Epistemology in the Age of 24-Hour Fingertip Media

“Suppose I tell you an alleged fact— that it rained last night in Jacksonville, FL. On the count of three, believe this fact. 1…2…3. What do you believe about last night’s weather in Jacksonville, and why?”

This experiment (presented to me in a discussion of the ethics and epistemology of Spinoza compared against Locke) is not really interested in causing any beliefs about past weather events, of course. It is meant to explore notions of what it means to “believe” a proposition about the world (and, possibly, what we consider “evidence”).

To avoid potential for perjury, evidence is sometimes entered into court “on information and belief.” That is, information has been given and someone believed it (it isn’t firsthand knowledge). But something more must be going on, as we obviously don’t merely believe anything we are informed of.

One question at stake is whether we choose our beliefs. This is difficult because philosophers use “belief” to describe the kinds of things which normal people count as knowledge: that there is a chair I am sitting on at this moment, that all triangles have 3 sides, that the sky is blue, that I like toast, etc. As well as the things normal people often describe as belief: whether there is an afterlife, whether it will rain tomorrow, whether a person is lying, etc. Some might argue there is a choice to be made in these second kinds of beliefs, but not in the first kind. I will depart from the epistemologists here because I have introduced my theme: Believing a proposition can be more complex than we take for granted.

This is all foundational to the issue we face in a world where nearly any information can be immediately accessed wherever we are: What do we believe, and why? Each information source is a filter, and must necessarily choose what to include or exclude, and so will—and can—only offer a single viewpoint on a subject. Every journalist’s work, every news network, every news blog, is a set of information with the implicit instruction: “Believe this.” In the past, we believed such sources in good faith. However, “information and belief” has become somewhat diluted of late. Largely as a result of a 2009 SCOTUS decision (Ashcroft v. Iqbal), there are very few pleadings entered in court “on information and belief” anymore. This is because the standard for a well-pleaded complaint was raised to require more than mere “information and belief” could provide. Should we raise the standard for the increasing number of pleas for our own judgment to something higher than “this is information- now, believe it”?

I think there a cautious-pragmatic approach that appeals for handling [perhaps not quite all] such information. The general premise is that the strength of the belief should be limited by both the demands of the belief and the evidence (supportive, absent, and contrary). So I may be free to believe that it rained last night in Jacksonville because I know that Jacksonville is a place where it rains with some frequency and no one has informed me that it did not rain there last night. However, I might be quite cautious to wager $5 on this fact until I obtain more evidence, and still more cautious and more demanding of evidence as that wager increases.


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