Ethical Realism

February 2, 2012

Beliefs Are Innocent Until Proven Guilty Part 2

Filed under: epistemology,philosophy — JW Gray @ 9:10 am
Tags: , , , ,

This is part 2. You should read part 1 first.

I have argued that beliefs are innocent until proven guilty and various objections have been raised to this position and my arguments. I will provide some clarification and respond to various objections here.


First, when I say that “beliefs are innocent until proven guilty” I mean to say “it’s rationally permissible to believe something unless there’s reason to think otherwise.” To say a belief is “rationally permissible” is to say the belief is not irrational. We would not say someone is being irrational insofar as they hold the belief. For example, it’s rationally permissible to believe that the Sun will rise tomorrow, and it’s rationally impermissible to believe that killing people is always the right thing to do.

Second, a belief could be “irrational” (“guilty”) when better justified beliefs are available—or at least significantly better beliefs are available. Examples of beliefs that are permissible without being rationally required are those found to be controversial among experts, such as the plausibility of string theory.

Third, to say that “beliefs are innocent until proven guilty” is to deny that we need to have arguments for all of our beliefs. We rarely have arguments in mind for all our rationally permissible beliefs, and people are at least sometimes incapable of providing justifications for them.

Fourth, I think the claim implies that beliefs are “justified” as long as they are “rationally permissible.” A justified true belief constitutes knowledge—or at least one meaning of “knowledge”—but that does not necessarily imply a theoretical understanding of any phenomenon. For example, people knew that it was a good idea to drink water before they knew water was H2O and before they knew why drinking water keeps us healthy. Moreover, knowledge does not usually imply anything like certainty. For example, I know that the Sun will rise tomorrow (as long as it does), even though there’s a chance that I am wrong.

If you think I am using the word “justified” wrong, then it can be replaced with “rationally permissible.” In that case I generally use the word “knowledge” to refer to “rationally permissible true belief.”


Objection 1 – “Rational beliefs” are those that are supported by better arguments than the alternatives. Many rationally permissible beliefs are “non-rational.”

This is a semantic point. I originally used the term “rational belief” to refer to “rationally permissible beliefs,” but not everyone agrees with that use of the word. Perhaps rational beliefs require justifications or must be demonstrated to be superior to the alternatives.

Even so, I’m not convinced. I find it likely that the term “rational belief” is ambiguous, depends on the context, and I’ve explained what I meant to say. Even so, this objection is trivial and I am not interested in debating the meaning of “rational belief” here.

Objection 2 – Whoever makes a claim has the burden of proof.

It is true that for purposes of debate that we need to justify our beliefs to others. However, this is often done by using premises that “both sides” already agree with. Not every assumption needs to be justified within a debate. The only beliefs that need to be justified are those that are seen as controversial or objectionable by the opposition.

For example, I might argue that we know that killing people just because they have red hair is wrong because it’s wrong to kill people indiscriminately. This justification could be considered to be inadequate by some, and they will want an additional justification as to why we shouldn’t kill people indiscriminately. Nonetheless, that is rare. Almost everyone already agrees that we shouldn’t kill people indiscriminately.

My point was not that we don’t have the burden of proof to justify controversial beliefs in a debate. My point was that personal beliefs that we don’t demand others to agree with can be rationally permissible as long as we have no reason to reject them, and it can be rationally permissible to have certain beliefs without giving arguments for them.

Objection 3 – What about Occam’s Razor?

Occam’s Razor states that simplicity is a virtue or “we shouldn’t multiply entities beyond necessity.” An explanation that requires us to accept that an entity exists is rational, but an explanation that involves far-fetched entities when less ambitious explanations are available are rationally inferior for that reason. For example, when my keys aren’t where I left them, it is rationally preferable to think that my memory is faulty rather than to say that a ghost hid them from me.

I agree with Occam’s Razor, and it’s a good reason to reject many beliefs. I don’t think Occam’s Razor is a good reason to reject all of our assumptions prior to argument. We need to know that there’s a “better explanation” than the one we currently accept before we can be rationally required to reject our current explanatory belief.

Additionally, I think some people are concerned that my conclusion that “beliefs are innocent before proven guilty” would allow people to have irrational beliefs in far-fetched entities, such as ghosts or aliens who regularly visit the Earth precisely because they think I’m rejecting Occam’s Razor. I am not rejecting it.

Objection 4 – What about self-evidence?

The most important objection to my argument is that I forgot to mention that some beliefs could be justified through self-evidence (for all I know). We don’t need our justifications to be circular or to face an infinite regress as long as they are self-evident. Perhaps the fact that “1+1=2” is self-evident. It is sometimes said that self-evident beliefs are intuitive, but are difficult to justify via argumentation.

I do not want to deny that some beliefs could be justified via self-evidence, but I don’t think induction is self-evident. We can rationally assume induction is reliable, even though that assumption can’t be fully justified through argumentation or self-evidence.


Many people seem to think everyone has to agree with them because it’s rationally required. They think everyone else is being irrational.Sometimes that’s true, but people often overestimate the plausibility of their own beliefs, and I think it’s clear that there are at least some rationally permissible beliefs that aren’t rationally required. I think the best way to understand when beliefs are required is to realize that “beliefs are innocent before proven guilty.” If we think someone’s belief is irrational, we have to prove it.

I have considered four objections to my position and arguments that “beliefs are innocent until proven guilty.” There is some merit to the first and fourth objection, but I do not think they succeed.


1 Comment »

  1. […] Read part 2 — continue reading. […]

    Pingback by Beliefs are Innocent Until Proven Guilty « Ethical Realism — February 7, 2012 @ 8:58 am | Reply

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