Do You Believe or Do You Know?

    Where on the belief-knowledge spectrum — running from -10  to +10 — would you put the following claims?

  -10 BELIEF    10231   +10 KNOWLEDGE

___A. Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America in 1492.

___B. If A is bigger than B and B is bigger than C, than A is bigger than C.

___C. Human beings are descended from apes.

___D. Murder is wrong.

___E. Aliens have visited the earth at some time during its history.

___F. All metals expand when heated.

___G. Human beings have an immortal soul.

___H. It is possible to construct a square with the same area as a given circle.


We could quibble with several of these statements, but the key concern we’re examining here is the relationship between belief and knowledge. Some of the statements above rise to the level of knowledge, others do not. Can you tell which ones and explain why?

Many people draw a clear line between the two terms. They view ‘belief’ as a kind of fuzzy, subjective experience and ‘knowledge’ as a solid center of immutable fact. We need to look more closely at the question because this is an oversimplified distinction between belief and knowledge, and it may not serve us very well. The quality of the distinction we make between the two has a big role to play in what we claim to know. Our belief framework (religious, cultural, philosophical) shapes our interpretation of the world, and differing interpretations of the world can cause us to make very different knowledge claims.

Belief, it turns out, is a kind of starting point for the acquisition of knowledge. You can’t claim to know something if you don’t also believe it. I can’t claim to know it’s raining and then say, “But I don’t actually believe that it’s raining.” However, it is possible to believe something without being able to say, “I know this.”

Here’s one way to think about it: some claims require the kind of support that everyone can clearly see and agree on. Religious belief is a circumstance where you may have enough support to satisfy yourself, but most of the broader public won’t accept your personal experience alone and wants to see more solid (more empirical?) support for knowledge claims. For example, I may believe human beings have an immortal soul, but I would be hard pressed to come up with evidence that would convince most people. If I claim God is talking to me, not many people will believe me without some pretty extraordinary support.

Our attitudes about this also shift over time. There was a time in Western culture when claims of divine revelation were perfectly acceptable. The take-away? A belief statement is not a knowledge statement. A knowledge statement is readily tested by the quality of support offered, and through that support the claim can be demonstrated to be knowledge.

There is a multitude of Stuff that passes through our heads. Not all of it is knowledge. It isn’t even necessarily thought. In another post, I’ll talk more about the different kinds of things (besides knowledge) that run through our heads every day and the kinds of statements we make about them.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.