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.
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.