Belief vs fact

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    Prof. Casey,

    I (admittedly) skipped ahead to the logical fallacies videos to see what you had to say about them. I do understand that, as you said, these fallacies are not necessarily 100% and these are more or less general rules and can be argued. I do have a question about one.

    The first example at the end goes something like, “You cannot prove there are no aliens on Jupiter, therefore I am justified in believing that there are.”

    I can see the fallacy if the argument would be something like “You cannot prove there are no aliens on Jupiter, therefore it proves that there are.”

    Is there a line between a belief and an asserted yet unproven fact in logic? Is it really a fallacy to believe something that cannot be proven false because it is a fallacy to assert as fact something yet unproven that cannot be proven false? Isnt a belief in something that cannot be proven wrong permissible even though assertion of fact simply because something cannot be proven wrong is a fallacy?


    Hello Sterling: I’ve just seen your post (it’s been a busy Christmas) so sorry about the delay in responding. I’m trying to get my head around your last paragraph so give me a little time to think about it and then I’ll get back to you.


    Back again, Sterling! That last paragraph of yours gave me quite a headache!

    The concepts you make use of in your question – belief, assertion, fact, proof – are all of them highly contestable concepts in the theory of knowledge. Philosophers have spent much time and ink trying to tease them out and there is no universally accepted final analysis. Despite this, I’ll make a suggestion and you can let me know what you think of it.

    The core of your question seems to rest on a distinction between a belief and an assertion with you suggesting (if I understand you) that the conditions that attach to the one may not attach to the other. Let’s take the following as examples:
    A: I believe there are fairies at the bottom of my garden, and
    B: There are fairies at the bottom of my garden

    Proposition A, which is a claim about my epistemological states, is true if indeed I do hold such a belief. That belief would still be true even if there were in fact no fairies at the bottom of my garden.

    Proposition B makes no necessary reference to epistemological or psychological states. It is true only if there are in fact fairies at the bottom of my garden. However, if would be distinctly odd to add to B “…but I don’t believe it!”

    A belief can be, as it were, ‘raw’ (“I believe X”; “Why do you so believe?”; “I just do”) or it can be ‘justified’ (“I believe X”; “Why do you so believe?” “Because I have seen the evidence for X”).

    The epistemic distinction between a justified belief and an assertion (leaving aside their psychological or linguistic differences) seems to me to be vanishingly small. If that be so, then the conditions attaching to truth or proof for the one attaches to the other, other things being equal. I repeat: I may be wrong on this, and there has been much vigorous discussion on these matters in philosophical circles.

    The general point in my discussion of the fallacy in question is that, other things being equal, one is normally entitled to believe or assert X only where there is evidence for X. Someone who denies X is not normally required to prove that there isn’t an X. It is sometimes said that it is impossible to prove a negative but this isn’t always so. If you claim that there is an elephant in the room I can normally prove that there isn’t by conducting an extensive and exhaustive search of the room.

    While the burden of proof normally falls on the assertor/believer, it can be the case, as Wittgenstein says in his “On Certainty” that doubt needs grounds. Children learn the power of the question early on in life and use it to elicit response after response until eventually their interlocutors give up in exasperation!

    Reading through my response, I’m not entirely sure I have addressed your concerns. If you’d like to continue the conversation, please do so.

    Once again, apologies for the delay in responding to you.


    Thank you for the reply. I didnt really expect much during everyone’s Christmas break.

    You have answered my question. The basic purpose of the question was in regard to the ever present God/science-vs-god debate. Which, of course, adds another level to the problem with the definition of science.

    Science, is limited to the observable, measurable and repeatable. That is, only the natural can be studied by science. Science, then, being the search for the truth about the universe. But it seems that modern science has turned the definition around, contorting it to “only the natural can be studied by science and proven science is truth thus only the natural can be true (or for the sake of a logic problem …all truth is natural).” This causes a distribution problem in the logic. Reasoning also poses a problem because this definition leaves out anything that is unnatural or supernatural. it also seems to lead to the idea that anything not proven true is then necessarily false and that all unnatural and supernatural then does not exist.

    So one person says that he believes something does exist whose existence cannot be naturally/scientifically proven and then uses it to explain something else. The other person says that the first person is, in fact, wrong because of the fact that the assumed existence of that thing cannot be proven true. The first person is not proven true by the inability of his assumption to be proven false. But the second person is not able to prove the first wrong by the inability of the assumption of first to be proven true. This is my context for using the word belief. A belief being, not only something that has not been proven, such as fairies under your garden, but also something that cannot be proven such as invisible fairies. Unprovability does not necessitate either truth or falsehood.

    So back to the original sentence I had a question on. Why would it be a fallacy to believe something that has no natural evidence, while admitting that it cannot be scientifically proven true? and Is it also a fallacy then to limit truth to those things that are natural when truth is a characteristic whether proven or not?

    I hope that all made sense. If my wording etc. did not make sense, feel free to look at the core of what I am talking about where you think I am missing something rather than the specific questions.

    perhaps I am conflating truth with logic too much?


    Sterling: first, to come to the point raised at the end of your last post: Logic, formal logic, is concerned with inference primarily and only secondarily with truth insofar as truth is that which is, as it were, ‘carried’ by a valid argument.

    Epistemology is concerned with knowledge and belief, the conditions for each, the relation between the two, and many other questions.

    There is a field of study called the philosophy of logic which inhabits a no-man’s land between the two areas – for this, see, for example, Susan Haack’s “Philosophy of Logics”.

    On your substantive point: one can believe things for a whole variety of reasons – because they are self-evident and just obviously so, or delivered to one by one’s tradition or culture, or something one read in a book or heard from a friend, and so on. There is no requirement that our beliefs be proved or provable before we are entitled to entertain them. Cardinal Newman, in his “A Grammar of Assent” challenged his readers (British, 19th century) by asking them how many of them believed Great Britain to be an island. Of course, the answer would have been, all of them. And then he asked how many of them had circumnavigated the island, or knew someone who had done so – and now, of course, the answer was, of course, practically zero. Yet, none of his readers doubted that GB was, in fact, an island. Newman wondered why this was so and pointed out that everything was for such a belief and nothing against it. All of English history, its trade, its relations with Europe, makes no sense unless GB is an island.

    Most of our beliefs are held on little or no evidence at all – easy come, easy go. The flash point, as usual, is with religious beliefs. Recently, we have seen the emergence of a new and very hostile form of scientism, which is the 21st century version of the ultra-rationalist position Newman was reacting against. This holds that only that which is scientifically establishable may be reasonably believed. Of course, the very statement of this position is not itself scientifically establishable and so should, by virtue of that criterion, be abandoned! A corollary of this scientismic thesis is that only that can be believed which can be believed by all – but, once again, this position is incoherent.

    Many religions have held that there is evidence for belief in God and in the holdings of particular faiths. Not everyone is persuaded of this but that in itself doesn’t establish the falsity of these claims.


    Sterling: This will amuse you (I hope!). While doing some early spring cleaning, I came across a book entitled, “What We Believe but Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty” (ed. John Brockman; 2005/6). Why I think this is amusing is because almost all the writers contributing to this volume are either areligious or anti-religious.

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