Conservatively Stated Belief: Proof Of God’s Existence, 5

I’ve been slowly digesting jim’s series Proof Of God’s Existence for the past month or so. I hope he keeps it going.

We ended 4 with a provisional definition of justified belief as, “conservatively-stated beliefs or conclusions that correspond to face value observation and are not sufficiently challenged by anomalous data.” We also discussed an hypothetical auto accident and noted that since drivers don’t normally crash into each other intentionally, most people refer generically to most traffic collisions as automobile accidents.

If we see a Mazda t-bone a parts truck at noon on some weekday, our justified belief conservatively stated is that we saw a collision between a Mazda and a parts truck at noon on some weekday. That’s it. We could responsibly paraphrase that by saying we saw some sedan slam into a truck, or that a work-truck got hit by some car, but any description that adds unconfirmed assumptions or omits confirmed facts exhibits some degree of inaccuracy. In the everyday world where pragmatism overrides commitment to technical accuracy, I wouldn’t take issue, but in philosophy and logic such laxity can be lethal.

Some might be tempted to say that since most traffic collisions are in fact accidents that we’re justified to begin with that assumption. While there is certainly enough of an argument there that I wouldn’t call that assumption irrational, at the same time I would not consider the assumption conservatively-stated. Although most likely true (because most traffic collisions are in fact accidents), that we saw an accident between a Mazda and a parts truck is not conservatively stated. It adds the unconfirmed assumption that the collision was accidental. In everyday or pragmatic usage reasonable speakers understand what is meant, but imagine the catastrophe oversight like that might cause in some nuanced philosophical discourse. We should be responsible interlocutors and say no more or no less than statements or data permit. Anything less is a disservice to clarity. 

That being said, let’s get back to The Boxes.

After setting up an odd series of events between Mary the neighborhood realtor and Carol the neighborhood skeptic, jim closed The Boxes 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?

I answered 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 were also rational, but again, any ongoing suspicion less so.


Like Mr. Garcia’s, Mary’s behavior is certainly awkward (i.e. not 100% “business as usual”) but taken at face value, Mary’s awkward behavior is simply too vague of a clue to justify any ongoing suspicion. This of course raises the question of when ongoing suspicion is justified. We might say when behavior is consistently abnormal. This raises the question of when behavior is abnormal. We might say when it falls outside of what we’d reasonably expect if we take things to be what they are at face value.

Fair enough, and pretty much how “common sense inquiry” operates, right?

The problem is that nothing requires malicious behavior to appear abnormal, nor does anything require innocent behavior to appear routine. It remains entirely possible that Mary and Mr. Garcia are conspiring in real estate fraud, and if they were intelligent conspirators, we would expect them to portray an image of “business as usual” to the neighborhood. Further, real estate fraud is not an extraordinary claim, meaning that it doesn’t require us to explain anything that defies any currently accepted conventions, so it’s not unreasonable that it might be happening in any given situation. Like traffic collisions, the world has a history of real estate fraud, and it’s no stretch to say any given American has a significant chance of encountering it at some point in their life.

So why doesn’t the average person worry that their realtor and neighbors might actually be conspiring in real estate fraud?

I’d say primarily because they assume it doesn’t affect them and because for better or for worse, humans generally make default assumptions based on face value observations. In Scene 1 each of the Smiths’ observations revealed “business as usual” and were consistent with what they’d expect to see had Mary sold the home to Mr. Garcia. With the exception of a Mr. Garcia sighting, the totality of the evidence was consistent with the claim. After all, what more could the reasonable individual ask for? A month’s worth of video footage showing Mr. Garcia consistently waking up in the house? Photos of Mr. Garcia brushing his teeth in the bathroom? Ironclad witness testimony that Mr. Garcia takes showers in the house? As far as common sense inquiry is concerned, normal people don’t require such high standards to justify belief in their new neighbor. Besides, all that stuff could be fabricated.

What happens if we compare Carol’s situation to our hypothetical traffic collision?

The primary distinction is that neither Carol nor any witnesses she can produce had direct sensory input of the phenomena in question. However, we do have an ordinary claim, in that realtors sell houses to people daily, and we do have some empirical evidence consistent with that claim – the boxes in the garage, among other things. We also have the fact that Carol has no reason to doubt Mary’s character. To me, all of these face value observations justify Carol’s belief in Mary’s story – unless of course some new developments emerge that might merit an assumption otherwise.

As it turned out in The Boxes, we do in fact have some new developments. More anomalies are turning up between what Carol would expect taking things at face value and what she actually sees. Whereas a few weeks ago everything appeared to be “business as usual,” now, business is starting to appear a little unusual. Unless Mr. Garcia is abnormally elusive, Carol would reasonably expect to see him at some point, right? It turns out the boxes in the garage are empty, Mary is fumbling awkwardly about them, and Carol has still never seen Mr. Garcia. Mary says Mr. Garcia “usually comes by late at night,” yet Carol’s noticed the garage door open during the day. Further, why would Mary disallow Carol to investigate the boxes further?

Carol’s observations are increasingly contradicting her face value expectations.

On the other hand, one can think of antecedent conditions that would make these apparent discrepancies actually appear quite normal. Who hasn’t had the experience of seeing a “new face” in the neighborhood, only to learn this “new face” has lived there for weeks or even months? Do we not often joke that undetectable neighbors are the best kind? Could anything besides nefarious motives explain Mary’s behavior?

I think so. It could be that Mary is a very legalistic realtor, and knows that Carol even so much as touching the boxes creates a potentially litigious situation. Or, perhaps Mary somehow feels insecure or silly about Mr. Garcia’s odd habits. I mean really, maybe she farted and didn’t want the boxes to whiff the smell towards Carol. Who knows? To justify any ongoing suspicion here, I would need to have felt the vibes in the room: was Mary’s behavior light, bubbly or aloof to the situation? Or, did she seem concerned, defensive and shady? Those oversold on the philosophy of verificationism might denounce reliance on “vibes” as subjective or “wooish” – and we could argue about that – but I doubt anybody will deny that subtle utilities in our senses can and do alert us to real phenomena, regardless of justification.

Still, as I said before, I believe Carol’s uneasiness is justified. Uneasiness simply describes a discrepancy between what one would expect if a given scenario is what it appears to be at face value, and what one actually experiences in the given scenario. I say uneasiness is justified wherever such discrepancy exists. If your son tells you he is going to his friend’s house on one side of town, and you see him at the grocery store on the other side of town, your feelings of uneasiness are justified. They are also rational because they are based on the fact of real-world discrepancy between actuality and what you expected taking your son’s claim at face value.

What about suspicion?

Though I’d say discrepancy is always sufficient to justify uneasiness, it is not always sufficient to justify suspicion. If your son tells you he is going to his friend’s house on one side of town, and you see him at the grocery store on the other side of town, I think your uneasiness is justified and rational, but I don’t think your suspicion is necessarily justified or rational. To justify or rationalize your suspicion, you need something more, not only a discrepancy but a reason to believe your son might be doing something forbidden. For example, if you see your son outside the grocery store and asking adults to by him beer, then most people would say both your uneasiness and suspicion are justified, and I would agree.

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