Reasons vs. Causes

Reasons vs. Causes

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Reasons vs. Causes
•     Reasons tell us why we ought to believe (do) something. Causes tell us why we in fact do believe (do something).
•     Reasons are normative, causes are factual.
•     Reasons justify, causes explain.

(Caution: the terms here are imprecise, and we use terms such as ‘explanation’ or ‘reason’ in different ways than just outlined.)
Example. Suppose I say: “I believe that there are no triangles.� You say “Why do you believe that?� You can be either asking for the cause of my belief or (more likely in this case) for my reasons for believing it.
Suppose that you are interested in the explanation of why (as a matter of fact) I hold the belief. I may tell you (truthfully) that I hold this belief because my father told me so (perhaps kept saying so), so I kind of have come to hold the belief by default, as it were. In doing so I make no pretense to argue that this is a reason – I may in fact believe that my father holds many false beliefs. I am only claiming that as a matter of fact this is how I came to believe that there are no triangles. I’ve told you what the cause is, not what my reasons are.
Suppose that you are interested in the justification of my belief. You want to know why a(ny) rational person should think that there are no triangles. Prima facie, you might add, there are reasons to believe quite the contrary. Look around you – there are triangles everywhere. And, you might cinch your argument by drawing one like that: There is at least one triangle. This one (you point). And you can draw others . . . So, triangles exist! (Here is what I will say to you and what I will say to you will provide a reason for my believing that there are no triangles:) The problem is that no matter how perfect your triangle might appear, it never will conform to the standards of geometrical definition of a triangle. The sides of this triangle are not fragments of a straight line (if you look closely, the segments will turn out not to be “straight� at all but rugged. No matter how precise your instruments will be, when you get further and further down to the atomic level, you will have swarming electrons not straight lines! And if you sum the angles, they are not going to be exactly 180°.

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So there are no triangles, not ones that satisfy the geometrical definitions. (There might be triangle-like figures, but they are not triangles.) – I have thus provided you with a reason why I believe that there are no triangles. After you read what I said, you should see that this is a consideration that tells us not so much why I do in fact believe that there are no triangles but rather why I ought to believe that there are no triangles. Moreover, to the extent that the reason is a good one, it will tell us why any rational person ought to believe that there are no triangles.
Note that justification and explanation do not exclude one another. It may very well be that I in fact acquired the belief that there no triangles from my father – by accepting his word for it and not really investigating any alternatives. And it may also be that, upon reflection, I did find a justification for it – I did find reasons for the belief, one of which I outlined above.
There need not be anything wrong about that. Sometimes we may hold beliefs that are not justified and seek out to justify them later. Other times, we may come to believe things because we are convinced that they are justified, that there are good reasons for them.

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