--is Epistemology, which, with Metaphysics and Ethics, is generally considered one of the three main branches of western Philosophy ever since its origins in the Greek world of the sixth century B.C.E. Today's remarks are an introduction to Epistemology especially for skeptics.  Let me lay the groundwork for my talk by briefly citing three examples of the sort of carelessness into which skeptics sometimes lapse when trying to think about Epistemological issues.

For one example, a number of skeptics have written--and I'm sure many more have believed--that David Hume regarded belief in miracles as in principle unjustifiable. In a paper I gave to an international conference in Spain in 1997, I tried to correct this mistake.

For a second example, I refer you to Tom Napier's article entitled "Can Critical Thinking be Overextended?" in the December 2001 issue of Skeptical Briefs, where he lays out a mistaken view common to a number of skeptics. He says that critical thinking -- "the use of reason to evaluate data and make deductions from them"--cannot be applied to religion because there are no relevant data. This is apparently meant to be supported by the lines that follow: "One of the central tenets of Protestant theology is that there cannot be proof that God exists.With proof it would be unnecessary to have faith and without faith there is no salvation." This is variously confused or mistaken.

First, I invite everyone to avoid the word "proof" in serious discussion. The word is thoroughly ambiguous. On the one hand, it typically--and, I should propose, correctly--means something like "logically or mathematically compelling demonstration", as when we talk of a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem.If this is what Tom had in mind, then there may well be no proof--no logico-mathematically compelling demonstration--that God exists, but that would hardly be interesting. Very few people have ever thought that "God exists" is true in the same sense that "All red fire-engines are red" and "2+2=4" are true. On the other hand, "proof" is sometimes used to mean something like "substantial justification".I suppose that Tom has some such meaning in mind when he says that "one of the central tenets of Protestant theology is that there cannot be proof that God exists".So let's understand "proof" in this sense.

Now it is simply false that "one of the central tenets of Protestant theology is that there cannot be proof that God exists".(By the way, even if it were true, that would not mean that there cannot be proof that God exists.But it is not true that this is a central tenet of Protestant theology.) Christian theology teaches that God has given us two different sorts of revelation.We have a general revelation of His existence in the whole of the beautifully ordered universe: any rational people scanning the world around them can see or infer the activity of a magnificent Designer and Creator therein. The Psalmist tells us that "the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1). We also have a special revelation, in Scripture and perhaps in the traditions of the Church, which teaches what cannot be inferred by the unaided reason from our observations of the world: namely, that God's nature is triune, that Christ was born of a virgin; that He died for our sins, arose from the grave on the third day, ascended into heaven, and so on.These latter are the sorts of doctrines at least some of which must be believed for salvation...and must be held on faith.

How do I know all this? Because I discussed the matter with theologians at the Presbyterian and Lutheran seminaries in the area and at Episcopal church headquarters; and I read the Roman Catholic doctrine on the matter as laid down by the first Vatican Council in 1870.

Tom seems to reason this way: because on the Protestant view faith is required for salvation, on that view we must believe on faith that there is a God.That just doesn't follow, and is the sort of sloppy thinking among skeptics that distresses me. Belief that there is a God won't take us any distance toward salvation. "Thou believest that there is one God," writes James."Thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble" (2:19). The faith required for salvation is something like faith that Christ suffered and died for our sins--that without Him we are lost sinners doomed to eternal damnation.

One final example of the careless thinking into which skeptics slip.In the most recent Phactum, Tom writes that a distinction between beliefs and claims supports his notion that "PhACT...[is] not a proper forum for discussing religion".He says: "'Jesus performed miracles' is a belief. 'I can perform miracles' is a claim." This doesn't go any distance toward establishing the distinction Tom wants, since, though he says that "Jesus performed miracles" is a belief, it can as easily be a claim, if somebody claims it; and though he says that "I can perform miracles" is a claim, it can as easily be a belief, if somebody believes it.Tom goes on: "A belief...is not normally subject to experimental proof."This is just plain silly.Thousands of my beliefs--and of yours, I'm sure--are "subject to experimental proof". What follows is also silly: "In the sense in which skeptics use it, 'claim' refers to a specific here and-now ability which, presumably, can be demonstrated." Yesterday I read the claim that the soul lives on the astral plane for exactly ten thousand years between incarnations. There was no presumption that the claim could be demonstrated.I don't know where Tom learned English, but it was not among standard speakers of the language. (I have more to say about the distinction between claims and beliefs, which I will share during the discussion period if anyone is interested.)


But these issues are not central to my talk today.I mention them only to establish the need for skeptics to be careful when discussing the nature of knowledge and the justification of beliefs. I mean to bring together in this study a number of interrelated themes clustering around the general topic of the justification of belief. By way of illustration, I'll have occasion to talk about logic, mathematics, natural science, and religion as areas of thought in which questions about beliefs and their justification are at least sometimes central.

Some of what I have to say may seem controversial or provocative.The views expressed are my own and may not be shared by everyone. I hope to elicit objections and comments, to stimulate a dialogue on this topic--a topic that has to be fundamental for anyone interested in skepticism. On a number of my topics I have more to say than I'll include here.I'll pause from time to time to identify issues I'd be happy to discuss further if anyone is interested.

When I talk about justifying beliefs, I have in mind what we mean when we talk about supporting or grounding them or showing them to be legitimate.What I'll call rational grounds(as distinct from prudential grounds)for believing something are any considerations that tend to show that the claim in question is true.This is the sense that I'll henceforth have in mind when I talk about the justification of belief.

One might wonder why we should ever care about the justification of belief in this sense, or whether beliefs need justification.The answer seems simple. To believe something is to commit oneself to its truth.Of course we have strong beliefs and weak beliefs.But this only means that our commitment to the truth of claims is sometimes strong and sometimes weak--which in turn means only that we sometimes have a great resistance to changing our mind on some matter, and sometimes little resistance.The basic point remains: to believe something is to be committed to its truth. So caring that our beliefs should be true rather than false is part of what it means to believe at all. In the absence of justification we can only hope that our beliefs are true, but we have no reason to think that they actually are.

The word "faith" has many different meanings.But in one of its senses, to believe something on faith is to believe it in the absence of rational justification.In this sense, then, those who believe something on faith have no good reason to think that their belief is true.Faith in this sense is not a special kind of justification; it is the absence of any justification at all.(In "The Will to Believe", William James offers the schoolboy's definition:"Faith is when you believe something that you know ain't true."This is groundless belief opposed by a mass of contrary evidence, not just belief without evidence.)

Within the realm of rational justification, there's an important distinction to be made--the distinction between what I'll call verification and confirmation. To verify a claim, in the sense that I'll use the term, is to show that it is true, to establish or guarantee or demonstrate its truth. I'd call a proof that 7+5=12 a verification of the claim.And I'd call pointing to it in normal light a verification of the claim that this piece of litmus paper is blue.

But very few claims--and perhaps no interesting ones--are subject to verification. So verification is not primarily what I have in mind when I talk about the justification of beliefs.Of course verification is justification--indeed, justification of the strongest sort.But it's not the only sort of justification of belief.Remember the earlier points: "When I talk about justifying beliefs, I have in mind what we mean when we talk about supporting or grounding them or showing them to be legitimate."And "rational grounds [for believing something]...are any considerations that tend to show that the claim in question is true."

To confirm a belief is to enhance its credibility, to show that it is more likely to be true than false, to give good but less than conclusive grounds for thinking that it's true. We are well aware, then, that our beliefs so justified may be false.We nonetheless believe them, not because we are sure that they are true, but because we have better reason to believe them true than false. But we believe them only provisionally--that is, with a readiness to change our mind if better reasons come in on the other side.

Still, none of these remarks tells us how beliefs are confirmed.The point will be addressed in more detail later. But this much can be said here. In establishing beliefs--and in particular, in trying to anticipate future events--people over the ages have followed a large number and wide variety of practices.Some of these practices have turned out to be successful--beliefs adopted on their basis have often turned out to be true; expectations guided by these practices have often been fulfilled--while other belief-forming practices have turned out to be unsuccessful. A belief is confirmed, then, if it is supported by practices that have so far regularly led to the truth. What some of these practices are, we'll see later.

In a moment I will present and discuss what I'll call "the classical view" on the justification of belief.The label refers not to what Plato and Aristotle thought on the matter, but to a broad position running from Francis Bacon, John Locke, and David Hume through John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte to Bertrand Russell, Rudolph Carnap, and A. J. Ayer. I'll sketch some "classical" views on the justification of belief: on empirical significance, on the factual vs. the logical, and on the notions of explanation, natural law, cause, hypothesis, confirmation, and scientific theory.

There have been many criticisms of the classical position over the past three or four decades. I will not survey these, but can direct the interested reader to some relevant literature. In the discussion period, I could further discuss one particularly influential position, that of W. V.O. Quine, certainly America's most important philosopher of the last fifty years. His view in some ways develops and in other ways criticizes, but in any event enriches, the classical view on the justification of belief.


At the end I will review and summarize the main points of the talk, and apply these insights to questions about religious belief and its justification. Along the way, I'll address the question of which if any religious beliefs are susceptible to rational investigation.

Before trying to justify a claim, we have to know what it means.And before deciding what its meaning is, we have to decide whether it has any meaning at all--whether it's a meaningful claim or a meaningless, vacuous, empty one. While there are no doubt many senses of "meaning", I want to focus on what we can call the empirical or factual meaning--what has been called the cognitive content--of a proposition.

Roughly, the question is: is this or is it not a claim about "the world" in the broadest sense--i.e., about the world given in experience, about reality, about the way things are in fact?Here's the test. Imagine that someone asserts a proposition P.You ask: "How would the world be observably different if P were false?" Put otherwise: "What experiences would be incompatible with P, or would count against P?What experiences would incline you to change your mind, and deny rather than assert P?"Of course, you're not asking the asserter to grant that P is false. You're rather asking what the world would be like if it were false.If the claimant can specify observable states of affairs incompatible with the truth of P, then you recognize P as having cognitive content, as being a factual claim--not necessarily a true claim, but a claim about matters of fact. The proposition P then describes (or misdescribes) the world, because it distinguishes the world as the claimant thinks it actually is from other ways that it might be but (presumably) isn't.

But suppose that the claimant can't specify how things would be different if P were false. That is, suppose that the claimant considers P compatible with every possible state of affairs. Then P is not about the world at all; it doesn't describe reality, because it doesn't distinguish things as they are from any other ways they might be.Some examples will help to clarify this important principle.

Somebody solemnly announces: "Time is unreal."This has an air of great profundity about it.But before lapsing into speechless awe, we think to ask the speaker: "What would things be like if time were real? How would they be different than they are now?" Do you see how we can thus zero in on just what the substance of the claim is, on just what it says or commits the believer to?Perhaps the claimant can specify how things would be observably different if time were real than they are now; and if so, we know that the claim is meaningful and we are on our way to understanding what it means.But it's my guess (from years of experience with sophomoric philosophy) that the claimant can't say how things would be different if the claim were false. In that event, I reject the claim--not because it's false, but because it's literal non-sense; it's meaningless, and hence not even a candidate for my belief.

Again, someone says: "God loves each of us as a father loves his children."If the claimant can specify possible (though of course not actual) states of affairs with which this claim is incompatible, we can begin to get a handle on what it means.But in many cases, those who assert this can propose no states of affairs ruled out by the belief. I should think that it would be incompatible with the excruciatingly painful deaths of hundreds of infants in a natural disaster.But the believer doesn't think so.I should think that it would be incompatible with eternal torment for the damned. But the believer doesn't think so. And if the claim is compatible with every possible state of affairs, then it's not a claim about reality, since it would be assertable regardless of how things really are, and thus is no more about things as they are than it is about any other possible state of affairs.


Now consider the claim that 2+3=5.I ask myself how the world would be observably different if this were false...and I can't say. On reflection, I realize that I consider this proposition compatible with every possible state of affairs. Or again: "If anything's a red fire-engine then it's red." I can't imagine how things would be different if this were false. I think that I would assert it regardless of what the world was like.

On the classical view being put forth, then, these last two claims are as meaningless or empty as the preceding--they're not statements of fact; they're not about the world. They are, however, true. They differ from empirical or factual truths in that mathematical and logical truths like these latter not only are true of the real world, but would be true of any possible world as well. In that sense they are not descriptions of the world.They are true not because of the way the world is, but are true merely by virtue of the meanings of their constituent words.(All true statements are true at least in part because of the meanings of their constituent terms: "Grass is green" would be false if by "green" we meant what we now mean by "red".But the truths of logic and mathematics are true solely by virtue of those meanings; no extra-linguistic facts contribute to their truth.) Statements true by virtue only of the meanings of their constituent terms have been called analytic truths; the remaining truths are called synthetic.

The "metaphysician" and the "theologian" can derive no comfort from this last point, though. People who say "Time is unreal" are not likely to regard the claim as true solely by virtue of what "time" and "is" and "unreal" mean: they think that the sentence is genuinely informative about the reality that lies outside of language.And theologians are not likely to say that we can learn, merely by analyzing the meanings of words, that God loves us as a father loves his children: they consider the claim descriptive of the way things actually are, as a matter of facts that are not merely linguistic facts.

On the classical view, then, a statement is significant--is a candidate for truth or falsehood, and hence for our belief or disbelief--if and only if either (a) its truth or falsehood can be determined solely by reflection on the meanings of its constituent terms, or (b) its truth would be incompatible with some specifiable experiences: some observations, in the broadest sense, would count against the statement.

Having made a distinction first between the meaningful and the meaningless, and then between the factually or empirically meaningful on the one hand and the logically or mathematically meaningful on the other, the classical view proceeds to an analysis of a cluster of concepts in terms of which we describe and evaluate responsible thinking about matters of fact: explanation, law, cause, hypothesis, confirmation, and theory.

To explain an event or state of affairs is to reduce it from the "phenomenal" or puzzling to the "natural" or familiar, to fit it into a pattern, to show that it is what had to happen, given the attendant facts both specific and general. By specific facts I mean things like the wind's shifting to the west or the gun's going off. By general facts I mean things like the boiling point of water at sea-level or the relation between the pressure, temperature, and volume of an enclosed gas.We call the statements expressing well-established generalities or regularities in nature laws. When the generalization expresses a regularity in the sequences of events--"events of kind A are always followed, nearby and soon after, by events of kind B"--we often call the law a causal law, and call the antecedent event the cause of the consequent event, the effect.

The basic pattern for the explanation of a fact F, then, is its subsumption under natural law. We show that from a description of attendant circumstances (which are specific facts) and relevant laws (which are general facts) we can infer a description of F. In the causal case we show that the particular antecedent circumstances are related to the fact F as a special case of a natural law: whenever this happens, that happens.Prior conditions being what they were, and the world in general running the way it does, F is what had to occur.When explanation is successful, we realize that, had we known earlier what we know now, we could correctly have predicted the occurrence of F. That's the sense in which explanation makes what had been puzzling seem natural or ordinary--just what we would have expected had we been more familiar with all the facts.

In this way we explain specific facts. To explain the rupture of the car's radiator last night, we call attention both to attendant circumstances (specific facts: the radiator was made of copper of such-and-such thickness; it was filled with plain water; the temperature went down to 0°F; etc.) and to a number of laws (general facts about the behavior of water below the freezing point; about the strength of copper; etc.).From all these statements together we can infer the breaking of the radiator. We thus explain its breaking by showing that it had to break under the specific and general circumstances obtaining last night.

We explain general facts in the same way.Kepler's Law says that the planets of the solar system move in elliptical orbits, a line from each planet to the sun sweeping out equal areas in equal times. When it was proposed, this was a "brute fact" about the solar system.But we now know why the planets should move thus: Kepler's Law can be deduced from Newton's laws of motion, together with some information about such things as the relative masses of the planets and the sun.So "lower level" or less general laws are also explained by being subsumed under "higher level" or more general laws, together with some information about the special circumstances within which those higher laws operate.

We have yet to see how a statement gets to be a law.A law is a statement expressing a well-established regularity in nature. Call a general statement after it has been proposed as a law but before it has been well-established an hypothesis. The process by which such a law-like claim becomes a law is called confirmation.We said earlier that "to confirm a belief is to enhance its credibility, to show that it is more likely to be true than false, to give good but less than conclusive grounds for thinking that it's true". But what counts?

Sometimes, confirmation of a general statement can be quite direct: the hypothesis "All swans are white" is confirmed by the observation of individual swans that are white. The greater the number and variety of swans observed to be white, the better our reasons for believing the hypothesis to be a law.

But more often confirmation is indirect, following a somewhat more complicated pattern. Typically, from the hypothesis being tested (together with background information that we already have good reason to believe) we deduce statements whose truth or falsehood can be observed. These observable consequences of the hypothesis are statements that have to be true if the hypothesis is. The fulfillment of these consequences counts as confirmation of the hypothesis--reason to believe that the hypothesis is true.Of course, the observation that things are as they would have to be if the hypothesis were true is not verification--it is not a guarantee that the hypothesis is true. (The observation of a white swan is no guarantee that all swans are white.But it does go some distance toward rendering the general statement credible. How far it goes is the difficult subject matter of inductive logic, probability theory, and statistics.)

It's an interesting question why the verification of a logical consequence of an hypothesis counts as confirmation of it.This is one of the topics on which I'd expand in the discussion period if anyone is interested.


Finally, we need to say something about what a scientific theory is. This has been and remains the subject of much controversy in Philosophy. But a few things can confidently and usefully be said here.First of all, in everyday discourse we sometimes use the terms theory and hypothesis interchangeably:"I have a theory (or hypothesis) about how the window got broken." But when scientists talk about the heliocentric theory or the theory of evolution or relativity theory or the kinetic theory of gases, they do not mean an educated guess or an unsubstantiated claim.For that they reserve the word hypothesis.A theory is a comprehensive point of view that integrates a number of laws into a coherent body of thought.Frequently a theory does its characteristic work by appeal to postulated entities, properties, events, or processes that are unobservable. So the support for a theory cannot come directly from observation.It comes rather from the power of the theory to organize, to systematize, a large body of otherwise disconnected facts.The virtues of a theory are such things as its simplicity, its scope, its internal consistency, its compatibility with other well-established beliefs, and its ability to suggest and guide further successful research projects. Again, I can illustrate this in the discussion period if anyone is interested.


A scientific theory tries to make sense of a number of well-established but disconnected beliefs by organizing them into a coherent system.So the justification for adopting theories is not that they correctly describe the world: what correctly describe the world are the particular beliefs organized by the theory.The justification for adopting a theory is rather its power to integrate a large number and wide variety of general facts about the world that would otherwise remain disconnected.In this way, the theory of evolution connects an amazing number and variety of facts from geology, biology, paleontology, and other fields. Its appeal, like that of any theory in science, lies primarily in its power and elegance.

We have briefly surveyed a number of related issues bearing on the justification of belief. We have distinguished between meaningful and meaningless claims, and within the former category have distinguished between synthetic (factual, empirical) truths and analytic (logico-mathematical) truths.We have then discussed--again,too briefly--the concepts of explanation, law, cause, hypothesis, confirmation, and theory in science.

I want to illustrate some of the foregoing remarks by considering religious beliefs and their justification.It should be clear from the foregoing what sorts of claims--religious or otherwise--are subject to rational, scientific investigation: any claims that purport to be either descriptive of a matter of fact or true by virtue of the meanings of terms.

We can bypass the latter category. It is a relatively easy matter to determine whether or not a claim is true by virtue of the meanings of its constituent terms.And if we doubt it, the proponent bears the responsibility of providing the requisite linguistic analysis or proof.In any event, few characteristically religious claims are presented as true on linguistic grounds alone.Perhaps the only interesting exceptions are ontological arguments for the existence of God (à la Anselm, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hartshorne, Malcolm, Plantinga).

Which if any religious claims, then, would not be subject to scientific investigation? First of all, there are those that purport to be substantive but aren't--those that the proponent considers compatible with every possible state of affairs (perhaps "God loves us as a father loves his children").Evidence one way or the other is unavailable, because every state of affairs counts in favor of such a belief; so it is properly rejected, since it is no more about this world than about any other possible state of affairs.

Then there are those claims that don't even purport to be descriptive.The most conspicuous examples are pure, basic, ultimate ethical principles, if (as seems plausible) these are statements not about how things are but about how they ought to be.Such principles would not be susceptible to scientific investigation. (Jeremy Bentham says that ethical judgments are ultimately factual claims--in his case, claims about what acts will maximize happiness.But his is a minority view, I think.)If there are other religious beliefs that do not purport to be descriptive, then they too would be immune from scientific scrutiny.

What about sheer declarations of faith--"I believe on faith alone that: the universe came into existence about 10,000 years ago...Jesus arose from the dead...Aunt Minnie's cancer is cured...every line of Scripture is literally true...a personal,omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly benevolent Being is one of the many, many things that actually exist"?Are such declarations of personal faith also immune from scientific investigation? Of course not. Each of these is a statement about matters of fact, whose truth or falsehood would have observable consequences and would be compatible or incompatible with other well-established principles. So in each case there is empirical evidence that points one way or the other, or perhaps some evidence that points one way and some that points the other.In any event, such claims are prime candidates for scientific investigation.

Remember that to say "I believe P on faith alone" is not to claim a special kind of justification; it is rather to admit that I have no rational grounds for believing P, but believe it anyway.In such a case, nothing prevents someone else from seeking evidence one way or the other on the matter, if the matter is what we have been calling empirical or factual. After all, what is believed on faith may be false--even demonstrably false.

Traditional (other than ontological) arguments typically offer the God-hypothesis as the best explanation for certain observable features of the world, which features are considered evidence for God's existence--very general features (as that things change), or middle-sized features (as that the earth is so admirably suited to human existence), or very specific features (as that an image of Jesus appeared on a tortilla in Guatemala).These traditional arguments for the existence of God, then, have roughly the structure of ordinary scientific arguments, and purport to meet the same criteria.

The fact is, however, that appeal to God's activity explains nothing at all. I'll illustrate this on two quite different scales. Many people think that "God created the universe ex nihilo--out of nothing" offers a causal explanation of its origin--perhaps not the correct explanation, but at least what could be an explanation.But it doesn't. Remember that to explain something means to fit it into a well-established pattern, to subsume it under a law. To explain the occurrence of a particular event Y by saying that event X caused it is at least to say that (a) event X occurred before Y, and (b) our experience shows that whenever an event like X occurs, it's followed by an event like Y.So in order for appeal to the creative power of God's will to count as explaining the origin of the universe, we'd have to have lots of experiences of God's wanting a universe, followed by the appearance of one.But of course nothing of the sort is the case. The believer might say that we do have relevant experiences, but of a different kind: we have experiences of semi-potent wills bringing things about, God is omnipotent, and so we know what it means to say that God always gets what He wants--that's the requisite "law". But while we may know what this means, we have no reason to think that it's true. That is, we have absolutely no reason to believe that there is a general principle (or, for that matter, an antecedent state of affairs) of the sort needed for an explanation in this case. One who says that God created the universe is saying exactly this: I have no idea how the universe came into existence.

Similarly, some people think that "God caused the rain to fall yesterday on the parched fields of Kansas" offers what could be an explanation. But it doesn't, unless we have empirical evidence that (a) God wanted it to rain yesterday, and (b) it rains whenever God wants it to. Of course we have no such experience. (The story might be elaborated to have thousands of Kansans praying for rain. But this won't help unless it rains whenever lots of people pray for it. Despite the Scriptural promise, faithful petitions are not always granted. And even if they were, we'd have to say that prayer, not God, caused the rain.)One who says that God caused the rain is saying exactly this: I have no idea what caused the rain.


I defer to the discussion period one final issue: does scientific belief and practice, like some religious belief and practice, depend on faith, on unjustified assumptions? We can pursue this later if anyone is interested.


That concludes my presentation. If you carry away any moral from these remarks, it should be this: that anyone interested in critical thinking must be very cautious when thinking about the justification of beliefs. It's easy to go astray if you get the least bit careless.So please be careful.



"I have more to say about the distinction between claims and beliefs, which I will share during the discussion period if anyone is interested."

What I have in mind here involves the notion of what philosophers often call a proposition. A proposition is what is true or false. It is not a bit of language, but is the meaning of a declarative or indicative sentence: for example, it is what is common to "Il pleut", "Es regnet",and "It's raining". And, most importantly for the present purposes, it's the object of propositional attitudes like belief, doubt, assertion, denial, and so on; it's what is believed, doubted, asserted, denied, and so on.It's the "that P" clause in the following:

...and on and on.

And we also have:

...and on and on. These last don't express propositional attitudes, but express what might be called modes of the proposition that P. It is a proposition that is falsifiable, verifiable, mathematically demonstrable, "subject to empirical investigation", or so on. That's why it's so absurd for Tom to say: "A belief...is not normally subject to experimental proof".If it is experimentally provable that P, and I believe that P, then my belief is subject to experimental proof.


W. V. O. Quine--in his "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (reprinted in From a Logical Point of View), The Web of Belief, and other works--develops a view that is critical of the foregoing distinction between synthetic and analytic truth, and that supports a somewhat different account of thejustification of belief. Picture the body of one's beliefs as a web of interconnected nodes attached to experience only at the periphery. The lines of connection within the web represent the dependency of some beliefs on others: some of our beliefs either evidentially support or are supported by others. Only some of our beliefs directly depend on, or report, experiences: "There's a patch of blue in my visual field", or perhaps "There's a coffee cup on the table before me." The rest of our beliefs depend not immediately on experience but on other beliefs, which themselves depend on still other beliefs, and so on. Ultimately all of our beliefs are connected to experience--but most of them only indirectly, and some very indirectly, via many links to many other beliefs.
Again imagine the web. The distance of a belief from the periphery- experience--represents a number of things. The farther a belief is from experience, the more other beliefs is it connected to in the network of interdependency, and hence the larger the number and wider the variety of experiences on which it ultimately depends.Because of the interdependency of beliefs, changes in one belief (plus our desire for consistency) will of necessity occasion changes in others. Beliefs at or near the periphery are connected to relatively few others, so a
change in a peripheral belief--a single observational datum--seldom requires a change in many other beliefs.Hence our readiness to change beliefs near the edge. I believe that there are no bars on Diamond Street, but would readily abandon that belief in the face of unexpected experiences, because so little depends on it.
But we have a legitimate reluctance to change beliefs more deeply imbedded in the network, since to change one of them will require changes in many others, each of which presumably lies within its own network of justification. Changes in our more general and fundamental beliefs are in this sense more costly than changes in our more specific beliefs. So the distance of a belief from the periphery is also a measure of our willingness or reluctanceto change our minds in the face of recalcitrant experience. The failure of only a few experiences to come out as we expected is unlikely to cause us to change our mind about our very general beliefs, since they are connected to a wider variety of experiences than are our more specific beliefs.
Quine says that "our statements about the externalworld face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body." Regardless of what our experiences are like, we can consistently hold virtually any belief if we are willing to adjust enough other beliefs to accommodate it. You can believe, consistently with ordinary experiences, that we live not on the outside but on the inside of a big sphere, if you are willing to hold beliefs about gravitation, the nature of light, and so on, that are radically different from most people's. But the resulting belief-system may be so arbitrary and ad hoc as to be thoroughly unacceptable.
This general view holds that all beliefs depend ultimately on experience, some more and others less directly. The beliefs most distantly related to experience--those at the center of the web--are remotely connected to virtually all of our experiences. They are also the beliefs that it would be most costly to change, since their change would require changes throughout the
whole network. Indeed, we can understand why people might be psychologically unable to imagine how their experiences would be different if their central beliefs were false; but
this is just a failure of imagination.

Quine claims, then, that the "classical" distinction between synthetic and analytic truth, between truths that have empirical content and those that don't (those that are true solely by virtue of the meanings of words) cannot be defended. All beliefs, even the most fundamental and apparently incorrigible, are properly subject to change. Itstrains the imagination to regard the principles of logic and mathematics as susceptible to revision in the face of radically new experiences; but Quine ably argues that they are revisable.
Which beliefs are at the center of the network would, of course, vary from individual to individual. I think the paradigmatically rational person would have the principles of logic and mathematics there. But someone else might have there their religious convictions, their political principles, or virtually anything else—whatever beliefs are so deeply involved in all their other beliefs that only changes in all of their experiences could justify changes in those central beliefs, which latter changes would have repercussions throughout the entire body of their beliefs.


Other examples abound. Someone thinks that this is a deep question: What if I have the inner color-experience when looking at grass that you have when you're looking at a clear sky, and vice versa? Of course you and I both call the grass and like-colored things "green", and the sky and like colored things "blue". But what if our experiences were reversed? Before wasting time on this puzzle, ask how things would be observably different if things were one way rather than the other in this respect--what experiences could possibly settle the issue. I propose that there is no objective or empirical difference between the world either way, and hence that the claim that we have different color-experiences when looking at grass (like the claim that we have similar color-experiences when looking at grass) is vacuous and hence not worth thinking about--there being nothing to think about.


"It's an interesting question why the verification of a logical consequence of an hypothesis counts as confirmation of it." (a) It may be because what follows of logical necessity from a claim expresses part of its content. (For an oversimple example: "Both Tom and Mary are here" logically implies "Mary is here", which is part of what the former statement says. Seeing that Mary is here enhances the believability of the claim that Tom and Mary are here.) On this account, confirmation is partial verification. In the normal case, we can't observe the truth of a general claim. But we can observe the truth or falsehood of specific claims that are logically entailed or implied by a general claim. And it surely makes sense to think that we raise the credibility of a general claim by showing that part of what it says is true.
(b) Another kind of reason has been given for regarding as confirmation of a general claim the verification of its consequences. Because the observational consequences deduced from it are logically necessary consequences of the hypothesis (together with the background information assumed), the falsehood of one of those consequences falsifies the hypothesis (on the assumption--which is well-grounded but itself subject to revision--that the background beliefs are true). Typically the testing of a hypothesis, then, involves the effort to falsify it--and its confirmation is the failure of those efforts. If our best efforts to show that our hypothesis is false have failed, we have earned the right to regard it as true--or at least behave as if it's true. (How would you show that "All sodium salts burn yellow" is false, if it is? You'd burn a sodium salt and see that the flame isn't yellow. So to confirm the hypothesis we burn as large a number and wide a variety of sodium salts as we can, maximizing our chances of finding a falsifier if there is one.) On this account, confirmation is delayed falsification. The longer our aggressive efforts at falsification are unsuccessful, the better reason we have to
treat the hypothesis as true.


Although I'm quite unsympathetic with psychoanalytic theory on other grounds, it nonetheless can be used to illustrate the main features of a scientific theory. Suppose that people who have had early and severe toilet training grow up to be authoritarian people. Suppose that boys who lost their fathers early in life fear bats when they grow up. Suppose that men who must frequently wash
their hands also often dream about flagpoles. As such these would be disparate and inexplicable facts--mere facts, brute facts. What the machinery of psychoanalysis--id, ego, superego, libido, cathexis, the unconscious, repression, Oedipus complex--what this apparatus does is propose a whole realm of unobservable entities and processes, with specified features, that variously are affected by our experiences and affect our behavior. Psychoanalysis proposes that, and how, apparently unrelated phenomena like toilet training, neurotic behavior, slips of the tongue, and dreams are
really related beneath the surface of conscious life. And it purports to explain why certain alleged regularities of human life should be as they are.


JESUS'S TEACHING ON PETITIONARY PRAYER: God gives believers everything they ask for in Jesus's name.

Matthew 17:20. And Jesus said unto them, ...Verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
Matthew 18:19. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
Matthew 21:21-22. Jesus...said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ...if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.
Mark 9:23. Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.

Mark 11:23-24. ...Verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.
John 14:13-14. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.

John 15:7. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.

John 15:16. Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.
John 16: 23-24. ...Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.


"Does scientific belief and practice, like some religious belief and practice, depend on faith, on unjustified assumptions?" Some people have claimed that it does, and even that it must. An argument for the latter view runs thus: any belief that's justified at all is justified by appeal other beliefs, and those to still other beliefs, and so on. So if there are no unjustified beliefs at the bottom, on which all the others ultimately rest, we are faced with either an infinite regress or a vicious circle of justification; and in either of these last two cases, nothing can really be justified. So if any beliefs
are justified, some foundational beliefs must be unjustified.
This line of thought is insensitive to the "bootstrap" nature of scientific practice. Whenever testing a belief, some other beliefs are taken for granted on that occasion. But the assumptions of that occasion are themselves subject to confirmation on another occasion (on which, of course, different beliefs are taken for granted).If this sounds circular, at least it's not a simple vicious circle. And it's more like a spiral, in which large bodies of beliefs are given support over time. If any of the temporary assumptions in this on-going process is false, there's every reason to think that its falsehood will
eventually be exposed in the ordinary way.
A more common charge is that scientific practice presupposes certain principles, which therefore cannot themselves be scientifically justified and must remain articles of scientific faith. The main candidates for this status are versions of "Every event has a natural cause" or "Nature is orderly" or "The future will be like the past." It's true, of course, that if there were no regularities in nature, science couldn't operate. But hoping (not assuming) that there are regularities, we look for them, find lots, and expect to find more.
Why should we hope to find regularities (even if there aren't many)? Because it's only by identifying patterns in nature that we can understand what's going on, anticipate the course of events, and exercise some control over what happens. We have discovered that nature has been orderly. We have no guarantee--nor need we assume--that it will continue to be orderly, that the future will be like
the past; nor need we believe that every event has a cause. But we will continue to hunt for causes and other regularities in nature, since only by looking for them can we find them if they exist.

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