If the different ways that we justify our beliefs are the building materials for a structure of beliefs, then perhaps I can call the process by which we evaluate and adjust our beliefs the scaffolding for that structure. That is the topic of this post.
First, though, I want to make a couple of observations about the principle of critical trust that I presented in the last couple of posts. The essence of this principle is found in the two intellectual virtues that I explored earlier, critical thinking and epistemic faith. In using this principle, we extend initial trust to the beliefs that we naturally form from conscious experience, intuition, and testimony. Then we sift through those beliefs to try and discard the ones that are false, and strengthen the ones that are true.
The first observation I want to make here is that the principle of critical trust is not an “anything goes” principle. It does not mean we can believe whatever we want. Rather, it means we start by believing that things are the way they seem to be, on the basis of our conscious experience, intuition, and testimony – these initial beliefs must still have some kind of justification – and then we use reasoning to try and figure out the way things actually are.
The second observation is that, although the justification for these initial beliefs is not free, it is not all that costly either. We can usually find justification for what we want to believe, if we look for it. That is why it is important to weigh the justification both for and against a belief, rather than just looking at one side.
As a third observation, a corollary of the principle of critical trust is that when a belief is defeated by reasons to disbelieve it, it is rational to retain as much of the content of the belief as possible. For example, if you think you recognize your friend John on the street, but then later find out he was not in the city, you wouldn’t immediately think you had hallucinated the whole experience. You would think you had just seen someone who looked like John.
When I talk about constructing a belief system, what I principally have in mind is the formulation of a worldview, a comprehensive theory or perspective for categorizing, explaining, and interpreting all of reality. A belief system is essentially a worldview and the outworking of that worldview in the way that it interprets the world.
Everyone has a worldview, whether consciously or not – we all go through the process of creating an explanation and interpretation of everything we experience. We don’t have the capacity to deal with all of the diverse truths about reality independently. A worldview allows us to deal with all these truths in a unified way.
So, the principle of critical trust, and the need for a worldview, together suggest the following approach for forming, evaluating, and adjusting our whole belief system.
- Presumptive Data: as presumptive data, accept that things are the way they seem to be, based on the sum of one’s conscious experiences and intuitions, and the testimony received from others. All of these data have a small amount of initial justification.
- Initial Sifting: some of the presumptive data are likely to conflict with others. Sort the data into maximal consistent subsets (sets that contain as many beliefs as they can without containing a contradiction), and believe the subset with the most initial justification (rejecting the beliefs that conflict with this subset).
- Worldview Formation: based on the beliefs accepted from sifting, form a worldview that explains as many of one’s beliefs as possible (principally, using inference to the best explanation).
- Feedback Sifting: based on one’s worldview, some of the initially accepted beliefs may be rejected, and some of the initially rejected beliefs may be accepted. New presumptive data may be brought into consideration from re-interpretation of one’s experiences, intuitions, and received testimony in light of the new worldview. These two principles are important here:
- Principle of Epistemic Defeat: reject beliefs that are in conflict with the best explanation of a vast number of other accepted beliefs. When beliefs are defeated in this way, retain as much of their content as possible that is undefeated.
- Principle of Epistemic Enhancement: when an accepted belief is coherent with or suggested by the best explanation of a vast number of other accepted beliefs, its justification is enhanced.
- Re-evaluation: New data or new understanding of old data may challenge one’s worldview, eventually forcing a re-evaluation and re-formation of the worldview when the data that cannot be fit into it acquires enough weight.
By going through this process, forming and re-evaluating our worldview and the whole system of beliefs associated with it, we will (hopefully) come to believe more and more truths, and disbelieve more and more falsehoods, in a validly justified way. That is, we will come to acquire more and more knowledge.
But the key to this process being successful in the long run is having the right worldview. If your foundational beliefs are true, you are more likely to interpret the data correctly, leading to further knowledge. If your foundational beliefs are false, your interpretation of the data is more likely to be wrong, impeding the search for knowledge.
So I think I have adequately covered the nature of knowledge, and when it is reasonable to hold a belief. Now I come to a question that has been hovering in the background for a while. Belief is an attitude of accepting a proposition as true. Knowledge is validly justified true belief. I have claimed that it is important to hold a true worldview. And all throughout, I have been upholding the value of rationality – but the value of rationality is just that it allows us to know what is true.
But what is truth?
That is the topic I will turn to in my next post.