Logical and non-logical justification

Abpraxis asked:

I read and hear “logical justification” and I can’t find a definition for it. Is it as pedestrian as it sounds (can be put in the form of logic and makes a valid argument), or is it a term of art? When a philosopher insists that there is no such thing as “empirical justification” and that the “only justification is logical justification”, I’d like to know just what exactly the latter is.

Answer by Graham Hackett

Abpraxis, the more I read about epistemology, the less I think I really know. I think you are right in asking whether an expression like “logical justification” has any real precise meaning, which is invariable from one context to another, or whether it is a “term of art”, only acquiring meaning when we know the context in which it is used. Even more unhelpful if you are looking for a precise meaning, is the suspicion that it might have become a folk term — a well-known phrase or saying — used without much concern for exploring meaning.

You mention empirical justification, and logical justification as though in comparison, and imply that the former is not real, proper, trustworthy justification, whilst the latter is. I assume that you’ve done some background investigation on the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. For example, a form of argument such as;

All men are mortal
Socrates is mortal
Therefore Socrates is mortal

is a famous example of classical logic. My conclusion that Socrates is mortal is based on previous propositions, in this case, that all men are mortal, and that Socrates is a man. No empirical evidence needs to be gathered; the conclusion is justified purely by the structure of the argument, and by the assumption that our propositions are incorrigibly and self-evidently true. 

In comparison, an argument like “all ravens are black” needs empirical evidence, real hard data gathered from many observations of ravens, before we can conclude that it is justified. You can easily see that this kind of reasoning, although it might falsify our assertion that all ravens are black (we might observe some non-black ones), can never prove conclusively that our assertion is true, because any smart Alec (there are many of them) could just suggest that even after a huge number of sightings of black ravens, we have no way of knowing whether the next raven to come will be black or non-black.

So I suppose that you could use this conclusion to hold that empirical justification is never really justification at all. But here we come to the tricky part of the argument. What does justification really amount to? What has to be the case before we can say we are justified in some conclusion we have made? This is where the ground really starts to slip from under our feet.

I don’t wish to become too entangled with questions about the new and old epistemology, but you might like to do a little research on Alvin Plantinga, and his observations on justification, and his preference for using the term “warrant” instead. Although we use both terms often in much the same way — that we are warranted or justified in the things we assert, Plantinga asserts that “justification” has often been too much tied up with evidence. We claim to be justified by our evidence. Plantinga wishes to attach the term “warrant” to our beliefs. Our beliefs can be warranted in many ways. To use Plantinga’s own examples, we can be warranted in our belief that God is speaking to us personally when we read the Bible, or that he disapproves of some action of ours, or that our feeling that God has forgiven us is warranted. What makes us warranted in our beliefs (according to Plantinga) does not always have to be grounded in empirical evidence, or testimony. Our beliefs can be “properly basic” (Plantinga’s own expression) without evidential support.

Plantinga’s ideas on warrant have been much discussed. Many have criticised them as being a case of special pleading for religious claims. Plantinga himself recognises that the idea of warrant cannot be used indiscriminately to declare beliefs as properly basic. The famous example given is that we might easily be led to conclude that belief in the Legend of the Great Pumpkin (Schultz’s Peanuts cartoon) is just as warranted as any other belief, unless we establish some rules about the use of the term “warrant”.

We still have to show that we have used reliable methods, and that our beliefs in some way “track the truth”.

I am sorry that my remarks may be a little disappointing, and I am conscious that I may have muddied the waters rather than clearing them. But my main conclusion I hope is clear; logical justification is no more than a popular phrase. People think they are warranted, or not in believing something, and “warrant” however vague it is, includes more than just the traditional rules of logic and empirical data.

3 thoughts on “Logical and non-logical justification

  1. A fair comment, but it merely compounds the problem for any kind of justification or warrant. At what point do you “know something”. Descartes was skeptical of anything which wasn’t absolutely clear; ie self evident or incorrigible. But then, how do you know when something is in such a luminous epistemological state? Your “non infinite empirical evidence” remark is also well taken. I presume you are pointing your musket at foundationalism? We all know that putting the boot into foundationalism threatens many of our claims to knowledge. The argument for permanent skepticism seems very strong. But on the other hand, although continuous skepticism is a defensible position when you are in a meditative state, but none of us can live like that through any process which requires decision on our part.

  2. Yes Rodney, you are right. No body has known or does know or can know that all men are mortal.

    I think that logically correct form is:

    If all men are mortal
    and if Socrates is a man
    Then Socrates is mortal.

    Note: It could be that Socrates was an ancient Greek god or an extra extraterrestrial hiding in the body of a human and come to teach humans about cosmic realities etc.

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