Believing and knowing

I was musing the other day, as I passed by a church school on a walk, on the difference between belief and knowledge. The teachers at that school must teach both. But, I thought, if they taught the wrong knowledge, a generation will arise in which knowledge will be corrupted and eventually lost. Belief, on the other hand, will persist, although it will change.

It occurred to me that a crucial difference between belief and knowledge is where it resides. This is not the usual philosophical discussion about the nature of knowledge and faith and how one is justified and the other not, etc. This is a rather different observation: faith resides in each believer individually. Every person has beliefs. Beliefs can arrive through reflection, reason, acceptance of authority, or simply imitation of those around you as you grow. Knowledge, on the other hand, is hard won and hard-maintained. To believe, one merely needs to have a conceptual stance. To know, one has to share in a community experience.

Knowledge exists not in the content of books or other records, nor in the singular heads of individuals. Knowledge exists in a community. It is always shared. Even the most personal knowledge relies deeply upon the shared prior knowledge gained by the long experience of societies, cultures and institutions, without which it is almost impossible to have. Almost no scientific knowledge worth the name exists only in one or a few individuals’ heads. Almost every belief does.

Now a good state of affairs is for knowledge to exist in communities of individuals who, as much as possible, have beliefs that fairly and usefully represent that knowledge. To become a scientist, for example, is to have scientific beliefs. Another way to say this is that a scientist must share, as much as possible, beliefs that are knowledge statements or stances. That is not, I hasten to add, the same thing as saying that science (or any form of knowledge) is simply an arbitrary choice of a community, a convention like the choice of the side of the road to drive on or the right cutlery to use. Nor is it the same as saying that science is a faith. Knowledge, whatever it may be philosophically, is knowledge and not faith. But my knowledge is a set of beliefs. It is just that not all my beliefs are knowledge.

Recently philosopher Mohan Matthen chided (I know the preterite of “chide” now!) my friend the Oxford philosopher Darrell Rowbotham for this statement:

You may well ‘find it sophistical to equate faith in God the Creator with “faith” in reason [and] experience’. But that is no argument. I was alluding to the issue of epistemological regress, and the tu quoque argument raised by Bartley in The Retreat to Commitment.

There’s some technical language here: a tu quoque (literally: you also) is an argument that someone who makes a criticism of another commits the same mistake themselves, or that what applies to the opponent applies also to the proponent in a debate. Here it is that science is as much a faith as religion because science relies upon ungrounded statements that require individual scientists to believe. The regress that forces this conclusion is that every time you justify a knowledge claim (a belief or stance), you have to then justify reason itself. At some point you have to say that you simply accept the justification, either of reason or knowledge or logic.

In the context of science, as Matthen observes, this is not the case. Whatever it is that knowledge is (and as a pragmatist, for me it is a stance that works in the world), in the case of science (the best form of knowledge we have), the skepticism Darrell expresses is unwarranted. Better in fact to know how science works. Skepticism of the general kind, in which all knowledge is called into question, is something general epistemologists can deal with; for me and many other philosophers of science it simply makes no sense to deny all knowledge.

The grounding of knowledge is not something that occurs through logical rigor and analysis. It is grounded in our community, the things we can do, the structure of the world we can discover. It would be nice if everyone had nothing but knowledge representing beliefs, but even if there are no knowledge items (not just statements, but knowings-how as well) known by everyone, all that is known is known by some number of people in community. Wittgenstein called them a language community – I think of them as forming a cognitive community.

Knowledge is not stored in books, either. If we lose all the people who can build, say, the Saturn V, all the records in the world will not allow us to rebuild it. Instead we will design something like it, but which relies upon the shared tacit and overt knowledge of the present day. Knowledge is a standing wave in cultural evolution, and if the wave goes, the items are lost. If we rediscover them, they are now in a different cognitive context, and have different content.

What grounds community knowledge is, I believe, its contribution, individually and jointly, to the success of a community in its endeavours. That is all the justification one can get. If survival and flourishing is equivalent to a faith, then sure, knowledge is faith, but that beggars the meaning of “believe”, I reckon. Instead, we only have the post hoc observation that a technique, a stance, or a set of belief contents actually succeeded in its purpose and outcome.

Religion is not, in general, knowledge of that kind. Its beliefs are stances which satisfy some criteria other than environmental success. Perhaps we can say they are coordination successes – they rightly allow agents to interact in a society. But that is like knowing that the way to avoid head-on collisions in the United Kingdom is to drive on the left hand side of the road. It is a knowledge of convention, of arbitrary things. It is worth knowing this, but it is not knowledge of the world, but of ourselves. And that knowledge is highly contextual and relative. If you want beliefs that are in some sense “true”, and knowledge in view of that, then religious beliefs do not qualify, at least not in the mundane and temporal world in which knowledge ordinarily applies. Nobody can speak to the transcendental knowledge of God; success criteria are not yet forthcoming.

About then, I got home, and turned on the television, and all rational thought ceased.

26 thoughts on “Believing and knowing

  1. How is knowing that “the way to avoid head-on collisions in the United Kingdom is to drive on the left hand side of the road” _not_ knowledge of the world? Are conventions not part of the world? You say they are “of ourselves,” but are we not of the world?

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  2. “the shared tacit and overt knowledge of the present day”

    A firm example of this is the building of hillforts in the 6th century in the uk. The construction methods are identical to those used in the Iron age. Same mind, same enviromental constraints = identical results.

    The repetition does not stem from an ancient Iron age belief or tradition that this is the best or only way to build hillforts.

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  3. “science (the best form of knowledge we have)”

    I am always puzzled by this kind of statement. Doesn’t ‘the best’ imply a certain set of values? Can there be a good, bad, worse or best without a scale on which to measure? Isn’t it relative? Isn’t it subjective?

    Scientific knowledge is good, but is it the best form? Does it matter for most of us to know that air has like 20% Oxygen? Did it make any difference that we didn’t know for a long, long time? It is good that we know that now, but is it ‘the best’ form of knowledge?

    I’d say that it’s the most safe form, or the most confortable. It’s exciting to learn about new particles, galaxies or other stuff like that. But except the excitement, what else do I really get? What do those that don’t understand science get? Are they lost souls?

    Isn’t the best form of knowledge that that is accesible to everyone, the knowledge that satisfies both our spiritual and intellectual needs?

    For me, personally, faith is a form of knowledge accumulated through experience, and although less exact, it is much better than what I learned in college about Physics.

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    1. Christian Pascu:

      For me, personally, faith is a form of knowledge accumulated through experience, and although less exact, it is much better than what I learned in college about Physics.

      How is faith a form of knowledge? I’m reading some epistemology texts at the moment (because I know next to nothing, not because I’m trying to sound impressive) and I can’t for the life of me make sense of that statement. Knowledge is propositional (leaving knowledge how to one side, which dogs, cats and even silverbacks possess) and so is true or false. Faith doesn’t seem to work that way, at least there’s not decision method or function. So, how do you know (recursion?) your experiences, which I’m sure you feel are veridical, are veridical and not just subjective passings in you mind the rubber of whose never contact the bitumen of reality? (Actually, Kants dove would’ve been a better metaphor).

      In what way is it much better? You find it pleasing? Knowledge isn’t what we find pleasing so this confuses me too.

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    2. It’s the best because it’s demonstrable that it has predictive capability and that it’s more accurate than anything else at doing such predictions about how things behave in the real world.

      Oh now suddently that’s all scientists ever discovered, that air has 20% Oxygen, not how to make computers, cars, your house, what a dumb statement.

      Those that don’t understand science should start to understand science and if they choose not to there a lot of other activities, what kind of false dilemma is that?

      Faith is not a form of knowledge especially not accumulated through experience because experience generates empirical observations which lead to knowledge. Faith doesn’t rely on empirical observations but rather on “making shit up”. Unless you have a very different definition of faith and in that case i suggest you grab some dictionaries and read on them.

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  4. “Knowledge, whatever it may be philosophically, is knowledge and not faith. But my knowledge is a set of beliefs. It is just that not all my beliefs are knowledge.”

    All human knowledge is to some degree a belief of knowledge because humans lack consistent perfect perception of real knowledge, while some beliefs are accurate and some inaccurate. This is the same for all categories of knowledge such as physics, mathematics, and possible religious realities.

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  5. Nice one John.

    Almost no scientific knowledge worth the name exists only in one or a few individuals’ heads. Almost every belief does.

    Belief is subjective, knowledge is intersubjective?

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  6. Knowledge exists in a community. It is always shared. Even the most personal knowledge relies deeply upon the shared prior knowledge gained by the long experience of societies, cultures and institutions, without which it is almost impossible to have.

    This morning, while sitting alone at my computer, I knocked a pen off my desk and it fell to the floor. No one else saw it happen so there is no way I can prove what I say is a true account. Yet I would say that I know that it happened. Other members of society probably know that, in general, if pens are knocked off desks they fall to the floor but, although they might believe my story, they can’t really know that it happened, only I can. Or is my memory not knowledge because it is not communal?

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    1. This got me thinking.

      I would say that I know that I love a person for example. This is not something anybody else can say first hand. Therefore it must be subjective. Others can observe my behaviour and ask me questions, which they can use in analogy with their own subjective experience that they call love. But that doesn’t seem to intersubjective knowledge. They can’t fire up the scanning electron microscope to observe a love or knowledge particle and the fMRI will only show similar patterns of blood-flow given similar stimuli (like asking to the persons to talk about whom they love) not knowledge. It appears to me that there is a dilemma. Either knowledge is intersubjective and thus I cannot know that I love x, only that I use the word know as shorthand for I believe I love x or knowledge is not only intersubjective but has subjective forms.

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    2. If you tell the story of the pen falling, everyone shares the knowledge of why the pen fell down and not up or hover in place.

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  7. Flossifical ignoramus here, but I was taught that the crucial difference (for Very Junior Flossofy) between something that you “know” and something that you “believe” is that in knowing you must (a) believe something, (b) that something must be true, (c) you must have good reason for believing it to be true. I don’t know how good this rule is but it serves me as a starting point.

    I understand or mis-understand John’s point about communality of knowledge by considering, for example, Barack Obama’s birth controversy. I have never met the guy, but I believe he was born in Hawaii, because the non-wingnut community produces good data to demonstrate that, and I (in a psychological form of Bayesian philosophy) place little credence in the gibberings of the frothy-mouthed wingnuts.

    Similarly global warming: I have no direct knowledge of it, and can not have. My knowledge comes only from the community. I think John makess an interesting and valid point.

    Terms are always difficult though; religious folk will claim to “know” all sorts of stuff (e.g. creation myths), and if presented with the above criteria would say this is knowledge, not merely belief/opinion, because they have good reason to believe it as it’s written in their holy book.

    More trivially and annoyingly, John’s compatriot Paul Davies wrote an idiotic article for the Gruaniad newspaper saying because he’s blessed with being a physicist (and so in his eyes a superior sort of scientist) he can understand cancer with new insights that are invisible to specialists and he has a new theory which he wants someone to investigate for him. He wrote “theory”. His idea is not a theory, it is not even a hypothesis, it is simply a conjecture, and conjecture is a word that Guardian readers would understand exactly as a scientist would.

    Even a simple word like “truth” has pitfalls: BBC Radio’s religious discussion programme “Beyond Belief” (interesting title, eh?) described itself as searching for the “… many, often contradictory, truths …” which religion gives us. I don’t think many flossofers or scientists would accept “many contradictory truths” as a valid basis for insight.

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  8. My take on the role of community here is that it provides the context in which critical epistemic capacities can develop, and also maintains the store of ideas on which one can draw in the endeavor to create new knowledge. But those capacities and ideas can be fruitfully deployed and refined by individuals. Even the criterion of intersubjectivity is only an in principle, counterfactual constraint on empirical knowledge. There was a time prior to the publication of his researches when Newton, but nobody else in the relevant community, had positive knowledge about certain aspects of light — he didn’t “just” believe that white light can be decomposed into and reconstructed from the familiar spectrum; he knew that light behaved this way.

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  9. I stumbled across George Herbert Mead today by chance. Not had a chance to read him yet but on the surface at least reminded me of some points made here.

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  10. Brian: How is faith a form of knowledge?
    […]
    In what way is it much better?

    You can teach a computer to detect humor or irony, but it’ll never be able to laugh. Or smile.

    Faith is not a blind jump over a gap, but rather the power to make that jump. Actually faith takes all kind of forms. People can very well believe non-sense things, stupid or plain false. That’s true. That’s why I said that science is safer. But it’s also limiting. It’s a form of autism.

    Faith implies a risk. And the risk is taken only by those that feel they need to. If you just sit back, admiring the laws of the Universe, ignoring anything that could happen after your death, than you don’t feel like taking the risk to go beyond math and physics.

    For me, the past years of participation to Orthodox Christian services, together with detailed readings of theology, assured me that I’m on a safe path. It’s not only faith, and it’s not only reason. It’s both, immersed in real life experience.

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    1. You can teach a computer to detect humor or irony,
      No you can’t. What a silly statement. I program computers and the best you can do it to program them to parse statements and reply in some manner. To even think they can detect anything aproaching irony boggles the mind.

      That’s true. That’s why I said that science is safer. But it’s also limiting. It’s a form of autism.

      I don’t know what to say, you’ve said the silliest things, then claim that not to grab those silliest things is to be autistic. Well, I think you don’t know what autism is, you might even be misunderstanding aspergers, I have a degree in psychology, but don’t think I’m an expert, but can see a load of tripe when I’m asking for prime cut. But in any case you’ve just said you belive it because it feels good and there’s a risk.

      But seriously, take a risk on the laws of physics. Jump off a cliff or breath in CO. There’s a risk, and maybe those analytical scientists are wrong. There’s no risk in praying to an imaginary god.

      For me, the past years of participation to Orthodox Christian services, together with detailed readings of theology, assured me that I’m on a safe path. It’s not only faith, and it’s not only reason. It’s both, immersed in real life experience.

      And not an answer to my question about how it is knowledge. I’m sorry for being Gnu, but when you reply in such a condescening manner and act like whatever you think is truth. Well….

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  11. Some place to the side of the eternal (and incredibly boring) war of faith and reason, there’s another conflict between those who think of knowledge as a social phenomenon (John’s standing wave) and those who, even if they acknowledge that it is the result of an inter-subjective process, still think of it something that can be possessed by individuals–the definitive insight Descartes imagined he could have all by himself even without getting out of bed. This second view is very durable. Hegel conceived of science as the process by which reality comes to be aware of itself; but even though he famously emphasized the historical, social nature of this process, he still understood its culmination (Absolute spirit) as occurring in the mind of the philosopher, which is why Nietzsche could summarize his conclusion as “I, Hegel, am the truth.” John’s position, as I understand it, is that the best reality can do is to culminate in a wise community–Objective spirit in Hegelian lingo. I’d go a bit further, mindful as I am of the role of the lab rats in the research, and insist that understanding only becomes present in a complex and fragile configuration that includes things as well as minds.

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  12. I think the word ‘belief’ is so contaminated by its association with immutable faith that it should not be used in any other context. I shudder when I hear, or read, the misstatement “Scientists believe . . . ” Scientists should not believe, they should think. “I think” is mutable by a change in evidence, “I believe” is not. At least that is how I try to think about it. And I believe I am correct. 😉

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  13. “science (the best form of knowledge we have)”

    I am always puzzled by this kind of statement. Doesn’t ‘the best’ imply a certain set of values? Christian Pascu

    It might be the best form of knowledge for the things that can be known with science, it’s certainly not the best form of knowledge for things which can’t be the subject of science. I really don’t see that science would be the best form of knowledge if the topic was The Universal Declaration of Human Rights or even the recipe for the cake my sister wants me to make for our mother’s birthday.

    The distinction between knowledge and belief is, to some extent, an artificial one. Even the contention that the distinction is between the idea being held individually or communally. An idea that a single researcher holds which turns out to be right is held individually before it’s shared and verified by other people. Does it change from “belief” to “knowledge” on the basis of that verification? If the idea, itself, doesn’t determine the identification of it as “known” or “believed” then it seems like it’s an even more artificial distinction. A wrong idea can be accepted as knowledge as well as one that turns out to be correct. Sometimes what’s taken as verification of the idea is a communal effort, a lot of the discontinued ‘knowledge’ of psychology of the past turns out to be like that.

    And an idea that is right has to be believed as well as “known”. Evolution isn’t self-evident, it can’t be directly experienced, you have to collect a lot of evidence of it. You have to accept that evolution, that species change over time into other species, you have to believe it, at some point.

    On the other hand, religion is believed, in the end. It can be believed on the basis of experience and experience informed by science and other things but it is a question of belief in the end.

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  14. “I got home, and turned on the television, and all rational thought ceased.”

    Your reality is your conception, perception, and experience of it. It might have something to do with where you direct your attention. Maybe I’m wrong, but to claim it as someone else’s reality seems arrogant. But it sure is shiny!

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  15. Brian:
    But do they know it happened? Is testimony something that can underwrite knowledge I suppose?

    Wilkins, you use Apple and Apple never fails unlike Microso$ft, so what is your opinion about testimony? 😉

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