Commentary on Belief Claims and Knowledge Claims


In an earlier post, we talked about the differences between statements of belief and statements of knowledge (Do You Believe or Do You Know?), and we examined several statements to determine which ones could be called knowledge. Here are the statements again, with a little discussion of the reasons that the statements fall into one category or the other.

___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.

Statement A is the statement of a knowledge claim. We know now that other white Europeans made it to North America well before Columbus, and so America didn’t really need discovering in 1492, but that’s the year he landed on an island in the Bahamas thinking he had found India. The quotation marks around discovered apparently indicate that the author of the sentence is aware of the historical discrepancies. The claim can easily be checked, and we can regard it as knowledge that needs a bit of correction. This example demonstrates how knowledge can change over time.

Statement B is the statement of a knowledge claim—knowledge of the behaviors of the closed system called ‘mathematics.’ The key to this is a recognition that there is a specific context (math) in which the claim is operating. The statement functions well within the ‘rules’ for mathematical knowledge. And, the claim is checkable against other sources of information.

Statements C, D and E are statements of belief. Based on what we currently know, statement C is incorrect and therefore cannot be knowledge. Statement D is an unsupported value judgment. We may agree with the statement, but finding evidence to support ‘wrongness’ could prove to be difficult. As for statement E, it would be exciting to think aliens visited us once upon a time, but there is no solid evidence. The alleged ‘evidence’ that has been put forward in support of this claim can be interpreted in a multitude of ways.

Statement F is a knowledge claim that has been arrived at through inductive reasoning. Although we will never personally test every metal for this property of expansion, the phenomenon is so widely observed that we can claim it as knowledge until such time as we find a piece of metal that does not expand when heated. Note that the claim is basing a prediction on the regularity of past experience.

Statement G is a belief statement. Today, most of us want to see some sort of tangible, empirical evidence in support of a knowledge claim. Statement G is a statement that is difficult to justify in that way, and that is why it is not a statement of knowledge. I imagine most support for this claim is along the lines of personal anecdotes. Our personal experience may be typical of the experience of everyone, or it may not be, and so it’s seen as a weak form of justification.

Statement H falls into the knowledge claim category. Again, the claim is being made in a specific context (math). If the claim does rise to the level of knowledge, the claim can be checked in that context.

You probably noticed that I’ve made a distinction between the statement and the claim being made by the statement. One skill we use to help think clearly is categorization, and it’s helpful to examine the category of statement being made along with the actual claim. What is the intent of the statement? To inform, persuade, describe?

Identification of the different categories of statement helps us judge the quality of the statement itself. We expect to see specific qualities in a statement that will help us understand if the person making the claim sees it as knowledge or belief. The presence or absence of such qualities helps determine our reaction to the claim. Belief statements usually cannot be shown to rise to the level of knowledge because of a lack of generally acceptable support. Knowledge claims can be checked and the evidentiary support is typically more widely acceptable.

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.