Belief and Knowledge

                                                    A marble head of Socrates in the Louvre

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Socrates famously noted that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But what exactly does an examined life require? …

Our starting point

We do all start our process of self-reflection with our inherited perspectives. We are born into a particular family and society and acquire our first views from such contexts — influenced strongly by our parents, our schools, the religious, civic and political authorities. There are always background assumptions in such contexts. One thing philosophers try to do is bring those background assumptions to light and examine them. Philosophers do so with the intention of clarifying concepts, providing a justification for beliefs and considering whether our priorities are well-ordered.

Some basic questions on belief and knowledge

As we consider an examined life, I want briefly to reflect on a few basic concepts of importance for this examination. First, what is a belief? For beliefs are largely what we will examine. Second, how do beliefs relate to knowledge? For true beliefs have been the traditional goal of philosophers. Third, what is a warranted belief? For while the traditional philosophical goal of certain and absolute truth largely evades us, I would like to suggest that this more moderate goal [of having warranted beliefs,] … may replace it [the goal of absolute truth or knowledge.]

A belief

belief is a subjectively held view. We think that our beliefs are true, but some of them are and some of them are not. Beliefs, as we have discussed, are first of all a product of our social environment. We acquire beliefs, among other things, from our “knowledge communities.” In our society, we have established schools where knowledge from diverse academic disciplines is passed on: There we learn that 1+1+2. We learn that atoms  (or subatomic particles) are fundamental building blocks. We learn that organisms are comprised of cells. We learn that organisms evolve through history. From our households, churches, and political system, we learn certain views of about morality and/or law are correct. We learn that certain religious views are or are not correct. In all of this, we learn how to learn. That is, we are taught by our communities fundamental approaches to knowledge questions that are deemed respectable.

Relative degrees of certainty and appropriate forms of justification

When I say “we learn” here what I really mean is that we are taught these things and we come to believe them. For some of the things I’ve mentioned are thought to be knowledge and quite certain and others less so. We are taught — though we may not be conscious of this — that different standards of evidence are required for different domains. Aristotle already differentiated between areas, like physics in which we could have considerable certainty, and other areas, like ethics, where we have much less certainty.


Sometimes we are taught that no evidence is needed for some beliefs, but that we should just dogmatically embrace a set of ideas. This form of dogmatism is decidedly unphilosophic. Philosophy is characterized by seeking justifications for all beliefs.

When it comes to religious beliefs, no small children and few young adults have views that were not taught to them by their parents or guardians, or someone with whom they had a lot of contact as children. Most of those in the United States are Christians, born into Christian households. Yet it is clear that if they had been born in India, of Hindu parents, they would likely be Hindu. Some students, now adults, have examined beliefs they grew up with and have moved away from the religion of their parents. Some have examined them and retained the religion of their parents. Some haven’t thought about their religious views much. People are often not willing to compromise on religious beliefs. Some people do hold religious ideas non-dogmatically, though, viewing them as basic principles that are open to some revision.

Though religious beliefs are among the beliefs held most dogmatically, they are not the only beliefs that are held dogmatically. Some political beliefs or basic moral positions are held without much justification ever provided. In the United States, many people think that the country is the best, most free country in the world, or in world history. Regardless of whether it is true, few people attempt to justify the belief in any detail. Those who do clearly don’t do so by pointing to the wellness indexes of the UN such as average life expectancy, the average educational level, the results of average happiness studies. None of those indicate that life in the U.S. is superior to that in other countries. They also rarely make use of in-depth cross-country or cross-historical arguments. Doing so would require specifying clearly what the criteria for greatness are.

This political view, like a religious view, is normally held dogmatically. Reflecting on the view can teach us something, but there is often a hesitancy to reflect on it, because to do so may be viewed as unpatriotic, or it will simply go against the cultural grain, and we are uncomfortable to take a minority stance. Identity issues are tied up with some of our basic beliefs about religion and politics. This makes movement on those issues particularly cumbersome.

Knowledge beyond certainty 

As mentioned, philosophers have long indicated that different domains allow different levels of certainty and different criteria for justification. Contemporary philosophy has long moved beyond searching for absolute certainty for most of our beliefs. Instead, philosophers, like the pragmatists, have developed views that while it is important to seek justifications for beliefs, we need not have justifications that are always airtight. Indeed, we cannot.

Yet that does not mean that any belief is just as a justifiable as any other. John Dewey, an American pragmatist of the early 20th century, argued that we should look for “warranted assertability.” For this, we need to consider what kind of evidence applies to the domain under question and try to figure out what the right amount of evidence for that domain is. This, of course, is a difficult task. But as thoughtful and serious people, it is a task that we cannot avoid. To do so would essentially to affirm a willed ignorance about various domains about which rational reflection and the use of evidence-based reasoning could help us to develop some reasonable beliefs.

Knowledge is generally thought of as a kind of true belief. But of course, we could have a true belief serendipitously. We might have been taught something true and believe it even though we do not know why we believe it. In alignment with the philosophical desire to understand the world and to understand the reasons for beliefs and to form beliefs responsibly, it is perhaps more appropriate to view (theoretical) knowledge as consciously justified true belief. But this description too might only work as a guide rather than as a hard and fast definition, since much-purported knowledge cannot be known to be absolutely true.

One of the values of philosophical reflection is that it can help us to gain greater clarity about appropriate forms of evidence for beliefs and to grasp why we might hold something to be true (and even provisionally call it the best knowledge available), given the state of evidence that we have, without clamoring to the view as dogma.

Fallibilism and abduction

Twentieth-century philosophers from John Dewey and Charles Pierce to Karl Popper have emphasized the wisdom of revising our beliefs in light of new evidence that we find. Pierce develops a position known as fallibilism that is also later developed by Popper. Pierce’s view is that knowledge grows as we formulate positions and develop beliefs that are open to being disproven or improved upon and that we revise those views in light of knowledge we gain. Pierce’s article “The Fixation of Belief” highlights the value and wisdom of such an approach, which, in stark contrast to dogmatism, is open to correction.

The lack of certainty that we have in various domains thus does not condemn us to absolute relativism — the view that any view is as good as any other. But because our accepted beliefs are not shown to be absolutely certain, but only the best available ones given the available evidence, we might speak of “truth” with a small “t” rather than a capital “T.” This attitude expresses humility — an acknowledgment of the difficulty of the questions being posed.

Pierce thinks that at least when it comes to scientific views, the evidence is always strong enough to point to the best answer. He calls the reasoning to this best explanation   abduction. Various theorists apply this term to domains outside of science. There is some debate among philosophers of science about whether it is even possible in the domain of science. There is even more debate about whether it is possible in other domains. Is there a best single answer applicable to all people to all questions of applied ethics or to all questions of the spiritual or religious life?

Philosophical reflection facilitating self-knowledge

If there is not one best answer to all of the kinds of questions philosophers ask, we could ask what value there is to asking those kinds of questions at all. Might we return to Socrates’ dictum at this point? Might it be valuable for providing us with the possibility to know our own minds, to gain greater clarity about what our own values are — in short, for facilitating self-knowledge that can improve our lives?

Even if some domains (like religion or ethics) do not in every case provide us with universally acceptable answers, or clearly best answers, might there be a value in reflecting on what some of the reasonable answers are? We will likely at least learn what some really bad answers are. And might the reflection at least facilitate us in better deciding the things that we, individually, find worthy to care about and the beliefs we find worthy to pass on?

Useful links

See John Messerly’s short discussion of  Fallablism (reasonandmeaning) or see
Fallabilism (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) or see
Belief (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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3 thoughts on “Belief and Knowledge

  1. Excellent summary John.

    Philo means love and sophy wisdom not knowledge.

    So philosophy is the love of wisdom.

    Wisdom always combines verifyable belief (faith) and intuitive reason.

    Knowledge is transient, wisdom is eternal.

    Modern science is yet to rise to the occasion of daring to study subjective yet universal wisdom with faith and reason seemlessly combined.

  2. I agree that self-reflection is a worthwhile activity for examining one’s beliefs and knowledge. However, using Socrates and his dictum as impetus for self-reflection is somewhat illogical, given his preferred method of examination and the context in which he apparently uttered his dictum (at his trial, after being convicted and after choosing death as his punishment).

    Socrates generally placed little value on self-reflection, preferring instead to engage in back and forth questioning-and-answering in order to draw out knowledge and understanding (the so-called “Socratic method”). Apparently, he found banishment so repugnant, where he could not engage in his preferred method of examination, that he chose death as his punishment instead. Some have called this the “noble choice”. Or maybe he was actually pragmatic about being 70 years old, not looking forward to the end stage of his life and saw this as an ideal circumstance to make his exit. Or maybe he was already in age-related cognitive decline (as all of us near that age are, to varying degrees) and simply made an irrational decision.

    Whatever the true reason, it seems to me that someone else might be a better example for demonstrating the value of self-examination of one’s beliefs and knowledge.

  3. “But of course, we could have a true belief serendipitously. We might have been taught something true and believe it even though we do not know why we believe it.”

    + a comment

    “Modern science is yet to rise to the occasion of daring to study subjective yet universal wisdom with faith and reason seemlessly combined.”

    Science is still dominated by the Newtonian– not Quantum, etc.
    Until science develops more, heuristics might be the only way to live, albeit not to advance, but merely live. A family for example, is not advancing scientifically… they are living heuristically. The husband did not choose the wife scientifically and vice versa. They did not choose where to live scientifically nor did they even choose their careers scientifically. The science in their lives is limited to machines and medicine.

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