Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Justification: of me or of my belief?

Suppose the year is 1350AD, and I go to several medicine men in friendly tribes in order to get an explanation for my skin element, a multi-colored, unsymmetrical patch of skin that has a raised center and has been growing larger lately, although slowly.[1] With some variation, they tell me that sometimes the yellow jacket bee and the ant will fight[2], and if one has recently touched an ant after such a fight, the anger of the ant can remain in me. The general agreement is that an ant probably crawled over my arm sometime in the past, and this was the cause of my ailment. Consider, then, the statement --

p: "An angry ant which touched me caused my skin condition."

There are two ways to think about the justification of p. First, one might be saying that I, the person, am justified in holding p. And second one might be saying that p itself, the proposition, is justified. Put more tersely, is it the believer or the belief which is supposed to be justified?

In my 1350AD existence, no one could say I was somehow gullible or irresponsible in my belief, since I sought the best authoritative sources available for me, and since I had no better explanation to offer. (After all, the germ explanation for disease lies 500 years in the future.) Furthermore, ants and bees are known to cause painful skin marks in other ways, so there's a certain analogy of experience to my skin ailment. Suppose, as is highly likely, I come to believe the explanation of the medicine men. Someone might be tempted to think I am indeed justified.

But I think this is the wrong way to think of justification, since it seems to say that my lack of negligence or due diligence is what justifies a belief. The cold reality of the matter is this: my belief that p is wrong. The correct explanation is actually at the cellular level, with cancer cells multiplying and the rest. But it's 1350AD, so I have no clue about such things. Neither does anyone else. p is believed on defective and misleading evidence.

I think this is one problem with many religious beliefs. People think they (the religious beliefs) are justified because they (the religious believers) exercise due diligence in their inquiry, just as the 1350AD person did for the skin ailment. But that's not enough for justification of beliefs. Whether the believers are justified is a different kind of issue. There are two different targets here: Epistemic justification must be carefully distinguished from Ethical justification.



[image] A.J. Isbister "The Critics"

[1] These are classic signs for skin cancer

[2] "The Yellow Jacket and the Ant" Native American Lore Index (Accessed Jan. 17, 2008)

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