Do you feel justified in your position? How can you tell if that justification is actually enough to be considered rational? Is there some sort of measuring stick? When do we have to justify ourselves to others? Do we have to justify every action?
These are all questions that perhaps we should care about a little bit more, and apply them introspectively.
What is Justification?
We hold beliefs about the past, the present, and the future. Do we have a right to hold any of these beliefs? Are any supported by evidence? Should we continue to hold them, or should we discard some? These questions are evaluative.https://iep.utm.edu/epi-just
When I speak of justification (or more correctly, epistemic justification), I am speaking of the thought process we go through with our beliefs and knowledge.
A really basic way to think about this… if you say “I do/don’t believe that” the justification is someone asking, “Why?” and you provide your reasoning.
It’s that simple.
Another term for this, and one that tends to raise heckles, is the burden of proof. The thing with this, the proof isn’t asking for conclusive evidence, which is how the term proof is usually understood. It is more asking for justification to show your claim or belief position is rational.
Of course, if you are asserting something definitely is the case you ought to be able to demonstrate that, however, when it comes to believing or not believing something your justification need not be as rigorous.
Justification in General Conversation
In general conversation, the burden of proof isn’t actually a thing. It is more for a debate or in the courts, although if someone is making a claim they are trying to convince you of, then it does apply there too. We should, of course, be able to justify our position to ourselves, and if we are interested in progressing a conversation then there is no reason we cannot share that justification with another. Demanding a justification from another person, not accepting it, and then not justifying why you don’t accept it isn’t going to get very far.
What’s more, as I said, in general conversation the burden of proof isn’t actually a thing.
Consider these statments:
A: What did you do this weekend?
B: I went to the beach.
A: Prove it!
A: How are you feeling?
B: Pretty good thanks.
A: Prove it!
A: What are you having for dinner tonight?
B: I believe I am having steak.
A: Prove it!
It’s safe to say, it is pretty absurd to act that way in conversation, yes? The same can be said for any general conversation. If I am talking to a theist friend and he thinks God has helped him do something, I won’t jump in and say “PROVE IT!”.
What about Conversations with a Theist?
Even in situations where someone is trying to convince me a deity exists, stomping around and shouting “Prove it!” is largely ineffective.
If I am in the right headspace, I will engage in the conversation, ask questions and take the time to understand his justification for believing. If I can, I will show him my understanding and even point out the strong points of the argument.
I will then ask questions where I see gaps or explain why I don’t find part of his argument convincing. With a respectful discourse like this, we are more likely to change a mind than shouting “prove it”. At the very least we ought to learn each others position better, and perhaps have something to take away and research in more detail.
How can we tell if we are Justified?
Blimey, that’s a big question. It starts off very subjective, we feel justified. There is no real standard to compare things against either. There are, however, things we can do to make sure we have adequately justified things to ourselves. These will not always be relevant to every situation, but a combination of these will ensure our position is a rational one.
- Reasoning using rules of logic & probability theory
- Reading Papers of experts in the field
- Listening to experts in the field
- Supporting Evidence
- No strong contradictory evidence
- Holding consistent and coherent beliefs
- Taking the time to understand opposing views
- Searching for gaps in your own view as well as the opposing views
- Abduction, Induction, Deduction.
There is only so much we can find out on our own though. The next step is to find someone who is also interested in a similar sort of topic as you, perhaps one you know with a differing view, yet can engage in respectful discourse.
Get them to explain their position in detail, take the time to understand it, and then question it and put in your opinions too. Eventually, you might find your position is not as rational, or at least, some of the arguments/evidence don’t really work. Whilst doing this, you may have given your partner pause for thought too. You both might have to go off and do some more research into your position.
There will, of course, be folks out there you can never justify your position to. Be they theist, atheist, or of some other ontological position, they will be so impressed by there own mental prowess that judge rationality based on purely if you agree with them or not. This doesn’t mean you are not justified, just that they do not accept your justification.
So How Rational Can We Be?
I think there are 2 main aspects to think about rationality. One is a position itself being rational, the other is if the person holding the position is rational.
Consider for a moment; the YEC position that the earth is 6000 years old. This is in no way a rational position to hold, but someone can hold that position and be rational.
Bear with me a second. I know that might put a sour taste in your mouth and you’re probably scoffing at me like I am an idiot, but let me justify this for you.
Imagine someone living in a religious commune, they have no access to outside information on science and all they have is the teachings of their parents and religious leaders. Every bit of information they are allowed to have is evidence for the conclusion the earth is circa 6000 years old.
Therefore, they are justified in their belief. They hold a justified false belief (which of course they don’t know is false). In this state, they are as rational as they can be.
Now, if they leave this commune and learn about various dating methods, peer review, and all that jazz, they are now shown that what they have been taught was not the whole picture. Maintaining their previous belief becomes irrational.
Another point on rationality, similar to the above, is the stage of cognitive development we are at. A 2-year-old is as rational as they can be to accept information because “my dad said” – but a 20-year-old accepting anything simply because “my dad said” is not.
So there is a clear split between a rational position, and someone being rational in their position. This goes the other way too.
Consider the earth being an oblate spheroid. This is a rational position, based on all the evidence to support it. If your only justification is “My dad said” we are again left with an unjustified position. Your reasoning is irrational, yet the position is a rational one to hold.
So when you believe something, or when you lack belief in something, the position itself may be rational but if you can’t reason your way through the problem, you may not be rational in yourself. Dismissive statements like “not enough evidence”, “no evidence”, “ok boomer”, “troll” and the like are not really enough to show your position is rational. In fact, they all indicate you haven’t taken the time to understand what the other person is saying, or reflect on the topic well enough.
You may understand and have done plenty of research for your position, of course, and may be able to fully justify your position. In some instances, someone may genuinely be trolling, but these dismissive statements are spouted far too readily and I think have become a “go-to” way of “winning“.
When we speak about epistemic justification it is the same thing as the burden of proof. What people fail to understand that it isn’t necessarily to “prove the position true” nor is it “only on one making a positive claim” like we so often hear.
We ought to be able to justify our position to ourselves to ensure we are being rational.
In a discussion, no one owes anyone else this burden, but if we can justify our position, there is no reason not to share it. If you don’t believe someone’s claim, help them understand the issues with it.
In debate, the courts, or when trying to convince someone of something, the burden does indeed exist, but equally if you engage with this conversation then you are putting some of the onus on you to explain why you do or do not beleive them too.
At the end of the day, justification is about rationality. We can hold a rational position but for bad reasons, and be irrational ourselves, or we can hold an (unknowingly) irrational position but have justified it to a point where we consider the justification to be rational.
If you’re interested, Dave and I justify why we believe gods do not exist, and how someone who ‘only lacks belief’ can also justify their position in this stream:
Equally, if you would like to know a little more about epistemic responsibility, there’s an older video here:
More on Justification and The Burden of Proof
- More on Beliefs and Justifications
- The Burden of Proof – Belief vs Claim – Court Room Analogy
- Epistemic Responsibility – SciPhi: 013 [Video]
- Do we Atheists have a Burden of Proof? – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms: Vol 7
- Beliefs and Rationality – CMT Vol: 10
- Is it rational to form beliefs based on testimony?
- What’s in the Box?: A Three-Pound Rabbit