Can Belief Be Knowledge?


In the Western tradition, the relation between “belief” and “knowledge” has always been a confused one. Plato defined “knowledge” as “justified, true belief” but as Wittgenstein observed, one can never know if her belief is true.  Since Plato’s day, and more so since Wittgenstein’s, we have rather complicated the problem, so it takes even more untangling now than ever.

The distinction is important because we are tempted to use the words as synonymous in some subjects and different in others without clearly marking our intent. For instance, should you ask me if I am sure that I locked the car, and I reply, “I believe I did,” you might want to head back to double check. But should I recite the Christian Nicene Creed that begins, “I believe in one God, Father Almighty…” I am probably not intending a similar degree of doubt. The level of knowledge implied by the word “believe” is therefore often unclear. What would you make of an exchange in which you asked me if I thought something to be true and I replied that I believed it to be so? Am I using the word in the car-locking or the creedal sense? And even if the intent is clear, say as it is used in the Nicene Creed, what do we mean by our profession of belief? Are we saying that we know that there is one God, Father Almighty? That we think it? Trust it? Hope for it?

The question of meaning is easier when discussing knowledge. To know is to have a grasp of the truth. Plato considered knowledge a kind of remembering of the ideal forms of things through reasoning about their representations in reality. By this schema, “truth” is an absolute quality of the ideal and “knowledge” our imperfect grasp of it. Aristotle thought we made that abstract quality from multiple exposures to individual things that conveyed something of it to our minds. Both views advocated a dualism. That kind of bifocal view — we seek for our understanding to reflect imperfectly some other thing both real and elusive—is a constant feature of theories of knowledge, though they differ about what that elusive something is and therefore about how it is claimed as knowledge. The judgment that knowledge is always imperfect allows us to accept a lower standard of perfection in claiming it. It is almost never self-evident, certain, or Truth. Knowledge is truth claimed by a preponderance of the evidence. This standard of the courtroom demands that we subject our claims to knowledge to a continuing test of better evidence or better reasoning, so our claims are always provisional. We should not grow overly attached to the things we think we know, for we may have to revise them tomorrow. So to say, “I know this to be true” is also to imply, “But I may be proven wrong.” To remind myself of this lack of certainty, I call my knowledge claims judgments.

How different this approach seems from that dictated by my beliefs! We are often told that people will believe what they want to believe, and this throwaway comment is quite literally true. We are attached to our beliefs. We prefer them to beliefs professed by others. We don’t judge our beliefs to be true; we want them to be true. I think Plato used the term in connection with knowledge precisely to evoke that attachment to the true, the good, and the beautiful, but “to believe” is to already be invested: quite the opposite of the dispassionate ratiocinative process required for judgment to produce reliable knowledge.

I am certainly not denying all connection between belief and knowledge though. It is true that we are not required to believe what we know because of issues of emotional attachment versus judgment. I know the Pythagorean theorem is true. I hardly need or wish to believe it. But at the frontier of our knowledge is a hazy vista of reasonable possibilities that we cannot know, and to shape them as we desire is no bad thing, provided those desires do not contradict what we know. The argument for or against a deity is an obvious example. If knowledge is judgment by a preponderance of the evidence, it seems we might use logic and undifferentiated experience as evidentiary support for knowledge that there is or is not a deity. As I have argued before (on July 16th, September 11th, and December 29th of last year), this is hardly a coherence issue, so the principle of non-contradiction is not adequate to the task. No issue could be more clearly correspondence since here is a truth discoverable by all rather than created by each of us (We each create our own judgment, of course, but the thing we judge exists or doesn’t in our common reality). Of the correspondence proofs of judgment, authority held the field until its spectacular collapse in the Protestant Reformation. Though it still exercises power over belief, it is impotent in contributing to our knowledge on this issue because     religious authorities disagree on the nature of the deity they worship, and in the issue of authority as justification, disagreement shatters authority. Empiricism cannot work its magic on this question either, despite the efforts of a current crop of cosmologists (please see last week’s posting), and though one can be an expert on theology as a discipline of study, one cannot apply expertise to the core questions of theology. We are all on our own on this most important of questions. So how do we decide? The analogy to the courtroom serves us in this question, for there seems good reason to judge either position true. The logical arguments in favor, both cosmological and ontological, are easily accessible, but the scales seem fairly well balanced by the problem of evil. It is as though reality presented us with opposing lawyers offering perfectly convincing but contradictory arguments, leaving us with only circumstance to contrive a verdict. It is good to know the deeper arguments though none are decisive because this is certainly the one question worth exhaustive and sustained intellectual effort, and perhaps others find them more decisive one way or another than I. But I suspect most persons share my sense that the philosophical arguments are a wash. This standoff then must be resolved by two weaker warrants of knowledge. The first is the weakest correspondence proof of judgment, undifferentiated experience. We claim or deny knowledge of a deity simply because our own experiences are all we have available to form our decision. But if we are reduced to using this least powerful correspondence test of judgment to resolve this most powerful issue, we still must act. As William James says, in the absence of real knowledge to answer this question, we cannot refuse to decide. We must move forward into mystery. We face a fork in the road and cannot remain or return. So do we choose the path of fideism or of atheism? There is no other choice for even if agnosticism is  our knowledge decision, we must still live each day. Since Pragmatism bases its judgments on the “cash value,” the practical impact, of our actions, it seems to me a no-brainer that at this point we apply Pascal’s Wager to the equation and march confidently down the road of theism. But the problems with this view are troubling. First, we are changing the rules of knowledge if we judge by a preponderance of the evidence and then tamper with it to make our decision easier. Our judgment must be impartial and suspicious of this very temptation to skew the evidence. It is bad faith to become a Pragmatist simply because the issue under review is a difficult one. Secondly, Pascal’s Wager only becomes applicable when we cannot know the true situation, but Pragmatism reassures us that the psychological benefits of theism make it quite useful in this life; therefore, its usefulness makes it true. So where is the wager? To rig the game this way is cheating. So we return to our former position, scratching our head as we peer into the mists beyond the fork in the road, knowing we must move forward on this most essential of questions, even in our ignorance. So we choose either fork– to accept or reject the existence of a deity– based on belief, not knowledge. We believe what we want to believe, bearing in mind that classifying this issue as one of belief forces us to also face our attachment and affection for the choice we have made. This situation confirms St. Paul’s definition of faith: “the evidence of things not seen.”  What do we call “evidence” not provided by the senses? David Hume would call it belief. Believers call it faith. Unbelievers call it delusion, yet this too is what they want to believe rather than what they know.

It does puzzle me that some apparently rational folks are so enamored of their beliefs that they allow them to dominate and negate their knowledge. An obvious example would be the snake handling proofs of faith practiced by some fundamentalist Christian sects. Another example would be the denial of the dominant paradigm of the biological sciences, the theory of evolution by natural selection, while partaking of the products of the medical sciences whose work is deeply indebted to and interwoven with that theory.

In light of the culture we live in, it is also appropriate to ask if the reverse could work as well, if beliefs ever shape knowledge. The answer to that question differs. To a modernist schooled in correspondence and reliant on the kinds of proof of judgment correspondence requires, the answer is “no.” But since World War I, a strong and consistent argument has arisen that says all knowledge claims are based on beliefs. This postmodern theory bases its position firmly on the uniqueness of experience built upon a philosophical movement called phenomenalism that claims  we can never achieve objectivity, this the result of the perceptual filters through which we receive sense data about reality. While modernists weigh evidence and reasoning, postmodernists see both as so personally constructed, so biased by personal experience, culture, race, gender, or religion as to constitute a constructed reality in which perception, reasoning, emotion, imagination, and beliefs all stake their claims with equal persuasiveness. The arbitration of these supplicants for acceptance is the principle of non-contradiction, the simple alignment of claims to truth, goodness, and beauty so as to eliminate or minimize the reductio ad absurdum of claiming contraries as simultaneously true. Since the level of logical rigor involved is one of the issues to be arbitrated, we can expect and do see wide variability in the virtual circles of those who embrace postmodern thinking. As regards the two terms under discussion, we can simply draw an equal sign between knowledge and belief for these persons. Should they insist their beliefs are “true for me,” or that their beliefs are more true than their knowledge, or that the truth quotient of their beliefs may be measured by their passion in professing it, you might consider a polite withdrawal, for a condition of their virtual circle is that your views are decidedly yours with no claim upon their own. You should ask that they approach their own views with the same diffidence.

Enjoy this week.

S. Del


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