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How to Justify Your Methods in a Thesis or Dissertation

How to Justify Your Methods in a Thesis or Dissertation

4-minute read

  • 1st May 2023

Writing a thesis or dissertation is hard work. You’ve devoted countless hours to your research, and you want your results to be taken seriously. But how does your professor or evaluating committee know that they can trust your results? You convince them by justifying your research methods.

What Does Justifying Your Methods Mean?

In simple terms, your methods are the tools you use to obtain your data, and the justification (which is also called the methodology ) is the analysis of those tools. In your justification, your goal is to demonstrate that your research is both rigorously conducted and replicable so your audience recognizes that your results are legitimate.

The formatting and structure of your justification will depend on your field of study and your institution’s requirements, but below, we’ve provided questions to ask yourself as you outline your justification.

Why Did You Choose Your Method of Gathering Data?

Does your study rely on quantitative data, qualitative data, or both? Certain types of data work better for certain studies. How did you choose to gather that data? Evaluate your approach to collecting data in light of your research question. Did you consider any alternative approaches? If so, why did you decide not to use them? Highlight the pros and cons of various possible methods if necessary. Research results aren’t valid unless the data are valid, so you have to convince your reader that they are.

How Did You Evaluate Your Data?

Collecting your data was only the first part of your study. Once you had them, how did you use them? Do your results involve cross-referencing? If so, how was this accomplished? Which statistical analyses did you run, and why did you choose them? Are they common in your field? How did you make sure your data were statistically significant ? Is your effect size small, medium, or large? Numbers don’t always lend themselves to an obvious outcome. Here, you want to provide a clear link between the Methods and Results sections of your paper.

Did You Use Any Unconventional Approaches in Your Study?

Most fields have standard approaches to the research they use, but these approaches don’t work for every project. Did you use methods that other fields normally use, or did you need to come up with a different way of obtaining your data? Your reader will look at unconventional approaches with a more critical eye. Acknowledge the limitations of your method, but explain why the strengths of the method outweigh those limitations.

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What Relevant Sources Can You Cite?

You can strengthen your justification by referencing existing research in your field. Citing these references can demonstrate that you’ve followed established practices for your type of research. Or you can discuss how you decided on your approach by evaluating other studies. Highlight the use of established techniques, tools, and measurements in your study. If you used an unconventional approach, justify it by providing evidence of a gap in the existing literature.

Two Final Tips:

●  When you’re writing your justification, write for your audience. Your purpose here is to provide more than a technical list of details and procedures. This section should focus more on the why and less on the how .

●  Consider your methodology as you’re conducting your research. Take thorough notes as you work to make sure you capture all the necessary details correctly. Eliminating any possible confusion or ambiguity will go a long way toward helping your justification.

In Conclusion:

Your goal in writing your justification is to explain not only the decisions you made but also the reasoning behind those decisions. It should be overwhelmingly clear to your audience that your study used the best possible methods to answer your research question. Properly justifying your methods will let your audience know that your research was effective and its results are valid.

Want more writing tips? Check out Proofed’s Writing Tips and Academic Writing Tips blogs. And once you’ve written your thesis or dissertation, consider sending it to us. Our editors will be happy to check your grammar, spelling, and punctuation to make sure your document is the best it can be. Check out our services for free .

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How to Write the Rationale of the Study in Research (Examples)

justification in thesis

What is the Rationale of the Study?

The rationale of the study is the justification for taking on a given study. It explains the reason the study was conducted or should be conducted. This means the study rationale should explain to the reader or examiner why the study is/was necessary. It is also sometimes called the “purpose” or “justification” of a study. While this is not difficult to grasp in itself, you might wonder how the rationale of the study is different from your research question or from the statement of the problem of your study, and how it fits into the rest of your thesis or research paper. 

The rationale of the study links the background of the study to your specific research question and justifies the need for the latter on the basis of the former. In brief, you first provide and discuss existing data on the topic, and then you tell the reader, based on the background evidence you just presented, where you identified gaps or issues and why you think it is important to address those. The problem statement, lastly, is the formulation of the specific research question you choose to investigate, following logically from your rationale, and the approach you are planning to use to do that.

Table of Contents:

How to write a rationale for a research paper , how do you justify the need for a research study.

  • Study Rationale Example: Where Does It Go In Your Paper?

The basis for writing a research rationale is preliminary data or a clear description of an observation. If you are doing basic/theoretical research, then a literature review will help you identify gaps in current knowledge. In applied/practical research, you base your rationale on an existing issue with a certain process (e.g., vaccine proof registration) or practice (e.g., patient treatment) that is well documented and needs to be addressed. By presenting the reader with earlier evidence or observations, you can (and have to) convince them that you are not just repeating what other people have already done or said and that your ideas are not coming out of thin air. 

Once you have explained where you are coming from, you should justify the need for doing additional research–this is essentially the rationale of your study. Finally, when you have convinced the reader of the purpose of your work, you can end your introduction section with the statement of the problem of your research that contains clear aims and objectives and also briefly describes (and justifies) your methodological approach. 

When is the Rationale for Research Written?

The author can present the study rationale both before and after the research is conducted. 

  • Before conducting research : The study rationale is a central component of the research proposal . It represents the plan of your work, constructed before the study is actually executed.
  • Once research has been conducted : After the study is completed, the rationale is presented in a research article or  PhD dissertation  to explain why you focused on this specific research question. When writing the study rationale for this purpose, the author should link the rationale of the research to the aims and outcomes of the study.

What to Include in the Study Rationale

Although every study rationale is different and discusses different specific elements of a study’s method or approach, there are some elements that should be included to write a good rationale. Make sure to touch on the following:

  • A summary of conclusions from your review of the relevant literature
  • What is currently unknown (gaps in knowledge)
  • Inconclusive or contested results  from previous studies on the same or similar topic
  • The necessity to improve or build on previous research, such as to improve methodology or utilize newer techniques and/or technologies

There are different types of limitations that you can use to justify the need for your study. In applied/practical research, the justification for investigating something is always that an existing process/practice has a problem or is not satisfactory. Let’s say, for example, that people in a certain country/city/community commonly complain about hospital care on weekends (not enough staff, not enough attention, no decisions being made), but you looked into it and realized that nobody ever investigated whether these perceived problems are actually based on objective shortages/non-availabilities of care or whether the lower numbers of patients who are treated during weekends are commensurate with the provided services.

In this case, “lack of data” is your justification for digging deeper into the problem. Or, if it is obvious that there is a shortage of staff and provided services on weekends, you could decide to investigate which of the usual procedures are skipped during weekends as a result and what the negative consequences are. 

In basic/theoretical research, lack of knowledge is of course a common and accepted justification for additional research—but make sure that it is not your only motivation. “Nobody has ever done this” is only a convincing reason for a study if you explain to the reader why you think we should know more about this specific phenomenon. If there is earlier research but you think it has limitations, then those can usually be classified into “methodological”, “contextual”, and “conceptual” limitations. To identify such limitations, you can ask specific questions and let those questions guide you when you explain to the reader why your study was necessary:

Methodological limitations

  • Did earlier studies try but failed to measure/identify a specific phenomenon?
  • Was earlier research based on incorrect conceptualizations of variables?
  • Were earlier studies based on questionable operationalizations of key concepts?
  • Did earlier studies use questionable or inappropriate research designs?

Contextual limitations

  • Have recent changes in the studied problem made previous studies irrelevant?
  • Are you studying a new/particular context that previous findings do not apply to?

Conceptual limitations

  • Do previous findings only make sense within a specific framework or ideology?

Study Rationale Examples

Let’s look at an example from one of our earlier articles on the statement of the problem to clarify how your rationale fits into your introduction section. This is a very short introduction for a practical research study on the challenges of online learning. Your introduction might be much longer (especially the context/background section), and this example does not contain any sources (which you will have to provide for all claims you make and all earlier studies you cite)—but please pay attention to how the background presentation , rationale, and problem statement blend into each other in a logical way so that the reader can follow and has no reason to question your motivation or the foundation of your research.

Background presentation

Since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, most educational institutions around the world have transitioned to a fully online study model, at least during peak times of infections and social distancing measures. This transition has not been easy and even two years into the pandemic, problems with online teaching and studying persist (reference needed) . 

While the increasing gap between those with access to technology and equipment and those without access has been determined to be one of the main challenges (reference needed) , others claim that online learning offers more opportunities for many students by breaking down barriers of location and distance (reference needed) .  

Rationale of the study

Since teachers and students cannot wait for circumstances to go back to normal, the measures that schools and universities have implemented during the last two years, their advantages and disadvantages, and the impact of those measures on students’ progress, satisfaction, and well-being need to be understood so that improvements can be made and demographics that have been left behind can receive the support they need as soon as possible.

Statement of the problem

To identify what changes in the learning environment were considered the most challenging and how those changes relate to a variety of student outcome measures, we conducted surveys and interviews among teachers and students at ten institutions of higher education in four different major cities, two in the US (New York and Chicago), one in South Korea (Seoul), and one in the UK (London). Responses were analyzed with a focus on different student demographics and how they might have been affected differently by the current situation.

How long is a study rationale?

In a research article bound for journal publication, your rationale should not be longer than a few sentences (no longer than one brief paragraph). A  dissertation or thesis  usually allows for a longer description; depending on the length and nature of your document, this could be up to a couple of paragraphs in length. A completely novel or unconventional approach might warrant a longer and more detailed justification than an approach that slightly deviates from well-established methods and approaches.

Consider Using Professional Academic Editing Services

Now that you know how to write the rationale of the study for a research proposal or paper, you should make use of our free AI grammar checker , Wordvice AI, or receive professional academic proofreading services from Wordvice, including research paper editing services and manuscript editing services to polish your submitted research documents.

You can also find many more articles, for example on writing the other parts of your research paper , on choosing a title , or on making sure you understand and adhere to the author instructions before you submit to a journal, on the Wordvice academic resources pages.

How to Write the Rationale for a Research Paper

  • Research Process
  • Peer Review

A research rationale answers the big SO WHAT? that every adviser, peer reviewer, and editor has in mind when they critique your work. A compelling research rationale increases the chances of your paper being published or your grant proposal being funded. In this article, we look at the purpose of a research rationale, its components and key characteristics, and how to create an effective research rationale.

Updated on September 19, 2022

a researcher writing the rationale for a research paper

The rationale for your research is the reason why you decided to conduct the study in the first place. The motivation for asking the question. The knowledge gap. This is often the most significant part of your publication. It justifies the study's purpose, novelty, and significance for science or society. It's a critical part of standard research articles as well as funding proposals.

Essentially, the research rationale answers the big SO WHAT? that every (good) adviser, peer reviewer, and editor has in mind when they critique your work.

A compelling research rationale increases the chances of your paper being published or your grant proposal being funded. In this article, we look at:

  • the purpose of a research rationale
  • its components and key characteristics
  • how to create an effective research rationale

What is a research rationale?

Think of a research rationale as a set of reasons that explain why a study is necessary and important based on its background. It's also known as the justification of the study, rationale, or thesis statement.

Essentially, you want to convince your reader that you're not reciting what other people have already said and that your opinion hasn't appeared out of thin air. You've done the background reading and identified a knowledge gap that this rationale now explains.

A research rationale is usually written toward the end of the introduction. You'll see this section clearly in high-impact-factor international journals like Nature and Science. At the end of the introduction there's always a phrase that begins with something like, "here we show..." or "in this paper we show..." This text is part of a logical sequence of information, typically (but not necessarily) provided in this order:

the order of the introduction to a research paper

Here's an example from a study by Cataldo et al. (2021) on the impact of social media on teenagers' lives.

an example of an introduction to a research paper

Note how the research background, gap, rationale, and objectives logically blend into each other.

The authors chose to put the research aims before the rationale. This is not a problem though. They still achieve a logical sequence. This helps the reader follow their thinking and convinces them about their research's foundation.

Elements of a research rationale

We saw that the research rationale follows logically from the research background and literature review/observation and leads into your study's aims and objectives.

This might sound somewhat abstract. A helpful way to formulate a research rationale is to answer the question, “Why is this study necessary and important?”

Generally, that something has never been done before should not be your only motivation. Use it only If you can give the reader valid evidence why we should learn more about this specific phenomenon.

A well-written introduction covers three key elements:

  • What's the background to the research?
  • What has been done before (information relevant to this particular study, but NOT a literature review)?
  • Research rationale

Now, let's see how you might answer the question.

1. This study complements scientific knowledge and understanding

Discuss the shortcomings of previous studies and explain how'll correct them. Your short review can identify:

  • Methodological limitations . The methodology (research design, research approach or sampling) employed in previous works is somewhat flawed.

Example : Here , the authors claim that previous studies have failed to explore the role of apathy “as a predictor of functional decline in healthy older adults” (Burhan et al., 2021). At the same time, we know a lot about other age-related neuropsychiatric disorders, like depression.

Their study is necessary, then, “to increase our understanding of the cognitive, clinical, and neural correlates of apathy and deconstruct its underlying mechanisms.” (Burhan et al., 2021).

  • Contextual limitations . External factors have changed and this has minimized or removed the relevance of previous research.

Example : You want to do an empirical study to evaluate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the number of tourists visiting Sicily. Previous studies might have measured tourism determinants in Sicily, but they preceded COVID-19.

  • Conceptual limitations . Previous studies are too bound to a specific ideology or a theoretical framework.

Example : The work of English novelist E. M. Forster has been extensively researched for its social, political, and aesthetic dimensions. After the 1990s, younger scholars wanted to read his novels as an example of gay fiction. They justified the need to do so based on previous studies' reliance on homophobic ideology.

This kind of rationale is most common in basic/theoretical research.

2. This study can help solve a specific problem

Here, you base your rationale on a process that has a problem or is not satisfactory.

For example, patients complain about low-quality hospital care on weekends (staff shortages, inadequate attention, etc.). No one has looked into this (there is a lack of data). So, you explore if the reported problems are true and what can be done to address them. This is a knowledge gap.

Or you set out to explore a specific practice. You might want to study the pros and cons of several entry strategies into the Japanese food market.

It's vital to explain the problem in detail and stress the practical benefits of its solution. In the first example, the practical implications are recommendations to improve healthcare provision.

In the second example, the impact of your research is to inform the decision-making of businesses wanting to enter the Japanese food market.

This kind of rationale is more common in applied/practical research.

3. You're the best person to conduct this study

It's a bonus if you can show that you're uniquely positioned to deliver this study, especially if you're writing a funding proposal .

For an anthropologist wanting to explore gender norms in Ethiopia, this could be that they speak Amharic (Ethiopia's official language) and have already lived in the country for a few years (ethnographic experience).

Or if you want to conduct an interdisciplinary research project, consider partnering up with collaborators whose expertise complements your own. Scientists from different fields might bring different skills and a fresh perspective or have access to the latest tech and equipment. Teaming up with reputable collaborators justifies the need for a study by increasing its credibility and likely impact.

When is the research rationale written?

You can write your research rationale before, or after, conducting the study.

In the first case, when you might have a new research idea, and you're applying for funding to implement it.

Or you're preparing a call for papers for a journal special issue or a conference. Here , for instance, the authors seek to collect studies on the impact of apathy on age-related neuropsychiatric disorders.

In the second case, you have completed the study and are writing a research paper for publication. Looking back, you explain why you did the study in question and how it worked out.

Although the research rationale is part of the introduction, it's best to write it at the end. Stand back from your study and look at it in the big picture. At this point, it's easier to convince your reader why your study was both necessary and important.

How long should a research rationale be?

The length of the research rationale is not fixed. Ideally, this will be determined by the guidelines (of your journal, sponsor etc.).

The prestigious journal Nature , for instance, calls for articles to be no more than 6 or 8 pages, depending on the content. The introduction should be around 200 words, and, as mentioned, two to three sentences serve as a brief account of the background and rationale of the study, and come at the end of the introduction.

If you're not provided guidelines, consider these factors:

  • Research document : In a thesis or book-length study, the research rationale will be longer than in a journal article. For example, the background and rationale of this book exploring the collective memory of World War I cover more than ten pages.
  • Research question : Research into a new sub-field may call for a longer or more detailed justification than a study that plugs a gap in literature.

Which verb tenses to use in the research rationale?

It's best to use the present tense. Though in a research proposal, the research rationale is likely written in the future tense, as you're describing the intended or expected outcomes of the research project (the gaps it will fill, the problems it will solve).

Example of a research rationale

Research question : What are the teachers' perceptions of how a sense of European identity is developed and what underlies such perceptions?

an example of a research rationale

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology , 3(2), 77-101.

Burhan, A.M., Yang, J., & Inagawa, T. (2021). Impact of apathy on aging and age-related neuropsychiatric disorders. Research Topic. Frontiers in Psychiatry

Cataldo, I., Lepri, B., Neoh, M. J. Y., & Esposito, G. (2021). Social media usage and development of psychiatric disorders in childhood and adolescence: A review. Frontiers in Psychiatry , 11.

CiCe Jean Monnet Network (2017). Guidelines for citizenship education in school: Identities and European citizenship children's identity and citizenship in Europe.

Cohen, l, Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2018). Research methods in education . Eighth edition. London: Routledge.

de Prat, R. C. (2013). Euroscepticism, Europhobia and Eurocriticism: The radical parties of the right and left “vis-à-vis” the European Union P.I.E-Peter Lang S.A., Éditions Scientifiques Internationales.

European Commission. (2017). Eurydice Brief: Citizenship education at school in Europe.

Polyakova, A., & Fligstein, N. (2016). Is European integration causing Europe to become more nationalist? Evidence from the 2007–9 financial crisis. Journal of European Public Policy , 23(1), 60-83.

Winter, J. (2014). Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Up: Home : Study Guidance > Effective Writing and Referencing > What makes good justification?

  • What makes good justification?

A justification is the reason why your thesis is valid. In economics, this typically involves explaining a theory which leads to the conclusion of your thesis.

A justification (theory) can come in many different forms:

A theoretical proposition can be explained in prose. This can be appropriate for simple concepts, but is often imprecise and it is a rare academic paper that does not rely on something more rigorous.

An example of a justification that can be satisfactorily described in words might be ‘an increase in income will lead to an increase in demand for normal goods’ (although even here an indifference curve diagram would make the same point with a greater degree of rigour).

b) Diagrams .

Familiar to all A-level students (and all undergraduates after the first week of lectures), diagrams are a simple way of presenting a theory and explaining what happens. You can clearly show why an individual’s labour supply curve might ‘bend backwards’ at high levels of income with an indifference curve diagram to explain the work/leisure tradeoff precisely.

An example of an appropriate justification using diagrams would be showing that firms in a perfectly competitive market set prices equal to marginal cost in the long run .

c) Mathematics .

There are two possibilities here. First, you can derive a simple mathematical result yourself, and discuss the implications of it. Second, you can state an equation and discuss the implications of it.

A simple example of the first would be to show that monopolies set prices above marginal cost. Let:

π(q) = p(q) – c(q) where π(q) is profit , p(q) is price, q is quantity and c(q) is cost

p = c'(q) – p'(q)q by taking derivatives with respect to q and setting π'(q)=0

And as dp / dq <0 for a monopoly selling ordinary goods  ⇒ p > c'(q)

Actually, this can also be shown by a diagram – but in many other examples, maths is clearer. These might include accurate exposition of the principal-agent problem.

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  • How to Write a Problem Statement | Guide & Examples

How to Write a Problem Statement | Guide & Examples

Published on November 6, 2022 by Shona McCombes and Tegan George. Revised on November 20, 2023.

A problem statement is a concise and concrete summary of the research problem you seek to address. It should:

  • Contextualize the problem. What do we already know?
  • Describe the exact issue your research will address. What do we still need to know?
  • Show the relevance of the problem. Why do we need to know more about this?
  • Set the objectives of the research. What will you do to find out more?

Table of contents

When should you write a problem statement, step 1: contextualize the problem, step 2: show why it matters, step 3: set your aims and objectives.

Problem statement example

Other interesting articles

Frequently asked questions about problem statements.

There are various situations in which you might have to write a problem statement.

In the business world, writing a problem statement is often the first step in kicking off an improvement project. In this case, the problem statement is usually a stand-alone document.

In academic research, writing a problem statement can help you contextualize and understand the significance of your research problem. It is often several paragraphs long, and serves as the basis for your research proposal . Alternatively, it can be condensed into just a few sentences in your introduction .

A problem statement looks different depending on whether you’re dealing with a practical, real-world problem or a theoretical issue. Regardless, all problem statements follow a similar process.

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See an example

justification in thesis

The problem statement should frame your research problem, giving some background on what is already known.

Practical research problems

For practical research, focus on the concrete details of the situation:

  • Where and when does the problem arise?
  • Who does the problem affect?
  • What attempts have been made to solve the problem?

Theoretical research problems

For theoretical research, think about the scientific, social, geographical and/or historical background:

  • What is already known about the problem?
  • Is the problem limited to a certain time period or geographical area?
  • How has the problem been defined and debated in the scholarly literature?

The problem statement should also address the relevance of the research. Why is it important that the problem is addressed?

Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to do something groundbreaking or world-changing. It’s more important that the problem is researchable, feasible, and clearly addresses a relevant issue in your field.

Practical research is directly relevant to a specific problem that affects an organization, institution, social group, or society more broadly. To make it clear why your research problem matters, you can ask yourself:

  • What will happen if the problem is not solved?
  • Who will feel the consequences?
  • Does the problem have wider relevance? Are similar issues found in other contexts?

Sometimes theoretical issues have clear practical consequences, but sometimes their relevance is less immediately obvious. To identify why the problem matters, ask:

  • How will resolving the problem advance understanding of the topic?
  • What benefits will it have for future research?
  • Does the problem have direct or indirect consequences for society?

Finally, the problem statement should frame how you intend to address the problem. Your goal here should not be to find a conclusive solution, but rather to propose more effective approaches to tackling or understanding it.

The research aim is the overall purpose of your research. It is generally written in the infinitive form:

  • The aim of this study is to determine …
  • This project aims to explore …
  • This research aims to investigate …

The research objectives are the concrete steps you will take to achieve the aim:

  • Qualitative methods will be used to identify …
  • This work will use surveys to collect …
  • Using statistical analysis, the research will measure …

The aims and objectives should lead directly to your research questions.

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You can use these steps to write your own problem statement, like the example below.

Step 1: Contextualize the problem A family-owned shoe manufacturer has been in business in New England for several generations, employing thousands of local workers in a variety of roles, from assembly to supply-chain to customer service and retail. Employee tenure in the past always had an upward trend, with the average employee staying at the company for 10+ years. However, in the past decade, the trend has reversed, with some employees lasting only a few months, and others leaving abruptly after many years.

Step 2: Show why it matters As the perceived loyalty of their employees has long been a source of pride for the company, they employed an outside consultant firm to see why there was so much turnover. The firm focused on the new hires, concluding that a rival shoe company located in the next town offered higher hourly wages and better “perks”, such as pizza parties. They claimed this was what was leading employees to switch. However, to gain a fuller understanding of why the turnover persists even after the consultant study, in-depth qualitative research focused on long-term employees is also needed. Focusing on why established workers leave can help develop a more telling reason why turnover is so high, rather than just due to salaries. It can also potentially identify points of change or conflict in the company’s culture that may cause workers to leave.

Step 3: Set your aims and objectives This project aims to better understand why established workers choose to leave the company. Qualitative methods such as surveys and interviews will be conducted comparing the views of those who have worked 10+ years at the company and chose to stay, compared with those who chose to leave.

If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.


  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility


  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

Once you’ve decided on your research objectives , you need to explain them in your paper, at the end of your problem statement .

Keep your research objectives clear and concise, and use appropriate verbs to accurately convey the work that you will carry out for each one.

I will compare …

All research questions should be:

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On Degrees of Justification

  • Original Article
  • Published: 27 August 2011
  • Volume 77 , pages 237–272, ( 2012 )

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  • Gregor Betz 1  

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This paper gives an explication of our intuitive notion of strength of justification in a controversial debate. It defines a thesis’ degree of justification within the theory of dialectical structures as the ratio of coherently adoptable positions according to which that thesis is true over all coherently adoptable positions. Broadening this definition, the notion of conditional degree of justification, i.e. degree of partial entailment, is introduced. Thus defined degrees of justification correspond to our pre-theoretic intuitions in the sense that supporting and defending a thesis t increases, whereas attacking it decreases, t ’s degree of justification. Moreover, it is shown that (conditional) degrees of justification are (conditional) probabilities. Eventually, the paper explains that it is rational to believe theses with a high degree of justification inasmuch as this strengthens the robustness of one’s position.

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Compare for example Rahmstorf and Schellnhuber ( 2006 ).

The approach presented in this paper, however, rejects a major principle of Pollock’s theory, namely the weakest link principle.

A dialectical structure is a special type of bipolar argumentation framework in the sense of Cayrol and Lagasquie-Schiex ( 2005 ). Cayrol and Lagasquie-Schiex extend the abstract approach of Dung ( 1995 ) by adding support-relations to Dung’s framework which originally considered attack-relations between arguments only. A specific interpretation of Dung’s abstract framework that analyses arguments as premiss-conclusion structures is carried out in Bondarenko et al. ( 1997 ).

Note that, unlike in approaches by Lin and Shoham ( 1989 ) or the interpretation by Prakken and Vreeswijk ( 2001 , p. 256) of Dung ( 1995 ), T is not supposed to contain arguments which can be constructed given the propositions put forward in a debate (or, more generally, some INPUT) but only those arguments that have been explicitly stated (though not necessarily fully). This emphasis on real reasoning as opposed to ideal reasoning seems to be more in line with the approaches of Pollock ( 1987 , 1995 ), Vreeswijk ( 1997 ), or Verheij ( 1996 ).

Accordingly, if two arguments conflict, i.e. possess contrary conclusions, they do not necessarily attack each other as defined here. The “assumption attack” as well as “undercutting” an argument (cf. Pollock 1970 ; Prakken and Vreeswijk 2001 ) can both be represented in this framework as an attack on an argument’s premiss. Moreover, indirect attacks, i.e. attacks on an argument’s subconclusion c − can be made explicit by reconstructing the attacked argument as two arguments, a 1 and a 2 , such that c − is the conclusion of a 1 and a premiss of a 2 ,  a 1 supporting a 2 and a 2 being the argument attacked.

Recall that we assume arguments to be reconstructed as deductively valid.

To see this in more detail, let \({\mathcal{P}}_P\) be a partial position that is merely extended by the (highly plausible) complete position \(\mathcal{Q}_1\) , whereas \({\mathcal{P}}_I\) is extended by the implausible positions \(\mathcal{Q}_2\) and \(\mathcal{Q}_3\) . We have, according to the law of total probability (whose application is warranted in Sect. 6 ),

which contradicts our intuitive judgement. But augmenting the dialectical structure and extending the background knowledge turns the \(\mathcal{Q}_i\) into partial positions. Moreover, this increases \({\textsc{Doj}}(\mathcal{Q}_1)\) , thereby raising \({\textsc{Doj}}({\mathcal{P}}_P)\) , and decreases \({\textsc{Doj}}(\mathcal{Q}_2)\) as well as \({\textsc{Doj}}(\mathcal{Q}_3)\) , thus lowering \({\textsc{Doj}}({\mathcal{P}}_I)\) .

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The author would like to thank the tau-Klub at Freie Universitaet Berlin and members of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Liverpool for discussing an earlier version of this article. Moreover, he is particularly grateful to two anonymous reviewers of Erkenntnis for their astute and helpful comments.

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Appendix 1: Proofs of Propositions

1.1 proof of proposition 1.

Assume \(a \rightarrow t\) . Let σ (σ′) denote the number of all dialectically coherent, complete positions on τ (τ′), and σ p (σ p ′) the number of dialectically coherent, complete positions on τ (τ′) corresponding to which p is true. Now, consider an arbitrary dialectically coherent, complete position \({\mathcal{P}}\) on τ corresponding to which p is true. Because argument a is assumed to be independent, and because its conclusion is true in \({\mathcal{P}}\) , any truth value assignment to its premisses will extend \({\mathcal{P}}\) to a dialectically coherent, complete position on τ′. If a has n premisses, there will be 2 n dialectically coherent, complete position on τ′ which extend \({\mathcal{P}}\) . As a next step, consider an arbitrary dialectically coherent, complete position \(\mathcal{Q}\) on τ corresponding to which p is false. Those and only those truth value assignments to premisses of a according to which not all premisses are true will extend \(\mathcal{Q}\) to a dialectically coherent, complete position on τ′. So, there will be 2 n  − 1 dialectically coherent, complete position on τ′ which extend \(\mathcal{Q}\) . According to Lemma 1, every dialectically coherent, complete position on τ′ extends a dialectically coherent, complete position on τ. Hence, we can calculate the number of positions on τ′ as follows:

For symmetrical reasons, \({\textsc{Doj}}_{\tau'}(p)<{\textsc{Doj}}_{\tau}(p)\) if \(a \rightsquigarrow t\) .

1.2 Proof of Proposition 2

We calculate to how many different dialectically coherent, complete positions on τ′ the respective positions on τ can be extended. (In this proof, all positions are understood to be dialectically coherent and complete.) We shall assume that a contains n premisses, and b contains m premisses. Consider the first case, i.e. \(a \rightarrow t\) and \(b\rightarrow a\) , and let q be the conclusion of b (and therefore a premiss of a ). Since a is independent in τ, the ratio of (1) positions on τ according to which p and q are true over (2) positions on τ according to which p is true but q is false equals 2 n −1 :2 n −1 . This is because all 2 n truth value assignments to a ’s premisses satisfy the coherence constraint if a ’s conclusion, p , is true, and q is true in exactly half of these. Yet, if a ’s conclusion is false, there is one truth value assignment to its premisses which will not figure in a position on τ, namely the one which considers all premisses true. So, in that case, there are only 2 n  − 1 corresponding truth value assignments, 2 n −1 of which regard q as false and 2 n −1  − 1 take q as true. The ratio of (1) positions on τ according to which p is false and q is true over (2) positions on τ according to which p and q are false equals therefore \(2^{n-1}-1:2^{n-1}.\)

Every position on τ with true q can be extended to 2 m different positions on τ′. In other words, the positions with true q are multiplied by 2 m when introducing b . Still, a position on τ with false q can only be extended to 2 m  − 1 different positions on τ′.

Given (a) the ratio of positions on τ with p and q true over positions with p true and q false, and (b) the respective multipliers, the number of positions on τ with p true is multiplied by the following factor when introducing b :

Likewise, the number of positions on τ with p false is multiplied by the following factor when introducing b :

So the number of positions on τ with p true is multiplied by a greater factor than the number of positions with p false, and that is why p ’s degree of justification increases when introducing b .

We will briefly consider the second case, that is \(a \rightarrow t\) and \(b\rightsquigarrow a\) . (Cases (3) and (4) hold for analogous reasons.) Let \(\lnot q\) be the conclusion of b . The ratios of positions on τ as calculated in the first case do apply. Yet, because \(b\rightsquigarrow a\) , a position on τ with q true can be extended to 2 m  − 1 different positions on τ′. Every position on τ with q false yields 2 m positions on τ′ when introducing b . This implies for the corresponding factors m 2 and m 1 :

Thus, a position in τ with p false can be extended to, on average, more positions in τ′ than a position in τ with p true. As a consequence, p ’s degree of justification decreases when introducing b .

1.3 Proof of Proposition 3

We prove, in this appendix, statements (1) and (2) of Proposition 3 only, claims (3) and (4) follow symmetrically. We consider statement (1), first. So, let us assume that \(\tau,\,\tau',\,a,\,\mathcal{B}\) and \({\mathcal{P}}\) are given as assumed in the theorem. We shall denote the number of complete and coherent position on τ and τ′ as follows,

As these distinctions are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive, we have,

The introduction of the new argument a with its n premisses that don’t figure in τ multiplies the number of coherent positions. For every complete and coherent position \(\mathcal{Q}\) in τ which considers c true, there are 2 n corresponding complete and coherent positions in τ′ (which extend \(\mathcal{Q}\) ). A complete and coherent position \(\mathcal{Q'}\) in τ which considers c false, however, is merely extended by 2 n  − 1 complete and coherent positions in τ′, because assigning all premisses the value t doesn’t yield a coherent position if the conclusion is false. In sum, we obtain the following equations,

The number of conditionally complete and coherent positions on τ′ relative to the background knowledge \(\mathcal{B}\) can be related to the number of positions on τ, as well. If the truth-value of on of a ’s premisses is fixed, truth-values can be assigned only to the remaining ( n  − 1) premisses. That’s why every complete and coherent position \(\mathcal{Q}\) in τ which considers c true, yields 2 n −1 corresponding complete and coherent positions in τ′ given \(\mathcal{B}\) , and every complete and coherent position \(\mathcal{Q'}\) in τ which considers c false is extended by 2 n −1  − 1 complete and coherent positions. Accordingly,

We can now derive the sought-after inequality, starting with the assumption that the introduction of a has in fact increased the degree of justification of \({\mathcal{P}},\)

as \(\sigma_{\mathcal{P}}>0\) and \(\sigma_{\lnot {\mathcal{P}}}>0,\)

with (1) we obtain,

substituting (2) and applying (1), again, yields,

according to (1),

we rearrange,

add two additional terms,

and may then factorize,

applying (1),

with (3) and, respectively, (2), this becomes,

and, according to (1), we finally have,

This proves statement (1) of Proposition 3. It is comparatively easy to justify substatement (2). If a premiss of the argument a is fixed as false according to the background knowledge, any assignment of truth-values to the remaining premisses extends a complete and coherent position \(\mathcal{Q}\) on τ to a complete and coherent position on τ′ given the background knowledge—no matter whether \(\mathcal{Q}\) considers the conclusion c true or false. But then, \({\textsc{Doj}}_{\tau'}({\mathcal{P}}|\mathcal{B})\) equals \({\textsc{Doj}}_{\tau}({\mathcal{P}})\) , which is, by assumption, smaller than \({\textsc{Doj}}_{\tau'}({\mathcal{P}})\) .

1.4 Proof of Proposition 4

Since neither s nor \(\lnot s\) figures in any arguments in τ, every complete and coherent position on τ can be extended to a complete and coherent position on τ′ in two ways, namely both by assigning s the value t or by assigning it the value f . We thus have, for an arbitrary partial position \({\mathcal{P}}\) on τ, 

1.5 Proof of Proposition 5

Let us consider a dialectical structure τ′′ which is obtained from τ by adding the sentences \(p_1,\ldots,p_n\) and c to the respective sentence pool (e.g. by way of introducing theses), without introducing the argument a . Every complete and coherent position \(\mathcal{Q}\) on τ is, correspondingly, extended by 2 n +1 complete and coherent positions on τ′′. Because of the argument a , exactly one of these complete and coherent positions on τ′′ is not coherent on τ′. That is why a complete and coherent position \(\mathcal{Q}\) on τ is extended by (2 n +1  − 1) complete and coherent positions on τ′. We thus obtain, for arbitrary partial positions \({\mathcal{P}}\) on τ, 

Appendix 2: Dialectically Coherent Positions and Complete, Closed Subdebates in Equilibrium

Before we relate the notion of a dialectically coherent position to the concept of a complete, closed subdebate in equilibrium, I repeat, without comment, the relevant definitions from Betz ( 2009 ).

Definition 17

(Validity-function) Let \(\tau = \langle T,A,U \rangle\) be a dialectical structure. A function v : T → {0,1} is called a validity-function on τ iff for all \(a \in T\) : \((v(a)=0 \leftrightarrow \exists b\in T: b\rightsquigarrow a \land v(b)=1)\) .

If the validity-function exists on τ and is unique, it is labelled “ϑ” and an argument \( a \in T\) is called “τ-valid” iff ϑ( a ) = 1, “τ-invalid” otherwise.

Definition 18

( Free premiss ) Let \(\tau = \langle T,A,U \rangle\) be given. A premiss p of an argument in τ is called “bound in τ” iff

If and only if a premiss is not bound in τ, it is “free in τ”. The set of all free premisses of τ is called \(\Uppi_\tau\) .

Definition 19

( Equilibrium ) A dialectical structure \(\tau = \langle T,A,U \rangle\) is said to be in equilibrium iff not

for some sentence p .

Definition 20

( Stance-attribution ) Let \(\tau = \langle T,A,U \rangle\) , and \(O=\{o_1, \ldots, o_k\}\) be a set of proponents. A function \(S:O\rightarrow{\bf P}(T)\) which assigns each proponent a subset \(T_i\subseteq T\) is called a stance-attribution on τ. \(\tau_i = \langle S(o_i),A|_{S(o_i)},U|_{S(o_i)}\rangle\) is the subdebate accepted by o i . A proponent o i claims that

All \(p\in \Uppi_{\tau_i}\) are true.

All C ( a ) (with \(a \in S(o_i)\) is τ i -valid) are true.

Definition 21

( Closed subdebates ) Let \(\tau = \langle T,A,U \rangle\) be a dialectical structure and \(S:O\rightarrow{\bf P}(T)\) a stance-attribution on τ. A subdebate τ i induced by S is called “closed” iff there is no \(a \in (T\setminus T_i)\) such that \(\Uppi_{\tau_i}=\Uppi_{\tau'},\,\tau'=\langle S(o_i)\cup \{a\},A|_{S(o_i)\cup \{a\}},U|_{S(o_i)\cup \{a\}} \rangle\) .

Betz ( 2009 ) stipulated that a subdebate has to be complete in order to represent a position a proponent can rationally adopt in a debate, for otherwise the status assignment might not even exist on her subdebate. The following attempt to relate the concept of a coherent position (as truth value assignment) and the notion of a closed, complete subdebate in equilibrium will show that subdebates have to satisfy an additional condition in order to represent rational positions: for each sentence whose negation occurs in the debate as well, the proponent has to assert exactly one of both in a thesis. As the completeness condition already required that specific theses exist in a dialectical structure, I propose to modify and extend the definition of a complete stance-attribution as follows instead of introducing a further condition.

Definition 22

( Complete stance-attribution ) Let \(\tau = \langle T,A,U \rangle\) be a dialectical structure. The stance-attribution \(S:\{o_1,\ldots,o_k\}\rightarrow {\bf P}(T)\) is called “complete” iff for every induced subdebate τ i ( \(i=1\ldots k\) ) there is a τ i -valid thesis \(t\in T_i\) stating either p or \(\lnot p\)

for every pair of contradictory sentences \(p,\lnot p\) which both occur in τ while neither p nor \(\lnot p\) occurs in τ i ,

for every conclusion p of a τ i -invalid argument which neither attacks nor supports another argument in τ i , and

for every red circle C in τ i such that

t attacks one of C ’s arguments,

t is neither part of a red circle itself nor connected to a red circle via a red directed path from that circle to a C , and

t is assigned the validity value 1 according to a partial evaluation of \(\tau_i,\,\vartheta_{\rm partial}\) , which excludes all arguments in red circles.

As a final preliminary concept, we introduce

Definition 23

( Generated v-function ) Let \(\tau = \langle T,A,U \rangle\) be a dialectical structure and \(\mathcal{Q}\) be a complete position on τ. A function \(v:T\rightarrow\{0,1\}\) is generated by \(\mathcal{Q}\) iff for every argument \(a\in T\) with premisses \(p_1,\ldots,p_n\) :

v is called a v-function.

With these definitions at hand, we can now proof

Proposition 9

(Construction of dialectically coherent position) Let \(S: \{o_1, \ldots ,o_k\}\rightarrow {\bf P}(T)\) be a complete stance-attribution on the dialectical structure \(\tau=\langle T,A,U \rangle\) . If the induced subdebate τ i is closed, in equilibrium, and the validity function ϑ exists on τ i , then there is a dialectically coherent, complete position \(\mathcal{Q}\) on τ s uch that for the v-function v which is generated by \(\mathcal{Q}\) :

Let \(\Uppi_{\tau_i}\) denote the set of free premisses of τ i . We construct \(\mathcal{Q}\) on τ i first, show that \(\mathcal{Q}|_{\tau_i}\) satisfies the coherence constraints on τ i , and then proceed by extending \(\mathcal{Q}\) to those sentences that do not occur in τ i .

Step 1: We set for every sentence p that occurs in τ i

To see that \(\mathcal{Q}|_{\tau_i}\) assigns complementary truth values to contradictory sentences (constraint 2 in Definition 5), consider p ,  q with \(q\leftrightarrow \lnot p\) occurring in τ i . If p is a τ i -free premiss or the conclusion of a τ i -valid argument, then q is not because τ i is in equilibrium and thence \(\mathcal{Q}(p)={\bf t}, \mathcal{Q}(q)={\bf f}\) . If, in contrast, both p and q are neither τ i -free premisses nor conclusions of τ i -valid arguments, then both are conclusions of τ i -invalid arguments only. Yet as τ i is complete, there are no pairs of contradictory sentences which are but conclusions τ i -invalid arguments. So the second case does not arise. We still have to show that \(\mathcal{Q}|_{\tau_i}\) assigns conclusions the value t if the corresponding premisses are true (constraint 3 in Definition 5): If for all premisses \(p_1\ldots p_n\) of some \(a \in T_i\) it holds that \(\mathcal{Q}(p_1)=\ldots=\mathcal{Q}(p_n)={\bf t}\) , then a is by construction not attacked by any τ i -valid argument—τ i would not be in equilibrium otherwise—, and therefore \(\mathcal{Q}(C(a))={\bf t}\) .

Step 2: We extend \(\mathcal{Q}\) to \(\tau \setminus \tau_i\) as follows (note that we consider sentences that do occur in τ but not in τ i ): Every sentence p whose negation occurs in τ i is assigned the complementary truth value to \(\mathcal{Q}(\lnot p)\) . Every remaining sentence is set to f . Now, let us complete the check for dialectical coherency. Let p ,  q be two contradictory sentences, not both in τ i (if one of both is in τ i the construction ensures that they are assigned complementary truth values). But by completeness of S , there is a thesis in τ i that states either p or q , and therefore the construction guarantees \(\mathcal{Q}(p)\) and \(\mathcal{Q}(q)\) are complementary. Next, does \(\mathcal{Q}\) satisfy the ‘deduction constraint’ (constraint 3 in Definition 5)? The first thing to note is that every argument \(a \in \tau \backslash \tau_i\) contains at least one premiss which is false. For otherwise, every premiss p of a were either (1) a τ i -free premiss in τ i , (2) a conclusion of a τ i -valid argument, or (3) the negation of a sentence in τ i that is neither (1) nor (2). Yet, since by completeness of S the only sentences in τ i that are neither (1) nor (2) are negations of conclusions of τ i -valid arguments, (3) amounts to being the conclusion of a τ i -valid argument, i.e. (2). Hence τ i would not be a closed subdebate. Now because every argument a in \(\tau\setminus\tau_i\) has at least one false premiss, \(\mathcal{Q}\) satisfies the deduction constraint. Also, this fact guarantees that v ( a ) = 0. \(\square\)

The final proposition tells us how to construct a closed subdebate in equilibrium which corresponds to a given dialectically coherent, complete position.

Proposition 10

(Construction of stance-attribution) Let \(\tau=\langle T,A,U \rangle\) be a dialectical structure and v a v-function that is generated by a dialectically coherent, complete position \(\mathcal{Q}\) on τ. There exists a stance-attribution \(S:\{o\}\rightarrow {\bf P}(T)\) inducing the subdebate τ o such that

v is a validity function on τ o , 

τ o is in equilibrium ,

τ o is closed .

First, we construct τ o iteratively. Let \(T_0=\emptyset\) and apply the following rule provided T n is given

(R) Let T * be the set of all arguments \(a \in T \backslash T_n\) such that for every premiss p of a : \(\mathcal{Q}(p)={\bf t}\) or p negates the conclusion of an argument \(b\in T_n\) with v ( b ) = 1. If T *  =  \(\emptyset\) then T o  =  T n , STOP. Otherwise T n +1  =  T n ∪ T * .

Ad 1): We show that \(\vartheta:T_o \rightarrow \{0,1\}\) with \(a \mapsto v(a)\) is a validity function on τ o . By construction an argument \(a \in T_o\) has a premiss p with \(\mathcal{Q}(p)={\bf f}\) if and only if there is an argument b which is τ o -valid and attacks a . Thus, ϑ does satisfy the recursive definition of a validity function.

Ad 2): Assume that τ o were not in equilibrium, that is there were a sentence p such that both p and \(\lnot p\) are (1) a τ o -free premiss or (2) a conclusion of a τ o -valid argument. If p were a τ o -free premiss in argument a , then (by definition of “free premiss”) \(\lnot p\) couldn’t be the conclusion of a τ o -valid argument. So \(\lnot p\) would be a τ o -free premiss in some argument b , too. Because of dialectical coherency, \(\mathcal{Q}(p)\) is complementary to \(\mathcal{Q}(\lnot p)\) , and thence the algorithm would not have picked a and b . Yet if p were the conclusion of a τ o -valid argument, \(\lnot p\) would not be τ o -free and would thus be the conclusion of a τ o -valid argument, too. Still, this contradicts the assumption that \(\mathcal{Q}\) is dialectically coherent.

Ad 3): Assume there were an argument \(a \in T\setminus T_o\) such that adding a to τ o would not increase the set of τ o -free premisses. Then every premiss of a would either be (1) a τ o -free premiss of some argument in T o (and thus be true), (2) the conclusion of a τ o -valid argument’s conclusion (and thus be true), or (3) the negation of a τ o -valid argument’s conclusion. Therefore, the rule (R) would have picked a and would not have stopped. \(\square\)

So not only can we construct dialectically coherent, complete positions from stance-attributions, but, inversely, every coherent position corresponds to a closed subdebate in equilibrium. Note that such a subdebate is not necessarily complete since the dialectical structure τ might simply not contain enough theses.

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Betz, G. On Degrees of Justification. Erkenn 77 , 237–272 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-011-9314-y

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Received : 21 September 2010

Accepted : 20 July 2011

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DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-011-9314-y

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7 Examples of Justification (of a project or research)

The justification to the part of a research project that sets out the reasons that motivated the research. The justification is the section that explains the importance and the reasons that led the researcher to carry out the work.

The justification explains to the reader why and why the chosen topic was investigated. In general, the reasons that the researcher can give in a justification may be that his work allows to build or refute theories; bring a new approach or perspective on the subject; contribute to the solution of a specific problem (social, economic, environmental, etc.) that affects certain people; generate meaningful and reusable empirical data; clarify the causes and consequences of a specific phenomenon of interest; among other.

Among the criteria used to write a justification, the usefulness of the research for other academics or for other social sectors (public officials, companies, sectors of civil society), the significance in time that it may have, the contribution of new research tools or techniques, updating of existing knowledge, among others. Also, the language should be formal and descriptive.

Examples of justification

  • This research will focus on studying the reproduction habits of salmon in the Mediterranean region of Europe, since due to recent ecological changes in the water and temperatures of the region produced by human economic activity , the behavior of these animals has been modified. Thus, the present work would allow to show the changes that the species has developed to adapt to the new circumstances of its ecosystem, and to deepen the theoretical knowledge about accelerated adaptation processes, in addition to offering a comprehensive look at the environmental damage caused by growth. unsustainable economic, helping to raise awareness of the local population.
  • We therefore propose to investigate the evolution of the theoretical conceptions of class struggle and economic structure throughout the work of Antonio Gramsci, since we consider that previous analyzes have overlooked the fundamentally dynamic and unstable conception of human society that is present. in the works of Gramsci, and that is of vital importance to fully understand the author’s thought.
  • The reasons that led us to investigate the effects of regular use of cell phones on the health of middle-class young people under 18 years of age are centered on the fact that this vulnerable sector of the population is exposed to a greater extent than the rest of society to risks that the continuous use of cell phone devices may imply, due to their cultural and social habits. We intend then to help alert about these dangers, as well as to generate knowledge that helps in the treatment of the effects produced by the abuse in the use of this technology.
  • We believe that by means of a detailed analysis of the evolution of financial transactions carried out in the main stock exchanges of the world during the period 2005-2010, as well as the inquiry about how financial and banking agents perceived the situation of the financial system, it will allow us to clarify the economic mechanisms that enable the development of an economic crisis of global dimensions such as the one that the world experienced since 2009, and thus improve the design of regulatory and counter-cyclical public policies that favor the stability of the local and international financial system.
  • Our study about the applications and programs developed through the three analyzed programming languages ​​(Java, C ++ and Haskell), can allow us to clearly distinguish the potential that each of these languages ​​(and similar languages) present for solving specific problems. , in a specific area of ​​activity. This would allow not only to increase efficiency in relation to long-term development projects, but to plan coding strategies with better results in projects that are already working, and to improve teaching plans for teaching programming and computer science.
  • This in-depth study on the expansion of the Chinese empire under the Xia dynasty, will allow to clarify the socioeconomic, military and political processes that allowed the consolidation of one of the oldest states in history, and also understand the expansion of metallurgical and administrative technologies along the coastal region of the Pacific Ocean. The deep understanding of these phenomena will allow us to clarify this little-known period in Chinese history, which was of vital importance for the social transformations that the peoples of the region went through during the period.
  • Research on the efficacy of captropil in the treatment of cardiovascular conditions (in particular hypertension and heart failure) will allow us to determine if angiotensin is of vital importance in the processes of blocking the protein peptidase, or if by the On the contrary, these effects can be attributed to other components present in the formula of drugs frequently prescribed to patients after medical consultation.

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  • 15 Examples of Empirical Knowledge
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  • 15 Examples of Quotes
  • What are the Elements of Knowledge?

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7.3 Justification

Learning objectives.

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain what justification means in the context of epistemology.
  • Explain the difference between internal and external theories of justification.
  • Describe the similarities and differences between coherentism and foundationalism.
  • Classify beliefs according to their source of justification.

Much of epistemology in the latter half of the 20th century was devoted to the question of justification . Questions about what knowledge is often boil down to questions about justification. When we wonder whether knowledge of the external world is possible, what we really question is whether we can ever be justified in accepting as true our beliefs about the external world. And as previously discussed, determining whether a defeater for knowledge exists requires knowing what could undermine justification.

We will start with two general points about justification. First, justification makes beliefs more likely to be true. When we think we are justified in believing something, we think we have reason to believe it is true. How justification does this and how to think about the reasons will be discussed below. Second, justification does not always guarantee truth . Justification makes beliefs more likely to be true, which implies that justified beliefs could still be false. The fallibility of justification will be addressed at the end of this section.

The Nature of Justification

Justification makes a belief more likely to be true by providing reasons in favor of the truth of the belief. A natural way to think of justification is that it provides logical support. Logic is the study of reasoning, so logical support is strong reasoning. If I am reasoning correctly, I am justified in believing that my dog is a mammal because all dogs are mammals. And I am justified in believing that 3 1332 = 444 3 1332 = 444 if I did the derivation correctly. But what if I used a calculator to derive the result? Must I also have reasons for believing the calculator is reliable before being justified in believing the answer? Or can the mere fact that calculators are reliable justify my belief in the answer? These questions get at an important distinction between the possible sources of justification—whether justification is internal or external to the mind of the believer.

Internalism and Externalism

Theories of justification can be divided into two different types: internal and external. Internalism is the view that justification for belief is determined solely by factors internal to a subject’s mind. The initial appeal of internalism is obvious. A person’s beliefs are internal to them, and the process by which they form beliefs is also an internal mental process. If you discover that someone engaged in wishful thinking when they came to the belief that the weather would be nice today, even if it turns out to be true, you can determine that they did not know that it would be nice today. You will believe they did not have that knowledge because they had no reasons or evidence on which to base their belief. When you make this determination, you reference that person’s mental state (the lack of reasons).

But what if a person had good reasons when they formed a belief but cannot currently recall what those reasons were? For example, I believe that Aristotle wrote about unicorns, although I cannot remember my reasons for believing this. I assume I learned it from a scholarly text (perhaps from reading Aristotle himself), which is a reliable source. Assuming I did gain the belief from a reliable source, am I still justified given that I cannot now recall what that source was? Internalists contend that a subject must have cognitive access to the reasons for belief in order to have justification. To be justified, the subject must be able to immediately or upon careful reflection recall their reasons. Hence, according to internalism , I am not justified in believing that Aristotle wrote about unicorns.

On the other hand, an externalist would say my belief about Aristotle is justified because of the facts about where I got the belief. Externalism is the view that at least some part of justification can rely on factors that are not internal or accessible to the mind of the believer. If I once had good reasons, then I am still justified, even if I cannot now cite those reasons. Externalist theories about justification usually focus on the sources of justification, which include not only inference but also testimony and perception. The fact that a source is reliable is what matters. To return to the calculator example, the mere fact that a calculator is reliable can function as justification for forming beliefs based on its outputs.

An Example of Internalism: Ruling Out Relevant Alternatives

Recall that the “no defeaters” theory of knowledge requires that there exist no evidence that, if known by the subject, would undermine their justification. The evidence is not known by the subject, which makes the evidence external. The fourth condition could instead be an internal condition. Rather than require that there exist no evidence, one could say that S needs to rule out any relevant alternatives to their belief. The “no relevant alternatives” theory adds to the traditional account of knowledge the requirement that a person rule out any competing hypotheses for their belief. Ruling out refers to a subject’s conscious internal mental state, which makes this condition internal in nature. Like the “no defeaters” condition, the “no relevant alternatives” condition is meant to solve the Gettier problem . It does so by broadening the understanding of justification so that justification requires ruling out relevant alternatives. However, it still doesn’t solve the Gettier problem. Returning to the barn example, the possibility that there are barn facades is not a relevant alternative to the belief that one is looking at a barn. Unless one is in Hollywood, one would not think that facades are a distinct possibility.

An Example of Externalism: Causal Theories

Externalists hold that a subject need not have access to why their true beliefs are justified. But some theorists, such as American philosopher Alvin Goldman (b. 1938), argue that the justification condition in the account of knowledge should be replaced with a more substantial and thorough condition that effectively explains what justification is . Goldman argues that beliefs are justified if they are produced by reliable belief-forming processes (Goldman 1979). Importantly, it is the process that confers justification, not one’s ability to recount that process. Goldman’s account of knowledge is that a true belief is the result of a reliable belief-forming process .

Goldman’s theory is called historical reliabilism — historical because the view focuses on the past processes that led to a belief, and reliabilism because, according to the theory, processes that reliably produce true beliefs confer justification on those beliefs. Reliable belief-forming processes include perception, memory, strong or valid reasoning, and introspection. These processes are functional operations whose outputs are beliefs and other cognitive states. For example, reasoning is an operation that takes as input prior beliefs and hypotheses and outputs new beliefs, and memory is a process that “takes as input beliefs or experiences at an earlier time and generates as output beliefs at a later time” (Goldman 1979, 12). Usually, memory is reliable in the sense that it is more likely to produce true beliefs than false ones.

Because Goldman ’s approach is externalist, the justification-conferring process need not be cognitively accessible to the believer. His view has also been called causal because he focuses on the causes of belief. If a belief is caused in the right way (by a reliable belief-forming processes), then it is justified. One virtue of this approach is that it accounts for the intuition that someone could have a justified belief without being able to cite all the reasons for holding that belief. However, this view is not without fault. The original impetus behind revising Plato’s traditional JTB analysis was to solve the Gettier problem , and Goldman’s account cannot do this. Consider again Henry and the barn. Henry looks at a real barn and forms the belief that it is a barn. Henry’s belief that he is looking at a barn is caused by a reliable belief-forming process (perception), so according to Goldman’s account, Henry does have knowledge. Yet many philosophers think that Henry doesn’t have knowledge given the lucky nature of his belief.

Theories of Justification

So far, we have looked at theories of justification as applied to individual beliefs. But beliefs are not always justified in isolation. Usually, the justification of one belief depends on the justification of other beliefs. I must be justified in trusting my perception to then be justified in believing that there is a bird outside of my office window. Thus, some theories focus on the structure of justification—that is, how a system or set of beliefs is structured. The theories on the structure of justification aim to illustrate how the structure of a system of beliefs leads to knowledge, or true beliefs.


Much of what a subject justifiably believes is inferred from other justified beliefs . For example, Ella justifiably believes the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066 because her history professor told her this. But the justification for her belief doesn’t end there. Why is Ella justified in believing that her history professor is a good source? Furthermore, why is she even justified in believing that her history professor told her this? To the second question, Ella would reply that she is justified because she remembers her professor telling her. But then one can ask, Why is the reliance on memory justifiable? Justified beliefs rest on other justified beliefs. The question is whether the chain of justification ever ends. Foundationalists hold that justification must terminate at some point.

Foundationalism is the view that all justified beliefs ultimately rest on a set of foundational, basic beliefs. Consider a house. Most of what people see of a house is the superstructure—the main floor, columns, and roof. But the house must rest on a foundation that stabilizes and props up the parts of the house people can see. According to foundationalists, most beliefs are like the superstructure of the house—the frame, roof, and walls. The majority of people’s beliefs are inferential beliefs , or beliefs based on inference. And according to foundationalism, all beliefs rest on a foundation of basic beliefs (Hasan and Fumerton 2016). One of Ella’s foundational beliefs could be that her memory is reliable. If this belief is justified, then all of Ella’s justified beliefs derived from memory will rest on this foundational belief.

But what justifies basic beliefs? If basic beliefs function so as to justify other beliefs, then they too must be justified. If the foundation is not justified, then none of the beliefs that rest on it are justified. According to foundationalism, the beliefs that make up the foundation are justified beliefs, but they are justified non-inferential beliefs. Foundational beliefs must be non-inferential (not based on inference) because if they were inferential, they would get their justification from another source, and they would no longer be foundational. Foundational beliefs are supposed to be where the justification stops.

What is a basic belief, and what are the reasons for thinking basic beliefs are justified? French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) was a foundationalist, and he held that people’s basic beliefs are indubitable (Descartes 2008). An indubitable belief is one that cannot be mistaken. Clearly, if the foundation is made of beliefs that cannot be mistaken, then it is justified. But why think that foundational beliefs cannot be mistaken? Descartes thought that whatever a subject can clearly and distinctly conceive of in their mind, they can take to be true because God would not allow them to be fooled. As an illustration of how some beliefs might be indubitable, recall that knowledge by acquaintance is direct and unmediated knowledge. Acquaintance is unmediated by other ways of knowing, including inference, so beliefs gained though acquaintance are non-inferential, which is what the foundationalist wants. Beliefs gained via acquaintance are also justified, which is why Russell deems them knowledge . As an example, imagine that you see a green orb in your field of vision. You may not know whether the green orb is due to something in your environment, but you cannot be mistaken about the fact that you visually experience the green orb. Hence, knowledge by acquaintance is a possible candidate for the foundation of beliefs.

Coherentism is the view that justification, and thus knowledge, is structured not like a house but instead like a web. More precisely, coherentism argues that a belief is justified if it is embedded in a network of coherent, mutually supported beliefs. Think of a web. Each strand in a web is not that strong by itself, but when the strands are connected to multiple other strands and woven together, the result is a durable network. Similarly, a subject’s justification for individual beliefs, taken alone, is not that strong. But when those beliefs are situated in a system of many mutually supporting beliefs, the justification grows stronger. Justification emerges from the structure of a belief system (BonJour 1985).

Within foundationalism , the justifications for some beliefs can proceed in a completely linear fashion. Ella believes the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066 because her professor told her, and she believes that her professor told her because she remembers it and thinks her memory is justifiable. One belief justifies another, which justifies another, and so on, until the foundation is reached. Yet very few beliefs are actually structured in this manner. People often look for support for their beliefs in multiple other beliefs while making sure that they are also consistent. Figure 7.5 offers a simplified visual of the two different structures of belief.

Often, when we think of the justification for our beliefs, we don’t just consider the original source of a belief. We also think about how that belief fits into our other beliefs. If a belief does not cohere with other beliefs, then its justification appears weak, even if the initial justification for the belief seemed strong. Suppose you need to go to the bank, and on your way out the door, your roommate tells you not to waste your time because they drove by the bank earlier and it was closed. Your roommate’s testimony seems like enough reason to believe the bank is closed. However, it is a weekday, and the bank is always open during the week. Furthermore, it is not a holiday. You check the bank’s website, and it states that the bank is open. Hence, the belief that the bank is closed does not cohere with your other beliefs. The lack of coherence with other beliefs weakens the justification for believing what your otherwise reliable roommate tells you.

To be fair, foundationalists also consider coherence of beliefs in determining justification. However, as long as a belief is consistent with other beliefs and rests on the foundation, it is justified. But consistency is not the same thing as logical support. The beliefs that there is a bird in that tree, it is November, and a person is hungry are all consistent with one another, but they do not support one another. And for coherentists, logical consistency alone does not make a system of belief justified. Justification arises from a system of beliefs that mutually reinforce one another. Support can happen in many ways: beliefs can deductively entail one another, they can inductively entail one another, and they can cohere by explaining one another. Suppose I am trying to remember where my friend Faruq is from. I believe he is from Tennessee but am not sure. But then I remember that Faruq often wears a University of Tennessee hat and has a Tennessee Titans sticker on this car. He also speaks with a slight southern twang and has told stories about hiking in the Smoky Mountains, which are partially in Tennessee. That Faruq is from Tennessee can explain these further beliefs. Note that I can get more assurance for my belief that Faruq is from Tennessee by considering my other beliefs about him. When beliefs mutually reinforce one another, they acquire more justification.

Coherentism more naturally reflects the actual structure of belief systems, and it does so without relying on the notion of basic, justified, non-inferential beliefs. However, coherentism has weaknesses. One objection to coherentism is that it can result in circularity. Within a system of beliefs, any belief can play a roundabout role in its own justification. Figure 7.6 illustrates this problem.

Another objection to coherentism is called the isolation objection . A network of beliefs can mutually explain and support one another, thus giving them justification . However, it is not guaranteed that these beliefs are connected to reality. Imagine a person, Dinah, who is trapped in a highly detailed virtual reality. Dinah has been trapped for so long that she believes her experiences are of the real world. Because of the detailed nature of Dinah’s virtual reality, most of her beliefs are consistent with and support one another, just as your beliefs about the real world do. As long as Dinah’s beliefs are consistent and coherent, she will be justified in believing that her experience is of real objects and real people. So Dinah has justification even though all her beliefs concerning the reality of her world are false. Dinah’s situation reveals an important feature of justification: while justification makes beliefs more likely to be true, it does not always guarantee that they are true. Justification is often fallible.

The Fallible Nature of Justification

The sources of beliefs are varied. Perception, reason, hope, faith, and wishful thinking can all result in belief. Yet just because something results in belief, that does not mean that the belief is justified. Beliefs that result from wishful thinking are not justified because wishful thinking does not make a belief more likely to be true. A source of justification is a reliable basis for belief. Yet while justification is a reliable source, notice that this does not mean that the belief is true; it just makes it more likely. Justified beliefs can turn out to be false. In order to drive this point home, we will briefly look at four different sources of belief. As you will see, each source is fallible.

One source of belief is memory . Memory is not always reliable. First of all, that you do not remember something in your past does not mean that it did not happen. Second, when you do remember something, does that guarantee that it happened the way you remember it? Because people can misremember, philosophers distinguish between remembering and seeming to remember. When you actually remember P, then this justifies believing P. When you seem to remember P, this does not justify believing P. The problem is that remembering and seeming to remember often feel the same to the person trying to remember.

Most beliefs are the product of inference. When you use reason to come to belief, the justification you have is inferential; hence, inferential justification is equivalent to logical justification. But as discussed in the chapter on logic, not all forms of inference can guarantee truth. Inductive reasoning , which is the most common source of beliefs, is only probable even when done well. Furthermore, people often make mistakes in reasoning. Just because someone reasoned their way to a belief doesn’t mean they reasoned well. But assume for a moment that a person comes to a belief using deductive reasoning, which can guarantee truth, and they reason well. Is it still possible that their belief is false? Yes. Deductive reasoning takes as its input other beliefs to then derive conclusions. In good inductive reasoning, if the premises are true (the input beliefs), then the conclusion is true. If the input beliefs are false, then even good deductive reasoning cannot guarantee true beliefs.

Another source of belief is testimony . When you gain beliefs based on the stated beliefs of others, you rely on testimony. Testimony is usually considered something that happens only in a court of law, but in philosophy, the term testimony is used much more broadly. Testimony is any utterance, spoken or written, occurring in normal communication conditions. Instances of testimony include news magazines, nonfiction books, personal blogs, professors’ lectures, and opinions volunteered in casual conversation. Often, testimony is a reliable source of information and so can be justified. When you form beliefs based on the testimony of experts, it is justified. But even when justified, those beliefs could be false because experts are vulnerable to all of the weaknesses of justification covered in this section. More will be said about testimony in the section on social epistemology.

Last, perception can be used as a source of justification. Perception includes the information received from the senses (smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing). People often automatically form beliefs based on perception. However, not all beliefs that follow from perception are guaranteed to be true, as the possibility of knowledge by acquaintance shows. As discussed earlier, Russell maintained that the only automatically justified beliefs gained from perception are about the existence of sense data (Russell 1948). When looking at the bird outside of my office window, I only have knowledge by acquaintance of the experience of seeing the bird on a branch in my visual field. I know that it seems to me that there’s a bird. But how do I get from those sense data to the justified belief that there really is bird on the branch? I must rely on another belief about the reliability of my perception—a belief that I can only get by inference, specifically induction . I reason from past instances where I believe my perception is reliable to the general belief that it is reliable. And of course, induction is fallible. Whenever one moves from knowledge by acquaintance to further beliefs—such as the belief that sense data is caused by actually existing objects—there is room for error.

Not all philosophers agree that all perceptual beliefs are mediated through sense data (Crane and French 2021). The view called direct realism states that people have direct access to objects in the external world via perception. While direct realism holds that one can directly perceive the external world, it still cannot guarantee that beliefs about it are true, for both hallucinations and illusions are still possible. Figure 7.7 is an example of an illusion.

If you focus only on the top two lines, it appears as though they are of different lengths. Yet the bottom two lines indicate that this appearance is illusory—the lines are actually of equal length. Illusions function as evidence that perception sometimes misrepresents reality. Even direct realists have to contend with the possibility that beliefs gained through sense perception could be wrong. Hence, sources of beliefs, even when they are usually justified, are nevertheless fallible. The possibility that the subject could be wrong is what gives rise to philosophical skepticism—the view that knowledge in some or all domains is impossible.

Think Like a Philosopher

Think critically about the sources of justification explained above. Which of these is more reliable than the others? For each source, identify one instance in which it is reliable and one instance in which it is not.

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  • Book title: Introduction to Philosophy
  • Publication date: Jun 15, 2022
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  • Book URL: https://openstax.org/books/introduction-philosophy/pages/1-introduction
  • Section URL: https://openstax.org/books/introduction-philosophy/pages/7-3-justification

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The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology

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6 Theories of Justification

Richard Fumerton is F. Wendell Miller Professor of Philosophy at the University of Iowa.

  • Published: 02 September 2009
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The task of explaining and evaluating theories of justification is daunting. There are not only a host of different theories of justification, there are also radical differences among epistemologists concerning how they understand what it is to offer such a theory. This article offers an overview of several prominent positions on the nature of justification. It begins by isolating epistemic justification from nonepistemic justification. It also distinguishes between “having justification for a belief” and “having a justified belief,” arguing that the former is conceptually more fundamental. It then addresses the possibility that justification is a normative matter, suggesting that this possibility has little to offer a concept of epistemic justification. It also critically examines more specific attempts to capture the structure and content of epistemic justification. These include traditional foundationalism and variants thereof, externalist versions of foundationalism; contextualism; coherentism; and “mixed” theories which combine aspects of coherentism and foundationalism.

The concept of justification may be the most fundamental in epistemology. On what became the dominant view in the twentieth century, knowledge is to be understood, at least in part, through our understanding of justification. Part of the answer many offer to Plato's question in the Theaetetus , “What must be added to true belief in order to get knowledge?” is justification. Furthermore, on many accounts of knowledge and justification, it is tempting to conclude that the only responsibility we are competent to carry out qua philosophers is to conform our beliefs to what is justified. Whether or not the world cooperates so as to turn those justified beliefs into knowledge is out of our hands.

The task of explaining and evaluating theories of justification, however, is daunting. There are not only a host of different theories of justification, there are also radical differences among epistemologists concerning how they understand what it is to offer such a theory. Some epistemologists are trying to identify the properties that constitute having justification while others are trying to identify properties upon which justification supervenes. Some philosophers take the product of their analyses to be analytic truths; others claim to be engaged in some sort of empirical investigation. In addition to the fact that there are these meta‐philosophical and methodological controversies lurking in the background, there are serious questions as to whether epistemologists have even agreed on the target of their analyses. Let us begin with this last question.

Epistemic vs. Nonepistemic Justification

The first distinction an epistemologist should emphasize before putting forth a theory of justification is that between epistemic justification and other sorts of justification. If I ask whether S's belief is justified or rational, I might be concerned, for example, with prudential justification. It seems to be a fact that a patient's believing that she will get well often increases the chances of her recovery (even if the resulting probability remains very low). In such a situation there is surely some sense in which the patient would be justified in having (or at least trying to get) the optimistic belief. But even if we allow that there is a sense in which the belief is justified or rational, we don't want to allow that it is epistemically justified or rational. Or consider the person who is becoming paralyzed by fear of death. If believing that there is an afterlife will alleviate that fear and allow the person to live a normal life, then there is again a sense in which it would be perfectly reasonable for that person to try to bring about the belief that has this effect. Prudential reasons for believing (if they exist) have something to do with the efficacy with which believing will or might achieve certain goals or ends.

There may be other nonepistemic reasons for believing or failing to believe a given proposition. It is not wildly implausible to suppose, for example, that a husband has a special moral obligation, and with it a moral reason , to believe that his wife is faithful even in the face of rather powerful epistemic reasons for believing otherwise. One could even imagine a kind of “ 1984 culture” in which one has legal obligations, and legal reasons, to have certain beliefs that are, nevertheless, epistemically irrational.

Can we find a way of characterizing epistemic justification that is relatively neutral with respect to opposing analyses of the concept? As a first stab we might suggest that whatever else epistemic justification for believing some proposition is, it must make probable the truth of the proposition believed. 1 The patient with prudential reasons for believing in a recovery was more likely to get that recovery as a result of her beliefs, but the prudential reasons possessed did not increase the probability of the proposition believed—it was the belief for which the person had prudential reasons that resulted in the increased probability. Epistemic reasons make likely the truth of what is supported by those reasons, and, although it is controversial, it is tempting to suggest that the relation of making likely is not to be understood in causal terms.

Our preliminary characterization of justification as that which makes probable the truth of a proposition may not in the end be all that neutral. As we shall see in a moment, there are those who stress an alleged normative feature of epistemic justification that may call into question the conceptual primacy of probability as a key to distinguishing epistemic reasons from other sorts of reasons. Furthermore, as we shall also see, if one understands the relation of making probable in terms of a frequency conception of probability, one will inevitably beg the question with respect to certain internalist/externalist debates over the nature of justification.

Having Justification for a Belief and Having a Justified Belief

Another preliminary, but important, distinction to stress is that between having justification for a belief and having a justified belief. There seems to be a perfectly clear sense in which there may be enormously strong epistemic reasons for me to believe a given proposition even though I don't end up believing it. In such a situation we can say that there was justification for me to believe the proposition even though I didn't, of course, have a justified belief (or a belief at all) in the relevant proposition. 2 It is tempting to suppose that we can employ the concept of having justification for believing P to define what it is for a person to justifiably believe P. Specifically, one might suggest that a person justifiably believes P when that person believes P and does so based on justification that the person possesses. The analysis of the basing relation is a matter of much controversy. One might hope to analyze it in causal terms. If there is justification J for S to believe P, then S believes P justifiably just in case S's belief is caused by the fact that there is justification for him to believe P. When one presents causal analyses of any concept, however, one should immediately be on guard against counterexamples that rely on “deviant” causal chains. If I possess justification J for believing P, and that causes the hypnotist at the party to hypnotize me into believing P when I hear a doorbell ring, it is not at all clear that I have based the resulting belief on the justification I possess. There may be some relatively straightforward way to revise a causal account of basing to take care of such problems (by, for example, insisting that the causal connection has to be in some sense direct) but we won't explore this issue further here.

If the distinction between possessing justification and having a justified belief is legitimate, which if either of these concepts is more fundamental? If the suggestion made above were plausible, then clearly having justification would be conceptually more fundamental than having a justified belief. We are defining the latter in terms of the former. Furthermore, if we understand the basing relation in causal terms, we should beware of philosophers speculating about which beliefs are or are not justified. One needs empirical evidence to support a causal hypothesis, and it strikes me that philosophers are rarely in possession of the empirical evidence they would need in order to support a psychological claim about what is or is not causing a given belief. Although epistemologists have often supposed that they are trying to determine which beliefs are justified and which are not, I would suggest that if they are to restrict themselves to questions they are competent to answer, qua philosophers, they ought to concern themselves only with the question of whether there is justification for us to believe this or that proposition. Depending on one's analysis of justification, this question may itself end up being an empirical question that philosophers are not particularly competent to address, but this is an issue to which we shall return.

Justification and Normativity

A surprising number of philosophers, with radically different theories of justification, seem to agree that justification is a normative concept. Unfortunately, it is not at all clear what philosophers have in mind by characterizing a concept as normative. We might begin by suggesting that normative terms are those whose meaning can be explicated using paradigm normative expressions, and we might simply list that which is paradigmatically normative. The list might be long or short depending on whether or not we think that all normative expressions can be defined in terms of a relatively few fundamental normative notions. So one might include among the paradigmatically normative such terms as “good,” “ought,” should,” “right,” “permissible,” obligatory,” and their opposites.

If we proceed in this fashion it seems undeniable that the concept of epistemic justification looks suspiciously like a normative concept. As Plantinga ( 1992 ) has effectively reminded us, the etymology of the word “justification” certainly suggests that we are dealing with a value term. And epistemologists often seem quite comfortable interchanging questions about whether or not evidence E justifies one in believing P with questions about whether or not one should believe P on the basis of E. In what is often taken to be an early statement of a justified true belief account of knowledge, Ayer ( 1956 ) described knowledge as true conviction where one has the right to be sure. So again the idea that the concept of justification is normative is at least prima facie plausible. But we must proceed cautiously. We have already seen that we must distinguish epistemic reasons from other sorts of reasons. If we can translate talk about justified belief into talk about what we ought to believe, these same considerations suggest that we must distinguish different senses of “ought.” In the prudential sense of “ought,” perhaps the patient ought to believe she will get better. In the moral sense of “ought,” perhaps the husband ought to believe in his spouse's innocence. But the epistemologist is concerned with what one epistemically ought to believe, and we still need to be convinced that there is some interesting sense in which all of these different “ought” 's express normative concepts.

If we take as our paradigm of a normative “ought” the moral “ought,” then I suppose the question of whether the epistemic “ought” expresses a normative concept reduces to the question of whether there are interesting connections between it and the moral “ought.” The problem now is that moral philosophers have radically different views about what makes moral “ought” judgments normative. Some try to distinguish the normative from the nonnormative by contrasting prescriptive judgements with descriptive judgments. But if this is supposed to be the normative/nonnormative distinction, it is far from clear that the epistemologist should accept the claim that justification is a normative concept. I suspect that most epistemologists take a belief 's being justified to be a fact that admits of description just as straightforwardly as a belief 's having a certain causal history. (Indeed, on some theories of justification a belief 's being justified just is a matter of its causal history.)

Richard Foley ( 1987 ) has suggested that we might understand epistemic justification in terms of what one ought to believe, and he goes on to understand the difference between the epistemic “ought” and other “oughts” 's as differences between species of a common genera. Crudely put, Foley's idea is that normative judgments all assess the efficacy of achieving goals or ends. There are different kinds of normative judgments concerning what we ought to do and what we ought to believe because there are different goals or ends that we are concerned to emphasize. Thus when we are talking about morally justified action, the relevant goal might be something like creating good and avoiding evil. When we are concerned with what prudence dictates, the relevant goals or ends change, perhaps to include everything that is desired intrinsically, for example. What one legally ought to do is a function of the extent to which an action satisfies the goal of following the law. To fit the epistemic “ought” into this framework (and thus classify usefully the kind of normativity that epistemic judgments have) all one needs to do is specify the distinctive goals or ends that define what one epistemically ought to believe. And the obvious candidates are the dual goals of believing what is true and avoiding belief in what is false.

Suggestive as this account might seem, it faces enormous difficulties. It must be immediately qualified to accommodate certain obvious counterexamples. Let's return to our paradigm of a nonepistemic reason, the reason the patient had for believing that she would get well. By forming the relevant belief, the patient might produce for herself a long life which she could devote to scientific and philosophical investigation, investigation that results in an enormous number of true beliefs. Despite accomplishing the goal of believing what is true, our patient (by hypothesis) had no epistemic reason for believing that she would get well. The obvious solution to this problem (one Foley suggests) is to restrict the relevant epistemic goal to that of now believing what is true and now avoiding belief in what is false. But such a revision doesn't really address the problem. Suppose there is an all powerful being who will immediately cause me to believe massive falsehood now unless I accept the epistemically irrational conclusion that there are mermaids. It would seem that to accomplish the goal of believing what is true and avoiding belief in what is false now I must again adopt an epistemically irrational belief.

In desperation one might try restricting the relevant epistemic goal to that of believing what is true now with respect to a given proposition. But now we are in danger of collapsing the distinction between true belief and justified belief. Trivially, the only way to accomplish the goal of believing what is true with respect to P is to believe P when P is true. The problem is that one really wants to identify the content of the epistemic “ought” with what one is justified in believing will accomplish the goal of now believing what is true with respect to a given proposition. But with this revision our “goal” oriented account of epistemic justification becomes pathetically circular. 3

There are, of course, other ways to try to understand the alleged normative character of epistemic justification, but I'm not sure any are illuminating. One might suppose that when one characterizes a belief as justified one is indicating that it is not an appropriate subject for criticism. When one says of a belief that it is unjustified, one is criticizing the belief. For the view to gain even initial credibility, it would be important to distinguish the criticism of a belief from the criticism of the subject who holds the belief. It is simply false that we would always criticize a person for holding a belief we judge to be epistemically irrational. We might, for example, suppose that the person is just too stupid to be able to evaluate properly the relevant evidence and we might, as a result, seldom criticize him for the many wildly irrational beliefs he holds. But even if one makes clear that in characterizing a belief as unjustified one is criticizing the belief not the believer, I'm not sure that one can successfully argue that a person would be guilty of contradiction if, in the grips of some rebellious “anti‐reason” movement, that person criticizes beliefs that conform to the dictates of epistemic rationality.

Once one clearly distinguishes the epistemic “ought” from others it is not in the end clear that one gets much understanding of the concept of justification from the suggestion that epistemic judgements are in some sense normative. 4


It is tempting to think that one can leave the question of how to understand epistemic justification aside and distinguish different theories of justification in terms of how they understand the structure of epistemic justification. Perhaps the most famous theory of epistemic justification is foundationalism —the very term for the view employs a structural metaphor. But as we shall see, foundationalism is probably best understood not just as a view about the structure of justification. Properly understood, different versions of foundationalism also give an account of the content of epistemic judgements.

Traditional versions of foundationalism have fallen on hard times, but given the present popularity of its externalist cousins, it is still probably the received view in epistemology. Put crudely, the foundationalist believes that all justified beliefs rest ultimately on a foundation of noninferentially justified beliefs. One gets radically different versions of foundationalism depending on how the foundationalist understands noninferential justification.

A little reflection suggests that the vast majority of the propositions for which we have justification have that status only because we justifiably believe other different propositions. So, for example, I justifiably believe that Hitler killed himself, but only because I justifiably believe (among other things) that various generally reliable historical texts describe the event. Foundationalists want to contrast my inferential justification for this belief about Hitler with a kind of justification that is not constituted , in whole or in part, by the having of other justified beliefs. But why should we suppose that there is a kind of justification that is in this way different from inferential justification?

The Regress Arguments for Foundationalism

Suppose I tell you as you approach your fiftieth birthday that you will shortly go insane. I offer as my evidence that you have a genetic defect that, like a time bomb, goes off at the age of 50. Naturally alarmed, you ask me what reason I have for concluding that you have the gene. I respond that it is just a hunch on my part. As soon as you discover that I have no epistemic justification at all for believing that you have the gene, you will immediately conclude that my bizarre conclusion about your impending insanity is wildly irrational. Generalizing from examples like this, one might suggest the following principle:

To be justified in believing P on the basis of E one must be justified in believing E

Now consider another example. Suppose I claim to be justified in believing that Fred will die shortly and offer as my justification that a certain line across his palm (the infamous “lifeline”) is short. Rightly skeptical you wonder this time what reason I have for believing that palm lines have anything whatsoever to do with length of life. As soon as you become satisfied that I have no justification for supposing that there is any kind of probabilistic connection between the character of this line and Fred's life, you will again reject my claim to have a justified belief about Fred's impending demise. 5 That suggests that we might expand our Principle of Inferential Justification (PIJ) to include a second clause:

To have justification for believing P on the basis of E one must not only have (1) justification for believing E, but (2) justification for believing that E makes probable P.

The Epistemic Regress Argument

With PIJ one can present a relatively straightforward epistemic regress argument for foundationalism. If all justification were inferential then for someone S to have justification for believing some proposition P, S must be in a position to legitimately infer it from some other proposition E1. But E1 could justify S in believing P only if S were justified in believing E1, and if all justification were inferential, the only way for S to be justified in believing E1 would be to infer it from some other proposition E2 justifiably believed, a proposition which in turn would have to be inferred from some other proposition E3, which is justifiably believed, and so on, ad infinitum. But finite beings cannot complete an infinitely long chain of reasoning and so, if all justification were inferential, no‐one would be justified in believing anything at all to any extent whatsoever. This most radical of all skepticisms is absurd (it entails that one couldn't even be justified in believing it) and so there must be a kind of justification that is not inferential, that is, there must be noninferentially justified beliefs which terminate regresses of justification.

If we accept the more controversial second clause of PIJ, the looming regresses proliferate. Not only must S above be justified in believing E1, S must also be justified in believing that E1 makes probable P, a proposition that would have to be inferred (if there are no foundations) from some other proposition F1, which would have to be inferred from F2, and so on ad infinitum. But S would also need to be justified in believing that F1 does in fact make likely that E1 makes likely P, a proposition he would need to infer from some other proposition G1, which he would need to infer from some other proposition G2… . And he would need to infer that G1 does indeed make likely that F1 makes likely that E1 makes likely P… . Without noninferential justification, it would seem that we would need to complete an infinite number of infinitely long chains of reasoning in order to be justified in believing anything!

Peter Klein ( 1999 ) has recently defended a view he calls infinitism . The infinitist refuses to accept the existence of noninferential justification, acknowledges that with the availability of only inferential justification, justified belief would require us to be able to come up with infinitely many arguments for infinitely many premises, but argues that finite beings might very well have the capacity to do just that. There is nothing absurd in the supposition that people have an infinite number of justified beliefs (most of which are not, of course, conscious at any given time). You believe justifiably that 2>1, that 3>1, that 4>1, and so on, ad infinitum. While you cannot, of course, complete an infinitely long chain of reasoning, you might be such that you could offer an argument for every proposition you believe. And there is nothing absurd about the suggestion that your ability to do just that is necessary for each of your beliefs being justified.

There seems to be something very odd about the idea that I need arguments to support some of my beliefs, for example, the belief that I'm in pain now, or the belief that I exist now. But even if the availability of an infinite number of dispositional beliefs weakens the foundationalists' claim that without noninferential justification we inevitably face skepticism, it's not clear that the infinitist has a rejoinder to a second regress argument for foundationalism.

The Conceptual Regress Argument

The epistemic regress argument discussed above relies on the unacceptability of a vicious epistemic regress. But one might also argue, more fundamentally, that without a concept of noninferential justification, one faces a vicious conceptual regress. What precisely is our understanding of inferential justification? What makes PIJ true (with or without its controversial second clause). It is at least tempting to answer that PIJ is analytic (true by definition). Part of what it means to claim that someone has inferential justification for believing some proposition P is that his justification consists in his ability to infer P from some other proposition E1 that is justifiably believed. But if anything like this is a plausible analysis of the concept of inferential justification, we face a potentially vicious conceptual regress. Our understanding of inferential justification presupposes an understanding of justification. We need to introduce a concept of noninferential justification in terms of which we can then ultimately define inferential justification.

Consider an analogy. Suppose a philosopher introduces the notion of instrumental goodness (something's being good as a means). That philosopher offers the following crude analysis of what it is for something to be instrumentally good: X is instrumentally good when X leads to something Y, which is good. Even if we were to accept this analysis of instrumental goodness, it is clear that we haven't yet located the conceptual source of goodness. Our analysis of instrumental goodness presupposes an understanding of what it is for something to be good and ultimately presupposes an understanding of what it is for something to be intrinsically good. The conceptual regress argument for foundationalism puts forth the thesis that inferential justification stands to noninferential justification as instrumental goodness stands to intrinsic goodness.

Noninferential Justification

If there is a conceptual regress argument for foundationalism, then one hasn't completed one's foundationalist account of epistemic justification until one gives an account of noninferential justification, an account that itself employs no epistemic concepts. Those who continue to insist that epistemic justification is a normative concept, who reject naturalistic accounts of value, and who further claim that fundamental normative concepts cannot be defined, might claim that an account of noninferential justification consists in an identification of the properties of a belief or a believer upon which noninferential justification supervenes (Goldman 1979 ). The term “supervenience” is a piece of philosophical jargon upon which many these days rely. To say that Y supervenes upon X is usually just to claim that there is some sort of necessary connection between X and Y where one can distinguish as many species of supervenience as one can distinguish kinds of necessary connections. In what follows, I'm going to discuss different accounts of noninferential justification in terms of the conditions with which the proponent of the view identifies having noninferential justification. If one is nervous about identity claims one can translate the views into the language of supervenience.

Noninferential Justification as Infallible Belief

Descartes may be the most well‐known foundationalist. Although he almost never talked about justification (his concern was with knowledge), it seems clear that he embraced the idea that there is a way of knowing that does not rely on what we have called inferential justification. On the most natural interpretation of his views, Descartes identified foundational knowledge with infallible belief. Famously, Descartes found his “first” truth in knowledge of his own existence. What distinguished Descartes's belief about his own existence from other beliefs is that the mere fact that he believed that he existed entailed that he did. Shall we understand noninferential justification in Cartesian terms? Shall we say that S's belief that P is noninferentially justified at t when S's believing P at t entails that P is true?

There are relatively few Cartesian foundationalists around these days. The view is plagued with difficulties. As Lehrer ( 1974 ) and others have pointed out, it is far from clear that this concept of infallible belief has much relevance to our fundamental understanding of noninferential justification. Consider just one technical problem. Every necessary truth is trivially entailed by all propositions (P entails Q when it is impossible for P to be true while Q is false, but if it is impossible for Q to be false then it is entailed by everything). So given the above way of understanding infallible belief, all belief in necessary truth would have noninferential justification. But this just seems wrong. If I whimsically believe some proposition whose necessity is far too complicated for me to grasp, it hardly seems plausible to maintain that the belief would have noninferential justification.

Even if we can find a way of solving the above problem, most contemporary epistemologists are convinced that foundational justification restricted to what can be infallibly believed allows far too insubstantial a foundation to support the complex edifice of what we take ourselves to be justified in believing. There may be a few contingent propositions that are trivially entailed by the fact that they are believed—my belief that I exist, that I have beliefs, that I am conscious—but once we get past propositions whose very subject matter encompasses the fact that they are believed, it's hard to come up with uncontroversial examples of infallible beliefs. As Ayer ( 1956 , 19) argued, as long as the belief that P is one state of affairs and P's being the case is an entirely different state of affairs, it's hard to see how it can be impossible for the former to occur without the latter.

Infallible Justification

Rather than try to identify noninferential justification with some intrinsic feature of a belief that renders the belief infallible, one might instead look for a kind of justification that can accompany a belief and eliminate the possibility of error. Let us say that S's belief that P is infallibly justified at t when S's justification for believing P at t contains as a constituent the very truth‐maker for P. But how can the justification for a belief be identified with a state of affairs that includes as a constituent something that makes true the belief?

Some traditional foundationalists have held that beliefs about experiences are justified by the very experiences that are the subject matter of the beliefs. Thus, for example, it might seem initially plausible to suppose that when I am in pain, it is the pain itself that justifies me in believing that I am in pain. On such a view, the noninferential justification I have for believing that I'm in pain—the experience of pain—trivially guarantees the truth of what I believe. But such a view clearly cries out for some further account of what distinguishes the experience of pain from, say, Caesar's assassination. The above foundationalist wants to claim that while the fact that I'm in pain can justify me in believing that I'm in pain, the fact that Caesar was assassinated cannot justify my belief that Caesar was assassinated. But what is the relevant difference between the two facts that makes it implausible to claim that one is a noninferential justifier, while the other is not? It won't do to call attention to the fact that the pain is an experience of mine. My body is undergoing all sorts of changes right now, the vast majority of which don't justify me in believing that they are occurring. So we still need a principled account of what distinguishes those states of mine that can justify beliefs about them from those states of mine that cannot.

It is tempting to suppose that the foundationalist is better off appealing to some special relation that I have to my pain that makes it unnecessary to look to other beliefs in order to justify my belief that I'm in pain. It's not my pain that justifies me in believing that I'm in pain. It is, rather, the fact that I have a kind of access to my pain that no‐one else has that makes my belief noninferentially justified (while others must rely on inference in order to discover that I'm in this state). The sort of access this foundationalist appeals to is not, of course, justified belief. We need an understanding of noninferential justification that does not rely on an understanding of justified belief. Bertrand Russell ( 1959 and 1984 ) contrasted acquaintance with properties and facts with propositional knowledge. Acquaintance is a sui generis relation that a subject bears to certain facts in virtue of which the subject gets a kind of justification for believing the propositions made true by those facts. A slightly more complicated version of the view maintains that one is noninferentially justified in believing a proposition P when one is directly acquainted with not only the fact that P but also with a relation of correspondence between the thought that P and the fact that P (where the correspondence between a thought and a fact is the essence of a thought's being true). Since acquaintance is a relation that requires the existence of its relata, there is a trivial sense in which one can't possess this sort of justification for believing a proposition while the proposition is false. 6

The acquaintance theory might have one interesting advantage over alternative theories in that it has the potential to offer a unified account of noninferential justification. According to most traditional foundationalists, two of the best candidates for noninferentially justified beliefs are empirical beliefs about the current contents of one's mind and a priori beliefs about relatively straightforward necessary truths. On the acquaintance theory, both direct knowledge of necessary truths and direct knowledge of contingent truths about one's current consciousness would have the same source of justification—acquaintance with facts. The difference between the two kinds of knowledge is not so much a difference in the sources of the knowledge but in the contents of the knowledge. The objects of acquaintance in the case of direct knowledge of mental states are states of affairs whose occurrence is not eternal—the objects of acquaintance in the case of direct knowledge of necessary truths are eternal states of affairs.

Objections to Traditional Foundationalism

In one of the most influential arguments against foundationalism, Wilfrid Sellars ( 1963 , 131–132) argued that the idea of foundational justification as something's being “given” to one in consciousness (something's being an object of direct acquaintance) contains irreconcilable tensions. On the one hand, to ensure that something's being given does not involve any other beliefs, proponents of the view want noninferential justification to be untainted by the application of concepts. On the other hand, the whole point of foundationalism is to end a regress of justification, to give us secure foundational justification for the rest of what we justifiably infer from those foundations. But to make sense of inferences from our foundations, we must ensure that what is given to us in consciousness has a truth value . The kind of thing that has a truth value, however, involves the application of concepts. But to apply a concept is to make a judgment about class membership, and to make a judgment about class membership always involves relating the thing about which the judgment is made to other paradigm members of the class. These judgments of relevant similarity will minimally involve beliefs about the past and thus be inferential in character (assuming that we can have no “direct” access to facts about the past).

The above objection obviously relies on a host of controversial presuppositions. In order to deflect the force of the objection, a traditional acquaintance foundationalist will no doubt emphasize the following. Being directly acquainted with a fact is not, by itself, to have a justified belief in some proposition. It is only acquaintance with a fact conjoined with awareness of a thought's corresponding to a fact that constitutes having noninferential justification. There may well be all kinds of creatures who have acquaintance with facts but no justification for believing anything precisely because they lack the capacity to form thoughts. Secondly, the classical foundationalist will, or at least should, reject the suggestion that to apply a concept is to relate the thing to which one applies the concept to other entities that fall under the concept. Such a view simply invites a vicious regress of the sort that the foundationalist is trying so desperately to avoid. After all, my judgement that X is similar to Y itself involves applying the concept of similarity to the pair X/Y. In doing so am I comparing the pair X/Y to other things that are similar to each other? In fact, I can judge something to be pain without having any recollection whatsoever of any other experience that I have had.

The direct acquaintance theorist does presuppose the intelligibility of acquaintance with facts and in doing so presupposes the intelligibility of a world that has “structure” independently of any structure imposed by the mind. Certain radical versions of “antirealism” reject that commitment to a strong “correspondence” conception of truth and with it the intelligibility of a thought/world fit of which we can be directly aware. 7 While there is some plausibility to the claim that there are, in some sense, alternative conceptual frameworks that we can impose on the world, it is surely absurd to suppose that it is even in principle possible for a mind to force a structure on a literally unstructured world. There are indefinitely many ways to sort the books in a library and some are just as useful as others, but there would be no way to begin sorting books were books undifferentiated. If we couldn't take notice of differences in the world with which we are acquainted, it's not clear how we could “choose” conceptual frameworks with which to make sense of our experience.

Laurence BonJour ( 1985 ) raised another highly influential objection to all forms of classical foundationalism (an objection raised before he himself joined the ranks of the traditional foundationalists). The objection presupposed a strong form of what we might call access internalism. Put superficially, the access internalist argues that a feature of a belief or epistemic situation that makes a belief noninferentially justified must be a feature to which we have actual or potential access. Moreover, we must have access to the fact that the feature in question makes probable the truth of what we believe. So suppose some foundationalist offers an account of noninferential justification according to which a belief is noninferentially justified if it has some characteristic X (where X can stand for any sort of property including complex relational properties). BonJour then argues that the mere fact that the belief has X could not, even in principle, justify the believer in holding the belief. The believer would also need access to (justified belief that!) the belief in question has X and that beliefs of this sort (X beliefs) are likely to be true. At least one of these propositions could only be known through inference, and thus the putative noninferential justification is destroyed.

One must be careful in one's commitment to access requirements for justification lest the view become unintelligible. One can hardly expect an epistemologist to concede that any attempt to identify the conditions X that constitute justification will fail unless one supplements the account with conditions referring to actual or potential access to X. It is immediately clear that one couldn't even in principle satisfy this access internalist. If one tries to supplement X with a believer's having access to X, one simply creates a new condition Y (X plus access) which, according to the view, would itself need to be supplemented by the addition of access requirements to Y. But Y plus access (call it Z) will also be insufficient for justification—we will need to add access conditions to Z, and so on, ad infinitum. The most the access internalist could coherently assert is some sort of necessary connection between having justification and having actual or potential access to justification, where the access in question is not constitutive of the justification. But however one qualifies one's access requirements for justification, access internalism seems far too demanding a theory of epistemic justification. It seems to require of epistemic agents the capacity to form ever more complex justified metabeliefs about the justificatory status of beliefs below.

Traditional Foundationalism and Skepticism

The dissatisfaction with traditional foundationalism probably has as much to do with the threat of skepticism as with any more technical problem facing the view. If we understand noninferential justification in terms of infallible belief or acquaintance with a thought/world fit, on most versions of the traditional view there isn't much we are noninferentially justified in believing. If acquaintance is a real relation, it seems implausible, for example, to suppose that one is directly acquainted with facts about the past or the external world. The following sort of argument seems at least initially powerful:

It's possible that we seem to remember having done something X without having actually done it.

The justification we have for believing that we did X when we have a vivid “hallucinatory” memory would be the same as the justification we have for believing that we did X were we to veridically remember doing X.

The justification we have for believing that we did X when we have vivid “false” memory experience is not direct acquaintance with our having done X (acquaintance is a relation that requires the existence of its relata).

The justification we have for believing that we did X when we have a veridical memory experience is not direct acquaintance with our having done X.

An exactly parallel argument is available with respect to justification for believing propositions about the external world. Such justification never gets any better than the “evidence of our senses.” But,

The justification S has for believing some proposition about the physical world when suffering a vivid hallucinatory experience is the same as the justification S has for believing that proposition were S to have a phenomenologically indistinguishable veridical experience.

The justification S has when hallucinating is obviously not direct acquaintance with some feature of the physical world.

The justification S has in veridical experience is not direct acquaintance with some feature of the physical world.

If the above arguments are sound (they are certainly controversial), it is not entirely clear what will be left in the foundations of empirical justification. The classic empiricist view is that we have noninferentially justified empirical beliefs only about present conscious states. But it has been more than a little difficult to figure out how one can legitimately infer the rest of what we think we are justified in believing from such a limited set of premises. The problem is particularly acute if we accept the second clause of the principle of inferential justification. Given that clause, to advance beyond the foundations of justified belief we would inevitably need to employ nondeductive reasoning and, according to PIJ, that would ultimately require us to have noninferential justification for believing propositions describing probability connections between evidence and conclusions. As long as the relation of making probable is not defined in terms of frequency, as long as making probable is construed as a kind of “quasi‐logical relation” analogous to, but different from entailment, it may not be absurd to suppose that one can have noninferential a priori justification for believing that one set of propositions makes probable another. It is, however, an understatement to suggest that the view is problematic. 8

There is another source of dissatisfaction with the classic empiricist's suggestion that we identify noninferentially justified beliefs with beliefs about the character of present experience. Many would argue, on phenomenological grounds, that we rarely consider propositions describing the intrinsic character of experience. In sense experience our thought is almost always directed out of ourselves and on the existence of an external reality. It requires, the argument goes, considerable effort to turn “inward” to focus on appearance rather than external reality. If most people don't even have the beliefs that the traditional view regards as the only candidates for noninferentially justified beliefs, it seems that once again one faces an unpalatable, fairly extreme, skepticism.

Externalist Versions of Foundationalism

Contemporary externalists offer a refreshingly undemanding account of both non‐inferential and inferential justification. Just about all externalists reject the second clause of the principle of inferential justification. Moreover, noninferential justification is often understood in such a way as to allow for the possibility of a much broader foundation. Consider, for example, the best known version of externalism, Goldman's reliabilism (first set forth in Goldman 1979 ).

The fundamental idea behind reliabilism is strikingly simple. Justified beliefs are reliably produced beliefs. Justified beliefs are worth having because justified beliefs are probably true. The view is a version of foundationalism because it allows us to distinguish two importantly different sorts of justified beliefs—those that result from belief‐independent processes and those that result from belief‐dependent processes. The former are beliefs that are produced by “software” of the brain that takes as its “input” stimuli other than beliefs; the latter are beliefs produced by processes that take as their input at least some other beliefs. So, for example, it is possible that we have evolved in such a way that when prompted with certain sensory input, we immediately and unreflectively reach conclusions about external objects. And we may live in a world in which beliefs produced in such a way are usually true. Crude versions of reliabilism will regard such beliefs as noninferentially justified. Many of our beliefs, of course, result, at least in part, from prior beliefs we hold. We deduce and nondeductively infer a host of propositions describing the world in which we live. Again, on the crudest version of reliabilism, these belief‐dependent processes are reliable when the “output” beliefs are usually true provided that the input beliefs are true.

There are a host of questions that a reliabilist must answer in developing the details of the view. In the crude summary provided above we characterized the reliability of a belief‐independent process in terms of the frequency with which its output beliefs are true. But it takes little imagination to construct counterexamples to this naive a version of the view. Temporary paranoia might cause me to form two, and only two, beliefs about the malicious intentions of my friends, both of which happen to be true. But it hardly seems plausible to suppose that this coincidence makes for a 100 percent reliable belief‐forming process. Minimally, the reliabilist will turn to counterfactuals about the frequency with which output beliefs would be true were the process to produce indefinitely many of them. 9

If we settle the question of how to define reliability, we still need to determine whether the relevant concept of reliability should be relativized to circumstances. It seems obvious that a belief‐forming process might be entirely reliable in one environment, quite unreliable in another. Intuitively, even if the process nets us a majority of true beliefs, we don't want to concede that its operation in the “wrong” environment will result in justified beliefs. The obvious solution would be to define noninferential justification for a given believer in a given environment: S is noninferentially justified in believing P in C at t when S's belief that P in C at t is produced by a belief‐independent process that is reliable in C at t.

While perhaps the most influential, reliabilism is only one version of the externalist alternatives to traditional foundationalism. Armstrong ( 1973 ), for example, suggests the closely related view that some beliefs are noninferentially justified (basic) when they register accurately their subject matter the way an effective thermometer registers accurately the temperature. Although he would resent the suggestion that he is offering a theory of epistemic justification at all, Plantinga ( 1993 ) defines a concept of warrant in terms of beliefs produced by a cognitive apparatus that is properly functioning. He has his own distinctive theistic suggestion for how to understand proper function, but invites allies to try to define the notion in naturalistic terms (for example, in terms of evolutionary history). Plantinga's view is also a version of foundationalism because he holds that properly functioning belief‐producing mechanisms need not involve inference from justified belief.

The most striking feature of most versions of externalism is the way in which they open the door to the possibility of a vastly expanded class of noninferentially justified beliefs. According to the reliabilist, for example, it is never impossible for any belief to acquire noninferential justification. No matter what I believe, it is always in principle possible that the belief is produced by a reliable belief‐independent process. There might be a God who unbeknownst to me causes me to believe with complete conviction a host of true propositions and never causes me to believe a proposition that is false. Such divine inspiration would be a paradigm of a reliable belief‐forming process and the resulting beliefs would all be noninferentially justified. According to the reliabilist, whether or not a given belief is justified depends entirely on whether we are fortunate enough to live in a world in which our cognitive mechanisms produce in us beliefs that are largely successful in getting at the truth.

It is tempting to suppose that externalist versions of foundationalism only delay skeptical problems. Many externalists themselves seem to allow that one can legitimately worry that one has justification for believing that first‐level beliefs are justified. But it is another interesting (some would argue odd) feature of views like reliabilism that there really is no greater problem securing second‐level justification than there is for securing first‐level justification. If, for example, beliefs about the past produced by memory result from reliable belief‐independent processes, then the view implies that beliefs about the past are noninferentially justified. But if beliefs about the past are noninferentially justified then I can easily justify my belief that they are justified. All I need to do is remember that certain beliefs about the past turned out to be true when I relied on memory and employ a standard inductive argument to generalize that beliefs produced in this way are usually true. Of course the classic foundationalist will shudder at this shocking indifference to begging the question. They will protest that one cannot use memory to justify one's belief that memory is reliable! But if reliability really is the essence of justification, it's not clear why one can't study memory using memory to get justified beliefs about its reliability. The investigation into which belief‐forming processes are or are not reliable seems more a task for the cognitive psychologist than for the philosopher, but then perhaps this is why some contemporary epistemologists attempt to straddle the boundary between philosophy and empirical science.

Criticisms of Externalist Foundationalism

If classical foundationalism seemed to require too much in order for us to secure justified beliefs, externalist foundationalism strikes many as requiring too little. At least in a philosophical context, we are interested in having justification because we are interested in gaining a certain sort of assurance of truth. If we start to wonder whether our beliefs about external reality accurately represent that reality, it doesn't seem particularly useful to be told that we may have perfectly justified beliefs provided that they are produced in such a way that they usually accurately represent reality! The justification the philosopher seeks must be such that when one possesses it one's philosophical curiosity is satisfied.

If the primary dissatisfaction with externalism is the feeling that the traditional epistemological questions that have so interested philosophers have simply been redefined in such a way as to change the subject, there are also more technical objections that have been raised to the view. Perhaps the most striking involves a variation on a thought experiment used for a different purpose by Descartes. We'll illustrate the objection focusing again on reliabilism, but variations on the theme affect most externalist analyses of epistemic justification.

Consider a possible world (a kind of Matrix world) in which people are consistently and massively deceived with respect to external reality by a very powerful being. It seems intuitively plausible to suppose that the victims of demonic machination would have precisely the same sort of justification we have for believing (falsely as it turns out) what they do about the world around them. But by hypothesis the demon's victims' beliefs result from unreliable processes, while, we may suppose for the argument, our beliefs result from reliable processes. If the justificatory status of the demon‐world beliefs is the same as those of our world, then it just seems wrong to suppose that reliability is the essence of justification. Since his original paper advocating reliabilism, Goldman himself has struggled with how to respond to the intuitive force of this (and related) objections. After flirting (1986) with the idea of identifying the relevant reliability that defines justification as reliability in “normal” worlds (roughly, worlds in which certain fundamental beliefs we have about this world are true—whether or not they are true in the actual world!), Goldman ( 1988 ) eventually acknowledges two quite distinct concepts of justification: strong (defined by a hard‐core reliabilism in which we simply refuse to acknowledge that demon‐world inhabitants have epistemic justification) and weak (a less demanding concept of epistemic justification roughly defined in terms of meeting “community standards”).

Evidential Externalism

If one is convinced by the externalist that the traditional foundationalist has a concept of justification so demanding that it implies the implausible conclusion that the vast majority of our beliefs are unjustified, one might develop a kind of compromise. One might retain traditional foundationalism, replete with the principle of inferential justification, as capturing a kind of ideal epistemic justification that philosophers seek to attain, but which most people (and most philosophers, for that matter) fail to gain. To soften the blow, one might acknowledge a less demanding concept of epistemic justification that one might be able to satisfy through a kind of nonpropositional analogue of inference. Suppose, for example, that many of our beliefs about the external world are caused by the fact that we have had and are having certain sensations (together with a host of justified background beliefs, most of which remain dispositional). Suppose further that we rarely form beliefs about the character of these sensations, have long since forgotten many of the relevant past experiences (that nevertheless still exert their causal influence), and, of course, rarely, if ever, consciously construct some argument for the ordinary beliefs and expectations we constantly form about the world around us. The facts about sensations that causally contribute to our beliefs about the world are also truth‐makers for propositions (whether we entertain the propositions or not) and it might be the case that the conjunction of propositions made true by the causes of our belief, together with the enormous structure of propositions dispositionally believed that form our epistemic “background,” do make probable (via some sort of legitimate reasoning the epistemologist struggles, usually in vain, to uncover) common‐sense, everyday beliefs. Perhaps we can acknowledge a kind of “unreflective” epistemic justification that we might possess provided that our internal states (including dispositional beliefs and noncognitive states like sensation) satisfy the conditions described above.

Susan Haack ( 1993 ) develops a version of this view but takes a very liberal attitude with respect to what proposition we can employ as the propositional counterpart to sensation. She seems to suggest that we can take the relevant proposition describing a sensation to be one that describes it as the sensation usually produced by a certain physical object under certain conditions. Even if the skeptic allows us a less demanding concept of epistemic justification, that skeptic will no doubt balk at the suggestion that we can take evidential connections between propositions formed this way to be the truth‐makers for claims about epistemic justification. One does need criteria for choosing the propositional counterparts of sensations playing their causal role, but if it is facts that are both causes and truth‐makers for propositions, one can identify the relevant evidential proposition that corresponds to a sensation as the one made true by the fact about the sensation that is causally efficacious in producing the belief in whose epistemic status we are interested.

The above account might seem to be only a minor variation on the concept of epistemic justification defined by reliabilism. Whether this is so depends on how one understands evidential connections. If making probable is a kind of quasi‐logical relation holding between propositions (perhaps even holding necessarily) then the concept of unreflective justification sketched above will be able to resolve the demon‐world objection to reliabilism. The internal causes of belief in the demon world are, by hypothesis, the same as the internal causes of belief in “normal” worlds. The evidential propositional counterparts to the sensory states will be the same, and the justificatory status of the resulting beliefs will be the same. Of course, there may (relative to what we know reflectively) be no evidential connections between the propositions that form our justified background beliefs, the propositions made true by sensation, and the propositions that constitute the conclusions of our common‐sense beliefs, but should that be the case, skepticism wins the day both with respect to demanding and undemanding concepts of epistemic justification.


While the evidential externalist I discussed above is prepared to distinguish more and less demanding standards of justification, the contextualist , for example, Annis ( 1978 ), allows for standards to “float” where the requirements for justified belief are determined in part by the context of inquiry. Recent versions of the view are most often accounts of knowledge. So, for example, Lewis ( 1996 ) suggests that S knows that P when S has a true belief that P where S's evidence eliminates all relevant alternatives to P. What makes the view contextualist is that relevancy is determined by context, including such subjective factors as whether or not the believer is taking seriously the possibility of an alternative. The view is supposed to have the virtue of accommodating both common sense and skepticism—knowledge claims in ordinary contexts will remain true, while in philosophical contexts the skeptic is likely to win the day by forcing us to consider (and thus make relevant) various skeptical scenarios. An analogous view about requirements for justification might allow that one only needs justification for believing certain premises crucial to our reaching conclusions when these background beliefs come under challenge. In ordinary contexts where everyone is happy to allow the truth of our premises and the legitimacy of our reasoning, we can get justified beliefs without having to do what would be necessary were these to come under skeptical challenge.

There is, no doubt, a grain of truth in the contextualist's account of our ordinary, everyday assessments of justification and knowledge. In the context of assessing the justification available for accepting a scientific theory, one simply doesn't worry about the justification we have for believing in the existence of a past or an external world. We assume in the context of such a discussion that we have certain knowledge and that certain forms of reasoning are legitimate, and go on to ask whether on these assumptions, we can legitimately infer the truth of the theory in which we are interested. Philosophers themselves often raise certain objections to common sense beliefs in one philosophical context, only to assume the truth of those very beliefs in a different philosophical context. 10 Monks debating some esoteric proposition concerning the details of their theology may well take for granted the reliability of the Old Testament as a source of truth, presumably knowing full well that should they end up debating an atheist they would need to take a quite different approach.

None of this seems to provide any real support for an interesting form of contextualism, either about knowledge or justification. That we will often “bracket” one set of issues in the context of addressing another, that we will often be interested in seeing what follows from a given set of assumptions, setting aside our ability to “satisfy reason” with respect to those assumptions, is perfectly compatible with our recognizing that in the end our reasons for accepting our conclusions are never really any better than our reasons for accepting the host of background assumptions that remain in the background until we decide to focus our attention upon them. 11


Despite the radical differences among the traditional foundationalists and their more recent externalist counterparts, members of both camps typically share a common conception of the foundational structure of epistemic justification—they are common allies in the fight against coherence theories of epistemic justification.

The coherence theorist rejects the foundationalist's conception of justification as linear . Convinced that there is no escape from the “circle of beliefs”, the coherence theorist argues that we must understand the epistemic justification for a belief in terms of the way in which the proposition believed coheres with other propositions believed. We can distinguish pure and impure coherence theories of justification. A pure coherence theory takes the justification of every belief to be a matter of coherence. An impure theory restricts the thesis to a subclass of beliefs. BonJour ( 1985 ), for example, defended a coherence theory of epistemic justification for empirical beliefs only, but there is nothing in principle to prevent a coherence theorist from restricting the theory to an even more narrow subclass of beliefs.

The vast majority of philosophers who support a coherence theory of justification take the relevant beliefs with which a given justified belief must cohere to be those present in a single individual. What justifies S in believing P is that P coheres with some set of propositions that S occurrently or dispositionally believes (or would believe were S to reflect in a certain way). What justifies you in believing P is P's coherence with other propositions you do or would believe. But while epistemic justification relativized to an individual's belief system is the norm for coherence theories, one finds at least some interest in what we might call a social coherence theory. Roughly, the idea is that what justifies S in believing P is a matter not just of what S believes, but of what others in the community believe. A very crude social coherence theory of epistemic justification might hold that S is justified in believing P only if P coheres with the propositions believed by all or most members of S's community. Because one can distinguish as many different communities as one likes, epistemic justification on this view must always be relativized to a given community. For simplicity, we will focus on the kind of coherence theories that relativize epistemic justification to an individual's belief system, but most of what we say will apply mutatis mutandis to other versions of the view.

Once we are clear about which beliefs a given belief must cohere with in order to be epistemically justified, we'll need more information from the coherence theorist about what constitutes coherence. Often the coherence theorist will begin by claiming that coherence must minimally involve logical consistency, but go on to concede that consistency is far too weak a requirement to constitute the mainstay of coherence. One can imagine a person with a thousand beliefs, none of which have anything to do with any of the others but where each proposition believed is consistent with the conjunction of the others. Such a belief system hardly seems a paradigm of coherence, and we would be reluctant to concede that each has epistemic justification.

In an interesting argument, Foley ( 1979 ) has argued persuasively that consistency among the propositions one believes is not even a necessary condition for the beliefs' being justified. Focusing on lottery‐type situations, Foley argues that we can easily think of a set of inconsistent beliefs each of which is perfectly justified. If there are a thousand people in a lottery that I know to be fair, I can justifiably believe of each participant that he or she will lose and also justifiably believe that not all of them will lose. None of these beliefs is logically consistent with the conjunction of the rest, but each is justified. So the coherence theorist is wrong to tell us that a belief of ours is epistemically justified only if it is consistent with the rest of what we believe. A closely related problem concerns the possibility of admitting into one's belief system a necessary falsehood F. If one believes even one necessary falsehood, then none of one's beliefs will be consistent with the rest of what one believes; the conjunction of a necessary falsehood with any other proposition is itself a necessary falsehood. It seems more than a little harsh, however, to let one philosophical or mathematical error of this sort destroy the possibility of there being any epistemic justification for believing any proposition.

Coherence theorists are wary of requiring too much for the coherence of a belief system. So, for example, one might initially suppose that a model of a coherent belief system might be one in which each proposition believed is entailed by the conjunction of the rest. But one might also worry that such a requirement is far too difficult to come by. In one sense, however, the worry is misplaced. It is actually extremely easy to satisfy the requirement. Indeed, if we include dispositional beliefs, I can confidently claim to have a belief system in which each of my beliefs is entailed by the rest of what I believe. And the same is, or should be, true of everyone who has taken and remembers a course in elementary logic. One of the truth‐functional connectives we all learned was material implication. As long as we know its truth functional definition, we know that if P is true and Q is true then it is true that P materially implies Q and true that Q materially implies P. Consequently, I assume that if we believe P and believe Q, we will also believe (at least dispositionally) that P materially implies Q and that Q materially implies P. But then for any two propositions P and Q that I happen to believe, there will be in my belief system propositions entailing each. P will be entailed by (Q and Q materially implies P) and Q will be entailed by (P and P materially implies Q). The coherence theorist will no doubt be tempted to reply that the belief in the conditionals is entirely parasitic upon the prior beliefs in P and Q, but once one abandons a linear conception of justification, it's not clear what sort of epistemic priority P and Q are supposed to have just because they may have preceded the belief that P is true if and only if Q is true.

Ironically, perhaps probabilistic connections provide a stronger “glue” for coherence than logical relations. So a coherence theorist is likely to claim that a system of beliefs increases its coherence the more the propositions believed stand in probabilistic connections with each other. Explanatory coherence theorists emphasize the importance of having a belief system in which one maximizes the number of propositions believed where one has within one's belief system propositions that can explain the propositions believed. It's difficult, however, to regard entailment as anything other than the limit of making probable, and if it is too easy to come by a belief system in which each proposition believed is entailed by the rest, it's hard to see how one can avoid the problem by emphasizing probability.

There are enough powerful arguments against coherence theories of justification that one need not turn to more problematic concerns. And some objections to a coherence theory do seem to miss the mark. So, for example, some seem to be concerned with the fact that the coherence theorist embraces a radical relativization of justification. But any plausible account of epistemic justification will acknowledge that one person S can be justified in believing P, while another R is justified in believing not‐P. The traditional foundationalist will no doubt trace the difference between the justificatory status of S and R's beliefs to differences in their memories of past experiences, but it is still the case that radical relativization of justification should be embraced as much by traditional foundationalists as by coherentists.

There is, perhaps, the vague concern that a coherence theory of justification makes one's choice of what to believe far too subjective. I want to know what to believe and the coherence theorist tells me to come up with a coherent set of beliefs. But for every coherent set of propositions I entertain, I can think of another set inconsistent with the first but just as internally coherent. Won't this make the epistemic choice of what to believe implausibly arbitrary? If a theory of justification is to give one guidance, and if one were to somehow start one's deliberations about what to believe with no beliefs at all, then it would seem that the coherence theorist gives one no advice at all concerning what to believe. But we are no doubt simply caused to believe firmly certain propositions, and given that we find ourselves with certain beliefs and are trying to determine whether or not to hold still others, it's not clear that the coherence theorist leaves us with no guidance.

A similar response can be made to those who worry that the coherence theorist cuts us off from the world that makes true or false our beliefs. Nothing in the theory, however, precludes the possibility of our beliefs being caused by features of a belief‐independent world. The epistemological coherence theory holds only that whatever the cause of our beliefs, their epistemic status is a function solely of coherence. 12

Perhaps the most devastating criticism of coherence theories was, ironically, put forth by BonJour in the course of defending the view. Earlier we talked about differences between internalists and externalists. One version of internalism (we might call it inferential internalism) insists that evidential connections between propositions believed does nothing to secure justification for the believer unless the believer has access to the fact that the evidential connections hold. We can then distinguish two radically different versions of coherentism. On one version, a belief is epistemically justified provided that it forms a part of a coherent belief system. On the other, a belief is epistemically justified provided that the believer is aware that (has a justified belief that) the belief coheres with the rest of what is believed. The first version of coherentism seems vulnerable to devastating counterexamples. If a person believes a set of propositions that cohere wonderfully when the person has no way of discovering the inferential connections, in what sense are the beliefs justified? Suppose, for example, that I decide to believe every proposition expressed by the fourth sentence of every paragraph in a very sophisticated physics text. Through a miraculous coincidence the propositions I believe cohere wonderfully. Each is made probable by some conjunction of the others. I, however, have no clue as to what the evidential connections are. Would anyone suppose that my good fortune translates into justification?

If we embrace instead access coherentism, then coherentists face the very regress that traditional foundationalists tried so desperately to avoid. To justifiably believe that our beliefs cohere we would need to know first what we believe and second that the propositions believed stand in the appropriate evidential relations. But as coherentists we have no foundations to fall back on. We can't just give ourselves privileged access to propositions describing our own belief states. Our only access to what we believe is through a coherence we discover between our belief that we have certain beliefs and the rest of what we believe. But to discover this coherence we will once again be forced to discover what we believe, and so on, ad infinitum. An equally vicious regress seems to plague any attempt to discover evidential connections. To justify our belief that a given evidential connection obtains, we would need to discover coherence between our belief that the evidential connection obtains and the rest of what we believe. But discovering that coherence would require that we discover another coherence between our belief about coherence and the rest of what we believe, and so on, ad infinitum.

The basic problem facing access coherence theorists is simple. As pure coherence theorists they have no business giving themselves unproblematic access to any facts about the internal or external world, or the world of logical connections. If there really is a “veil” of belief, then beliefs themselves are hidden from us by metabeliefs, which are hidden from us by metametabeliefs, and so on, ad infinitum. Whenever we attempt to get anything before our consciousness we are led on an endless goose chase toward higher‐ and higher‐level metabeliefs.

Mixed Theories

Susan Haack ( 1993 ), Roderick Chisholm ( 1989 ), Ernest Sosa ( 1991 ), and others have suggested that we don't need to choose between foundationalism and coherentism. We can incorporate elements of both. Haack's crossword puzzle metaphor is perhaps the most vivid illustration of the idea. In a crossword puzzle, we are given an initial clue that may lead us to a tentative conclusion about the correct entry in the puzzle. But it is only when our tentative entry “fits” with the other entries we try that we feel confident that we have the correct solution to the puzzle. According to Haack, experience provides a kind of foundational clue with respect to truth, but coherence (fit) is necessary to raise the level of initial credibility to that of epistemic justification. Sosa allows for a kind of animal knowledge resulting from reliable belief‐forming processes (where reliability is relativized to internal and external circumstances) but insists that it is only when one's belief that one has animal knowledge coheres with the rest of one's beliefs that we can turn animal knowledge into reflective knowledge. Although he is one of the most prominent foundationalists, Chisholm allowed that coherence (concurrence) among propositions believed might be one way to raise the epistemic status of those beliefs (69–71).

Such views obviously need to be evaluated carefully, but it is not clear that any concept of justification purportedly captured by the mixed theory cannot be captured by a more straightforward foundationalism. If we have foundational evidence E1 for P1, foundational evidence E2 for P2, and foundational evidence E3 for P3, then instead of insisting that it is coherence among P1, P2, and P3 that raises the epistemic justification for believing each one, why not simply claim that it is the conjunction of E1, E2, and E3 that constitutes a foundational justification for believing each of P1, P2, and P3, where the conjunction of evidence makes more probable P1, for example, than E1 does alone?

A survey of this sort can at best suggest the rich diversity of views about the nature of epistemic justification and the equally rich diversity of objections those views face. In illustrating many of these views and objections I have painted with a very broad stroke. Moreover, there are a host of interesting variations on the views I did discuss that have been defended by able philosophers one would have liked to mention in a survey of this sort. Painting with a broad stroke can still give one a useful “big” picture, and this is all I hoped to accomplish in the preceding remarks.

See Cohen ( 1984 ) for a defense of the idea that a connection to truth lies at the heart of epistemic justification.

We often speak of having some epistemic justification for believing a proposition in contrast with having justification simpliciter. One can have some epistemic justification for believing P when the justification does not even make P more likely to be true than not—it simply increases the probability of P's being true. In what follows I'll almost always be talking about justification as “all‐things‐considered justification” and will use the term in such a way that one has justification for believing P only if, all things considered, the justification makes P more likely than not to be true.

I have argued elsewhere that our understanding of the “ought” of practical rationality and morality is in fact parasitic upon our understanding of the epistemic ought. It is implausible to understand what it is rational or moral to do in terms of the actual consequences that would result from alternatives. Practical and moral reasons seem to have more to do with what one is epistemically justified in believing about consequences.

For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see Fumerton ( 2001 ).

The example may not be fair. It is far from clear that anyone really accepts as legitimate an argument whose premise describes a lifeline and whose conclusion describes length of life. Such arguments may always be enthymemes. The question then becomes whether it is still plausible to claim that one cannot justifiably accept the conclusion of any argument without justifiably believing that there exists the relevant connection between premise and conclusion. I think one can make the case that it is.

There is, however, nothing to prevent an acquaintance theorist from allowing that one can have noninferential justification for believing P that does not entail P's truth. It may be that one can be noninferentially justified in believing P in virtue of being directly acquainted with a fact very similar to, but ultimately different from the fact that P. For an attempt to develop this view in more detail see Fumerton ( 1985 ).

See, for example, Goodman ( 1978 ) and Putnam ( 1988 ).

One of the earliest attempts to construe probability as a relation that holds necessarily between certain propositions was Keynes ( 1921 ).

Or, one could replace talk of frequency in defining reliability with some other notion. Goldman toys with the idea of understanding reliability in terms of an undefined notion of propensity to produce true beliefs.

David Hume ( 1888 ), for example, attacked relentlessly the legitimacy of inductive reasoning and the rationality of belief in an external world, only to assume both in the context of investigating the subject matter of moral judgments.

For a more detailed discussion of contextualism see Moser 1985 , chap. 2.

There is also a coherence theory of truth that might seem a natural ally of the coherence theory of justification. The problems facing a coherence theory of justification, however, pale in comparison to those facing the coherence theory of truth. See Fumerton ( 2001 ).

Annis, David ( 1978 ). “ A Contextualist Theory of Epistemic Justification. ” American Philosophical Quarterly 15: 213–219.

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Cohen, Stewart ( 1984 ). “ Justification and Truth. ” Philosophical Studies 46: 279–296. 10.1007/BF00372907

Chisholm, Roderick ( 1989 ). Theory of Knowledge , 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice‐Hall.

Foley, Richard ( 1979 ). “ Justified Inconsistent Beliefs. ” American Philosophical Quarterly 16: 147–158.

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Fumerton, Richard ( 1985 ). Metaphysical and Epistemological Problems of Perception . Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

——. ( 2001 ). “Epistemic Justification and Normativity.” In Knowledge, Truth and Obligation: Essays on Epistemic Responsibility and the Ethics of Belief , ed. Matthias Steup. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

——. ( 2002 ). Truth and Correspondence . Boston: Rowman & Littlefield.

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——. ( 1986 ). Epistemology and Cognition . Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

——. ( 1988 ). “Strong and Weak Justification.” In Philosophical Perspectives vol. 2: Epistemology , ed. James Tomberlin , 51–69. Atascadero, Calif.: Ridgeview.

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Klein, Peter (1999). “Human Knowledge and the Infinite Regress of Reasons.” In Philosophical Perspectives , vol. 13, ed. James Tomberlin , 297–325.

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Moser, Paul ( 1985 ). Empirical Justification . Dordrecht: Reidel.

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——. ( 1993 ). Warrant and Proper Function . Oxford: Oxford University Press. 10.1093/oxfordhb/0195078640.001.0001

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Sosa, Ernest ( 1991 ). Knowledge in Perspective . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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justification in thesis

Over the years justification and significance of study has always been confusing to students especially the undergraduate students. I have seen lots of undergraduate research works that students write justification of the study thinking it was significance of the study. These mistakes are not only seen at undergraduate level but also with project supervisors.

        Justification of the study and significance of the study are always very important in all research works. There is no research work that does not contain significance of the study or justification of the study. The positioning might differ depending on the requirement or the format demanded by the tertiary institution a student finds his/her self. But the most important thing is that a student understands when and why having a significance of the study or justification of the study is very important.

        The justification of the study is mostly preferred by supervisors working with post graduate students during the MBA thesis or dissertation; though some supervisors still demand for justification of the study in place of significance of the study from their undergraduate students.

The Justification And Significance Of Study Nexus

The correlation between justification of the study and significance of the study is that they are both found on the chapter one of any research project work. We all know that all chapters one of any undergraduate research project work are numbered. You can see the position of justification and significance of the study as shown below:

Chapter one: Introduction

  • background of the study
  • statement of the problem
  • aim and objectives of the study
  • research questions
  • statement of the hypothesis
  • significance or justification of the study
  • scope of the study
  • limitation/delimitation of the study
  • operational definition of terms

You can see from the table of content for the chapter one of a complete project/research work; the significance of the study or justification of the study is at number 1.6 though it might change depending on the topic you are working on. It can also change depending on the department upon which the project is carried out. The table of content of the chapter one presented above is basically for the project topics under the education departments ; but those from other departments might differ especially those under history and international relations .

The Difference Between Justification And Significance Of The Study

The justification of the study is basically why a particular research work was carried out. What was the problem identified that made a student want to carry out such research work. Here you will also capture why the methodology was adopted and also why the experiment was conducted; could it be practical or scholastic purposes.

        The significance of the study is actually all about what was found during the research work. The findings could be the nature of the relationship between one variable and the other. This result will be gotten by the use of statistical tools like chi-square, correlation, regression, MANOVA, ANOVA etc; then you back it up with some empirical findings.

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A Systematic Theology of Justification

justification in thesis

The Meaning of Justification

1. Justification is judicial, not experiential.

Justification means to declare righteous, not to make righteous (in the sense of transforming one’s character to be righteous). It is a metaphor from the law court, where a judge pronounces someone as either guilty or not guilty. Paul contrasts condemning (pronouncing guilty) and justifying (pronouncing not guilty but righteous) in Romans 8:33–34: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” (cf. Rom. 5:18; 8:1). God “justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5) in that he legally declares ungodly people to be innocent and righteous—not in that he transforms ungodly people into godly people. 1

2. Justification includes forgiveness (Rom. 4:6–8).

When God justifies believing sinners, he forgives those sinners’ “lawless deeds” and covers their sins and no longer will count their sins against them.

3. Justification includes imputation (Rom. 4:1–8; 5:15–19).

Justification is a blessing because God imputes Christ’s righteousness to the believing sinner. God does not merely cancel a sinner’s guilt and declare that the sinner is innocent (neutral). God imputes Christ’s righteousness to the believing sinner’s account and declares that the sinner is righteous (positive). 2 That is why “the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works” experiences a “blessing” (Rom. 4:6; cf. Rom. 4:7–9): “As by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made [i.e., have the status of] righteous” (Rom. 5:19).

4. Justification is vertical, not horizontal (Rom. 1:17; 3:21–26; 9:30–10:13; et al).

Contrary to the New Perspective on Paul, justification is fundamentally about how sinful humans relate to the righteous God, not to other humans. It is primarily about soteriology, not ecclesiology. 3

The Need for Justification

5. Justification is necessary because all humans without exception are sinners under God’s condemning wrath (Rom. 1:18–3:20).

“None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). No one can stand before God as righteous on his or her own merits.

Justification ultimately glorifies God. A goal of justification is to enable guilty sinners to stand before the righteous God as righteous.

The Basis of Justification

6. Justification is based on God’s imputing Christ’s righteousness to believing sinners (Rom. 4:1–8; 5:15–19)—which is possible because of propitiation (Rom. 3:25–26) .

(On forgiveness and imputation, see statements 2–3 above.) How can God be a just judge (i.e., a judge who is morally right and fair) if he declares that guilty people are not only innocent but righteous? Because justification depends on propitiation—that is, Jesus’s sacrificial death propitiates God the Father. Jesus satisfies God’s righteous wrath against us and turns it into favor. We are justified by Jesus’s blood—that is, based on his sacrificial, substitutionary death (Rom. 5:9). The righteous God righteously righteouses the unrighteous. Justification vindicates God in justifying the ungodly because of propitiation.

Justification vindicates God in justifying the ungodly because of propitiation.

7. Justification is based on God’s imputing Christ’s righteousness to believing sinners (Rom. 4:1–8; 5:15–19)—which is possible because God raised Christ from the dead (Rom. 4:24–25).

God raised Christ from the dead to publicly vindicate him and thus take care of or confirm our justification. Charles Hodge infers from Romans 4:24–25 (and 1 Cor. 15:17), “The resurrection of Christ was necessary for our justification, inasmuch as it was the formal acceptance of his sufferings, as the expiation for our sins.” 4 John Murray similarly infers, “The resurrection of Jesus is viewed as that which lays the basis for this justification.” 5

8. Justification is based on God’s imputing Christ’s righteousness to believing sinners (Rom. 4:1–8; 5:15–19)—which is possible because of union with Christ (Rom. 3:24; 5:12–21; 8:1).

“Union with Christ,” Marcus Johnson observes, “provides the basis for our justification.” 6 This is related to the previous statements about propitiation and resurrection. Christ’s propitiation and resurrection benefit believing sinners because they are united to Christ. Brian Vickers ends his careful study of imputation by agreeing with J. Gresham Machen that there is no hope without Christ’s active obedience:

Christ’s fulfilling of all righteousness—his obedience to the Father’s will and commands in his role as the second Adam, his sacrificial death, and his resurrection that vindicates the cross and ushers in a new eschatological era—becomes ours by faith in union with him. It is on this basis that a believer is reckoned righteous. 7

The Means of Justification

9. Justification is a gracious gift that sinful humans cannot earn (Rom. 2:5–16; 3:9–20, 24, 27–28; 4:1–5; 5:16–17; 9:30–10:5).

The means of justification is not our good works. We are justified δωρεὰν τῇ αὐτοῦ χάριτι—freely (i.e., as a gift, without payment) by his grace (Rom. 3:24). Sinners cannot merit a right standing before God based on their works, so they cannot boast before God (Rom. 4:2). Calvin infers a universal principle: “Whoever glories in himself, glories against God.” 8 “In every age of human history,” explain John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, “religion has answered that we can get to heaven by being good people. The various religious systems of the world concoct lists of rituals and ceremonies that must be performed to achieve a measure of righteousness that might avail in the courtroom of God.” 9 “A true view of justification,” asserts Grudem, “is the dividing line between the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone and all false gospels of salvation based on good works.” 10

10. Justification is accessible by faith alone in Christ alone (Rom. 1:17; 3:22, 25; 4:3–5, 9–25; 5:1–2; 9:30–10:13).

The means of justification is faith in Christ. Faith is instrumental. Being justified does not include works, and the object of faith does not include oneself or anyone else other than God in Christ: “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). John Piper remarks, “Romans 4:5 is perhaps the most important verse on justification by faith alone in all the New Testament.” 11

11. Justification occurs through redemption (Rom. 3:24).

We are justified “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). The human means of justification is faith; the divine means is redemption.

The Accessibility of Justification

12. Justification is accessible to everyone without ethnic distinction (Rom. 3:22–23, 29–30; 4:9–17; 10:11–13).

“There is no distinction between Jew and Greek. . . . ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Rom. 10:12–13).

The Results of Justification

13. Justification is now inseparably connected to freedom from the law (Rom. 3:19–21; 7:1–25; 9:30–10:13).

God’s people are now under the new covenant and not the Mosaic law-covenant. 12 Justification now fulfills the law (Rom. 3:21, 31; 8:4). The Old Testament prophetically testifies to the salvation-historical shift that occurred with Christ’s death that made the Mosaic law-covenant obsolete. Now God’s people uphold the law “by this faith” (Rom. 3:31).

14. Justification is inseparably connected to peace with God (Rom. 5:1).

While the justification metaphor is judicial, the reconciliation metaphor is relational. Before being justified, a sinner is God’s enemy and is under God’s wrath. After being justified, a sinner is God’s friend and has peace with God.

15. Justification is inseparably connected to the most deeply rooted and satisfying rejoicing (Rom. 5:2–11).

Those who are justified rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:2), in their sufferings (Rom. 5:3–10), and in God himself (Rom. 5:11). Justification is good news not primarily because God forgives our sins and we escape God’s wrath. Justification is good news primarily because it enables us to enjoy God himself. Piper explains:

Justification is not an end in itself. Neither is the forgiveness of sins or the imputation of righteousness. Neither is escape from hell or entrance into heaven or freedom from disease or liberation from bondage or eternal life or justice or mercy or the beauties of a pain-free world. None of these facets of the gospel-diamond is the chief good or highest goal of the gospel. Only one thing is: seeing and savoring God himself, being changed into the image of his Son so that more and more we delight in and display God’s infinite beauty and worth. 13

16. Justification is inseparably connected to progressive sanctification (Rom. 6:1–23).

For Roman Catholics, “faith + works → justification,” and for Protestants, “faith → justification + works” (where “→” means results in or leads to). 14 But even some Protestants—especially advocates of higher life theology—separate justification from transformation. 15 “The whole point of Romans 6,” though, is this: “God not only frees us from sin’s penalty (justification), but He frees us from sin’s tyranny as well (sanctification).” 16 “A major flaw” with how higher life theology interprets Romans 6 is that “Paul is not telling believers how a justified person can lead a holy life, but why he must lead a holy life.” 17

Progressive sanctification is distinct yet inseparable from justification. Faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone. God’s grace through the power of his Spirit ensures that the same faith that justifies a Christian also progressively sanctifies a Christian. As Jonathan Pratt states, “Fruit-bearing necessarily and inevitably flows from justification.” 18

17. Justification is inseparably connected to assurance that God will finish what he planned, accomplished, and applied (Rom. 8:28–39).

God planned to save his people— he foreknew and predestined them. God accomplished his plan through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. He applied his plan—he effectually called and justified his people. And God will finish what he started—he will glorify them. 19 Since God is for us, absolutely nothing can be against us (Rom. 8:31)!

The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls

The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls

Matthew Barrett

This collaborative volume of 26 essays explores the doctrine of justification from the lenses of history, the Bible, theology, and pastoral practice—revealing the enduring significance of this pillar of Protestant theology.

The Future of Justification

18. Justification is definitive and will be final when God publicly vindicates believers.

When God initially justifies a believer, that justification is definitive and once for all time. But it is private. When God resurrects believers in the future, he will publicly vindicate them at the last judgment. This is clearer in Galatians than in Romans, 20 but some passages in Romans could refer to that final justification (Rom. 2:13; 5:18; 8:30, 32–34). 21

The Goal of Justification

19. Justification ultimately glorifies God.

A goal of justification is to enable guilty sinners to stand before the righteous God as righteous. But that is not its ultimate goal. Justification occurs ultimately to glorify God. That is why Romans 1–8 ends by praising God for the results of justification—namely, that since God is for us, nothing can be against us (Rom. 8:31–39). That is why Romans 9–11 ends by praising God for his deep riches, wisdom, and knowledge regarding how he saves his people throughout history (Rom. 11:33–36). That is why the letter ends by praising God for his righteousness that is now manifested apart from the law-covenant and to which the Law and the Prophets testify (Rom. 3:21):

According to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25–27)

In short, “From him and through him and to him are all things”—especially our justification. “To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).

  • Cf. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics , ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 204–9.
  • Many Protestant theologians contrast forgiveness with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and then argue that forgiveness alone does not solve the plight of sinners (e.g., Grudem, Systematic Theology 725–26). That is not wrong, but Vickers explains, “It is biblically sound to think of forgiveness itself as a positive standing before God. The sacrificial texts in the Pentateuch, for instance, consistently refer to a person being forgiven as a result of sacrifices offered. . . . The Old Testament does not have a sense of ‘mere’ forgiveness, but often speaks exclusively in terms of forgiveness to describe what people need from God, desire from God, and what God promises to give or warns that he will withhold. Forgiveness is presented as that which is needed for a restored relationship with God.” Vickers qualifies, “There is a sense . . . in which we can speak legitimately of needing a ‘positive standing,’ and mean by that, something besides forgiveness when speaking of Christ’s fulfilling the role of second Adam.” Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness , 108, 200.
  • Cf. Andrew Michael Hassler, “Justification and the Individual in the Wake of the New Perspective on Paul” (PhD diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2011).
  • Hodge, Romans , 103.
  • Murray, Romans , 1:55–56.
  • Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 90. Johnson defends that thesis on pp. 90–114.
  • Vickers, Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness , 237; italics added. Cf. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation , 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 56–59. See also chap. 15, by David VanDrunen, in this book.
  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion , ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, LCC 20–21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 765.
  • MacArthur and Mayhue, Biblical Doctrine , 609.
  • Grudem, Systematic Theology , 722. One qualification: some world religions have aspects to them that are similar in some ways to sola fide and sola gratia. For a nuanced answer to the question “Is ‘salvation by grace through faith’ unique to Christianity?” see Timothy C. Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 135–61.
  • John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry , in Mathis and Taylor, Collected Works of John Piper, 3:181.
  • Douglas Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Wayne G. Strickland, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 319–76 (also 83–90, 165–73, 218–25, 309–15); Thomas R. Schreiner, 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law, 40 Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010); Jason S. DeRouchie, How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017), 427–59.
  • John Piper, God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself , in Mathis and Taylor, Collected Works of John Piper , 6:291.
  • John Gerstner, quoted in R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 155. For explanations and evangelical critiques of how Roman Catholicism understands justification, see R. C. Sproul, Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2012), 29–50; J. V. Fesko, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 349–87; Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 431–45; Schreiner, Faith Alone , 209–38. See also chap. 24, by Leonardo De Chirico, in this book.
  • On higher life theology, see Andrew David Naselli, No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2017).
  • John MacArthur, Faith Works: The Gospel according to the Apostles (Dallas: Word, 1993), 121.
  • William W. Combs, “The Disjunction between Justification and Sanctification in Contemporary Evangelical Theology,” DBSJ 6 (2001): 34.
  • That is the (persuasive) thesis of Jonathan R. Pratt, “The Relationship between Justification and Spiritual Fruit in Romans 5–8,” Them 34, no. 2 (2009): 162–78.
  • See John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955). The title of that excellent book could be even better by adding the verb planned—that is, Redemption Planned, Accomplished, and Applied.
  • See Douglas J. Moo, Galatians , BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 60–62.
  • See Beale, New Testament Biblical Theology , 469–526, esp. 498–504; Schreiner, Faith Alone, 153–57.

This article is adapted from The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective edited by Matthew Barrett.

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justification in thesis


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