I believe: Justification Required (Usually) — Questions from M

I believe: Justification Required (Usually) — Questions from M June 8, 2017

I believe:

  1. the Packers are the best football team ever.
  2. Texas is a big state.
  3. a rose is beautiful.
  4. taking a human life for fun is morally wrong.
  5. God exists.

As a list of my beliefs, this is not much of a creed to live by, but these are all propositions I do, actually, believe. The list points out something about beliefs: there are different kinds and they have different levels of importance.

I believe this man is the greatest quarterback of all time.
I believe this man is the greatest quarterback of all time.

If you ask me why I think the Packers are the best football team ever, I could list some reasons:

  1. They have won the most NFL championships.
  2. The 1960’s team and coach helped create the modern NFL, including the name on the Super Bowl trophy.
  3. The team is one of the oldest in the NFL and has had many periods of greatness or near greatness.

These are all things I might say at a game to a Cowboy’s fan who thought my belief was wrong. (One cannot reason, at all, with a Bear’s fan.) The truth, however, is that my love of the Packers is not rational. I love them, because I love them. Whether they are losing (Scott Campbell!) or winning (Starr! Favre! Rodgers!), I love them. They are the Pack.

That is fine, because this is a “for fun” preference. My preference has led me to spend money (one share of Packer stock), but not serious money. I would not die for my opinion about the Packers, though I have listened to most of their games for years. This is a subjective opinion and perhaps should not even be called a belief.  Let’s call a subjective opinion any belief whose truth or falsity depends on me. Only God and I know if the statement: “I love butter crunch ice cream.”  is true.

It will be rare for you to care.

A sufficient reason for this kind of belief is: “I like it.”**

A second kind of belief says more than “I like it.” When I say: Texas is a big state, then I mean to say something about Texas, not just my feelings about Texas. I am intending to say this: “Compared to other states in the United States, Texas is relatively large geographically.” Since Texas is the second largest state in the Union, this seems true and it is true based on facts external to me.

Notice that there is a problem with relative statements like this one. Suppose I believe Wisconsin is a big state. The fact is that Wisconsin is number twenty-three on the list of big states. It is above average, but at this point someone might disagree with me. Many statements that compare things using general terms (“big,” “heap,” “smart”) become hard to prove at the margins. If we compare Texas and Wisconsin, then it is true that Texas is bigger than Wisconsin. It also seems true that Texas is a (relatively) big state, but Wisconsin is trickier to categorize . What about number twenty-five Illinois? Is it relatively big?

Comparisons like this should have external justification, but end up (often) being tricky. Illinois, after all, has more land area than Wisconsin (all those lakes!).

When a person says: “A rose is beautiful” some people say that this is only in the eye of the beholder. We are expressing our like or dislike of roses. Other people argue that beauty is a quality that the rose has and that this statement is true. The rose is beautiful. Before we can determine if this statement needs justification, we have to categorize the statement.

I believe “beauty is objective” and have defended that idea. This is the kind of statement that needs reasons, because it is a claim about reality. If I am right that beauty is objective, I should also be able to give reasons that “a rose is beautiful.” On the other hand, people for whom beauty is just “my opinion,” do not need to say anything other than “I like roses.” 

Some things I believe (like statements about beauty) need reasons only if they turn out to be statements about the world and not about my preferences (like the Packers).

The fourth belief is moral belief and is very important. Notice that the importance of a belief to your life will also impact how strong evidence should be. Reasonable people have stronger reasons for important beliefs than less important beliefs. Belief 1 (Packers!) is less important (or should be) than belief 4. If I get 4 wrong, great harm will result.

I think killing people for fun is wrong not just because I think it distasteful (I do), but because there exists “good” outside myself and killing people for fun is not good. As a result, I would have to give moral reasons for my belief. Note: I would not have to give the same kind of reasons I gave for “Texas is big.” The belief that Texas is big is about the (objective) physical world and requires physical facts.

My answer would be measured in square miles (you cannot safely measure Texas in kilometers in Texas).

Moral beliefs might include statements about the physical world (“People who kill people for fun are more likely to do other bad things.”), but notice that getting from is true to what ought to be will require moral arguments. The physical world will not be enough to get from “is” to “ought.” We will need moral facts and ethical arguments.

Finally (!), we come to a statement about God: God exists. This is true and is a statement about non-physical reality (the kind of place where we might find numbers if they exist). We might experience God (as we do ideas, numbers, minds), but cannot point to God with our fingers! To believe in God, we should have reasons, but metaphysical reasons and experience.

We might categorize our beliefs in other ways (or develop further kinds of beliefs), but these feel like useful rough and ready categories. We have subjective (“I like it!) beliefs and objective ones (“This is true for more than me.”). Sometimes (beauty) the classification (subjective or objective?) is controversial. When we do need reasons (objective beliefs), these reasons will fit the category of the assertion. If we believe something about geometry, then we would need a geometrical proof or some sort of mathematical reasoning!

Having done this work, we are able to turn to an interesting question from my summer interlocutor M*.

M* says:

8. Is there anything in your life that you have chosen to believe is true even if the evidence of it does not convince you? For instance, if you believe the evidence does not support that Barrack Obama was a great President or that Donald Trump is a great President, do you believe you could still choose to believe they were/are great Presidents?


I believe subjective things without evidence. Hurrah for the color Lincoln green! That is my favorite color. I have no evidence for it. 

I think it is true that I like Lincoln green best, but it is hard to say the “evidence” convinced me when I think there is no evidence beyond my whim (of the moment). Perhaps, M* might say that this is evidence and that subjective opinions just require very little evidence and evidence of only one kind: how I feel (at the moment).

I see no reason to quibble. If so, then “No.”

I cannot think of anything I believe when relevant evidence does not convince me. God help me, if there is such a belief,  I hope to discover it and weed it out. Such beliefs must be unreflective in the extreme.

If this is true: “I believe Moscow, Russia is in the Antarctic.” and this is true: “I know where the Antarctic is, Europe is, and that Moscow is in Europe.” then I have gone a bit mad or not put together beliefs properly. I should know Moscow cannot be in Antarctic so my assertion is unreasonable, unreflective, and inconsistent. 

Time to think harder.

I am utterly incapable of gaining the belief that Moscow is in Antarctica, because I know too much and have thought about it!

The example M* uses is more difficult. Let’s take the two statements:

  1. Donald Trump is a great president.
  2. Barack Obama was a great president.

I could assert both as a matter of subjective taste. Stylistically, Mr. Obama was more appealing to me than Mr. Trump is. That is just my taste, however, not a fact about Mr. Trump or Mr. Obama. I believe my feelings can change, because they do frequently.

If I am saying more than feelings, then I would first need a definition of “great president.” Is this a comparison between leaders or is this pass/fail? Is the comparison only to US Presidents?

Imagine this criterion: “A US President is ‘great’ if and only if his presidency does not contribute to a civil war.”

If so, then I might be willing to claim that Mr. Obama was greater than Mr. Buchanan (objectively) as president and that Mr. Trump is likely to be greater than Mr. Buchanan. Notice, however, if Mr. Trump presides over a civil war (like the one from 1861-1864), then the evidence will change my belief. (God forbid!)

So M*: this statement about “greatness” seems to need a great deal of work if it is about more than my feelings. As a result, my beliefs can change based not just on “evidence,” but on better definitions. (A better definition clarifies the evidence I need, but is not evidence.)

can believe something despite the evidence (if I never think about it, am mad, or irrational), but I should not do so.



*M is a non-Christian that sent me 55 questions early this year. He  has asked that I not reveal his or her name. I will write as if “he” is a male, but this is for convenience. I do not know if I will get to all his questions. Here are questions 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 817, 1923, 2627, 283435 37, 444754 , and 55.

** This statement about the Packers could be read as not subjective if someone were to suggest a set of criteria for greatness that we both agreed worked. “Greatest NFL Franchise” would then be a description requiring reasons and argument. That was not the sense in which I am using it.

Browse Our Archives