Epistemology, philosophy
Comment 1

Part II of Justification (You haven’t got any!)

In Part one of this two-part post, I reviewed a basic concept of Justification.   In Part two, I’m explaining why you don’t have any (and might not even care!).

The Story of the Emperor’s New Clothes

A vain emperor hires two weavers who promise him they will make him the best suit of clothes. The weavers are con-men who convince the emperor they are using a fine fabric that is invisible to anyone who is “hopelessly stupid”. The weavers mime the manufacture of the clothes: no one can see them, not the emperor, citizens, or ministers.  However, everyone pretends that they can see the clothes out of fear that others will think they are stupid!  When the weavers announce that the emperor’s new clothes are ready, they help him dress and the emperor parades in a procession in front of all his subjects.  Everyone watches silently and uncomfortably, avoiding speaking the truth that the emperor is naked because they do not want to appear “stupid”.  Finally, a child cries out that the emperor is naked!  The emperor knows it’s true, but continues his procession. 

Is Justification is “The Emperor’s New Clothes” for Beliefs?

Like the magic material of the emperor’s new clothes, the concept of justification dresses up our beliefs.  Justification promises to give a special status to your beliefs and make them look great, so you’ll be able to distinguish them from regular beliefs.  Now, we don’t exactly know what the justification is made of – we can only loosely define it in reference to itself.  But don’t worry, anyone who doesn’t understand what justification is, or who doesn’t want justification for his beliefs, is “hopelessly stupid”.  Everyone rational knows it’s special to have justification.

And the child’s cry: “But there is nothing special about having justification.   What’s so special about having good reasons for believing something anyway?  Human beings don’t really care much about it, when it comes down to daily life.”

Justification, Rationality, and Non-standard Reasons

As mentioned in Part I, justification is a “license to believe” that comes from showing something is right or rational.  But what does it mean to be “rational”? And is there standard human rationality?

Have you ever met someone who you perceive to be just as rational as you are, equally educated and perceptive about the world, and yet you had discordant beliefs about many practical and theoretical topics?  Both of you may have even justified your discordant beliefs using the same evidence.  That is, you called on some reasons as justification for believing a statement, and she called on the same evidence as justification for believing the exact opposite!  Here’s a common example:

The fact that women earn less than men on average is proof that there is systemic gender bias in our economy.


The fact that women earn less than men on average is proof that women prefer to spend less time working outside the home.

In this example, the same evidence is drawn on and yet two different beliefs are formed.  Experts in the same field may draw different significance and, therefrom, different beliefs.  How?  They performed different rational processes in a different order or with different weighting of facts.  The point is that high-level reasoning even with identical factual input doesn’t result in agreement of belief.


Remember BEDMAS?  Brackets-Exponents-Division-Multiplication-Addition-Subtraction?  You’ll get a non-standard (not “wrong”) answer if you don’t perform the functions in the standard way.  This is something like an expert who “thinks outside the box” or a researcher who interprets the facts in a way that deliberately doesn’t yield the status-quo conclusion.  You might argue it’s wrong, but try considering it instead as non-standardThere may be reasons (justification) why the expert chose to interpret the evidence in a non-standard way.

Skepticism about what Reasons are actually Gett-ing for us…

Edmund Gettier was an American philosopher who came up with scenarios that diminished the importance of justification, the reasons behind the belief.  Here’s an example:

Assume that your coworker turns on the lights every morning before you arrive.  He is the only one who arrives before you.  One morning you arrive to work and the lights are on.  A client calls and asks “Is Drew there?  Shall I come in to see him?”  You say, “Yes, he’s here.” (After all, the lights were one when you arrived, although little did you know the cleaner was sick last night and instead came in early to clean.) But Drew took a last-minute, bucket-list vacation and is walking the Great Wall in China! The client shows up and gets annoyed when no one can find Drew.  He says, “Are you sure he’s here?”  You tell him sarcastically, “Well, he’s here or he’s walking the Great Wall!”

Seems like you actually had a true belief, whether or not he was at work!  But where is the justification or what are your reasons actually doing for you?  Like the duck example in the previous post, the justification is exactly right while simultaneously being  the wrong kind –  it is totally unrelated to the facts.  Therefore, your belief has justification but is still unjustified.

The Multi-realizability of Human Rationality

From the above discussion, it’s clear that we can’t come to a conclusion about what justification is, what serves as justification, and what justification is supposed to do for us.   Seem like everywhere, and all the time, everyone is making a awful lot of…


Turns out, your “notion of justification is but one idiosyncratic member in a large family of more or less similar notions…” (Stich, The Fragmentation of Reason).

Your system of cognitive processes, the one that guarantees your justified beliefs, is quite arbitrary.  Your idea of what counts as justification is merely a set of assumptions you use when reasoning, specific to you and inaccessible to everyone else.  In this case, justified beliefs become less “special” than just believing whatever you want – you could just as easily have had your colleague’s cognitive processing system and believed something else, with as much justification.

A Plurality of Worlds (7 Billion of Them!)

sky earth galaxy universe

There are 7 billion more.

Each person’s mind “creates” a world through the acts of perception, performance of cognitive functions, memory of objects, and memories of experiencing those objects.  These layers of perception, processing, and memory constitute a unique world.

There are seven billion people on this planet, and therefore, seven billion worlds.  Seven billion people are living successful lives in those worlds.  Whatever each person is using as justification is working for them.  This calls for a bit of humility from each one of us – none has a privileged understanding of justification.  In light of the successful reasoning of other human beings, my truth-detecting, reliable system of cognitive processes become less dear to me.

Final Analysis – What good is Justification?

Justified beliefs might be important to me for reflexive reasoning in order that I may take myself seriously and have the motivation to do as I reason I should. (If I didn’t think I had justification, I might not be able to make decisions.)

But in final analysis, justification isn’t nearly as important as we feel it is when we’re in the midst of a heated debate.  The understanding that I do not see the world as my opponent sees it should rouse humility within me.  Humility is the curiosity to be wrong and an openness to experience a different, equally rational world.  If I’m missing out on another world by being right, being wrong ain’t so bad, after all!

Critical Thinking Questions

Imagine that you’re doing archery.  You fire an arrow and every time without fail, it hits the target.  However, you don’t know how you are managing this feat, just that you the target. 

  1. Do you really care that you don’t understand how you do it?
  2. What if you knew how to hit the target but could never do so?
  3. What is more important to you: hitting the target, or knowing how to do it?
  4. Analogous to belief-holding, if a belief is true, do you care that it’s justified?
This entry was posted in: Epistemology, philosophy


I’m a independent philosophy scholar, writer, and business school graduate. I believe each one of us has a purpose and my mission is to blog about things that will help you discover yours! I’m inspired by my friends, my colleagues, the beauty of nature, Western philosophy and Eastern wisdom.

1 Comment

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s