Reasonable Doubt: What’s it Really Mean?
We all like to think that we are always the reasonable ones, the clear thinkers…Most of us like to feel good about ourselves, and so we tell ourselves good things to make this happen. This is normal, and sometimes adaptive, keeping us from crippling depression in our everyday lives.
But human self-deception is rampant, as we ourselves are often the easiest and first ones we fool.
I’ve heard it said that — and I’m not sure who to attribute this to — “When you doubt things, you doubt them for reasons…”
Unfortunately, not always for sound reasons…
Are reasons, as seemingly supportive of our doubt as they often are, ever and always good ones?
Do we start with them legitimately, in a chain of argument leading to a justification for provisional skepticism of untested or otherwise dubious claims? Or do we retroactively marshal them to support a priori doubt about well-established claims of fact, and going far beyond mere suspicion of doubtfulness to outright denial?
Do we rationalize from our doubt rather than reason our way to it? When is “doubting for reasons” reasonable and when is it not?
In science, or courts of law, there is the concept of a factual claim as correct, or verdict of “guilty” being “beyond reasonable doubt,” when
the preponderance of the evidence for the claim or verdict being such that no process of valid or strong reasoning starting with a set of true premises leading to a tentatively true conclusion can justify continued doubt of the claim.
That’s why the legal systems in many jurisdictions use the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” and why in science and much philosophy connected with it, the burden of proof lies always with the one making a claim to knowledge, or with legal matters, the prosecution, as it is logically impossible to prove beyond all doubt a universal negative claim.
That’s why atheism (at least mine) is defined by a lack of belief in gods, not the claim to definitively know that there is no God or gods unless all of time and space were scrutinized to the quantum level and possibly below, and no gods were to be found. Ever.
…an impossible task, I think.
If I were to claim that “I know X for a fact,” or “I know ~X for a fact,” and good grounds for accepting my statement were not already established by knowledgeable experts, then I would, and should, indisputably find myself in the awkward position of having to provide reasons why you should agree to my claim, at least until better reasons came to light for that claim’s possible future rejection, and so on.
When we rationalize our prior rejection or base suspicion for something that is established by knowledgeable experts, we start with whatever conclusion we want to be true, often based on emotional or partisan ideological reasons. We work backwards to prop up that desired outcome and promote our agenda with whatever reasons we feel justify holding our position, often to the detriment of countervailing evidence or strong argument.
In any case, there we’ve abandoned rationality for wishful thinking, religion or the doctrines of our politics far beyond the point where continued doubt is reasonable.
I’d argue that yes, when we doubt an idea or claim, we often do have reasons, but it’s the direction our thinking takes that’s important to the soundness of our position here, whether we start with reasons or end with them, whether we reason our way there, or shoehorn factoids into a prior position itself resting on shaky grounds.
We rationalists, freethinkers, skeptics, agnostics, atheists, or however else we self-identify certainly don’t own reason or rationality, but we tend to respect and value these things highly and for what we consider good reasons indeed.
Posted on Tuesday, 0:09, June 5, 2012, in Atheism, Skepticism and tagged Burden of Proof, Legal burden of proof, Logic, Presumption of innocence, Reason, Reasonable doubt. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.