Many people equate “justified” with “justification”—they think beliefs are justified if and only if we give a good justification for them. A sign of this attitude is found in statements such as, “We should only believe something if we can observe it’s true.” I will explain that not all our beliefs require justifications to be justified because (a) we have justified beliefs that we can’t give justifications for, (b) such an assumption is self-defeating, and (c) such an assumption would lead to an infinite regress or vicious circularity.
“Justified” and “Justification”
First, let’s consider the difference between “justified” and “justification.”
Justified – What does it mean for a belief to be justified? It means it’s adequately justified or “rationally permissible.” It’s not wrong to have a belief as long as it’s justified. The belief that “1+1=2” is justified because we know with a high degree of certainty that it’s true. Sometimes two competing beliefs are also justified, such as when scientists debated over which version of string theory is best.
Justification – What does it mean to give a justification for a belief? It means given an argument for the belief that gives us a reason to agree with it. Some arguments are better than others and sometimes we end up giving fallacious (unreasonable) arguments. However, a sufficiently good argument does give us a sufficiently good reason to agree with a belief.
A justification for a belief looks something like “A because B.” For example, I believe I have two hands because I experience that I have two hands.
No one thinks “justified” beliefs are justified merely because we can give a justification for it. Instead, justified beliefs are thought to be adequately justified because of an adequately good argument.
I agree that good justifications can give us justified beliefs. However, I don’t think all justified beliefs require arguments. We can be rationally justified to hold certain beliefs even if we can’t give good arguments for them.
Why some justified beliefs don’t require a justification
We should agree that beliefs are innocent until proven guilty. A belief is rationally permissible unless we have a sufficient reason to reject it rather than the other way around. We don’t need a justification to have a justified belief as long as there’s no reason for us to reject the belief. I reject the that view that all rational beliefs require justifications.
We can realize that all beliefs are innocent until proven guilty for at least three reasons: One, we have justified beliefs that we are unable to give justifications for. Two, it’s self-defeating to assume all justified beliefs require justifications. Three, it’s futile to assume that all justified beliefs require justifications.
Argument 1: We have justified beliefs that we are unable to give justifications for.
Consider the following two counterexamples: One, we know that “1+1=2.” Two, we know that the future will in many respects be predictable based on the past. It is possible that neither of these statements can be adequately argued for, and certainly many people are unable to prove that we should believe them through argumentation. Even so, we all know that these beliefs are justified. We know many facts about mathematics that we can’t prove should be accepted through argumentation, and we know that bread will probably be food rather than poison in the future through past experiences. Predicting the future based on past experiences is known as “inductive reasoning” but there is a “problem of induction” that shows why we can’t know that the future will be like the past in any respect without appealing to induction. We can argue that induction is true because the assumption that it was true worked out well or us in the past, but that’s like saying, “We know induction is true because it’s true.” We can’t appeal to induction to justify the fact that we know something about the future based on the past because it would require us to use circular reasoning.
My solution is that we know induction is justified by merely assuming it’s justified. We don’t need an argument for it.
Argument 2: It’s self-defeating to assume all justified beliefs require justifications.
If all justified beliefs require adequate justifications, then we can give a good justification for the belief that “all justified beliefs require adequate justifications.” However, it’s not clear that we can give an adequate justification for that belief. Anyone who rejects such a belief could consistently assert that not all beliefs require an adequate justification, but it’s not clear that anyone who believes all beliefs require an adequate justification can consistently have such a belief because it’s not clear how such a belief can be argued for.
Do we know that all justified beliefs require adequate justifications because it did so in the past? In that case we are appealing to induction, but I already discussed why we can’t give a good argument that induction is a justified.
Argument 3: It’s futile to assume that all justified beliefs require justifications.
Assume that all justified beliefs require justifications. In that case your beliefs are justified if and only if we can give adequately good arguments for them. Every argument has premises and a conclusion. Every premise is something that we must believe in order to accept the conclusion. So, every belief requires us to accept another belief (the premise) and those beliefs must also be justified. Therefore, the premises we use to justify our beliefs must either justify each other in a circle or we must have infinite arguments to justify our beliefs. However, both of these options are futile. Circular arguments are not informative and it is not possible for us to give infinite arguments to justify our beliefs.
We can show our two options as the following:
- Belief A is justified because belief B is justified, and belief B is justified because belief C is justified, and belief C is justified because belief A is justified.
- Belief A is justified because belief B is justified, and belief B is justified because belief C is justified, and belief C is justified because belief D is justified, etc. (This never ends.)
Once we see why we have reason to reject the view that “all justified beliefs require justifications” we have a reason to accept the negation—that “not all justified beliefs require justifications.”
Justifying a belief can show a belief to be justified, but not all justified beliefs require good justifications. Beliefs are innocent until proven guilty. That does not imply that it is impossible for us to justify the fact that certain justified beliefs are justified, but the burden of proof is not always on the person who has the belief.
Nonetheless, debates typically require whoever makes an assertion to give a justification for the assertion—and for good reason. If we want other people to agree with us, then they might have no reason to do so without a good argument. There’s a big difference between rationally holding a belief and thinking others should agree with us (or even take us seriously).
Update (1/23/2012): I deleted a sentence that mentioned verificationism.