Knowledge, Trust, and Belief

To know is to have a grasp of the truth warranted by a rational consideration of a preponderance of evidence. That definition packs lots of meaning and unpacking it leads to lots of uncertainty. The first layer requires us to see the necessary rationalism in any claim to knowledge, consisting as it does in comparing a specific element of experience against a categorical definition. To say “I know” is to imply “by my reasoning” because no matter what you think knowledge to be, this claim must meet that definition, so the process of classification cannot be other than rational. To consider warrant is a second rational act, for no matter what kind of justification you admire, your claim to knowledge must meet it, and that is a judgment of quality that must appeal to the mind. The same limitation applies to whatever you consider a “preponderance” of whatever you think to be “evidence.”  With all that reasoning, we should find it unsurprising that we disagree about what we know since reasoning is a pit of error, but one thing we cannot dispute is that only reasoning can pull us out of that pit and into knowledge.  Lots of thinkers have thrown us a rescue line to help us out.

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 reached these representations differently: through multiple exposures to individual things that conveyed something of their common qualities 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 to be 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. Considering our truth claims to be judgments allows us to test them against a mental yardstick, to hold them as more or less reliable, from a very few certainties to tenuous judgments warranted by such weak evidence or such spotty reasoning that they merge with empty opinion or expressions of taste. Using such a “scale of judgment” opens our claims of knowledge to continuing tests of better evidence or better reasoning. Because 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.” Though anxiety-producing, such tentativeness keeps our eyes open to error and to the revision it should provoke. That is difficult, though, because we must always consider our knowledge of the true to be only the means to the more challenging end of choosing the good, and so we are always tempted to the tug of premature closure, the urge to make choices simpler by exaggerating what we know or by introducing belief into our calculations so as to make choosing simpler (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”). We see that kind of operation in the use of the word “believe” in reference to declarations we inherit second hand, such as those in school texts. We say we believe their truth because we are unwilling to suffer the inconvenience of checking them, though we could if we wished. Belief is not required in such cases, nor should it be automatically be given. Cultural truths, like all public claims to knowledge, require at least a general evaluation of trustworthiness, a judgment that the author of the declaration is worthy of our confidence based on our best reasoning and evidence.

How different this entire 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 desire them to be true. A perfect example of the difference in the two terms is our reaction to our own mortality. We know we will die, but most of us refuse to believe that we will because we have no desire to die. To believe is to already be invested, is already to have taken sides: quite the opposite of the dispassionate ratiocinative process required for judgment to produce reliable knowledge of truth and goodness.

Determining truth is the means to the end of determining goodness. These are ordinarily separate, sequential operations of rational choice.  A determination of truth is an endeavor to clarify a situation so as to exercise preferential freedom to then choose what we think good. Every preferential choice relies on a prior determination of truth. We are neurologically and evolutionarily fated to that process (see “The Tyranny of Rationality”). Our rational nature inclines us to synthesize reality so as to clarify the relevant relationships among the discrete entities experience presents to consciousness. It presents a rationally constructed picture of reality to our mind from the data stream of experience, so our perceptions give us the raw clay from which to construct the knowledge of our environment which our minds naively call “reality.” Immediately after forming this conception, we begin structuring our options for choice, lining them up as candidates for our manipulation. This is natural freedom at work and characterizes universal human nature. The freedom consists in our framing of possible goods from our framing of reality. What follows pretty quickly is a second rational operation that ranks our choices by preference by whatever standard of value we employ at the moment. This is preferential freedom. Whereas natural freedom is a human inheritance, preferential freedom is at least partly volitional and can be controlled and cultivated. By whatever standard of value we use at the moment, we lean toward the good. Seizing that good is a third operation that employs our circumstantial freedom. We act upon our choice. Of the three freedoms employed in choosing, only the first is concerned with truth. The second and third invariably move us toward goodness as a consequence of the determination of truth (see “Our Freedom Fetish“). None of this description should be taken to prescribe any particular standard of either truth or goodness.

The employment of belief combines, accelerates, and distorts the operations of natural and preferential freedom into a single act of choice. It combines what should be separate stages of rational determination into one operation in which the recognition of truth is arbitrated by desire. This speeds up the often laborious process of comprehension, of course, so as to filter out discordant notes that might indicate anomaly, but in doing so, it inclines us to structure the reality we face so as to facilitate the preferences we are simultaneously engaging. Blinding us to anomaly means crippling our capacity to recognize truth as an instrumental means to the very goodness that we seek.

I have slowed this process down to show how belief distorts reality. That can be an advantage when reality is deliberately contorted by, say, the creation of fiction. Coleridge’s advice to engage “a willing suspension of disbelief” when entering the world of imagination turns judgment on its head to remind us that fiction is something entirely different from real life (see “Tall Tales”). While it is true that suspending disbelief is not quite tantamount to embracing belief, both require a lapse of critical judgment so as to open oneself to ready commitment. One of the great joys of fiction is the release of self-discipline that allows us to immerse ourselves in imaginary worlds bound only by the consistency of their own premises. But the heady temptation to transfer belief from fiction to life is a fool’s errand. That emotional swan dive was a hallmark of the Romantics and still exerts is reckless charm, but it does little to help one face facts or even find them in the hurly burly of ordinary life.

Ordinary language gives us clues about the nature of belief. For instance, we use the phrase “believe that” to indicate a single act of commitment to the truth of a proposition we yearn towards. What do we mean then when we say “believe in” magic or love at first sight? Certainly, that same mixture of truth and goodness applies. We believe in what we yearn to be true. But “belief in” implies a broader scope of commitment. To believe in Santa Clause is to also believe that he lives at the North Pole, gives gifts to good children on Christmas, and has a reindeer named Rudolph. “Belief in” subsumes a whole range of truth and goodness claims into one package, tying them together by strands of various cords of desire and logical consistency, only adding to the murky quality of the claim’s warrant.  This only becomes apparent when we string together incompatible sets of beliefs that strike us as discordant or even ridiculous. Why is it odd to say, “I believe in salvation by grace alone and alien abduction”?  This gets even stranger when beliefs are thoughtlessly mingled with judgments appealing to public warrant. To say, “I believe in romantic love and the scientific method” should remind us that the things we believe and the things we know are separate categories of experience. But that does not seem to be the common view. In 1951, Edward R. Murrow began a radio program called “This I Believe.” It recorded celebrities giving heartfelt testimonials to long lists of life lessons that invariably began with statements of belief, nearly always mingled with commonplace truisms and quirky stabs at originality. The program was recently revived for public radio, but it seems the decades that have intervened have improved the sound quality of the transmission far more than the thought quality of the speakers.

Champions of belief may dispute its prejudicial nature. They charge, for instance, that the act of engaging preferential freedom so as to choose whatever goods our determinations of truth have revealed to us is an inevitable engagement of desire: we desire our preference to be good. But that charge puts the cart before the horse. A preference rationally engaged follows a judgment of truth that reveals to the mind some order of preference determined by that judgment. To judge the good, even the morally good, in such this circumstance is a conclusion moved by the same dispassionate, ratiocinative weighing of options that move us to the judgments of truth that they inevitably follow. Coloring such determinations with desire will make them easier to prefer but will not make them more preferable. Rather the opposite, for the amalgam of truth and goodness that produces such beliefs must obscure by combining what it should clarify by sequencing.

The hard edges of reality should discourage a too-ready reliance on belief. We recognize that in our colloquial usage. If I ask if you locked the car, and you reply that you believe you did, I will conclude you intend some doubt, but also that you project some desire that you won’t have to go back to check on it.  Should I reply that I trust that you did, I am indicating that you have consistently locked it in the past and so I can be confident you’ve done the same in this instance.

Trust and belief are fundamentally different mental operations. Trust is a correspondentist act of judgment founded upon past experience (see “What Counts as Justification?). It involves a prior judgment of truth that then moves a preference. We recognize that dichotomy when we say, “Trust must be earned.” We see it when the prison system selects trustees: prisoners whose past model conduct gives confidence they will abide by the rules. The implication is that we do not bestow our trust until we see some experiential pattern that convinces us of a truth in reality: that some future action will prove consistent with some past ones. This is a simple rational judgment, the kind we use moment to moment. Should we be asked why we have given our assent, we would be able to explain the prior incidents that merited it. Such a conviction relies on what is an admittedly weak warrant: undifferentiated experience, but since we use it so often, we will not quibble. We trust it. It is more than a wish, hope, or desire. With continued consistency, the extension of trust becomes so automatic and so confirmed by similar experiences that it merges into something far more dependable than the trust that some future event can be predicted from a few past ones. The more confirmations, the more confidence in the judgment and the deeper the trust. At some point in that deepening, the reliability that grows from knowing another person’s character replaces trust with something on the way to expertise, though, of course, human behavior is far too capricious for anyone to claim that degree of knowledge even of oneself (see “Expertise”). Still, since character is destiny, with time and attention, we can predict with high confidence what another will do because we know her so well. Trust has transmuted itself into knowledge as reliable as most that rely on a rational examination of repeated experience.  Belief is quite a different animal. To have a belief is to project faith into the future, to imbue an assertion with something of ourselves, to find this projection in congruence with other of our values and beliefs. Such coherence would in all likelihood be difficult to disentangle in itself from the hopes we pin to our declaration of truth or goodness, for its confirmation lies in the future rather than the past and is conformable to desire. The etymology of “belief” implies a level of hope for a desired outcome about which one must assume some doubt. This prejudice in favor of some anticipated result is quite different from the dispassionate reasoning process involved in extending trust. When the term is used properly, it indicates coherentist opinion justified by the principle of non-contradiction. Not that there is anything wrong with that warrant when properly employed. We live in hope. But it would be wrong to call any belief a kind of knowledge, wrong to equate it with an earned trust, and most of all wrong to use it as a foundation upon which to base future judgments of truth or goodness. Belief truly is that fragile thing with feathers. The difference in meaning between the two terms should give us sufficient incentive to use each one properly, not only to communicate to others the level of confidence we bring to our declarations, but even more vitally to recognize it ourselves.

We may do this by applying a finer filter to issues of knowledge and belief than we are accustomed to seeing. We find beliefs permissible so long as they do not contradict our knowledge. It is permissible to believe that aliens live on Titan. It is likely not permissible to believe they live in your tool shed. A stronger confidence may be expressed by demonstrating a belief to be logically entailed, meaning an accaptance of its truth is mandated by prior knowledge even though we cannot use that knowledge to examine the belief itself. That an orphan child had a mother is a reasonable inference that is entailed by what we know about mothers and children even though we may have no knowledge whatsoever about the circumstances of the child’s birth. It is tempting to think logically entailed beliefs to be real knowledge, a judgment that is surely defensible so long as we think of logic in the universal sense we apply to geometric theorems or formal reasoning. Unfortunately, the axioms of contemporary culture allow reasoning to be as spineless as an earthworm and as personalized as tastes in fashion (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). Conclusions entailed by a postmodern sense of subjective reason are indefensible in the public square, and so must still be considered as beliefs rather than as true knowledge in that venue (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”). No such qualms should attend those judgments that are justified by such proofs of judgment as expertise or empirical science. Such declarations have risen above beliefs and may be reliably touted as knowledge, though like all such claims they are subject to revision through better reasoning or evidence. We typically believe permissible claims, believe or trust logically entailed ones, and know justifed ones, though such neat divisions are challenged by the contemporary disarray.

Proper use is an indication of clear thinking and a readiness to engage appropriate justification.  Just as the correct use of judgment or opinion indicates the speaker’s confidence in warranting her declaration appropriate to its means of verification and communicates to her listener a clearer notion of her thinking on the subject, proper use of trust and belief will force at least some interrogation of her own warrants for declarations that are at best at the frontier of her knowledge.

My argument here faces stiff headwinds, I admit. Most persons use trust and belief pretty interchangeably and unless challenged will hardly pause to investigate their own claims to knowledge of either. If they don’t take their own declarations seriously enough to consider justifying them, why should we? Let us grant that much of what we read, hear, and say is as serious as a snore, but let us also admit that at least some of what we value most deeply touches on issues of trust and belief, so the terms are worth getting clear in our heads, especially if we think them a kind of knowledge.

Our confusions are not new. Plato famously defines knowledge as “justified, true belief” in the dialogue Theaetetus, and that definition has stuck. But as Wittgenstein pointed out, one can never know if her beliefs are true and the degree of justification is left open by the definition. Perhaps that is because the clear intent of the dialogue is to show that such a definition is not sufficient to the task of defining knowledge, but then Plato never gives a better one. Perhaps he wished to emphasize the desire that we should feel for knowledge in general by his use of belief, but that same attachment must compel us to withhold our judgments until we have examined them by the best reasoning we can apply to the best evidence available before claiming knowledge as true by a preponderance of both.

The issue is vastly complicated by the religious associations persons bring to the use of belief. The same word used to express doubt about your car keys becomes a profession of the deepest commitment when used in a creedal sense. The same prejudicial longing for the evidence of things not seen defines religious belief. Kierkegaard observed that if faith were knowledge, it would no longer be necessary to believe. I know the Pythagorean theorem is true. I have no need to believe what I already know.

If this doesn’t seem quite right to you, it may be because another lens may change the focal length of belief, granting it equivalency, even superiority, to those things we can warrant by means of correspondence truth tests, and that way of viewing belief is popular today. By this axiom of knowledge, all of our perceptions and reflections must be filtered through a personal perspective that colors them indelibly with the very prejudice that tints all belief, so no truth or goodness claims may be approached objectively or dispassionately. Belief in this view transforms all claims to knowledge into matters of preference, favoring will as the director of truth. This colors all knowledge and makes it uniquely our own. This postmodernist outlook inhales all sorts of private percepts as private and subjective knowledge, building an organic virtual circle whose coherence becomes the only means of judging one’s truths based upon the axiom that no reliable intuition of reality can be proved to penetrate each thinker’s perceptual wall. Those intuitions that do pass through conform to the prior prejudices of the perceiver (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents). Since this virtual circle embraces experience as the source of identity, it also regards the reasoning that issues such judgments as a personal creation, making the principle of non-contradiction a very weak truth test indeed. But it is the only one available to the postmodernist who must rely on it for warrant. In theory, this should not be too much of a problem, for the same creativity that produces each person’s virtual circle must compel her to exercise toleration for those who assemble reality by use of other experiences, so a vapid acceptance of disagreement seems baked into the postmodern outlook that has no means of warranting one construction of reality over another (see Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements). All beliefs should be respected in this view.

Now this enlightened openness might seem attractive until one of two outcomes ensues. First, the postmodern believer faces some conflict with someone who assembles reality differently. Since  postmodernism views culture as determinative of identity, we should regard cultural disputes as merely subjective disagreements writ large and subject to the same quandary in the face of the inevitable dispute that must follow private experience interpreted by subjective intellect. This is a bad theory, for it both creates dispute and destroys any means of resolving it. Disagreement must end in domination or surrender. This inevitable but unfortunate conclusion has led postmodernism to fetishize both the use and the concealment of power as the only means of resolving conflict. Beginning with Schopenhauer and culminating with Nietzsche, we find a rich literature exploring this subject, one that the post-structuralists brought to a lustrous shine in their vociferous and interminable disputes over correspondence truths the possibility of which they theoretically denied.

It may sound as though I am discouraging belief, but I am not. I am discouraging three approaches to belief. First, we should call it what it is. We only believe what we cannot know by a preponderance of the evidence. We cannot claim belief to be true either because we want it to be or because we are so skeptical of knowledge that we think everything equally subjective. Our passion cannot be a warrant for correspondence knowledge. Second, we should recognize that belief in authority or authority built upon beliefs is no more reliable than beliefs held by the individuals who accept the authority. Consensus may suppress doubt, but it cannot resolve it. “Because everybody thinks so” has been proven wrong so many times it is a wonder it is ever said without a rueful smile. If everyone on planet earth believed in God or didn’t, the truth would remain as before. Majoritarian belief is just as uninformed as individual belief. It’s just louder. It is as foolish to doubt it from contrarian motives as to endorse it from mental laziness. No reason means no reason. Third, belief may get us beyond an impasse of choosing, but its true danger lies in what comes after we move on to other considerations. The real problem lies not in accepting some belief as true or good but in using that acceptance as evidence for future judgments. Belief is the rotten step in reason’s ascent to truth, and to expect it to support further judgment asks it to carry more weight than it can support.

We can deal with that weakness in two constructive ways.

First, we can seek other means of support. For example, trust may be a weak basis for knowledge of truth and goodness rooted in undifferentiated experience, but it avoids the prejudice that characterizes belief. Authorities can earn trust, whether they be personal or institutional, and it is reasonable for us to give what has been earned. Even weak judgments are far preferable to the most passionate beliefs if we value truth over error. We begin life with such helplessness that our trust forms before our judgment does. Once reason becomes operational, it always seeks stronger evidence, and that is often found, so trust itself transmutes to a more reliable conviction. Both our reasoning and our evidence tends toward refinement as we mature, and it is no small thing to replace childish beliefs with better evidence and reasoning as we grow in wisdom.

But we never grow wise enough to outgrow our need for belief. No matter how carefully we try to find firmer footing, at times all we can do is to embrace both beliefs and the uncertainties they signify. We face many aspects of reality that we simply cannot know. The temptation in the face of such inscrutability is to premature closure, to fill in the blanks of our knowledge of the true with the sirens of desire. Perhaps the deepest well of wisdom involves knowing when that alloy of natural and preferential freedom is permissible and when our quest for truth and search for anomaly should continue. It should be clear that supporting our choices by belief should be the last rather than the first task of judgment, that we must defer belief to the uncharted seas beyond knowledge rather than its deepest springs. That beautiful, fragile bubble of belief is still necessary for those live options about which we simply cannot achieve knowledge: questions of unknowable future outcomes, issues of the afterlife, problems of ultimate meaning. At the fringes of what we can know, beyond what we can hope to achieve with better reasoning or evidence, lies a corona of beliefs illuminated dimly by those things we do know. The forms of beliefs shift as the light of our knowledge changes, highlighting some and throwing others into deeper shadow. This frontier where knowledge must end, where it has no choice but to touch upon pure desire, seems the proper domain of belief.