Phin Upham, Beliefs, Justified Beliefs
by Phin Upham
Having a justified belief does require you to know that your belief is justified but it does not require you to know what this justification is. You need not be able to defend your beliefs against criticism. In holding these beliefs I take the Weak Internalist position. Most of our beliefs are clearly supported by others. I believe that this is Harvard University because I have gathered an enormous amount of convergent evidence that support this belief. The evidence that I gathered, in turn rests on other evidence, and so on. But does this chain continue forever, or are there some beliefs at the end of this chain that support other beliefs but are not in turn supported by anything and yet are immediately justified? We can call these beliefs (if they exist) basic beliefs and the view that basic beliefs exist is called Foundationalism. But does the idea of basic beliefs make sense, or must even these basic beliefs have some sort of justification in order to be justified. The argument that justified belief must have a basis is a denial of Foundationalism.
BonJour argues against Foundationalism by pointing out that to know something required epistemic justification and that epistemic justification is by nature necessarily truth seeking. Next he claims that you must have good reason to believe that a belief is true in order to say that it is justified. If you do not establish this connection you are epistemically irresponsible. But if this is true, then in order to be justified in holding a belief at any time, you must hold some reason to believe that that view is justified. By thus concluding that a person must be in cognitive possession of some fact that makes a belief likely to be true, BonJour has squared off against the Foundationalist. His last blow is directed at basic beliefs themselves. He claims that they are either cognitive states, and therefor requiring justification, or they are not like cognitive states, then it is hard to see how the intuition justifies the belief. BonJour’s argument has many flaws, and it seems to depend overly on the connection between epistemic justification and epistemic responsibility. Nevertheless, at its core lies a convincing argument: in order for a belief to be justified it must lean toward the truth, so in order for someone to be justified in holding it, they must be in cognitive possetion of evidence that it leans toward the truth.
While I am satisfied that in order for a belief to be justified we must cognitively have evidence that it is justified (i.e. that it tends toward the truth), it is not clear, from BonJour’s argument, that we must be aware of this cognitive evidence. It is this point that Alston attacks. Alston holds that he is a Weak Internalist. It is enough, for Alston, that the belief acquirable through internal introspection and reflection, and not directly known. Lastly, Alston argues against the idea that being justified in believing something means you are necessarily able to defend it against criticism is counter-intuitive. These authors are convincing in their arguments. BonJour makes a good case that justification is truth seeking by its very nature. If this is true, then it seems that the Foundationalist indeed has a problem justifying his basic beliefs immediately. I agree with Alston that we need not know that something is true in order to have cognitive possession of it. It does seem enough that introspection and reflection can arrive at justifications for a belief. I find Alston’s final point that we need not be able to defend out beliefs against criticism most interesting and most true. Steward Hampshire would agree with Alston. When he said “[if challenged] I would give you grounds for believing my statement, although I would not give youmy grounds, or evidence, or source.” It does seem that the reasons we give for believing something are not necessarily the reasons we internally use in justifying our beliefs. Often our internal reasons are unconscious, often they are intuitive. There is a difference between being justified in a belief and being able to justify a belief.
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About the Author
Phin Upham is an investor who lives in NYC and San Francisco. He has studied at Harvard University and Wharton Business School (UPenn) and is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.