Are prima facie beliefs reasonable?

We live in a world that is not what it seems.

Before you think that I’ve gone off the deep end and started espousing wacky theories like Manichean-style dualism or the 9/11 Truth movement, let me be clearer about what I’m proposing: I think that we live in a world where purely prima facie beliefs – things we believe because they appear to be so “at face value” – are not inherently reasonable to hold.

This might sound fairly controversial at first glance (which makes it delightfully ironic to me), but hear me out. There seem to be many instances where the first examination of something will often be superficial and miss deeper layers of meaning. When I started thinking about this, tons of examples came to mind – so many, in fact, that I will only be able to touch on a few of them in this entry. (I might also have forgotten some; my mind was going rapid-fire when this thought sparked, and that’s the sort of moment when long-term retention goes out the window.)

One way in which prima facie beliefs may be unjustified deals with the correlation-causation fallacy non causa pro causa. A fine contemporary example of this is the debate over autism and vaccines, specifically the preservative (rarely used since 1999) called thimerosal (or thiomersal, if you live across the pond) that is a form of mercury. If you have ever ventured into any part of the blogosphere that covers autism (and I have), you will see members of the “mercury militia,” as they are sometimes caused, who will claim that their child (they are generally parents of autistic children) was doing just fine until they got a booster shot (many times the MMR vaccine is claimed to be the culprit), at which point their child regressed and was labeled autistic. They are so certain of this that no amount of reasoning about the nonexistent link between the two, the fact that thimerosal has decreased while autism rates have continued their upward trend, or the fact that ethylmercury, the form of mercury that thimerosal is, is excreted much faster than its toxic counterpart, methylmercury. (This is of course all in addition to the growing genetic evidence, but genetics has been implicated for several decades now, anyway.)

When you hear one of these parents speak, all the evidence they need is right in front of them: they saw a normal child regress after a vaccine, and that made them blame the vaccine. The reason that this is so entrenched (besides the rhetoric by individuals in the mercury movement) is because the conclusion seems so apparent – the parent will probably even say that they “saw it with their own eyes.” But the answer is not so obvious, and in fact the causation only seems to be so because the age when children start to regress (if they do in fact regress – not all children do) is the same age when they’re getting inoculations for various childhood diseases.

This is the case with a great deal of things that we think to be true, and it seems like it has almost always been such. We thought geocentrism was obvious – “Look, you can see the sun going from east to west, so it must be revolving around the earth!” – for a pre-modern example. Evolution might be another more recent example of this as well.

My point here is not to cast doubt on our human faculties – after all, we did eventually find out the truth below the surface on many of these such issues – but to suggest that some hesitance should be used when claiming beliefs to be prima facie. Even though some things might really be the way they appear to be (I don’t necessarily deny this), it is often the case that they are not, so presuming such seems to be a setup for failure. When we think something is obvious, that should give us pause to reconsider.

This also means that we must be more cautious when asserting ideas or notions to be “self-evident” – what we are getting at here is that we think the ideas so compelling that no one in their right mind would deny them. But of course it is rarely ever true that ideas are so obvious, and so asserting “self-evidence” is just a way of baldly asserting what one does not know.

There are still some things to work out, but I think that there is a reasonable amount of evidence pointing toward this as a useful heuristic. There may be areas where it does not work, but it is at least food for thought.


4 Responses to Are prima facie beliefs reasonable?

  1. Opus says:

    The problem is not, in my view, the prima facie state of a given idea. All ideas must pass through this state on the road toward validation or invalidation. The problem comes in when emotional commitments are made to ideas before they have undergone the validation process. Since most ideas are eventually either invalidated or at least never validated, such emotional attachments usually lead to entrenched error in the individual (or mass) consciousness. This functions so much like religious belief that disputes are treated as heresy. (The one who disagrees is not only mistaken but bad.) The basic problem is not the transient occupation of an idea in the prima facie state prior to validation but the premature, unjustified, or erroneous transition of an idea to the validated state in the mind of an individual or the general public.

    Kind regards,

  2. Brody says:

    I think emotional commitment is perhaps a part of it, but I see the bigger problem as not being aware of the potential danger in holding prima facie beliefs without further investigation (e.g. assuming that if something seems to be obviously true, it is). I don’t even necessarily think that this becomes a matter of dogmatism; rather, the attitude toward the “self-evidence” of a given position just functions to shut down inquiry. But otherwise, I think we agree on the matter.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. russcannon says:

    (Replying with my new WordPress account.)

    We may be further apart than you think. Prima facie is a perfectly valid state for an idea to be in. Indeed, virtually all ideas begin there. The problem is not the prima facie state of a given idea but the error in reasoning of a given person.

    Kind regards,

  4. Brody says:

    But the problem isn’t merely having prima facie beliefs; it’s about maintaining them because they are prima facie. To restate, I am asserting that we have enough evidence of prima facie beliefs that are wrong and which we discovered were false only after further examination, so maintaining such beliefs on the basis that they seem obvious without regard for further verification (or validation, to use your term – although if prima facie beliefs are “perfectly valid,” why the need to validate them further?) seems to be unreliable. They may be a good starting point, I’ll grant you, but only if there is something that continues from that point.

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