January 21, 2010
We left off promising a more in-depth discussion of jim's post. I understand that jim offers his series Proof Of God's Existence as a thought experiment, and that he's simply asking what our initial judgments would be, perhaps to help define the parameters of this "common sense inquiry" he alluded to in the introduction. Personally, I'm all for it, and as a writer I've always enjoyed reading jim, even his vitriolic tirades against me which were often colorful and creative (I even recall some limericks).
After setting up an odd series of events between Mary the neighborhood realtor and Carol the neighborhood skeptic, jim closes with the following set of questions:
Are Carol's [suspicion and uneasiness] justified at this point, slight though they be, or can they be summarily dismissed? Is this early foreboding of suspicion rational? Irrational? Pre-rational?
My short answer was that Carol's initial and ongoing uneasiness were justified, but any ongoing suspicion less so. Likewise, I answered that Carol's initial and ongoing uneasiness would also seem rational, but again, any ongoing suspicion less so. Tonight I'd like to address those questions in more detail, in hopes of churning out at least a provisional definition of justified belief.
So when exactly are one's belief's justified?
It's an important question, really, not to mention a tough one, tougher than any single blog post can realistically hope to address, I'd say. I've heard many arbitrary proclamations either this way or that, and I've even taken various stabs at it myself, for example in the MiracleQuest posts or here where we discussed a near-collision between a skateboarder and a civilian.
One author I recently read tackled the question by describing himself as a subject viewing a green, grassy field:
In approaching these topics in epistemology – the theory of knowledge and justification – it is appropriate to begin with perception. In my opening description, what I detailed was what I perceived: what I saw, heard, smelled, felt, and tasted. In describing my experience, I also expressed some of what I believed: that there was a green field before me, that there were bird songs, that there was a smell of roses, that my glass was cold to the touch, and that the tea tasted of mint. It seems altogether natural to believe these things given the kind of experience I had, and I think I justifiedly believe them…1
The Greek doxa translates roughly to belief, and what we're discussing here is sometimes referred to as doxastic justification. Audi's straight-forward approach gives at least a perfunctorily meaningful criterion to determine when our beliefs are justified, which — in this instance — basically boils down to perception, and preferably verifiable perception.
For example, when they witness an Mazda t-bone a parts truck at noon on some weekday, most people assume it really happened and was unintentional, hence the phrase automobile accident. Automobile accidents are not extraordinary claims, meaning they doesn't require us to explain anything that defies any currently accepted conventions. They occur regularly and depending on our proximity to our hypothetical accident, we might be able to retrieve empirical evidence consistent with the claim that a Mazda t-boned a parts truck at noon on some weekday. We might find an alternator still in the box behind the nearby doughnut shop, and we could theoretically place that box in the parts truck by connecting it to the vendor via identifying data. We might be able to locate a lens fragment from an Mazda that fits perfectly into the broken one on the car. If it were three weeks later and no physical evidence remained, we could look for witnesses. Any or all of these would be valid strategies one might use to justify their belief / conclusion that a Mazda really did t-bone a parts truck in an accident.
By no means is this method failsafe, but it appears to be the best one we've got. Agree? Disagree?
I agree. We don't assume there's fire unless we see flames or smell smoke or feel heat, right? Without reason to doubt them, we trust our senses as accurate, right? When mentally healthy individuals perceive some event, they are justified to treat what they saw as objective reality. Accordingly, I would define "common sense inquiry" as basing assumptions on face value observations until given sufficient evidence to assume otherwise.
Yet, that raises another question: what constitutes "sufficient evidence to assume otherwise?"
My short answer would be demonstrable anomaly. After all, that's how science works, that's how courts of law work, that's how computer programmers work and that's how professional interrogators do their jobs. Cosmologists rule out models that aren't consistent with the empirical data. Juries disbelieve the defendant's statement that he was at home when prosecutors present physical evidence proving he was not. If the navigation bar doesn't display in IE6 the programmer knows there's a bug in his code. Investigators can't place a suspect at the scene of the crime without some anomalous data that contradicts the suspect's alibi.
Accordingly, I would be more open to metaphysically naturalist atheism if objects in my friend's house stayed at rest. I would be more open to cerebro-centric models of consciousness if scientists like Marianne George didn't document shared veridical dreams where the deceased possibly assist in empirical discoveries.
So then, my provisional definition of justified belief would be "conservatively-stated beliefs or conclusions that correspond to face value observation and are not sufficiently challenged by anomalous data." We'll return to the hypothetical automobile accident next time when we discuss the importance of unambiguous language and avoiding unnecessary presuppositions.
1) Audi, Robert Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, p.1