Monday, December 14, 2009

Believing and Knowing

'Belief' is a bit of a dirty word in polite society. 'Knowledge' seems to carry a little more weight. The word 'belief' carries with it connotations of thoughtlessness, credulity, and irrationality. Whereas the word 'knowledge' fosters a sense of confidence, credibility, and accessibility; what one knows, another can get to know. However, what one believes is isolated, and another would have to leap, or make a series of leaps (nonrational, often unverifiable assumptions) to express even a modest association with a claimant's beliefs.

Religion, say, the Christian religion, fixes definite doctrinal qualifications on its adherents. A Christian, in order to be a Christian, must assent to historical articles of faith, which is to say s/he must agree to 'believe' formulations concerning divine realities that s/he may not 'know' to be true or false. For example, a Christian has no other recourse but to believe in the incarnation of Christ. That same Christian, however, also has very little, if any, recourse to actual knowledge of the Christ s/he states belief in.

This leads to a confusion in terminology wherein the distinction between belief and knowledge is blurred. Some well-meaning Christians think that because they believe a given proposition -- e.g., there will be a mid-tribulation rapture -- they therefore know that proposition to be true. Conversation, at that point, becomes stunted. How can I discuss things intelligently at that point if the person I am talking to equates belief with knowledge? Crudely put, it is possible to believe that elephant ears act like wings when no-one is looking, or that cats house the souls of dead philosophers, perhaps that Darwin didn't die but underwent a rapid acceleration to a new evolutionary stage. It is not possible to know any of that.

So then, what is belief? Belief is, as the English philosopher Colin McGinn put it in Jonathan Miller's A Brief History of Disbelief:

"...what you'll act on, what you'll take for granted, what you'll assent to, what you might gamble on. That means you're committed to that being the case. 'Belief' is really just an umbrella term that covers all the varieties of assent, of takings to be true."

As such, a person can validly use the term 'belief' to state that s/he believes in eco-awareness, democracy, liberal politics, the existence of God or gods, or what have you. To state a belief then, it would seem, is the formal expression of implicit or informal trust in this-or-that phenomena or noumena on a case-to-case basis.

But to carry the definition of belief forward a little more, both Miller and McGinn acknowledge belief as a disposition. This is an important qualification since it realises the difference between what one knows and what one takes for granted; that is, believes. A Christian simply takes for granted the resurrection of Christ because it is a belief stacked on top of another belief that what the Bible states about Christ is revelation from God himself. However, belief in the resurrection comes with no actual knowledge of its truth or falsity. It is a willing leap based on a pre-disposition (i.e., already assumed belief) that what the Bible says is actually true. Belief is therefore dispositional, continuous and assumed, non-episodic, or second nature.

This is in contrast to knowledge. As Miller puts it:

"Although 'belief' resembles 'knowledge', there's a very important difference between the two. In the case of 'belief', you can say that someone believes X and that he was wrong. But it sounds rather odd to say that someone knows X and is wrong. It's part of the definition of knowing something that it is the case. Whereas believing something is a state of mind about which you could be proved to be wrong."

To 'know' something then, is to suggest that something is incontrovertably what it is, and not something else. To 'know' a thing is to perceive its correspondence to testable, communicable reality. But to 'believe' something is to take on trust what might, at some point, be shown to be false.

This puts Christians in a precarious situation not just amongst unbelievers, but amongst themselves, too. For how can conversation happen when belief is taken to be knowledge? In other words, how can anything intelligible be conveyed about any one of the tenets of Christianity if a Christian is convinced that what s/he believes is what s/he knows? The dissonance this creates in the mind of the observant listener shuts down any chances of mutually beneficial dialogue since this blurring of distinctions results in wrong-headed dogmatism, fanatacism, and extremism.

Even if a religious believer is benignly fanatical -- e.g., Catholic assertions about Mary's perpetual virginity, Baptist promulgations on the dance-leads-to-sex scenario, Pentecostal insistance on the gift of tongues -- the fact of the matter is that believing is not synonymous with knowing. As long as the insistance that "because I believe" is directly proportionate to "therefore I know" continues, most, if not all table-talk about religion will be mostly notional and not actual; connotative and absent of the denotative ingredients necessary to intelligently describing a belief, or sharing some actual knowledge. In essence, confusing 'belief' and 'knowledge' makes conversation almost meaningless.

That would be shameful for a group of people charged to "give a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15, ESV).

5 comments:

Edward said...

I think that, for at leasat some people, knowledge of God is a bit like knowledge that the world didn't begin five minutes ago (with a whole history of fake memories). Or maybe knowledge of the tree in your backyard (that it isn't a persistant hallucination). Or even knowledge that of what you ate for breakfast.

To ask people to "give a reason" for these things can be very threatening -- downright painful. People usually don't know how to respond, yet it seems obvious to them that they do know these things. So (I suspect) they panic and just sternly express conviction in these beliefs.

It's actually really hard to "give a reason" for these things. Most people who believe in these sorts of things don't believe in them for reasons: they don't infer them from other more basic beliefs, at least ordinarily. Which is not to say, necessarily, that they believe "just because they feel like it" or for "emotional" reasons.

The average citizen is utterly incapable of rationally reconstructing the case for evolution, all the way from raw evidence to theory. I'm not talking about doing science journalism, I'm talking about moving from real live evidence to a sufficiently subtle theory. What they can do is point out that trustworthy communities of experts can do this. It's worth pointing out that even experts can't do it (without relying on that trusted community of experts).

I think there are some interesting analogies that can be drawn here. Do regular folks trust that some people somewhere can give a reason for God? Is this as rational as belief in evolution by trusting in community of authorities? Or are most regular folks so stridently anti-authoritarian that they don't believe this at all? Is it possible that the basic unit of analysis, when it comes to knowledge, is the community. Is most of our interesting knowledge a matter of what WE know?

Christopher said...

Ed,

"I think that, for at leasat some people, knowledge of God is a bit like knowledge that the world didn't begin five minutes ago (with a whole history of fake memories). Or maybe knowledge of the tree in your backyard (that it isn't a persistant hallucination). Or even knowledge that of what you ate for breakfast."

As in, automatic, or assumed instances taken for granted?

"To ask people to "give a reason" for these things can be very threatening -- downright painful."

Oh, yes! Absolutely.

"Most people who believe in these sorts of things don't believe in them for reasons: they don't infer them from other more basic beliefs, at least ordinarily."

I wonder, does this imply then that there is a fiduciary basis for knowledge?

As for the rest of what you said, I think you may be on to something when you suggest a community-based cummulative knowledge. That is, yes, some people do trust the experts to tell us what to know about evolution, religion, chemistry, health, etc. But in stating agreement with this, what comes to my mind next is, 'Why should it stop there? Why is any individual absolved from seeking out understanding to the best of their ability on these matters?'

You see, we raise children to be well-adjusted, reasoning people. We don't bring them up to carry the torch of mass-conformity to the popular idea. Why should it be any different for the believer? Why should the believer be allowed a place to nonchalantly, and ignorantly fail to distinguish between the very ingredients that would make his/her faith intelligible?

Edward said...

I wonder if there's a sense in which even individual experts can only truly say "I know" because they are members of a community that can say "we know".

I, as a regular ol' citizen, can say "I know" too, insofar as I trust them. (Or so I say. I know some basic human anatomy, but I haven't personally investigated it. I trust the textbooks and the people who have looked into it. I think, by relying on trustworthy authorities, I don't merely have true belief, but knowledge.)

I'd say something like this: "I'm with the scientists who are working together to solve these puzzles. It's not an elaborate trick. On the whole, they conduct their work with honesty. Their way of doing things, on the whole, seems like the right way to go about solving these puzzles."

Could I actually do what they do?

Well, yes and no. If I was apprenticed by them, had the right sorts of aptitudes and for being successfully apprenticed, had access to the right tools and governments grants, and was in the good graces of peer reviewers, then yes I could to it. But, in terms of who I am right now, I currently can't do what they do!

Is there a sense in which personally doing real scientific work requires conversion to the community of scientists and their ways. This process of conversion and apprenticeship would be perfectly reasonable and rational, and yet still imbued with trust.

Does knowledge of God (in the Christian sense) require conversion and apprenticeship in a somewhat similar way? Slow, step-by-step, reasonable, yet imbued with trust.

I think you're spot on that "religion" (whatever precisely that is) shouldn't get a special pass. But knowledge of God might be more like knowledge of a tree in your backyard. You don't belief in it for reasons, but because your perceptual faculties render it present to you -- you encounter it. There's (arguably) no non-circular way to confirm the reliability of these perceptual faculties, but we can develop "best practices" and learn when to be wary of hallucinations. But, ultimately, we trust our perceptual faculties.

I wonder if we encounter God in a somewhat similar way? We'd still need to learn "best practices", learn how to perfect and refine, rule out classic misfires. But, still, it'd be based on trust/faith, and constitute knowledge. Reasonable, even if not based on reasons in the narrow sense?

I don't know, but I find all this interesting and at least somewhat promising/fruitful.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe that "believe" is negative in connotation, except, perhaps, when it is said in such a way that "believe" sounds tenuous.
The word believe comes from two English words: "BE" and "LIFON" The first means "life" and the latter means "according to". Basically, live what you believe.
That is a very positive connotation. We have a belief that is not only worth living for; it is worth dying for.
If we live what we believe, it will not be in isolation: "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another."
Belief is personal, but because we are relational, what we believe will affect how we live, which will affect the lives of those around us ... we have been entrusted with a great calling and privilege to serve and love others.
Merry Christmas!
J

Nick said...

Chris,

Very thought provoking blog. Most of it I can agree on with you. I probably wouldn't have commented except that a particular paragraph cought my interest for further discussion. Specifically in the paragraph I noticed:

It is a willing leap based on a pre-disposition (i.e., already assumed belief) that what the Bible says is actually true. Belief is therefore dispositional, continuous and assumed, non-episodic, or second nature.

I agree that it is in any case still a willing leap to believe that what the Bible says about Jesus being resurected is actually true to every litteral detail. However, I would not say belief is always cointinous, nor non-episodic. If it were so, there would not be parts of the Bible I presently do not believe, because at one time I believed it all as fact. Now it holds more spiritual truth for me than fact. But extrapolating the idea of belief being a willing leap based on a pre-disposition, theory is not all that different. Scientists quite regularly make a willing leap base on a pre-disposition of another's or their own. Otherwise the requirement to perform every test through the progression of the theory would be stagaring for one person to do before progress beyond a predisessor could be achieved. And progress for all of science would be limited to how many scientific experiments can one person do before they die. In short, and universally speaking, faith or believing is required in some amount for there to be progress. How much and what we know would be considerably less or maybe nothing if faith did not play a roll in aquiring knowledge. What bothers me is, when theory is considered equal with knowledge in the same way you describe the problem of belief being equal with knowledge. Both of these I think contribute to the confusion of progress, whatever the goal may be. I think that the speed of both personal progress and progress of a culture can only increase if there is differentiation between beleiving, knowing, and theorizing in our communications.