Commentary on Belief Claims and Knowledge Claims

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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.

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.

DISCUSSION

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.

Anansi Tries To Steal All The Wisdom In The World

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A long time ago, Anansi the spider, had all the wisdom in the world stored in a huge pot. Nyame, the sky god, had given it to him. Anansi had been instructed to share it with everyone. Every day, Anansi looked in the pot, and learned different things. The pot was full of wonderful ideas and skills. Anansi greedily thought, “I will not share the treasure of knowledge with everyone. I will keep all the wisdom for myself.” So, Anansi decided to hide the wisdom on top of a tall tree. He took some vines and made some strong string and tied it firmly around the pot, leaving one end free. He then tied the loose end around his waist so that the pot hung in front of him. He then started to climb the tree. He struggled as he climbed because the pot of wisdom kept getting in his way, bumping against his tummy. Anansi’s son watched in fascination as his father struggled up the tree. Finally, Anansi’s son told him “If you tie the pot to your back, it will be easier to cling to the tree and climb.” Anansi tied the pot to his back instead, and continued to climb the tree, with much more ease than before. When Anansi got to the top of the tree, he became angry. “A young one with some common sense knows more than I, and I have the pot of wisdom!” In anger, Anansi threw down the pot of wisdom. The pot broke, and pieces of wisdom flew in every direction. People found the bits scattered everywhere, and if they wanted to, they could take some home to their families and friends. That is why to this day, no one person has ALL the world’s wisdom. People everywhere share small pieces of it whenever they exchange ideas.

Ashanti Folktale

Testing for Truth

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The Three Truth Tests

I think one of the biggest problems faced by all of us today is how to determine who to trust and what is true. In the Christian tradition, perhaps the most famous question to be asked of Christ is ‘quo vadis’ or ‘what is truth?’ History did not record an answer. The question, in most interpretations, is seen as a sarcastic one. Pontius Pilate, the questioner and local governor, is looking at a man claiming to be God, or at least that’s what people are saying. So Pilate seems to be asking, “If you are God or the Son of God or the Messiah, then you should know what truth is. So, what is truth?” Pilate is a man who has become frustrated with the lack of absolute answers and in his frustration he is now laughing at the idea that there is any such thing as truth.

There is another way to ask the question ‘quo vadis,’ ‘what is truth?’ It’s by asking the question sincerely and with a real desire to know. In another post, I talked about the three characteristics of truth; it is public, independent, and eternal. (Her Truth, your Truth, my Truth— whose Truth? ) There are also three tests for truth; these are the correspondence test, the coherence test, and the pragmatic test. We make frequent use of each of these tests every day and often use more than one at a time because each test has some holes in it.

Correspondence TestGo Look for Yourself

The truth of a claim can be checked with the correspondence test to see if the claim corresponds with reality. If I say, “The dog is in front of the fireplace,” then you can check the truth of that claim by looking to see if in reality the dog is in front of the fireplace. The implication of this test is that truth is something you get up and go look for. The hole in this argument is that you may be looking in the wrong place or that some aspect of what you’re working on requires reasoning rather than observation. Another possibility is you’re misinterpreting what you see or you’re seeing an illusion realistic enough to make you think you’ve seen the truth.

Coherence Test: Does this fit with other stuff I already know?

Any incoming claim we are assessing must jibe with other claims we know to be true. We want to know if the current claim before us is consistent with our previous knowledge. There should be no contradictions. If the new claim fits with the others, it’s true; it coheres; it sticks together (that’s what the word ‘coherent’ means).  This test implies that you can reason your way to the truth through argument. Aristotle was fond of that approach, and favoring argument over observation may have hampered the advancement of science for thousands of years.

Galileo had to fight the orthodox view of his time which stated that Aristotle was right when he claimed you can think your way to truth, and no other approach could yield truth. Galileo thought empirical data had something to say about the matter of truth.

Trouble is we need first-hand observation to determine truth in quite a number of cases. We can’t reason our way into confirming we have squirrels in our attic. We’ll have to have some proof. Unless we have previous knowledge. The sound of squirrels in the attic may be so familiar to some that there’s no need to look in order to know the truth. We’re the ones who’ve had empirical experience of squirrels in the attic before, and we can establish the truth of the present claim because what we know now fits with other things we knew before. The basic question with this test is: Does this claim fit with other claims I already know to be true?

A potential problem: you can make almost anything appear to be coherent. This is one reason gullible people believe conspiracy theories: the theory can be patched together with unsupported assumptions and made to appear coherent. Another thing that can be coherent but not true is a work of art like a novel.

Pragmatic Test: Does it work?

Perhaps the most nitty gritty of the tests for truth: if it works, it must be true. A claim that is pragmatically true must be applicable in practice; it must work in reality. Think of policy statements. If the policy works in the real world, if it generates practical results, then we can say it’s true. Frequently things like cultural behaviors or established practices that ‘work’ are seen as ‘true’ in this way. The weak point with this test is that there may be things that ‘work’ but aren’t true. For example, telling a child there is a Santa Claus can be seen as pragmatically true in that the statement ‘works’ to satisfy a child’s curiosity and skepticism. On the other hand, the correspondence and coherence tests may cause us to come to a different conclusion about Santa.

There is no foolproof road to the truth—just look at all the fools who think they know the truth. There is no single way to approach the question ‘quo vadis?’ Sometimes one of these tests will be enough to satisfy, but using the tests in conjunction with each other can give us more confidence that we’re heading in the direction of truth.

Thinking About Thought

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“The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. The second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. The first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking.”

A. A. Milne, British author

 

“There are two distinct classes of what are called thoughts: those that we produce in ourselves by reflection and the act of thinking and those that bolt into the mind of their own accord.”

Thomas Paine, politcal activist, philosopher, revolutionary

 

“The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.”

Martin Heidegger, philosopher

Is Everyone Entitled to an Opinion? Are You Sure?

“Everyone is entitled to an opinion.” This is a point of view defended by many Americans, often with the reminder that “It’s a free country!” Few mindlessly parroted adages could be more obviously stupid than this one. Perhaps some of us do need to be reminded that it’s a free country, but this idea of entitlement presents a number of serious problems. It seems to claim that all opinions are of equal value. They are not. Another related problem: it’s an approach that uses an extremely devalued idea of what constitutes an opinion.

Plato told us, “An opinion is a judgment based on facts.” Today our idea about what constitutes an opinion seems to have grown much fuzzier than Plato’s view. Today, we think of an opinion as a value judgment on anything. But it’s more than that. An opinion is stronger than a mere impression but less strong than positive knowledge. It is usually based on evidence of some kind, as are most conclusions. Though an opinion is thought out (or it should be), it is open to dispute because the evidence, the specific supporting details, may or may not be logical or the meaning of the support may be open to interpretation. An opinion is not a clearly proved matter. Some opinions are better than others.

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To be convincing, opinion should be based on factual evidence, and a person expressing an opinion should be able to support that opinion with fact, good reasons, and sound logic. Without facts, an opinion isn’t very convincing. We also make decisions based on our perceptions of the credibility of the source. Suppose a school group is touring the local nuclear power plant. They happen to be in the control room when alarms begin to sound. One of the junior boys is about to press a flashing red button when a man at the control panel shouts, “No!” Who would you guess is the expert? The 12-year old boy who likes to change the oil in your car may not be the best ‘expert’ to ask whether your brakes need to be fixed. Your next-door neighbor’s opinion on what to do about your bad knee is not going to be as informed as your doctor’s opinion. Clearly, there are limits on who is ‘entitled’ to an opinion.

What? Limits on Free Speech? Of course. Limits must be placed on things that have the potential to be dangerous. There must be limits because speech has the power to lead others into harm’s way. Oliver Wendell Holmes did a famous analysis of the issue when he argued no one has the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater when there is no fire. Such a statement is almost sure to cause injury to innocent people, and the person who says such a thing is rightly subject to arrest for putting people in danger under false pretenses.

Anyone claiming to be entitled to an opinion needs to be watched carefully because they probably don’t know as much as they think they do. Good opinions are supported with verifiable facts, even though the opinion being put forward may be only one of a number of possible interpretations of those facts. And the differing interpretations may well be based on differing value judgments. Begin your analysis of an opinion by checking if any facts have been offered in support and if you can verify them. Then look for value statements to see if they are built on logical, ethical priorities. At that point, you may be looking at an opinion worth your time. And if you keep these points in mind, people will want to make time to hear your opinion, too..

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”

—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former US Senator (1927-2003)