The world was created by an omnipotent and omniscient being

Some people, let's call them 'theists', believe the proposition expressed here. Others, atheists, disbelieve it. Others, agnostics, are not sure whether or not to believe it so they have suspended judgement until such time as they acquire sufficient evidence (or faith) to support a belief either way. These three positions probably cover most adults in our society. But consider the position of most pre-school children. They do not believe that a deity made the world. They do not believe that a deity didn't make the world. However, it would not be accurate to say that they have suspended judgement on the issue. For they have not considered the issue, indeed they are probably too young to understand the claim that is the subject of debate. Of course, when assessing an argument's soundness and rational persuasiveness, the stance of having no opinion about the truth of the premises is not an option for critical thinkers. Either we consider ourselves to have sufficient evidence to believe or disbelieve the proposition expressed by the premise(s) or we recognise that we lack such evidence, and suspend judgement until such evidence is available. And even if we believe the argument to be inductively sound, we may find that having accepted its premises, the argument is not rationally persuasive for us because its conclusion is defeated by some further evidence that we have.

It is crucial to bear in mind that in saying that someone does not hold a certain belief, we are not saying or implying that they hold the opposite belief. If someone tells you that they don't believe that the Prime Minister is a bad person, they are not thereby saying or implying that they believe that the Prime Minister is not a bad person, let alone that the Prime Minister is a good person. They may not know the Prime Minister very well and may want to learn more about the Prime Minister before making a judgement, or they may simply not care and have no intention of ever forming a belief about the Prime Minister's moral standing. Or perhaps they have never even heard of the Prime Minister. As we saw in Chapter 4, an argument that assumes that someone who does not believe a proposition believes its negation commits a version of the epistemic fallacy.

Of the four stances we can take towards a proposition - believing it, not believing it, suspending judgement, not engaging with it -two, believing and not believing, admit of degrees. Smith and Jones may both believe that the Conservative Party will form the government after the next general election, but they may not hold the belief with the same degree of confidence. Smith may be nearly certain, whilst Jones, an arch-sceptic when it comes to predicting voting behaviour, still believes it but to a lesser degree. Similarly Jack and Jill may both disbelieve the proposition that the Conservative Party will form the next government, but the strength of Jack's disbelief may be such that he'll bet two weeks' wages at odds of 20 to 1 on a Conservative defeat. Whereas Jill, normally a keen betting woman, would not risk nearly as much money (if offered the same odds).

Given that someone holds a certain belief, we can ask whether or not the belief is justified, and whether or not it is true. Suppose Smith works for a national polling organisation and has seen the results of several methodologically sound top-secret polls that predict the Conservative Party will gain 80 per cent of the vote on election day. In the absence of any evidence that goes against that prediction, Smith is in possession of an argument that is highly rationally persuasive for him. He would thus be well-justified (other factors such as the reliability of the data notwithstanding) in believing the conclusion of the argument with a strong degree of certainty. As critical thinkers we may conclude that Smith's belief is reasonable or justified given what we know about the evidence available to him. Whenever someone's belief is backed by an argument that is rationally persuasive for them, it follows that they are justified in believing the conclusion, precisely to the extent that the argument is rationally persuasive for them.''

However, the fact that Smith seems perfectly rational and justified in holding this belief does not establish that the belief is true. That depends upon whether the Conservative Party do in fact form the next government. A belief's being true is a matter of its fitting the facts, not of there being good reasons to think that such-and-such is the case. We see this clearly when we consider the possibility of being justified in holding a belief that is actually false. Suppose I form the belief that the government has just been deposed in a military coup. I am led to form this belief because, while writing this chapter, I have been distracted into reading electronic newspapers and I find the same story appearing on several previously reliable and reputable internet sites. I track down one or two colleagues, they look at their own favourite sites and, sure enough, find the same story. Given the widespread coverage of the coup and the fact that the sources are reliable and reputable, I would be justified in believing that the government had been deposed by a military coup. But in fact, despite my good reasons for having formed this belief, it turns out to be false. A clever computer hacker has managed to hack into several UK-based internet news services and post this false story. So I have a

6 This is not to say that a belief is justified only if one has a rationally persuasive argument for it. According to many theorists, some beliefs, especially those that arise in perception, are justified but not 'inferentially' - not, that is, by means of arguments or reasoning. Others deny this, holding that even the justification of perceptual beliefs depends upon underlying premises or assumptions. Since this is a fundamental open question in the theory of knowledge (epistemology), we have avoided taking a stand on it here. For further discussion see Robert Audi, Epistemology A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1997).

justified but false belief. I may be in possession of an argument that is rationally persuasive for me, but my belief in its conclusion still need not be true.

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