Critical Thinking & Ideas, Curiousity, Epistemology, philosophy
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Think you’re justified? Read this.

This is a two part post, carrying on with the recent epistemological theme!

photo of a man sitting near the windoww

Dear Diary, How do I know that I know ANYTHING?  What should I believe?  Life without the notion of justification is so confusing!

The goal of part one is to understand what justification is and where it comes from.  Part one will also outline the importance of being able to understand and give reasons you give for your beliefs. Part two will be an analysis of why you don’t really have any justification (and might not even care!).

What exactly is justification?  Before we go ahead doubting it, let’s see what it is and what it can do for you!

What is Justification?

Let’s say your talking with a friend and she says, “Trump won’t win the next election – I know it!”  You ask, “Why do you believe that?”

What you’re asking IS NOT:

  1. what are the brain’s biological functions that led to your thoughts (in other words, the causal explanation of how the belief came to be)
  2. the exact date when she came up with that belief (as in, I have the belief because I did not have the belief before April 12, 2018.)
  3. why she is motivated to believe (that is, she couldn’t bear to believe that Trump could be re-elected.)

It might be amusing for her to answer the question that way, but an explanation is not what you want. What you’re asking is justification, or for the reasoning behind the belief:

  1. What reasons do you have, i.e., what facts about the world are you pointing to, that make it reasonable to hold the belief?
  2. (And sometimes) what rational processes did you perform in order to arrive at that belief?

If she gives you an answer that the polls show Trump’s approval is very low and he won’t run again, you’ll be convinced and approve of her reasons for believing. That’s GOOD!  There seems to be the right kind of connection between her belief and the reasons for her belief.

If she says “I dunno, I just feel it,” you’ll be disappointed because Doesn’t she care that her beliefs can be shown to be true!?  Doesn’t she want to have good reasons!?  It doesn’t seem like there is any evidence between her belief and the (lack of) reasons for her belief.

If she says that she was walking on False Creek and a duck looked at her

animal beak bird color

Duck thinks, Trump won’t be re-elected.  Good enough for me.

sideways in secret communication that Trump won’t be elected – well, that’s BAD.  You’d think there’s something wrong with her cognitive processes for the a duck looking at her to appear to be justification.  She sees a connection between a fact in the world and a belief that is totally unrelated.  It’s unreasonable justification.

A License to Believe

When we ask “Why?” of our beliefs, we are asking for a demonstration that a statement is right or reasonable. We want justification to give them a special status that connects them with notions of truth and reason. Justification might also lend a moral status to the belief – it’s a good belief (you can be praised for having it), not a bad one (you’re somehow blameworthy for having it)!

Where does Justification come from?

So now that we know what justification is and should do for us, the next question is: how do we know when we have justification?

Justification seems to come from understanding two things:

  1. your success in interacting with the world – Do you generally get from point A to point B?  Do you achieve mental and physical goals?
  2. your mental track record, i.e., the trustworthiness of your cognitive processes (eg. memory, acquisition from the senses, inference, judgment, concluding, sorting, categorizing, etc) – How often have you thought you were right but it turns out you drew the wrong conclusion?

These ideas underwrite the Truth Ratio: the “percentage of true beliefs that would be produced by the psychological process sanctioned by a system of justificational rules, and should reach .50 or higher,” in order to meet an arbitrary threshold (Stephen Stich, Chapter 4, Do we care if our beliefs are true?).

The idea is that when you find out that at least 50% of your beliefs really match up with truth, you’ll be reassured that your cognition is a relatively reliable operating system.  This serves to guarantee that other, future beliefs formed by your cognitive processing will be justified.  In other words, whatever you count as evidence is, in fact, the right justification you need to form a belief.

Maybe it’s a bit of a circular argument, but I think most of us reflect on our justification exactly in this way.  We might say to ourselves that, “I seem to form true beliefs, so I know that my cognitive operating system will be reliable in the formation of future beliefs.  I can rely on my own rationality and sensitivity to truth.”

What Good is Justification for us?

Justification is good! And good for you!  Justification helps you understand your own thinking processes.  In understanding your own thinking processes, you’ll be:

  • less likely to be hijacked into doing something that isn’t in your interests
  • able to decide what appear as good reasons (to you) and bad reasons (to you)

Justification prevents you from believing everything that someone tells you, so that

  • makes your choices about your mind, not someone else’s
  • slows down your assent and makes you slower to judge

Retroactively justifying your actions can lead you to find out your own biases and motivations.  You’ll be able to

  • follow the breadcrumbs back out of the woods when you’re in a forest of a million possible beliefs
  • observe your beliefs and sort out the ones that aren’t helping you – is there justification and motivation to believe something that is more helpful?


Critical Thinking Questions:

A famous infinite regress joke:  A guru is talking to a group of followers and says, “The world rests on the back of a turtle.”  The followers leave and then next day one man shows up to ask the guru, “If the world rests on the back of a turtle, what does the turtle rest on?”  The guru replies, “It rests on the back of another turtle.”

The next day the man asks the guru, “So I’ve been thinking, what does that turtle rest on?”  The guru replies, “It rests on the back of another turtle.”

The next day again, the man asks the guru, “And that turtle, what does that turtle rest on?”  And the guru says, “Listen Buddy, it’s turtles all the way down!”

  1. If all our beliefs are justified by other beliefs, what is the final belief that the rest on?
  2. Do you have a specific belief that justifies all your other beliefs?
  3. If you don’t have one, then what is one foundational belief that justifies many beliefs you have?


  1. Pingback: Part II of Justification (You haven’t got any!) – Emily's Everything

  2. Pingback: How to Live without Shame and Avoid Rationalizing – Emily's Everything

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