Knowledge, Trust, and Belief


  • Knowledge, trust, and belief are terms signifying different kinds of epistemic confidence.
  • Possessing knowledge relies upon an adequate warrant, which is foundationally rational, proof of which can be discovered by a closer examination of the operations of preferential freedom.
  • Assertions rely upon abstracting moments of experience, examining them in light of prior experience, and passing them through the perceptual wall to conceptualize; this process is easily automated even though such preconscious operations possibly distort reality.
  • Claiming knowledge is only a preliminary to using it to seek what we think good, but because natural freedom presents its options simultaneously with its experiential truth, choosing goods can be automated as well.
  • The question remains: which preferential acts ought to be automated and which made conscious, and this resolves to examination of utility and morality.
  • Many of our choices are structured as issues of hypothetical utility: we determine both which goods we want and how to achieve them through undistilled experience, but it is also possible to have determined the goods in advance of the experience in which we might seek them; these are categorical or moral goods.
  • Categorical goods require long-range goals while hypothetical goods allow pragmatic choosing, but the temptation of pragmatism is to hasten the judgment of the true so as to pursue the good we think it might offer; this premature closure potentially results in distortions or automations of determining knowledge with consequent distortions of the possible goods that undistilled experience identifies.
  • The motive for both categorical choosing and premature closure is desire; the difference involves the relation of desire to the act of preference: categorical choosing defers desire until after rational judgment since the good we seek is determined in advance of the situation in which it might be sought, so desire is directed to the moral good rather than hastening the determination of a pragmatic one; this premature closure fosters distortion by making knowledge determinations coterminal with the goodness determinations presented preconsciously to natural freedom.
  • The alternative to premature closure is the act of severance, which finalizes knowledge determinations before allowing preferential freedom to operate; this process is the great strength of the empirical sciences and has generally failed to operate in the human sciences, which have always pursued empirical predictability of human will.
  • A more familiar term for the employment of desire in acts of preference is “belief.”
  • In common parlance, the use of “belief” may indicate doubt, error, or the deepest religious conviction, but the word always connotes “desire” because the will directs judgment in the absence of sufficient knowledge, and this necessarily aims at its own satisfactions.
  • To understand the meaning of “belief” in public morality, it is necessary to distinguish it from “trust.”
  • Belief biases present preference to secure future hopes while trust is justified by past evidence of competence; because belief is moved by private desire, it is unsuited to public moral pronouncements, but because trust is moved by prior demonstrations and involves a submission of agency to authority, trust is a stable and demonstrable justification for public moral claims.
  • Historically, trust in authority has proven the most durable source of public morality, but it is hampered by a susceptibility to challenge from other authority and thereby to dissolution and resumption of individual agency.
  • Contemporary religious believers are no more eager to surrender their agency than anyone else in advanced societies, but they mistake their beliefs for trust in authority and wish to impose them on others who are moved by other desires.
  • Axiomatic disputes now exist among disputing groups of citizens in contemporary society: nostalgists who wish to revive trust in religious institutions so as to make them formative of public goods and modernists who view beliefs as private assertions moved by desire; these disputes are unlikely to be recognized or resolved as long as belief and trust are thought synonymous.
  • This dispute is further inflamed by a third axiomatic conflict with postmodernist adherents of the virtual circle who think beliefs to be the equal to any other warrant yet hold them to be only privately valid; they regard institutional authorities as parasites upon agency and seek performative opportunities to demonstrate their independence.
  • The only arbiter that all three sides recognize is legal power as the moral decider of last resort, so all public conflicts have assumed a political dimension even though legal authorities have attempted a strict moral neutrality required by contractarian principles.
  • That being said, belief will always have value so long as it is understood as only privately compelling.

My goal in this analysis is to differentiate knowledge, trust, and belief and to explain the consequent implications for public moral commitments. Very briefly, I define “knowledge” as a judgment of truth justified by a preponderance of the evidence, “trust” as a surrender of agency justified by prior evidence of competence, and “belief” as an affirmation moved by desire. To argue for these definitions, I will further define, distinguish, and defend these distinctions as they play out in private experience and public morality.

The foundational word in this epistemic structure is “knowledge,” for I am claiming also to know the meanings and the differences between what we know, what we trust, and what we believe in ordinary experience. To associate knowledge with “judgment by a preponderance of evidence” teaches us that what we know is never certain or Truth but always partial and dependent on the warrant we use to assert it. I will not detail the specifics of warrant here, having done that necessary work in previous analyses (see “What Counts as Justification?”). But even a capsule definition of knowledge suggests our difficulty in asserting that we possess it, and a slightly deeper examination must reveal that having knowledge is a profoundly rational process at every level of assertion.

Here is why. First, to claim that we know an element of experience requires us to abstract it from the data stream that pours into our minds in every moment of consciousness. Snipping that moment out and isolating it for examination requires rational discrimination that it is somehow separable from the flow. Then to examine it in light of past experience and present context involves a second act of sorting to find its similarity to and uniqueness from prior moments so as to conceptualize its constituent elements, to see it as it really is, so to speak. And that seeing is necessarily a mimetic act in which the mind attempts to capture without distortion a bit of experience, to pass it through the perceptual wall of perception and reflection to see it clearly so as to examine it. This is a challenge, for perception is partial and distortive and reflection shaped by limited prior understanding.

The amazing thing about this entire process is that all this reasoning is carried out before we realize we have done it, accomplished by a preconscious categorical sorting of sense data into a simulacrum that we naively call “reality.” It is then polished up as a conceptual object that presents that single moment as a candidate for our conscious appraisal. I am no more aware of this process than I am of what happens between the time I turn on my computer and the home screen flashes into view. But all that behind-the-scenes humming reminds me that what floats into my consciousness as reality is surely not the thing itself but rather a composite selected by the mind to be amenable to conscious manipulation by later mental processing. The preconscious construction of experience from sense data warns us that what we claim to know from examined experience has already been touched by bias even before we know that we are experiencing anything at all. This prejudice is toward rationality, for the mind creates its mimesis so as to inspire us to conscious reasoning in pursuit of reliable knowing. We may naively call that mimesis “reality,” but we ought not overlook that a mirror is only a reflection of the object, not the thing itself. This notion of a dualism is a constant feature of theories of knowledge. It demands a critical response. We call it consciousness.

All this mental work is only preliminary to the real purpose of any piece of knowledge, which is to allow us to choose the goods we seek to procure from every moment of experience. This simple act of preference is the essential and universal human function (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument”). Claiming to know something in experience is coterminal with mining that knowledge for its possible use. This too is a purely rational process and a largely preconscious one. I am no more aware of my natural freedom sorting through some new knowledge to reveal its possible use than I am of my mind claiming it as real. I know something about this moment and at the same instant know some options for choosing that it offers (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance”). The truth and the possible goods it offers both pop into mind simultaneously, already neatly wrapped for my conscious consideration. When you reach the end of this sentence, you will know it by the period that concludes it, and without any conscious thought whatsoever, you will simultaneously face the decision about whether to read the next one. Perhaps you were not aware that you have now made that choice even without having recognized it as one. To understand what has happened, we will have to shift from the preconscious to the conscious actions of that central human concern: our preferential freedom.

We spend almost every conscious moment knowing and choosing again and again, thousands of times in each day. Each act of knowing is conjoined to a consequent act of choosing, each grasping that already packaged intuition that floats up into consciousness to inspect for truth and to mine for potential goods.

But, you might ask, why bother expending all this brain power when we can simply further automate the entire process so as to accelerate and simplify it? This is easily done and allows the process of choosing goods to be as automated as the process of recognizing their availability to each moment of experience. I am not aware of all that preconscious selecting and sorting and categorizing that brings potential truth to awareness, nor do I overly concern myself with the potential options that truth might offer me in the next moment, so why not put the entire process on automatic pilot and simply follow my instincts, the preconscious rational rank ordering of possible choice? Why not take it just another step and fully automate not only knowing but choosing? What could be wrong with automating preferential freedom itself, allowing my intuitive brain to choose that option presenting itself with the most urgency or relative importance? The answer to that question is complex, and it reveals the portentous difference between knowledge and belief. To see it, though, we must slow the entire process way down to examine the means of knowing the truth and choosing the good.

We ought to admit at the outset of this appraisal that we do indeed automate a great number of our intuitional responses to context. We habituate routine tasks of knowing and choosing not to avoid mental effort but to ration it to more important tasks. When we are conscious, we are always thinking and nearly always choosing, but we tie our shoelaces by habit so as to plan our day or think about what we want for breakfast. In his excellent essay, Habit, William James explores the reasons and processes involved and notes that it is a good thing we don’t have to think about how to fasten each shirt button, else we’d never get the job done. I hope it is clear that our brains are already conditioned to that, and the temptation to automate even more of that preconscious work is always available to conscious reasoning. Since so much of the process of knowing and choosing is already automated, why not go all the way, allowing natural freedom to present its options preconsciously and preferential freedom to choose the one that seems most desired in that moment? All that is then left is to act on that preference, employing circumstantial freedom to pursue the available option so as to procure yet one more good from experience (see “Our Freedom Fetish”). And then we may go on to the next instant and the next choice with an equally relaxed mind. Repeat ad infinitum.

To understand why that is not a good idea, we need to examine that menu of options presented by natural freedom to consciousness. On what grounds ought we choose from the options our knowledge has opened to us? Nearly all of our goodness choices involve issues of hypothetical utility. As soon as we know what we face, we can choose what best serves our current interests. The issue is hypothetical because we decide both what we desire in the moment and how best to get it. So many of these decisions are of minor importance that the hypotheticality of the issue barely rises to mind, and as mentioned, it can be fully automated to habit. Alternatively, if the choice is more consequential, we may slow down and examine the moment in experience with some care to ensure that we really do know what we think we know before inspecting the future goods we might derive from it. This process of knowing entails seeking either better reasoning or better evidence for the knowledge claim we are examining so as to increase the reliability of our judgment. It is only after engaging this judgmental capability that we then consciously turn to the second part of the equation: abstracting preference to achieve what we want in the moment.

Though the vast majority of our choices are made in this hypothetical fashion, at least some of them may be moved by a completely different operation. We may choose a categorical good rather than a hypothetical one. Allow me to more fully describe the difference.

Hypothetical goods of utility are most often momentary exercises of choice made in an instant of experience to satisfy a short-term goal. These kinds of goods may be confined to the moment we have examined, making such choices entirely pragmatic (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”). Or they may be tied to a more distant or complex goal in which case the immediate choice serves as the means for a good to be achieved later (see “A Utility of Furthest Ends”). In that case, we enter the experience with a goal already in mind and see the present moment as an opportunity to further that longer term goal.

A categorical good is different. First, it is a preference unconnected to experience, made without regard to specific circumstance. If a hypothetical good can be phrased as an if/then declarative sentence in which the agent controls both clauses, the categorical good is structured as a simple imperative. The hypothetical says, “If you wish to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, you should rise early.” The categorical says, “You ought to be healthy.” The hypothetical good relies upon circumstance for its satisfaction. The categorical good structures circumstance to achieve it. The imperative structure of a categorical good gives no motive for preferring it, so we might ask why we would allow it to dominate momentary experience so thoroughly that it drives it to a preset goal. The answer is that the categorical good is seen as a worthy end in itself, an end that backstops all those choices of utility, not a means to some end beyond it. We have another name for these kinds of preferences. Categorical ends are moral ends. Their defining quality is that they are made without regard to the circumstances in which they are employed, meaning they are judgments moved by reason.

One doesn’t have to commit to moral ends but may simply live for utility either immediate or deferred. Such a life allows for an agile response to circumstance but also poses the risk of an infinite regress of goals wherein each hypothetical is engaged for immediate satisfactions and none for ultimate ones. Looking back on such a life reveals a zigzag wake of alternating ambitions and satisfactions leading to no final ends, a pleasant and active life maybe but perhaps not a meaningful one. I hope it is obvious that the stakes involved in knowing the true and choosing the good are very high, and since we spend our entire conscious lives judging and choosing, we would be wise to avoid its many pitfalls, of which habitually pragmatic choosing is  one.

Turning from judging truth to choosing the goodness it offers must always involve our will. But in seeking what we will, timing is everything. In the operations of judging truth and choosing goodness, there are moments when a too eager or intense seeking will corrupt our best intentions and others where it will ensure their satisfaction. And this timing concerns our employments of hypothetical and  categorical choosing.

Whatever we think to be moral, we also must desire or else we will not discipline ourselves to pursue categorical ends for their own sakes in the flux of experience. But note that the desire in categorical choosing is quite different from desire in the moment. We initially identify moral ends not because we desire them but because we think them worthy of our desire (see “What Do We Mean by “Morality’?”). We don’t think them good because we want them. That would make them hypothetical. We want them because we think they are good, which is the very meaning of categorical. Why do we think them good (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?)? Perhaps we value some absolute lawgiver, a divine arbiter of goodness, whose commands are in themselves categorical goods. The Decalogue is a ready example (see “To What Extent Can Uncompassed Doxastic Beliefs Guide True Moral Commitments?”). Or perhaps we have thought through a life goal that will be our own North Star to chart our future (see “Three Moral Systems”). I make no judgments here on the value of any particular moral goal except that all of them are made in advance of the circumstances in which we might pursue their satisfaction, and that timing frees them from the temptations of desire.

Why is this important? Because separating our judgments of truth from the immediately subsequent activation of preference will help us avoid the great corruptor of successful preference. It is premature closure, the rush to judgment of the true in order to procure the goods it might offer us. I hope it is obvious that a moment of experience can only provide options for preference once it is understood. To distort a judgment of truth will thoroughly distort the options that judgment might present to preferential freedom. You will remember that much of this process is preconscious. The options to preference are presented by natural freedom simultaneously with the judgment of the truth of the experience. If this process is rushed or thoughtless, those options may well be distorted, but because they rise to mind simultaneously with the judgment of the reality they are to exploit as a result of an entirely preconscious mental operation, we may not notice that our options are biased because the judgment that presents them has distorted them in its haste to choose the hypothetical good to be satisfied. And no method will more surely guarantee that heedless rush to preference than an intense desire. To see an experience as we wish it to be so as to procure the goods we desire in the moment is the most common error of judgment imaginable. The power of our desire forecloses the possibility of its satisfaction, courting frustration. Because we may automate two mental processes — judging truth and choosing goodness as its consequence — this corruption might never rise to consciousness, meaning even our most pragmatic desires might be more often frustrated than satisfied.

The alternative to premature closure is the act of severance, an intentional separation of a knowledge claim from the possible preferences that judgment might offer (see “The Act of Severance”). This slows down preference, which is a hindrance to choosing, but it also heightens the accuracy of the choices which follow engaging it.

The best examples of the act of severance can be observed in the operations of the natural sciences. There is a very good reason that empiricism is the most reliable source of true judgments we know of for the kinds of experiences open to its mode of investigation (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). The scientific method is the ultimate act of severance, an intentional isolation of a single experience by observation or experiment studied purely for securing the most reliable judgment of its truth without regard for its possible utility. The reason science provides such remarkable technology is that the truths it finds are then directed to productive use, but note that the utility of its discoveries is always subsequent to its truth-finding. It took natural science three centuries to perfect the act of severance that now is its greatest asset, but even the hardest of the hard sciences is still tempted by the desire of its practitioners for the verification of their hypotheses and theories, for scholarly advancement, and for applications to technology. An examination of the far less rigorous and successful human sciences reveals just how seductive the temptation to premature closure can be (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences). Obviously, the temptations to engage premature closure in our far less rigorously structured moments of undistillled experience are even greater. While the methodology of natural science is not accessible to ordinary life, we can apply at least some of its lessons of close observation, careful measurement, and clear thinking to those judgments that we think to be important to our life’s projects.

Another term suits the use of premature closure, the too-eager assessment of experience so as to force it to yield the goods we desire in the moment. That word is belief.  A belief is a judgment warped by desire. To believe is already to be invested in an outcome, to allow will to shape reality to the contours of our intentions. We don’t know that our beliefs are true. We want them to be. A good example of the difference between belief and knowledge is our awareness of our own mortality. We know we will die, but we do not believe we will because we do not desire to. On the other hand, we know the Pythagorean theorem is true, so we have no need to believe that it is. Desire may warp our appraisals of the true and the good if employed prematurely. Therefore, belief is always about investment in forcing the truth to conform to our ambitions. Belief is definitionally a bias that distorts reasoning judgment.

We see the issue clearly when we inspect categorical ends. Because we form the judgement that this end is desirable for its own sake rather than as a means of possible exploitation, we discourage the intrusion of premature closure. We judge a good worthy of pursuit without regard to any particular moment in a pure act of severance, so the judgment itself is less likely to be warped by desire, and we are less likely to see context in terms of our own will, though we may still contort it to offer ourselves a moral opportunity. Desire’s distortion applies equally to the judgments of truth in context and to the judgment of the possible goods we might derive from it; the latter twist is guaranteed by the former. Should we use terms intentionally to communicate our judgments, we will be suspicious when we or those around us mention the power of their beliefs, for suspicion clings to its proper usage. Such is our epistemic confusions that we can have little confidence that using either “belief” or “knowledge,” will communicate any degree of real justification though. Occasionally, you will hear some slight comprehension of the difference when an impassioned speaker emphatically insists that “I don’t just believe it: I know it!” And you will often hear the word used to indicate some past mistaken judgment, which brings its meaning close to the correct one. A sentence that begins with, “he believed the gun wasn’t loaded” will surely end with a correction to that bit of premature closure. But more often the terms are used capriciously and interchangeably.

We might pay more attention to the implications of our own grammar, though. If ” to believe that” is thought as transparently declarative as “to know that,” then both are interchangeable claims of a present, past, or future existent. What does “to believe in” indicate? The usage implies an immersion, a set of assertions whose entire truth relies upon an unspoken but clearly understood second assertion: one of desire. Two important corollaries follow then. First, no grammatical comparison can be draw from “belief in” to “knowledge that” because “to know in” is a non sequitor. One always “knows that” a claim is true even in reference to the kind of immersion that one might think would require some parallel to “believe in,” for example, in systematic knowledge of some discipline or subject matter. So what makes the two immersions different enough to be embedded even in the grammar of assertion? The truths we know are not solely reliant on schematic consistency. Even when we assert some cumulative knowledge that an entire system is true, our assertion rests on individual declarations, each of which claim “knowledge that” a single element of the field is true. The combined truths are schematically related, but that connection is secondary to their individual warrants, though supportive of the schema’s truth as well. The immersion into “knowing that” is a study of trees, into “believing in” a journey into the forest. Knowledge walks from one to the other. The whole is composited of the entirety of its parts, each of which is separately known. But the immersive quality of a belief system requires that one must “believe in” — effectively “enter into” a set of speculative declarations whose sole justification is their internal consistency. To “believe in” the spirit world is a doxastic venture. One feels as if one is leaving one domain to enter into another. One must believe in the forest in order to see the trees. To use the grammar of “believe in” is to wave the red flag of warning to our listener and ourselves that we are going into a sphere in which internal consistency is the sole warrant. Necessarily then, when one declares a “belief in” something, they are grammatically contending that this separate realm seems to them to be true or good — else why enter into it at all? And that introduces the second consequence of using the expression: the speaker requires of their listener an equal desire to abandon the sphere of knowledge for one dominated by that same desire to venture into speculative territory while also abandoning the means of knowing that it is true.

Our epistemic confusion about the reliability of beliefs leads to some jarring incongruities. Should I ask you if you locked the car and you reply, “I believe that I did,” one of us will be going back to check. In this instance, “belief” indicates uncertainty. This level of doubt shadows many of our assertions of belief: in ghosts, aliens, or premonitions. At this level, a belief is indistinguishable from empty opinion. We can expect little warrant from such a pallid assertion. That makes it all the stranger when “belief” is used in a religious truth claim. In this kind of usage, we may suppose “belief” to do anything but connote doubt. It indicates our very highest confidence in the truth of a declaration imaginable. When we use “belief” in a creedal sense, we are indicating a commitment to a truth that is absolute, yet it is precisely in such usages that the desire inherent in the term is made most manifest. We sense the incongruity when we hear some conjunction of the two senses of the word, for instance should someone say, “I believe in alien abduction and justification by faith.”

But we ought not take umbrage at the admixture of the secular and sacred uses of “belief.” Stripped of the desire involved, the usage always indicates doubt. On the scale of verifiable knowledge, a belief in a divinity is as much a passional commitment as a belief in ghosts, only with much higher stakes (see “Can Religious Belief Be Knowledge?”). In his 1896 address at Harvard, “The Will to Believe,” William James argued that staking such a claim is permissible in situations where knowledge is lacking and the issue is a live one that cannot be ignored or long forestalled (see “The Lure of the Will to Believe). In these situations so common to religious commitment, James argued that a passional commitment to a belief may be warranted by pragmatic considerations: emotional comfort, community, assertions of ultimate meaning, hope, or Pascal’s Wager. He conceded that none of these conduits for desire have the slightest relation to the actual validity of a religious belief. But James, the pragmatist, argued that for such issues, utility was tantamount to truth and ought to be valued as such. This is such a common warrant for religious belief that it underwrites some very strange conclusions. For instance, the theologian Douglas Blount argues that the Bible is true because it serves as comfort and a guide to personal fulfillment, which translates all those divine commands into a far more familiar hypothetical motive (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip”). Perhaps in no other employment is belief so easily defended, nor so easily observed as an expression of desire.

And this has profound consequences for contemporary public morality, but to understand the impact, it is first necessary to distinguish yet another term from both knowledge and belief. That word is “trust.

If belief is present judgment warped by future desire, trust is surrender of agency justified by prior evidence of competence. Belief is an act of hope for some procurement, so it is always forward looking as one pursues what is hoped for. And because it is so shaped by the agent’s will, belief is invariably a private commitment, one that shapes present circumstance by the light of deeply held and sometimes obscure ambition. Trust is entirely different (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge). Something done in the past has convinced the agent to willingly submit her own agency to the judgment of another she thinks more capable of finding truth and goodness than she is. Trust is definitionally a surrender of the capacity to decide. That surrender disallows capacity, something we all remember from childhood, so trust is highly resistant to doubt once employed. Preference is now controlled by the authority whom trust has recognized, and because authority may be more than personal, may in fact be institutionalized, it may be a public justification if trust is widely shared, something belief in its dance with private desire can never manage. Everyone’s desire springs from private and often obscure wellsprings. But all surrenders of agency are to the same authority and are, at least in theory, of the same totality of submission. That uniformity will produce the same effect on all persons who have made such a surrender. The practical effect is that institutionalized trust has the advantage of spelling out in great detail the truth and goodness commitments the authority commands as an imperative (note that it is necessarily an imperative because the agents who obey it have already surrendered the capacity to exercise hypothetical judgment). This facet, combined with trust’s strong initial resistance to doubt — for in order to doubt, a person must reacquire the capacity to decide, which is definitionally the very essence of “doubt” — has made institutional trust the world’s most enduring source of public moral consensus. Until the modern era, authority was the universal warrant for public morality in all societies, bolstered by a public trust so complete we have to recall memories of earliest childhood to get a sense of it (see “Premodern Authority“).

Because authority had proved such a stable source of moral order, its slow but catastrophic collapse has provoked an intense nostalgia for the comity it was thought to produce. This longing for unanimity is particularly powerful in advanced societies where individualism is dominant. In contemporary life, it is usually religious belief that has attempted to replace or revive a trust in authority, though the first half of the twentieth century saw a quasi-religious revival of personal authority, which even today tempts citizens in moments of deep social discord. A continuing and generalized moral anxiety is always subject to exploitation by religious believers who mistakenly see their private commitments as a submission of trust and who wish to revive institutional religious authority as it was practiced in pre-Reformation Europe (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”).

But this effort to resuscitate institutional authority is definitionally impossible and historically inconceivable (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). There are some theocratic societies in which authority still exerts its power, but advanced western states are not among them (see “Which Clash of Civilizations?“). The defining quality of modernism is universal reasoning governing individual preferential agency, so the possibility of a revival of real submissions of trust in institutions is vanishingly small. Today’s trust is a vacillating and suspicious temporary allocation that rarely sustains even a limited deferral to authority, a grudging bestowal that jealously re-appropriates self-agency at the first whiff of doubt. Religious believers mistake their personalized revelations or idiosyncratic readings of sacred scriptures for trust, but in order to interpret their texts or implement their inspirations, believers must bring their own desires to the fore, and these vary by experience and are fueled by their deepest and most private hopes (see “A Problem with Sacred Texts”). This active construction is nothing like the surrender of the capacity to decide that marks trust. The sectarianism that resulted from the birth of modernism in the wars of the Reformation has borne its many-flavored fruits, and endless doctrinal conflict would almost surely follow any effort to establish a religious institutional authority. Only the separation of church and state allows believers to persist in the delusion that a Christian nation would resolve the deep moral divisions that plague contemporary life.

And there is one additional complicating factor that sucks more air from the current public moral vacuum.  Believers seek a revival of authority, mistaking their faith for trust and seeking an authority they might submit to, a means to surrender (but also to retain) their own agency. They are opposed in the public square by modern institutionalists who trust neither authority nor beliefs, but jealously guard their own capacity to sanction institutions rather than submit to them. This provokes one kind of conflict. Premodernists seek for institutional religious authority to be formative of their identity, though their desire disallows that possibility. Modernists seek to establish informative relations with institutional authority, producing mutual benefits that improve both their institutions and themselves, but they withhold their trust or bestow it grudgingly. They regard beliefs as the private conveyances of desire. Because modernists generally engage a hypothetical morality of utility, believers think them more amoral than immoral, and they condemn a secular humanism that privatizes belief and questions authority, even though they do the same without recognizing it. This conflict is difficult enough, but it is hardly the only moral game at play. Over the course of the twentieth century, a third cadre has arisen in response to longstanding tensions between the other two groups and the hypocrisies and deformations their tensions have produced (see “The Victorian Rift.). These are the postmodernists who define themselves in deep opposition to the other two factions (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). Their guiding axiom of commitment moves them to suspect any use of power as exploitative and every authority as manipulative (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). They see institutions as the conduits of oppression structured so as to retain power. As inheritors of the values of modernism and the corruptions of these values that modernism’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies have permitted, postmodernists deeply resent any attempt to suppress their agency, seeking performative opportunities to demonstrate their superiority to all institutional restraints that they have not imposed upon themselves (see “Modernism and Its Discontents“). Their independence extends to a resistance to any value set but the one they have created to guide their own lives, and they theoretically object to any restraint upon others’ liberty to build their own lives and values. Consequently, they embrace beliefs as easily as judgments, integrating whatever they value into a private moral schema they create by whatever rigor of inspection they approve of. They form “virtual circles” of self-supporting truths and private goods out of whatever materials they value (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”) Their only warrant is the principle of noncontradiction, but the weave of their values set may be as loose or as tight as they think best and its rationality as private as the life it governs. Obviously, this personalism is not conducive to harmony in the public square (see “Belief in the Public Square). Postmodernists are as frank in their admiration of private beliefs, which they see as affirmations of integrity and commitment, as they are offended by the slightest hint of hypocrisy. After all, the only clear offense when anything goes is the violation of one’s own value set. This flexibility has produced some unfortunate inconsistencies and would do so even if the entire society embraced postmodernist views that see every exertion of power as an imposition (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements”). But, as noted, this is not the reality, so postmodernists confront not only other virtual circles but other groups that operate out of entirely different presuppositions.

From this outline, you might think that postmodernists and premodernists would find their mutual admiration for belief congenial to a social partnership to oppose the modernists that both sides condemn. What prevents that possibility is that premodernists mistake their professions of belief for submissions to authority and seek a universal submission to religious institutions that is anathema to postmodernists who despise all institutional authority and value the idiosyncratic nature of their personalized commitments above all.

These axiomatic conflicts are unlikely to be resolved until they are recognized, but in the meanwhile public moral commitments are likely to be misunderstood, institutions likely to be resisted, and beliefs likely to be ardently defended as either public desiderata or sacrosanct, private possessions. The only working public moral arbiter today is the raw power of the law as the enforcer of last resort (see “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer). For this reason, nearly every public disagreement has become political as beliefs jostle for equal space with publicly defensible judgments in democratic public squares wherein government sees its role as neutral arbiter of majoritarian desires (see “Two Senses of the Common Good”).

None of this is meant as an assault on belief per se. We live by our chosen values and judge truth and goodness in experience by our own lights. Employing the act of severance and avoiding premature closure are aids to judgment, formation of knowledge, and pursuit of the good, but these are not enough for flourishing since a working pubic morality is a non-negotiable public good (see “Needs Anchor Morality”). And in that moral landscape, there is a space reserved for permissible beliefs.  Beyond the endless exercise of preference and the boundaries of what we can know lies a foggy landscape composed of equal parts hope and desire. Many ultimate questions of value are closed to knowledge but open to our imagination in the pursuit of those goods we cannot procure by our own efforts. As adults we have outgrown a childlike trust, but we will never outgrow our hopes. For those aspirations beyond the reach of what can be known, we are left with the yearnings from which grow cherished beliefs. In public life, they are deservedly ephemeral, yet they remain both temptation and spur to our endless acts of preference.