Category Archives: philosophy of science

Subjective vs. objective belief

I shared a funny Onion article I found on Facebook some months ago. The article describes a fictional boy returning home after receiving his undergraduate philosophy degree. The boy remarks to his father that: “There is no rational justification for belief!” Today, this has gotten me thinking about a more subjective view of belief versus the one I engaged with as an undergrad in philosophy. In the latter, knowledge is equated with justified true belief (in mathematical form–K=JTB).

Certainly, K=JTB is the preferred formula for scientific belief. Empirical science relies on the shared sensory perception of data, and established analytic procedures to run it through. K=JTB seems a useful philosophical companion to this hypothetico-deductive approach to reaching knowledge*.

K=JTB clearly shows that–in order to attain knowledge–belief should be (rationally) justified. But it occurred to me that there are certain kinds of belief of the more subjective kind that cannot be plugged into K=JTB, yet are nonetheless indispensable. I am thinking particularly of religious knowledge, or more appropriately conviction. Intuitive knowing of this kind might seem risky at the outset, yet we are always operating under a certain degree of uncertainty. Conviction is what pushes us through such moments to make a decision and be open to its consequences.

And while experience might not be empirically falsifiable (though it can be dismissed), it may still be shared meaningfully between participants. Such individuals can trust their experience and share interpretations of it with the involved other; these interpretations can meld into a common understanding of what has taken place. Experience seems to demand subjective belief if we are to view the former as inherently meaningful.

*Of course, data science has its own hierarchy of knowledge, where data becomes information which becomes knowledge. Belief’s role is unclear here.

Can we have a science of ourselves?

This question is tantamount to asking whether we can possess knowledge of ourselves. That we can to some extent is trivial, despite the endeavor’s hurdles (many of which–ironically–the human study of psychology has revealed).

We have developed such successful sciences of physics and chemistry due perhaps to our advantage over their subject matter. This is that we have at least a greater degree of consciousness than do particles, waves, and elements.

It may be argued that human scientists have a greater consciousness of people than the average person does. If this is so, then the epistemology of social science is on somewhat comparable grounds to that of physics and chemistry.

However, it is quite probable that human scientists are not so different from laypeople as all people are from physical objects. This represents an asymmetry worth pausing on in answering this post’s question.