Knowledge as Belief

Originally written in 2006.


It has been said that knowledge is justified true belief. Here I want to argue briefly that the primary component in the acquisition of knowledge, i.e., learning, is belief based on trust. Learning occurs when one believes what another, presumably authoritative or trustworthy, person or source of information is presenting. Learning by its very nature involves acceptance of knowledge heretofore not present in the subject. It involves acceptance of knowledge without the possibility of verifying it in advance. I claim that learning is simply believing what you’re told.

It is evident that, prior to the acceptance of new knowledge, one can test whether it is consistent with existing knowledge. Such evaluation will reveal whether the new knowledge is consistent or not with what is currently known; however, the critical fact is that the putative knowledge is new: Its truthfulness cannot be evaluated in advance, only its consistency with existing knowledge can be. Once accepted, it will alter the understanding and relationship of currently-held knowledge.

The point can be illustrated by considering the interpretation of documents. In the interpretation of Scripture, for example, one can (and must) evaluate if a proposed interpretation, whether presented by another or arising from personal study, is consistent with the existing and broader understanding of the Bible. A proposed interpretation can be evaluated for its consistency with the biblical context, as currently understood, but the interpretation cannot be evaluated for its essential truthfulness beyond that. The acceptance of the proposed interpretation will, by its addition to the core of accepted biblical knowledge, change the context of all subsequent interpretation.

Fortunately, going astray in biblical interpretation is less likely than the preceding discussion might suggest. There is a great deal of redundancy in the text, so much that a fair consideration of existing context will rule out interpretive outliers. Yet the principle stands, namely, accepting new knowledge alters the knowledge, or context, used to evaluate subsequent new putative knowledge. Similarly, accepting a new understanding of Scripture will change the context used in all subsequent interpretive activity.

It is a fiction of rationalism that we accept knowledge based on rational, dispassionate, and logical study and evaluation. The acceptance of knowledge, as has been argued, involves the acceptance of that which cannot be verified independently. Its consistency can be checked to the extent of existing knowledge, but the new component of knowledge cannot be so checked. The young child being taught by parents learns a great deal of fundamental knowledge and skill simply by trusting and believing his or her parents and others who are present. What is so learned becomes knowledge for the child and will persist unless and until subsequent knowledge or experience casts it into doubt.

In ordinary persuasive discourse, one can readily find assertions like, “Believe me, I’m telling the truth.” Here, the speaker is appealing for the listener to believe his (the speaker’s) assertions. Our Lord in the Gospels made similar statements, such as, “Truly, truly, I say to you.” Yet these are both ridiculous in some sense, since the hearer cannot know that the speaker is telling the truth and has only the speaker’s assertion of truthfulness and appeal to belief. Yet, we all have no difficulty in understanding and responding to the sense of these statements. How can this be? The appeal of these declarations is to a personal knowledge of the speaker, i.e., because you know me, believe what I'm telling you.

An Example

Consider two passages from the book of Genesis:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." (Genesis 2:16-17 ESV)

But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:4-5 ESV)

Let us imagine conversing with Eve before she ate the fruit God told her not to eat:

"So Eve, I notice you're eating every fruit in the garden, except that one."

"That's right. Adam and I can't eat it."

"Why not?"

"If we eat it, we'll die."

"How do you know that?"

"God told me."

Eve would certainly say that she knew the consequence of eating the fruit, even though she had not actually done so. I claim she’d say she knew it, not merely believed it with a high degree of certainty. The acceptance of God’s words regarding the fruit became knowledge for her.

Now, the serpent tempts Eve; she eats some of the fruit and gives some to Adam, who eats it as well.

"Well Eve, I see you decided to eat the fruit after all."

"I realized it was good to eat and would make me wise if I ate it."

"Really, how did you discover that?"

"The serpent told me."

Eve had no way in advance to verify the truth of God's statement that, if she and Adam ate the fruit, they would die. She simply took God at his word, and this became knowledge for her. Neither could Eve know for herself in advance that the the words of the serpent were to be disbelieved. She only knew that the serpent was contradicting the words of God, which she had believed thus far. By deciding to take and eat the fruit, Eve implicitly accepted the serpent’s claims that the fruit was good and desirable. Eve believed the serpent, and this too became knowledge for her; thus, in this understanding, not all knowledge is true knowledge or good knowledge.

It is evident that the acquisition of knowledge is a highly personal act, for when we accept knowledge from another person, i.e., when we take someone at his word and believe his assertions, we cannot do so without placing some degree of trust and reliance in the person giving the knowledge. In the case of taking the word of Person A over that of Person B, we are choosing or preferring the person A over B; we are saying that Person A is a more reliable source of knowledge or perhaps a more reliable witness than is Person B.

When we accept knowledge from another person, we are saying to some extent, 'I will see the universe your way [or the way you present it to me].' We are putting ourselves in submission to a particular understanding of the universe and our place in it; we are giving this knowledge or point of view an authoritative place in our lives. This follows simply because the acceptance of knowledge is done without the means to corroborate it independently. In doing so, we are implicitly excluding certain points of view and interpreting evidence in the light of the understanding we've accepted. If our authoritative source has deceived us, we are in big trouble, for the acceptance of his particular understanding can render us blind to or biased against evidence to the contrary.

By eating the fruit, Adam and Eve preferred the serpent over God and affirmed the primacy of the serpent's word over God's word. This gives additional insight into the seriousness of their act.

Here we are led to understand the acquisition of knowledge as believing what we've been told. It follows that all of what we say we know is the accumulation of what we've been told and which we have not stopped believing.

Objections

Two objections to the view of learning and knowledge presented here immediately appear. First, it will be argued that our physical senses provide input to us directly and can be used to confirm or disconfirm the statements from our authoritative source. The senses can indeed be a valuable means of checking the truth of the assertions we hear, yet they are by no means infallible. In the early years of child development, the young child learns to parse the sensory input which comes to him. He learns what is foreground and background, that objects have persistence even when they are not directly seen, and so on. In other words, he learns how to interpret his senses, i.e., he learns how to read what his senses tell him. The senses implicitly provide information to us; they tell us of the world around us. We choose what to do with this, and it is significant that in some contexts we will do well to disbelieve our senses, since they may mislead us.

Secondly, it will be argued that we can use existing knowledge to check the veracity of new claims. It is more accurate to reiterate that we can use existing knowledge, such as it is, to check the consistency of new claims with existing claims. It has been argued that existing knowledge is none other than assertions previously accepted and believed from a trustworthy source. Consider an example: suppose a college physics class is told to measure the acceleration of gravity, a well-known physical value. Suppose also that a group of students measure, repeatedly, a value differing by 10% from the accepted value. Which value will they accept, their laboratory-verified value or the value found in textbooks and taught by their professor? Obviously, the latter. Why? The students immediately realize that their laboratory work, as careful as it presumably was, was somehow in error, since it deviated from the accepted value. That is, they will accept the value taught by the authoritative community of science and disregard (disbelieve) their own work and sensory input.

Summary

If this understanding of knowledge is correct, it presupposes that we are able to know persons in a way that is independent of direct verbal or nonverbal communication. We trust some people and not others, and we will receive knowledge from those we trust, but not from those we don’t trust. Also, there must be some cognitive apparatus present in us to receive and understand assertions about things we do not already know about or understand. Given all this, fundamentally, knowledge becomes a matter of who you believe, more than what you believe. This finds support in Scriptural passages dealing with hearing the voice of God. As it was in the beginning, it still is now. Fundamentally, there are two voices: the voice of God and the voice of Satan.

It can be very difficult to know that one has believed a lie of the evil one or see the evidence which contradicts the so-called knowledge from evil. This is because we cannot believe the word of the serpent without being changed for the worse by it. Believing the serpent involves preferring the person of the serpent over the person of God and submitting ourselves to the serpent's ostensible knowledge over the knowledge God has.


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