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What can philosophy teach us about trusting our judgment?

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Doubt, Truth and the Virtue of Good Judgment

“Doubt is the killer of dreams, doubt is the killer of me”.

One thing seems pretty true – doubt in our abilities, our judgment, our tastes, and our sense of what’s going on is corrosive.  Like acid burning through tissue paper, it can tear through everything we think we know and believe, undermining us and stopping us from doing what we want to do or being who we want to be.  In this article, I’m going to introduce you to a truly effective way of putting your doubts to bed so you can begin to trust in our own judgement.  What am I going to introduce you to?  Epistemology⁠1 – the philosophy of knowledge.

Episte- what?!! Epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge.

How many times have you found yourself scrambling for something to justify your point of view or course of action in the recent past?  I’ve known people so consumed by doubt that virtually everything they plan to do or say is accompanied by fear:  What will other people think? How will I justify myself if someone asks what I’m doing?  This doesn’t have to be a constant occurrence to be seriously unsettling or even debilitating; and being on guard, ready to defend yourself, can be exhausting.

So what are we doing when this is going on?  It seems that we’re acting like epistemologists, without even knowing it.  Ok, that’s a bit of a stretch, but let me tell you a bit more to show you what I mean.  Epistemologists are interested in knowledge and questions like What can we know? and How can we know anything at all?

Justification is a bit of  problem

Analytic epistemologists are interested in distinguishing knowledge from mere opinions.  Only a justified true belief – a JTB – can qualify as knowledge.  So, if I hold a belief which I believe to be true and which can be justified (say with evidence), I can be said to possess knowledge; if I can’t justify my belief or if my belief is untrue, it’s just an opinion.  And opinions are a poor guide to life because they’re often wrong.   Just how we justify our beliefs depends on who we’re talking to.  Internalists and externalists argue over whether we trust our internal faculties, like reason, or whether truth is to be discovered in the external world; foundationalists are concerned with the foundations and conceptual building blocks upon which our beliefs are built; coherentists ask whether ideas hang together and make sense as a coherent whole; and then there are the evidentialists, contextualists and reliabilists 

The problem with justification, of any kind, is that it can go on, without end.  I give a reason for my belief, and somebody challenges my reason; I then offer a further justification which is also challenged.  This can go on and on and on, potentially forever.  Thus, we have an infinite regress and –  like the end of the rainbow – there’s no pot of gold at the end, because there’s no end to it.   And there’s also a knotty problem – the Gettier Problem – which suggests our justifications can never be guaranteed.  Say my housemate, a virtuoso musician, has a distinctive sounding guitar upon which he plays an idiosyncratic version of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze.  I arrive home to hear Purple Haze being played on his distinctive guitar in that idiosyncratic style and conclude, with justification, that my friend is playing his guitar.  However, what I perceive to be a justified true belief is in fact false because, instead of my housemate playing guitar, it’s one of his friends imitating his style.  The conditions for justification seem robust, but I’ve been fooled.

Escape from the JTB rabbit hole

If the search for justification can send us down a rabbit hole or simply leave us fooled, is there another way to be sure of what we think we know?  Of course there is!

I’ve written previously how virtue ethics has been revived in light of the shortcomings of other ethical theories; in a similar way, virtue theory has been mobilised to address some of the shortcomings of analytic epistemology.

Virtue epistemology and a new approach to knowing

(To follow….)

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1 There are a few different approaches to epistemology, but we’re focusing on analytic and virtue epistemology in this article.

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