There are many myths and misunderstandings that prevent clear thinking, good debate, and proper argumentation. I will discuss ten myths about beliefs, but first I will describe knowledge.
What is Knowledge?
Knowledge is defined by many philosophers as justified true belief. For example, my belief that I exist is a justified true belief I have. Some beliefs are justified, such as our belief that Einstein’s theory of physics is true. Some beliefs are true, such as our belief that gravity existed in 2009. However, some beliefs might be true without any justification—such as my belief that I will live for the next 10 years. It could be true, but I can’t really give a good reason that I have the belief. Some beliefs are true, but people have them for the wrong reason. For example, some people might believe that Einstein’s theory of physics is true just because their parents believe it (rather than because the most respectable scientists agree with it).
Knowledge requires justified beliefs, and justified beliefs often require arguments—reasons to accept a conclusion. Good reasons for a conclusion are good justifications.
True beliefs are statements that refer to facts, and facts are things in the world. If it is true that I exist, then I am something in the world that the statement “I exist” refers to. No belief is required for me to exist. Facts do not require true statements to exist because true statements are merely statements that corresponds to facts.
Myths About Beliefs
What are the myths about beliefs that I will discuss?
- All opinions are equal.
- Challenging a belief is an insult.
- Something is true because I feel certain about it.
- A statement is an argument.
- Disagreement is an argument.
- Controversial beliefs can’t be justified.
- An objection to a belief proves it’s wrong.
- Knowledge requires an explicit justification.
- Justified beliefs have to be certain.
- All beliefs are rationally acceptable.
All opinions are equal.
Not all opinions are equal. It is clear that all opinions are not equal considering that we know some beliefs are true and others are false. Fist, mathematical truths, such as 1+1=2 is not up for debate. Second, it is pretty clear that some opinions are better than others now that science is so successful. How to make a television set is not a matter of belief, it is a matter of reality. Jumping off a skyscraper will kill you no matter how safe you might believe it to be. And so on.
It is also clear that all opinions are not equal because such a belief is self-defeating. Imagine for a moment that all opinions are equal. However, in that case the opinion that “not all opinions are equal” is just as good as the belief that “all opinions are equal.”
What makes some opinions better than others are (a) the truth and (b) justification. Some opinions are true and others are false. Some opinions are justified and others are unjustified. The best beliefs are the most justified beliefs. It is better to believe something false for good reasons than something true for bad reasons. Why? Good reasons are reliable and bad reasons aren’t. The odds of having a true belief from good reasons are higher than from poor reasons.
False justified beliefs.
Scientists at one point felt absolutely certain that Newton’s theory of physics was true, and they had no reason to doubt it. However, we later on found out that it had some flaws and Einstein’s theory of physics proved that Newton’s theory was false. At the same time the scientists had justified beliefs about physics that were clearly superior to previous theories of physics.
True unjustified beliefs.
Some people believe that racism is wrong just because their parents think racism is wrong. However, getting all of our values from our parents is not a reliable way to get our moral values. Some parents are racists, but that isn’t a good reason to be a racist. Additionally, your parent might be correct that racism is wrong, but have other false moral beliefs that you might accept without a second thought.
Challenging a belief is an insult.
It is not insulting to challenge someone’s belief. If you have a false belief, then you should welcome others to let you know about it. There’s nothing wrong with trying to correct people’s beliefs. Of course, it is most polite to actually tell someone why you think they are wrong. To demand agreement without argument can be disrespectful and pushy.
To be afraid to challenge someone’s beliefs can be disrespectful because you will be assuming that the person is too irrational and “can’t take criticism.” If your assumption is correct, then the person really is irrational (at least in one respect).
It is also disrespectful to punish or blame people merely for challenging your opinions. You are basically telling that person that he or she can’t possibly have a better reason for his or her belief than you have for holding yours.
Something is true because I feel certain about it.
No matter how much you feel like you are right, you might not be. Many people say that they are “certain” that something is true, but “certainty” means that a belief is infallible—that it couldn’t possibly be false. To feel certainty is not to actually have certainty.
We are, in fact, not certain about very much in life. We might be certain about mathematical and logical truths, but not so much about the world or ourselves. Most of our best knowledge is based on the assumption that the future will be like the past, but we can’t know that for certain. The sun might not rise tomorrow, gravity might not exist tomorrow, etc.
A statement is an argument.
A statement or assertion is not an argument. For example, “fire is hot” is not an argument because an argument requires a justification or reason to believe something. There is no reason given to accept it. However, a series of statements can be an argument. For example:
- Fire has high kinetic energy.
- All objects or areas of high kinetic energy feel hot.
- Therefore, fire is hot.
Disagreement is an argument.
No disagreement is required for an argument. The above argument concerning fire does not require any disagreement. It is a reason to believe that fire is hot despite the fact that people already agree that fire is hot. We can use arguments to try to give reasons for beliefs that no one has ever seriously questioned.
Controversial beliefs can’t be justified.
Just about everything in philosophy is controversial, but it is possible for two incompatible beliefs to both be justified. Philosophers have spent years studying and defending various theories—such as utilitarianism—and one philosopher can have a justified belief that utilitarian is false even though another philosopher can have a justified belief that utilitarianism is true. In a similar way it could be that one philosopher can have a justified belief that cocaine should be legal and another can have a justified belief that it should be illegal. Such beliefs are not sufficiently justified to prove that they are true, but they are sufficiently justified for a person to rationally hold the belief.
Some actions are morally acceptable, such as walking on your hands, and some beliefs are rationally acceptable, such as the belief that cocaine should be legal.
An objection to a belief proves it’s wrong.
First, an objection might not be a good objection to a belief. For example, the fact that cocaine is unhealthy and harmful doesn’t in itself prove that cocaine should be illegal. (Those could be objections to its legality.)
Second, good objections do not prove a belief is wrong. A good objection is one that seems to undermine a belief. There are serious problems with many scientific theories, but scientists call them “anomalies.” These are issues that the scientist hopes will be “explained away” in the future rather than proof that the theory is false.
In order to know if a belief is undermined by an objection, we need to decide how much reason we have that supports the belief. If I drop an object and it doesn’t fall, that wouldn’t disprove the existence of gravity because we have so much reason to believe in gravity. However, an objection against the belief in ghosts could be very worrisome because we have so little reason to believe in ghosts to begin with.
Knowledge requires an explicit justification.
Explicit justification is basically an argument. We don’t need to be able to give an argument to have knowledge. I know that 1+1=2 but I don’t have an argument that proves it. Some of our knowledge is difficult to justify, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have knowledge. Some people know that killing people for no reason is wrong despite not knowing how to explain why it’s wrong.
Justified beliefs have to be certain.
Certainty requires infallibility—the impossibility of being wrong. However, justified beliefs can be false—such as the belief scientists had in Newton’s theory of gravity. Some beliefs are rationally acceptable and others are rationally required. It can be rationally acceptable to believe that cocaine should be legal, but we might have our doubts and admit a great deal of uncertainty. However, it seems rationally required to believe that Einstein’s theory of physics is very accurate. There is a lot of evidence to back it up, and it doesn’t make sense to disbelieve in it. At the same time Einstein’s theory might be false—something can be very accurate and be false nonetheless. (Newton’s theory of physics is very accurate but false.)
A lack of certainty and knowledge doesn’t prove that facts don’t exist. I exist even if I believe that I don’t exist. A lack of knowledge of my existence has no effect on my actual existence.
All beliefs are rationally acceptable.
Not all beliefs are rationally acceptable. Someone might try to have a new politically correct belief to replace “all opinions are equal,” such as with “all beliefs are rationally acceptable.” However, it’s not rationally acceptable for me to believe that I don’t exist. No one would be here to have such a belief if it were true. It is also not acceptable to deny that 1+1=2. It is not acceptable to think that I will survive jumping out of a skyscraper. And so on.
There are many strange beliefs people seem to have regarding beliefs, argumentation, evidence, justification, truth, facts, and knowledge in general. The fact is that there are justified true beliefs, but most of our best beliefs are merely “highly justified.” Knowing that most of our beliefs are uncertain merely requires us to admit that our beliefs could be false. That doesn’t mean we should seriously doubt such beliefs unless we are given a good reason for doubting them. For example, I believe that killing people willy nilly is wrong and I don’t think that belief will ever change, but that belief lacks a level of certainty that other beliefs have—such as the belief that I exist or that 1+1=2. I have no doubt that killing people willy nilly is wrong, but that doesn’t mean that I am certain in the strict sense of the word. (I suppose it is possible to find out that I am highly deluded about many things if there is an evil demon deceiving me, etc.)