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Justification, what distinguishes a good justification from a bad one?

Justification is a fact, reason, explanation, or circumstance that defends a statement or a theory. Although there is no single definition agreed upon, knowledge is justified true belief. As Richard van de Lagemaat said, “In order for you to be able to say you know something you must be able to justify your belief.” You can justify your knowledge claim by appealing to one of the four ways of knowing, which are language, perception, reason, and emotion. So the question is what distinguishes a good justification from a bad one? Although justification is not infallible, reliability is what distinguishes a good justification from a bad one.

Before looking at what a good justification is, we must first look at what the truth is. The truth is what distinguishes knowledge from belief. Believing something does not make it true because the truth is independent of what anyone thinks or believes. If you believe something, it may or may not be true, but when you know something, then your claim must be true. Even if everyone believes something is true, it may still be false.

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For example, when everyone in the Middle Ages believed that seven planets orbited the Earth, they were proved wrong as scientists later discovered that there are nine planets that orbit the Sun. In 2006, what was believed as the truth by many at that time, turned out to be false as they discovered that Pluto does not orbit the Sun. This “true” statement in the future may also be proven wrong, and as a result, it is really hard to be certain of the truth.

When you believe something, you are accepting that it is true and that it exists. If you claim to know something, it must be true and you but must believe it to be true. Belief is knowledge if the belief is true, and if the believer has a justification. But when it comes to knowledge, belief is a subjective requirement. Being subjective means that along with facts you put personal opinions and feelings into an argument, which may then make your argument biased and even invalid. When it comes to the number of planets orbiting the Sun, whether or not I believe it, does not change the fact that it is true.

Unlike belief, justification is required when it comes to knowledge. Even though you may have true belief, in order to be able to say that you know something you must be able to justify it, and not every justification is acceptable. What really distinguishes a good and acceptable justification from a bad one is mainly reliability. For the justification to be accepted, the source has to be constantly good in quality and performance and dependable that it gains the people’s trust. An example of a reliable source could be the New York Times, because I have been reading it for many years and can trust the information in it. A claim that turned out be true by luck does not qualify as knowledge.

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So when a person claims that he truly believes that there are eight planets orbiting the sun but he does not justify it, then he cannot claim he knows it. Or if he justifies it by stating that he dreamt about it, then he still does not know it for a fact because his justification is unacceptable and unreliable. But when I justify my true belief, that there are eight planets orbiting the Sun, by stating that I am a scientist who has been observing the planets in the Solar System for the past 20 years and after heavy research, I came up with the conclusion, then I have an acceptable justified true belief.

Whether you are justified or not in saying you know something also depends on the context. For example, if I claim to know that my cousin Ahmed is in the next room playing P.S.3 because I saw him going there and I could hear the sounds of a game being played, but still there is a possibility that the person who I saw is Ahmed’s twin brother.

One way to justify your knowledge claims is through language. Language could be looked at as acquiring knowledge from other people by talking to them or by reading it somewhere. As you may well know, not everything you are told or you read is true. So acquiring knowledge through language is not always reliable or a good justification. Even if the knowledge comes from the authority, it is still may not be a reliable source.

It is really hard to claim I know something regarding a celebrity by using the knowledge I acquired from a tabloid magazine, because those types of magazines are considered unreliable sources by many including me. But, I can claim I know something regarding a celebrity by acquiring knowledge from his/her mother or their autobiography. Although they are not the most reliable sources, they are at least believable and trusted more than tabloid magazines. The point is that there is always the possibility of the information being false no matter how reliable the source is, especially when it comes to language, as it is second-hand knowledge.

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Another way to justify your claim is through perception. Knowledge acquired from perception is based on your senses and personal experience. Perception can be a very reliable source, however, our senses may deceive us sometimes. For example, when a person witnesses a crime, and they are asked about it later, they may give false information even though they believe what they said was the truth. Another example is when I see an illusion and I assume with all certainty that what I saw was supernatural or magic.

Still, perception is a more reliable source of knowledge than language. Although sometimes you can doubt yourself and wonder if what you believe you saw actually happened or not, you can use support your beliefs with evidence and be able to consider and respond to any criticisms against your views. Richard Lagemaat and I agree that life is too short to be skeptical about everything, so you should only doubt things when it is appropriate.

Many philosophers agree that reason gives us a greater certainty than perception. And although the reason is the best way to justify a claim, it still could have many errors. You can use reason to justify your claim by supporting it with a good amount of evidence. When it comes to forming a justified true belief you should not only look for evidence that favors and supports your claim, but also evidence that goes against it.

Another thing that is required when it comes to using reason or the other ways of knowing is coherence. You should make sure that your belief and the evidence that justifies it “fit in” with the current understanding of things. I can use reasoning to justify my claims in Mathematics and in Natural and Human Sciences.

You can also justify your claim through emotions. Your emotions can affect your perception of things, the language you use, and your reasoning. For example, when I am angry I will probably use offensive language and will feel that everything is annoying and out to get me. And because they affect the other ways of knowing, some see emotions as an obstacle to knowledge while others believe that they are sources of knowledge.

In some cases those who hold their religion with too much passion, their emotions can prevent them from being open-minded people. At the same time, emotions can also provide us with the energy to pursue knowledge. Physiologist Antonio Damasio speculates that emotions are sources of knowledge and they help us make rational decisions about things. Some Areas of Knowledge like Ethics require emotions to give us a better understanding of the truth.

Emotions are unreliable because like opinions, each person has his or her own. It is really difficult to justify your claims using your emotions because what would seem obvious to you may not be obvious to others, but balancing emotions and reasoning at the same time might help in the justification. In some cases, emotions could help us understand the truth better. For example, my emotions could help me understand what the artist was trying to express through his painting. Although the ability to come up with new ideas requires a certain amount of genius it also needs persistence.

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Edmund Gettier and other philosophers disagree with the claim that knowledge is a justified true belief. They argue, by using counterexamples, that in some cases beliefs are both true and justified but do not appear to be genuine cases of knowledge. In response, other philosophers, like Richard Kirkham, argued that knowledge is justified true belief if, and only if, the justification is infallible and infeasible.

You can claim to know something if your true belief is justified. Beliefs, emotions, claims, laws, theories, and actions can all be justified, but whether it is a good justification or a bad one depends on reliability. You can also use words, diagrams, and mathematics to improve on your justification.

No matter which of the four ways of knowing you are using to justify your knowledge claims, you should remember that they are not infallible and they are not always reliable sources of knowledge. Even if your sources are reliable, that does not mean they are the truth. Knowledge tools can both contribute to our knowledge and be an obstacle to it. We need to test them against one another when trying to establish the truth. Only time could tell what is the truth. Because as technology develops, new discoveries have proved what was believed to be the truth for thousands of years is wrong.


1.Theory of Knowledge by Richard van de Lagemaat








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Justification, what distinguishes a good justification from a bad one?. (2021, Sep 24). Retrieved August 8, 2022, from