An Essay on Epistemology: Can there be very strong reasons for believing something although it is false?

Partly in response to some feedback, and partly because it is about time, I thought I’d post a philosophical essay of mine looking at epistemology. Here, I hope to set out how I come by knowledge. Let me know what you think, as ever.

Can there be very strong reasons for believing something although it is false?


This is an interesting question partly because it is a complex query dressed up in a simple manner. There are many terms here which require a great deal of unpicking before being able to arrive at any sort of warranted conclusion. As a result, there are some assumptions that will have to be made in order to analyse these concepts in a concise framework. Here we have terms like ‘reason’ (and qualified as ‘very strong’), ‘belief’ and ‘false’. In other words, this essay is primarily an epistemological investigation into reason, belief and truth. I will first, and somewhat briefly, define what I feel qualifies as truth before looking at what it would take to have a warranted belief in a false (untrue) proposition. My approach after this will take on a twofold tack. Firstly, I will attempt to establish a reliable method of arriving at a truth. In other words, if one uses what can be deemed as an unreliable epistemological methodology[1], then one is not warranted (i.e does not have very strong reasons) in believing a proposition, especially if another agent can somehow reliably deem this proposition as being false. Secondly, I will look at whether one can have a defensible epistemological method which arrives at a belief in a proposition that is untestable[2]. Thus both prongs can assume that the agent is not aware that the proposition is false and may not, in some instances, even have any way of knowing this. Finally, I will explain that the word and notion ‘reason’ can take on two different senses (one of causality and one of rationality) in order to conclude that if one uses an unreliable epistemological method or one which leads to an untestable belief in a proposition, one cannot have very strong (rational) reasons for believing in something although it is false.

It is important to set out epistemologies from an axiomatic starting point. There is no better place to start than with the Rationalist René Descartes and his cogito ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am” is a declaration of the extent of indubitable knowledge. That is to say, we can only be sure that a thinking entity exists by point of fact that it thinks (whether it be doubting, and whether or not we can define exactly what such a thinking entity might ontologically be). As Michael Lacewing states[3]:

So Descartes begins by understanding knowledge in terms of certainty. To establish certainty, he tests his beliefs by doubt. Doubt, then, is the opposite of certainty. If we can doubt a belief, then it is not certain, and so it is not knowledge.

From this Rationalist mantra, one can further adopt the position of the Pyrrhonian Skeptic. This term represents a skeptic who is defined by doubt so as to remain effectively agnostic over everything, even their own position, such that judgement is evaded. However, this, as a scope for an epistemology, is not very useful; it is not entirely pragmatic[4] in the context of everyday life. As a result, it can be deemed necessary, in order to form a usable epistemology, to build up from this. Yet to do so, one has to make certain leaps of faith, if you will. Or to put it another way, one must hold to knowledge claims that are not indubitable – a usable epistemology seems to have inevitable need of making some leaps of faith over claims that cannot be proved or disproved indubitably.

In order to make sense of the question, let us first look at notions of truth. Within the framework of this essay I will adopt the Correspondence Theory of truth which can be defined as follows:

The basic idea of the correspondence theory is that what we believe or say is true if it corresponds to the way things actually are—to the facts…

The correspondence theory of truth is at its core an ontological thesis: a belief is true if there exists an appropriate entity—a fact—to which it corresponds. If there is no such entity, the belief is false.

Facts, for the neo-classical correspondence theory, are entities in their own right. Facts are generally taken to be composed of particulars and properties and relations or universals, at least. The neo-classical correspondence theory thus only makes sense within the setting of a metaphysics that includes such facts.[5]

Now it goes without saying that in the realms of philosophy everything can be critiqued, every theory has its criticisers. In order to fully establish this theory, I would have a very long regress of having to prove certain positions which hinge on further positions. Suffice it to say that I believe there to be some kind of objective reality of entities and objects which have properties about which human beliefs and claims can be attributed. If such claims correspond to such properties then they can be deemed as being true or factual. Of course, this is the nature of this very essay. Knowledge is indeed knowing that one’s claims correspond. However, the axiom here is that such entities exist and that our claims can correspond to them. This is my first leap of faith, if you will, since this cannot be proven as we shall now see.

Returning to Descartes, let me bring into play his Evil Demon (from his 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy). This is analogous to the modern brain in a vat, or The Matrix in its ontology and implications. All of these thought experiments (or indeed realities) state that we could be existing in a world controlled by an evil demon (or hooked into a machine, or be brains in vats, or even have a non-cynically designed faulty set of senses) so that all the experiences we have could actually be false and might not correspond to an objective reality. This is what the assumption above is attempting to overcome. However, even if we are a victim of any of these scenarios, it can also be said that any epistemology we do have pragmatically, on a day-to-day basis, makes sense of the reality which we experience, even if it does not correlate to an objective reality outside of our experiences. Consequently, it does not matter either way whether we are indeed real humans experiencing real objects, or whether we are brains in vats experiencing simulations; in the contexts of our experiences, the epistemological methods we build up are pragmatically useful in both cases.

This is an assumption (that an objective reality exists, and that claims can correspond to that reality) which I am willing to make and this allows us to move on in building up an epistemology.

Phenomena and Noumena

We have started with our own minds (through Descartes’ cogito). Our minds have experiences, experiences of other things, which I will call objects. Knowing these objects is a subjective ideal, contingent upon both the conscious mind and the object itself. Immanuel Kant recognised that there was a limit to our subjective minds knowing these objects. In his Critique of Pure Reason he delineated a difference between what he called phenomena and noumena. Phenomena are objects which are interpreted through the subjective mechanisms of human consciousness and senses, whereas noumena are what he called “things-in-themselves”. Kant declared that humans are unable to access this noumenal knowledge, since it is only interpretable through our subjective senses.

A very simple way to describe this state of affairs (though every analogy has its limits) is to imagine a human and a bat looking at or sensing a moth. Each with our own subjective senses, we experience that moth in very different ways. Even our sense of colour will be different. We can extrapolate this sensory and experiential difference onto two different humans to see that our subjective experiences of the moth, our knowledge if you will, will be different and contingent upon our cognitive faculties: our senses and our consciousnesses. None of these agents (the humans or the bat) know the thing-in-itself (what Kant called the Ding an sich), all having different experiential ‘knowledges’ of the same object or thing (although Kant would concede that the thing-in-itself is unknowable). Kant would see humans as making sense out of the world around us, out of the phenomena, by using reason and our conscious deliberations in a process he described as transcending the observations. However, to truly know these objects, these noumena, is beyond the capability of such transcendental analysis. In this way, these objects (our universe) remain fundamentally unknown and unknowable. Kant claims that we need noumena because otherwise all we have to know is phenomena (appearances and experiences) and these, being subjective, would lead us to be, in a sense, omniscient! As Kant declares:

Further, the concept of a noumenon is necessary, to prevent sensible intuition from being extended to things in themselves, and thus to limit the objective validity of sensible knowledge. (Critique of Pure Reason, p.272)


Before I build up an epistemology that will be able to help us in assessing the original question, let us look as to whether Kant can defend such a view since this will have some bearing on how we progress. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) moved things on a little, claiming that Kant assumed (through his phenomenology, as it became known) that the human was one step removed from the objects of the world (things, perceptions, ideas, feelings), confined by our limits of human experience. Hegel, on the other hand, asserts that these categories which we bring to bear on the world can indeed constitute actual knowledge. This is based on Hegel’s criticism that the search for knowledge entails first being able to set out what knowledge ontologically is, before actually making claims of knowing anything. However, this sequence, Hegel believed, is victim to an infinite regress making its foundations self-contradictory. His phenomenology attempts to dissolve this problem. As Paul Redding in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) states:

Like Kant, Hegel thinks that one’s capacity to be “conscious” of some external object as something distinct from oneself requires the reflexivity of “self-consciousness,” that is, it requires one’s awareness of oneself as a subject for whom something distinct, the object, is presented as known. Hegel goes beyond Kant, however, and expanding on an idea found in Fichte, makes this requirement dependent on one’s recognition … of other self-conscious subjects as self-conscious subjects, and, moreover, on one’s recognition of them as similarly recognizing oneself as a self-conscious subject. Such patterns of mutual recognition constituting “objective spirit” thereby provide the matrix within which individual self-consciousnesses can exist as such…

We might think that if Kant had written the Phenomenology, he would have ended it at Chapter 6 with the modern moral subject as the telos of the story. For Kant, the practical knowledge of morality, orienting one within the noumenal world, exceeds the scope of theoretical knowledge which had been limited to phenomena. Hegel, however, thought that philosophy had to unify theoretical and practical knowledge, and so the Phenomenology has further to go.

Hegel rejected Kant’s thing-in-itself as being self-contradictory, because a thing must be an object of our consciousness if it is to be an object at all. As Fichte and Hegel believed, a thing is only a thing when it is something for us. The thing-in-itself is actually a product of our thought. This new kind of German Idealism (where idealism is the belief that fundamental reality is intellectual rather than material) moved matters on since Hegel and his contemporaries were willing to dissolve the distinction so that being and thinking had no distinction.

Kant believed objects were mind-independent (that there existed an external world), just that we could not know them. This new wave of Idealists, on the other hand, saw a universality to conscious thought, not necessitating a distinction or duality. There is a circularity involved in this process (which bypasses the regression mentioned earlier) which is deemed as necessary. For Hegel, he set out to show that this “I” was absolute, not contingent upon nature (something real), rather than being dependent upon nature and thus adhering to a form of duality which he saw as contradictory.

The axiom I mentioned earlier, of having a ‘faith’ in the Correspondence Theory could be dissolved by a Hegelian outlook here; the world could metaphysically be one of a single unity of conscious thought. The faith that our phenomena refer to existing, independent noumena is eliminated here so that an epistemology can potentially (arguably) be built on more solid ground.

In reality, however, what can be said is that a distinction between the idealisms of Kant and Hegel is not necessary in constructing a reliable and practical epistemology, which leads nicely into the work of Moravian philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). With his overview on both positions illustrated here, Husserl decreed that we must remain agnostic, or rather that we should (as with Pyrrhonian Scepticism) suspend judgement, over whether we can or can’t have knowledge over the objects of our subjective sensations.

As with many modern philosophers, I believe the case is better[6] for a representative realism about the external world – the view that there is an objective reality that we cannot ‘know’ in and of itself, but about which we can have transcendental knowledge. Our sensations represent the objects. Or as Laruence BonJour in the SEP defines, representative realism is:

…the view, restating it a bit, that our immediately experienced sense-data, together with the further beliefs that we arrive at on the basis of them, constitute a representation or depiction of an independent realm of material objects — one that we are, according to the representationalist, justified in believing to be true.

I, no more than any other philosopher, can prove this indubitably, since this is the very nature of the thing itself! Thus the axiomatic faith in the Correspondence Theory of truth is one which infers at least a Kantian view of the world since a Hegelian one would itself imbue its truth through the very mechanism of consciousness. I say at least, because Husserl offers a very cogent extension of this philosophy which begins to appear a little scientific in its approach. Husserl’s approach is the most defensible because it is the safest, being a simple retreat to a suspension of judgement.

Our consciousnesses are products of their times and environments and so should be analysed critically, or so Husserl thought. The difficulty here is that nature, as hinted at earlier, is fundamental, then, in shaping the consciousness )the “I”) making it very subjective. Husserl saw it as impossible to derive certainty from our external world (he was looking at philosophy in terms of finding foundation for mathematical truths) rather like Descartes. However, he did see truths in sense impressions making his epistemology more wide-ranging than that of Descartes (he was opposed to such a form of scepticism). Descartes’ “I” becomes Husserl’s transcendental ego. From this consciousness we can go about trying to prove certain things, and these things must be proven by utilising phenomena. As such, phenomenology takes on a descriptive quality. Whether it exists or not, Husserl gives us an account of how we access it, how we can analyse its structure and concepts.

Husserl set out to describe the whole array of complex and interconnected  cognitive mechanisms we employ when sensing or observing something. Things aren’t just what they appear as a snapshot since our consciousness is able to create a complicated ‘picture’ full of nuance of what that object might be. For example, when I look at a mobile phone on my desk, I do not just see the outer case facing me, but suppose it’s rear casing, what is inside it, its weight, the screen and its capabilities. There is a more holistic experience to the phenomenonology of the phone. It is not just what the phenomena bring to me as a conscious entity but what I, as the experiencing entity, bring to the table too, so to speak. Our judgements, according to Husserl, are confined to judgements about the phenomena only, not about anything external to them. Husserl ‘brackets’ any such judgements about this external world.


So I have looked to base an epistemology here on a distinction between the phenomenological human mind (the “I”) and the reality of noumenal objects (not-“I”), accepting that we cannot know that our ‘knowledge’ of these objects corresponds to these objects, but that it seems coherent and pragmatic to assume so. This is a stronger approach, though riskier, than that of Husserl in making a positive judgement about the world. The safer position of Husserl offers a more indubitable foundation, but it seems, to me at any rate, to restrict the scope of any dependent epistemology. In effect, I will be carrying out exactly the same processes as Husserl, only that I will make the further step in claiming, through pragmatic intuition and the arguments for non-skeptical realism[7], that this epistemology or these observations refer to a real and existent external reality. On pragmatism and its conflict with doubt, Christopher Hookway in the SEP elucidates on the work of William James:

William James makes similar observations. In ‘The Will to Believe’, he reminds us that we have two cognitive desiderata: we want to obtain truth; and we want to avoid error (James 1879: 30). The harder we try to avoid error, the more likely it is that we will miss out on truths; and the more strenuous we are in searching for truths, the more likely we are to let in errors. The method of doubt may make sense in the special case where an enormous weight is given to avoiding error, even if that means loss of truth. Once we recognize that we are making a practical decision about the relative importance of two goods, the Cartesian strategy no longer appears to be the only rational one. What reason is there to give primary weight to reducing the risk of error?

The desire for certainty is part of a perspective that gives little weight to the needs of practice. For the rationalist, ‘the operation of inquiry excludes any element of practical activity that enters into the construction of the object known.’ For the pragmatist, the needs of practice are allowed to contribute to the constitution of objects.

From this foundation I have set out, I will now look to propose an evidentialist (empiricist) progression. So the experiencing “I” is directly given phenomena which reflect properties (or represent) real objects. I use my cognitive faculties of consciousness (mind) to assess such phenomena. It appears to me that other people, other minds, have similar experiences[8]. These other minds could or could not exist, but since I have assumed some kind of realism standing behind such phenomena, then it would be using double standards to assume that these other minds did not exist, or assume that their experiences were not as they claimed and were not seemingly coherent with mine.

What we have, then, at least in my own subjective experience, is a world full of entities like myself, all experiencing (I assume[9], since I have no good reason to doubt them other than out of pure philosophical scepticism, and better reason to trust exist) a real world of objects that we cannot know in themselves. However, there is similarity of experience; the other entities experience the same objects in similar ways. From this I can build up a coherent picture of the world. As mentioned, this world may or may not exist, but this doesn’t matter, since pragmatically (and I have no strong reasons to doubt it) it might as well exist since I am experiencing it (falsely or otherwise).

Therefore, what builds up my knowledge is phenomena and the patterns and properties which they exhibit. And some of these phenomena are other experiencing minds which report back to me, as phenomena, their own experiences. I form beliefs about the world which are dependent on these phenomena. These beliefs, however, are justified by the phenomena themselves to a greater or lesser degree. In other words, the phenomena (my experience of external objects) act as evidence for my beliefs. Some of my beliefs may have more evidence to support them than other beliefs.  As Matthias Steup states in the “Epistemology” entry for the Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

For example, if the coffee in your cup tastes sweet to you, then you have evidence for believing that the coffee is sweet. If you feel a throbbing pain in your head, you have evidence for believing that you have a headache. If you have a memory of having had cereal for breakfast, then you have evidence for a belief about the past: a belief about what you ate when you had breakfast. And when you clearly “see” or “intuit” that the proposition “If Jack had more than four cups of coffee, then Jack had more than three cups of coffee” is true, then you have evidence for believing that proposition. In this view, evidence consists of perceptual, introspective, memorial, and intuitional experiences, and to possess evidence is to have an experience of that kind. So according to this evidentialism, what makes you justified in believing that p is your having an experience that represents p as being true.

Evidence, then, becomes both something we can know through direct experience, but also something else which we can use in order to justify a belief.

As far as using prior evidence (past behaviour) is concerned, let me take a short diversion into the realms of Hume and the Problem of Induction. Hume claimed that we do not have good reason to form a belief about a future event based on past uniformities. In other words, we can’t be (deductively) sure that the pen I drop in a minute won’t fall up even though (for the sake of argument) every pen dropped in the past has fallen down. Gravity, as a theory, might be supported by evidence (experience) up until I drop the pen, but it does not necessarily follow that the pen will adhere to gravity or that gravity exists in the manner we understand. However, given the logical truth of this, one has better reason for believing the pen will drop than believing it won’t drop. It is a case of probability: If a horse has won a million races up to now, never having lost one, then betting against it in the next race is probabilistically irrational (in simple terms).

Given that we make this jump from an internal knowledge of our thinking selves to interpreting our senses as they detect, categorise and theorise external phenomena, we start moving towards the realm of science – which can be seen as a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge.[10]


If we superimpose this previous point onto the discipline of science, we can then make some sense of the term ‘fact’. A scientific fact takes on two meanings. Primarily, scientific acts are verifiable observations upon which theories are built. As far as a scientific theory becoming a ‘fact’ is concerned, such a theory as fact is one which is recognised as being supported by overwhelming evidence. Looking at the pen and gravity, we take the Theory of Gravity as being a scientific fact. That is not to say it is indubitable: we may be wrong, the pen could fall up the next time, we could be a brain in a vat. However, that does not appear to be the case, and if we thought like that with every piece of knowledge, we would remain Pyrrhonian Skeptics, intellectually immobilised by eternal doubt. Thus, for pragmatic purposes, in order to live our lives sensibly (involving prediction, estimation and planning, as well as intersubjectivity), we take certain claims (i.e. gravity) as fact.

The problem, as one might guess, is that the term ‘overwhelming support’ is very subjective and open to criticisms of being arbitrary. As such, a common-sense approach is needed in order to determine how to employ such facts and non-facts (or theories). For example, if 99.99% of scientists in the relevant fields and thousands of peer-reviewed journals defend the law of gravity, then the probability of it being true is greater. Thus, as an individual, I can incorporate gravity as a true fact, or piece of knowledge, in order to utilise it and rely on it (in planning or carrying out actions successfully). However, if a theory is only supported by 55% of relevant experts, then my plans and reliance should be adapted in correlation to the probability of it being true. If the evidence for a claim is severely lacking (such that 3% of scientists in the relevant fields defend it), then relying on it as a fact would be ill-advised. Thus the phenomena of the objects themselves, as well as the scientists (as objects) and journals (as objects) can be appraised by the individual and assessed accordingly.

If I, as an individual experiencer, am not confident in my cognitive faculties to fully understand such phenomena, I can defer to the experts without critically examining the objects and phenomena myself. This process itself can be based on evidential foundations. If, in the past, I had deferred to experts who almost unanimously defended a truth claim, some fifty times, and each time the claim had been reliable so that my plans or actions could take place with reliable outcomes, then it has shown me that, probabilistically, deferring to experts when I do not have the required faculties to investigate the truth claims myself is itself a reliable mechanism. Subsequently, we are making a case for evidence and evidentialism, when used this way, to be a mechanism for justifying beliefs which is reliable. There is an overlap here of evidentialism and reliabilism. With regards to Steup’s last quote, this overlap can be described as follows (Steup, 2005):

[Reliabilists] hold that a belief is justified if, and only if, it results from cognitive origin that is reliable: an origin that tends to produce true beliefs and therefore properly probabilifies the belief. Reliabilists, then, would agree that the beliefs mentioned in the previous paragraph are justified. But according to a standard form of reliabilism, what makes them justified is not the possession of evidence, but the fact that the types of processes in which they originate — perception, introspection, memory, and rational intuition — are reliable.

The evidences used here, however, are indeed those phenomenological mechanisms of perception, introspection, memory and rational intuition.

What we are starting to do is build up an epistemology which is both reliable and coherent to the individual experiencer. Let me recap. What we have is an understanding that phenomena reflect the real world. These phenomena include other conscious minds who themselves experience. As a result, there is a collection of recorded experiences which constitute a growing body of evidence which can be applied towards finding the truth values of certain propositions. These propositions are ascribed a pragmatic truth if supported by overwhelming evidence.

Additionally, the process of gathering experience (such as data and information), known as the scientific process, refines the data so that it becomes increasingly more accurate, and is self-correcting. This is an extremely important idea. What this means is that the experience of those others around me – the data that they collect – if it is empirical in ontology (in other words, if it is a claim or an observation about the objective world as opposed to their own personal experiences or something supernatural)  is testable. Therefore, in practice, I have the ability to test it or to observe testing of the claims and data by another reliable source.

Let me return to the term “scientific method”. This is a process by which knowledge of the world can be gathered. Not only this, it is also a process that can refine the knowledge. The process should lead to a more and more accurate picture of the world, or in other words, should give us a more accurate understanding and knowledge of the world as time passes. The traditional view of science (i.e the scientific method) can be summed up as follows (in “Scientific Progress” by Ilkka Niiniluoto, 2011):

Science is often distinguished from other domains of human culture by its progressive nature: in contrast to art, religion, philosophy, morality, and politics, there exist clear standards or normative criteria for identifying improvements and advances in science. For example, the historian of science George Sarton argued that “the acquisition and systematization of positive knowledge are the only human activities which are truly cumulative and progressive,” and “progress has no definite and unquestionable meaning in other fields than the field of science” (Sarton 1936).

The order of scientific events can be understood as:

1)      Formulate a question

2)      Formulate a hypothesis

3)      Make a prediction

4)      Test the prediction

5)      Analyse the results

This can be a circular and repeating pattern of acquiring knowledge such that the analysed results influence the forming of another question which can then start the process again. Karl Popper, the famous philosopher of science, espoused the approach of falisfiability. This is the concept which dictates that if a claim is false, then it can be shown to be so by observation or experiment. As such, Popper would state that only falsifiable claims belong in the realms of science and scientific enquiry. At the heart of this is the notion that truth claims about the universe cannot be verified but only falsified. This refers inextricably to the Problem of Induction as mentioned earlier. The pen, next time, might fall up. We cannot verify the Theory of Gravity and its effects to be absolutely true (such as verifying future outcomes of dropping the pen) – there is space for doubt. However, we can falisify such claims. If my pen did fall up (ceteris paribus) then the theory would be falsified.

Where does this leave us? Well, again recapping, we have our internal and absolute truth that we as thinking entities exist. Then we rely on a pragmatic approach of analysing phenomena. This can be shown to be reliable (whether we are a brain in a vat or not) within our subjective existence. Evidence and data of the external world can be gathered (empirically) and collected. This data must be verifiable in order for us to be able to test it for the purposes of calculating whether it is reliable or not (since if you cannot test it, you cannot test whether it is true or not).

Thus our knowledge contains a set of data which we have collected both from our own experience and from the experience of reliable others. A note on this: I would not take a truth claim as factual such as a person, who had lied to me before, walking up to me on the street and claiming that a tiger had attacked and eaten someone in the local supermarket. I would, however, take it as factual if the police told me, and I saw it reported by experts on the television news shown in a nearby shop window and so on.  These sources had both proved themselves to be reliable to me before.

So the claim that if I drop my pen in the normal surroundings of my living room, it will fall downwards, is something which I would believe as a fact, as a piece of knowledge. This is built upon a huge amount of experimental data. It is testable, and it is falsifiable (it could fall up). As a result, given the past uniformities of such an experiment, I would take this as a reliable piece of knowledge, and I would say that I do have very strong reasons for believing that my pen will fall down when I drop it.

To return to the original question, if I had a false truth claim, could I have very strong reasons for believing it? First of all, let me ask this with reference to a truth claim that is falsibiable and testable (a Falsifiable Claim). In this situation, the claim would be an empirically testable claim about the external world. If I had (at t1) a new tentative hypothesis, for example, for a cosmological theory of the way the universe started, would this be taken as a truth claim anyway? A tentative theory like this which is not defended by overwhelming evidence would not entail having very strong reasons for believing it, but it would also be seen as a theory and not a fact. It is a hypothesis as opposed to strictly being a truth claim. One could believe it, but it would not have the support of such evidence and would require a larger amount of faith with which to believe it (as being true). It might be both coherent (mathematically, etc.) and falsifiable, but it is not established or consensus among the experts. On the other hand, one could believe (at t1) in the Standard Big Bang model (my example is irrelevant per se, so there is no need to think about trying to disprove it – it serves as an example) which is coherent, falsifiable and defended and evidenced by the consensus of experts in the relevant fields. Thus one would, in my opinion, have very strong reasons for believing it.

The Standard Big Bang model could be proved wrong as more and different evidence is added into the mix, and as other newer and related theories are expounded (at, say, t2). However, at the point of believing it (t1), one would indeed have very strong reasons for doing believing it. Therefore, one could have overwhelming evidence to support a false Falsifiable Claim if the overwhelming evidence to hand supported that claim, and there was incomplete evidence available to the believer to support its falsification. In this way, justified beliefs (beliefs with very strong reasons to believe them) are dependent upon the evidence for them. Incomplete or incorrect evidence can lead to false beliefs. However, it can be difficult to know whether, in a given situation, we ever have sufficient or complete information. Therefore, the best we can hope for is to make judgements with the most complete information available. This may, to be fair, imply that “very strong reasons” cannot be given if the evidence is incomplete, but since we often cannot know this, let us interpret such evidence as being good enough. However, if we knew the evidence was largely incomplete, then this could invalidate the idea that one has “very strong reasons” for believing the claim.

With regards to claims which are made of unfalsifiable truths (Unfalisifiable Claim), things are a little different. If one cannot falsify a claim, then I would posit that one cannot have very strong reasons to believe it. One must do so based on faith.Normal, empirical evidence is full of consistent patterns, without which (i.e if things were largely non-deterministic or random), we could not form any hypotheses and likely wouldn’t even exist (see Pearce 2011 for elucidation of this point). This framework of evidence is vital for making reliable and falsifiable claims.

If we take, for example, the truth claim that “God answers prayer” we might be able to more clearly understand this point. This is where a claim is unfalsifiable. The claim involves both the empirical (testable) and the untestable. We can test, and have tested, prayer and its effects, using double blind experiments and so on. However, when the experiments (and they have[11]) have shown no positive results for intercessory prayer (when God intervenes for someone on the behest of someone else) defenders of the truth claim move the untestable, unfalsifiable agent (God) outside of the normal causal bounds. For example, a defender might claim “But God may decide not to answer those prayers because he doesn’t like being tested” or use some such device. This means that the agent, or the claim, is effectively unfalsifiable. We have seemingly empirically falsified the belief that God answers prayer using an evidential procedure. However, since God is not consistent, deterministic and testable in such a manner, one cannot reliably say whether God does or doesn’t answer prayer. Thus such a belief is not, in my opinion, supported by very strong reasons, but by unevidenced faith. If excellent and reliable evidence is forthcoming for such a claim, then belief in the claim’s truth value would be more justified. It would rely more on evidence, and less on faith.

In this way a defender of an unfalsifiable claim can move the causal factors of the claim around like a pea in the shell game, defrauding the tester of any ability to test the agent (in this case, God).

As mentioned, the claim might well be true, but one doesn’t have very strong reasons for believing so. For this expistemic method, I posit that reliability is contingent on the ability to test and falsify the claim. Claims which deny one the ability to do this are not supported by very strong reason.

Therefore, let me finally recap the method for reliably finding truth:

1)      The thinking entity exists (cogito ergo sum)

2)      Any other existence must assume a grounding in faith in an external reality and truth claims assume a similar correlation

3)      All phenomena assumed to relate to the outside world count as evidence

4)      A fact is a piece of knowledge which is a truth claim supported coherently by overwhelming evidence

5)      A fact must be falsifiable

6)      A truth claim cannot be supported by very strong reasons if it is unfalsifiable

7)      An unfalsifiable truth claim cannot be a fact

8)      In one sense, you can have very strong reasons to believe something if you have incomplete evidence. Therefore, very strong reasons fits within the context of the best available evidence.

The criticisms, as I see them, to this epistemology are twofold. Firstly, if one has incomplete evidence, then one can claim that one does not have very strong reasons. This criticism can be dismissed on the basis of a paradox of knowledge. One cannot know if one knows everything since, by definition, one does not know something that one does not know. This is the logical incoherency involved with the claim that God is omniscient since he cannot actually know that he knows everything (along similar lines to the brain in a vat). Therefore, one can never really know indubitably that one knows everything about a particular object. In this way, it is safer to judge very strong reasons on the available evidence. What we know about quantum physics is at the moment incomplete. However, it shouldn’t stop us from knowing certain pieces of knowledge about quantum mechanics (under the implicit understanding that this could change). We can assign a probability to the knowledge (as is done in Bayesian analyses of truth claims).

The second area of possible criticism can be offered by Reformed Epistemologists who, as theistic philosophers, disagree with the idea that it is irrational or unacceptable to accept (theistic) belief without sufficient or appropriate evidence or reason[12]. This is a huge topic in and of itself so I will offer only one short criticism of Reformed Epistemology (RE). RE offers a negative argument but no positive argument for the aforementioned truth claim. There is no good reason to doubt the claim. Thus, in such an even position, evidence should surely provide the needed weighting.

In conclusion, then, I would posit that one can only have very strong reasons to believe a falsehood if that claim is a falsifiable claim and the believer had made sincere effort to use the best information and evidence available at the time of believing (but that the information available was not good enough to show the falsehood). An example might be in thinking that the Earth was the centre of the universe in the very early days of scientific endeavour – the available information was simply not good enough to provide sufficient reason to think otherwise. Moreover, using predominantly faith without the luxury of evidence in believing a claim (whether it is true or not) does not qualify the believer in having very strong reasons, since such reasons would be in spite of good evidence. I fail to see how an unfalsifiable claim (usually inferring a lack of evidence) can provide very strong reasons for a belief, whether it be true of false.




Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, et al. (April 2006). “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer”. American Heart Journal 151 (4): 934–42.

Bonjour, Laurence (2007), “Epistemological Problems of Perception”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Colleti, Lucio (1969), “From Hegel to Marcuse”, in From Rousseau to Lenin: Studies in Ideology and Society [orig. Ideologia e Società, 1969], translated by John Merrington and Judith White (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), pp. 111-140.

Goldhaber, Alfred Scharff; Nieto, Michael Martin (January–March 2010), “Photon and graviton mass limits”, Rev. Mod. Phys. (American Physical Society) 82: 939, doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.82.939. pages 939-979.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1969), The Science of Logic, trans. A. V. Miller:London

Hookway, Christopher (2008), “Pragmatism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Hyslop, Alec (2009), “Other Minds”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Kant, Immanuel (2nd ed, 1787), Critique of Pure Reason, trans by Norman Kemp Smith,

McQuillan, Colin (2012), “German Idealism”, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Niiniluoto, Ilkka (2011), “Scientific Progress”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Pearce, Jonathan (2011), “The Argument from Format – How the Cartesian soul cannot be the originator of free will”,

Plantinga, Alvin(1983), “Reason and Belief in God”. Faith and Rationality, Notre Dame:University ofNotre Dame Press

Redding, Paul (2010), “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Smith, David Woodrup (2008), “Phenomenology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Steup, Matthias (2005), “Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,


[1]As will be explained later. Obviously people will steer away from using unreliable epistemologies, but only if they know that that method was unreliable, or even understand the notion of an epistemology.

[2]Again, this idea (of testability) will be explored later.&#8617

[3]“Descartes and the method of doubt”, (retrieved 06/08/2012)&#8617

[4]Pragmatism, as a “rule for clarifying the contents of hypotheses by tracing their ‘practical consequences’” has seen a renaissance since the 1970s (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Pragmatism”, Christopher Hookway, 2008)&#8617

[5]Truth, Michael Glanzberg, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (retrieved 07/05/2012)&#8617

[6]According to the Philpapers philosophical survey, some 81.6% of philosophers adhere to non-skeptical realism (, retrieved 10/08/2012). The case for representationism is explained well in Bonjour’s SEP piece quoted above. Space and time do not permit setting out the entire case here.&#8617

[7]Referenced in previous footnotes.&#8617

[8]Husserl’s way of dealing with the problem of other minds (justifying whether other minds are like our own) was “insisting that our experience of the objective world was at the same time an experience of others (Husserl 1997, Fifth Meditation)”, Alec Hyslop, SEP. See Hyslop fro an exposition of the idea of other minds.&#8617

[9]Again, refer to Hyslop for the problem of other minds which, by and large, seems devoid of perfect solutions, short of eliminating the problem. Perhaps the simplest way forward is to accept that I have more reason to believe other minds are like my own than to disbelieve it.&#8617

[10]Goldhaber and Nieto (2010)&#8617

[11]For example, see Benson et al (2006)&#8617

[12]This can be summed up (Plantinga 1983, p,27) as a defence to the logical argument: 1) It is irrational or unacceptable to accept theistic belief without sufficient or appropriate evidence or reason. 2) There is not sufficient/appropriate evidence or reason for theistic belief. 3) Belief in God is irrational. Theists of this persuasion claim that premise 1 is not necessarily true.&#8617

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  • discettico

    Great essay.  Unfortunately your footnote links are broken.

    • Jonathan MS Pearce


      Will look into the issue.

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      Hmmm, trying rather unsuccessfully to get the html code for footnotes to work properly.

  • Jonathan MS Pearce

    footnotes now work one way, and backpage takes you back to the right place.

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