Belief and knowledge, or: atheism and agnosticism

Chris Cathcart's picture
Submitted by Chris Cathcart on Wed, 2007-05-09 01:30

I've been working on these thoughts as I debate this question over on the off-topic forums. My thought is that the traditional definition of knowledge as "justified true belief" is wanting, and probably reflects confusions perpetuated by traditional philosophers. Rand's definition much more precisely identifies the nature of knowledge, which is a mental grasp of reality reached by a process of reasoning. Some years back on an Oism list I saw a similar objection to the traditional understanding of knowledge, and offered a definition of knowledge as awareness of reality.

Now, it looks to me that awareness is a much stronger mental state than belief. Belief is an affirmation of a proposition's truth in the absence of certainty. "Awareness" indicates a direct contact with reality. The traditional understanding more or less sets up a barrier between the mental (belief) and the existential (the true). Allegedly it's the epistemological (justification) that bridges this gap. You end up with a rather unstable position that pooh-poohs the regress problem (how you know that you know that you know...) yet remains open to attacks on reason as the only basis for belief. To know something is to have a mental or pyschological state of belief in a proposition's truth reached by a process of justification. Problem is, this doesn't adequately distinguish between between false or mistaken beliefs and actual knowledge. The only distinguisher (truth) is meaningless from an epistemological standpoint. The standard view is that we "just know" certain things even though we're also aware that the possibility of error means that some things that we now justifiedly believe as true are false. At this point, we're left making a kind of "leap of faith" that things we take to be items of knowledge or really, truly knowledge. We have "knowledge" in the absence of the requisite certainty. Now, a religionist in this day and age will only be happy to point out, in this situation, that the reasonists take just as much a leap of faith as they do. The traditional definition leaves reason in a no better position than faith.

Here's the point: knowledge is awareness with certainty. (Awareness with certainty is actually a redundancy.) We actually do know things by this standard, e.g., the existence of the sun to name a straightforward example. No one seriously doubts this. At the same time, if someone is aware of the sun's existence, does that person "believe" that the sun exists? It looks like that this has gone beyond the mental state of belief.

Also of relevance here is that the "belief" refers to a psychological phenomenon, whereas "knowledge" is specifically an epistemological one. This means that epistemology is concerned specifically not with what it means to have a justified belief, but what it is to know something, and to identify standards by which we come to know things.

Established methods of inquiry, such as the scientific method or jury trial procedures, will sometimes yield hard knowledge, sometimes justified belief. In the latter case, it's specifically spelled out that the standard is "beyond a reasonable doubt," which doesn't imply knowledge. It's well-known that juries can and have reached a justified conclusion that's false. But seeing as these methods of inquiry can yield knowledge, and do so about as well as any other method we could come up, we treat these methods of inquiry as epistemology-applied-to-specialized-areas. It's these methods themselves that meet a standard of unassailability because they pass sufficient epistemological muster.

Religious belief, on the other hand, doesn't in the end admit to analysis by any such comparable methods of inquiry. It is immune from assessments of possibility, probability, likelihood, and certainty. We can state with knowledge-certainty, for instance, that amputees cannot regenerate limbs. This isn't merely justified true belief, but something where we have unassailable ideas of possibility and impossibility. You'll note that spontaneous regeneration of limbs has never been reported as a miracle by believers. They reserve such reports and claims to those realms where their status as alleged miracles cannot be rationally assessed. If the reported events are actually possible, they could possibly be explained as the result of an elaborate magic trick. "Stones into bread" can easily be pulled off by a magician. While all reason and common sense tells us that stones truly turning into bread is impossible, and we could conclude that we know it couldn't happen just as spontaneous regeneration of limbs couldn't happen, the assertion of such an event as a miracle is, at best, an object of belief -- a psychological affirmation that is, in this instance, false. (Just as everyone would disbelieve and affirm as false a report of spontaneous limb-regeneration.) It cannot possibly be known. (Some observations here are credited to authors at

So, now about atheism and agnosticism. There's been perennial confusion about the exact meanings of these terms, and who falls into what categories. Here, I propose a sound revision that clears up these confusions. Actually, it turns agnosticism into a position more deadly to theism. Since belief pertains to a psychological phenomenon, and atheism is merely the absence of such a psychological affirmation, atheism doesn't make for a properly epistemological assessment of theism's claims. Agnosticism, properly understood, is the only epistemological assessment that only could rationally make of theism. A not-very-exact agnostic would say "I just don't know either way on the subject, so I won't affirm either way." Plenty of atheists are correct to ask how this distinguishes the agnostic from the atheist. The agnostic might merely be saying that they aren't affirming a belief either way on the subject, but that they're leaving things open for rational assessment that potentially involves either belief, disbelief, or knowledge. But that more or less only says something about the state of the person's mind on the subject, and doesn't really establish an epistemological position. The more exact epistemological position, stated by some agnostics even if they don't all follow through on the implications, is that there's no way of knowing one way or the other on the subject. The proper implication from this is that there aren't any known or established epistemological standards for being able to assess theistic claims. Those claims fall outside the realm of epistemology. (The only "claims" -- not exactly claims, but arguments -- that may purport to address themselves to epistemologists are the arguments for God's existence that philosophers have found wanting, that tend to rely rationalistically and floatingly on high-level concepts. Being of such a nature, they don't reduce properly to the perceptual level for fully-formed epistemological assessment.)

Ultimately, in short, the agnostic position proper isn't "I don't know," but "there's no standard involved for arriving at knowledge on this subject." Epistemologically speaking, there's nothing to know or not know. As far as belief is concerned, the thing of interest here is the psychology of belief, i.e., what would lead people to believe certain things where there aren't known standards for assessing claims.

( categories: )

Reciprocating P&C

Stephen Boydstun's picture

Reciprocating Perceptions and Conceptions

Within the note Perceptual Observation, I had asked:

“Do we have perceptions without knowledge? Is knowledge an essential ingredient of human perception?”

I have since noticed that Kathleen Touchstone has addressed this issue within her 1996 Objectivity essay “Mathematics and Intuition.” Dr. Touchstone’s discussion is contained on pages 139–45 of that essay, which can be found at Objectivity Archive. Click on Volume 2, Number 4.

After reciting and endorsing Rand’s definitions of perception, knowledge, and concept, Touchstone asks: “What is the relationship between conceptualization and perception?” She takes as right this answer from Rand:

“A mind’s cognitive development involves a continual process of automatization. For example, you cannot perceive a table as an infant perceives it—as a mysterious object with four legs. You perceive it as a table, i.e., a man-made piece of furniture, serving a certain purpose belonging to a human habitation, etc.; you cannot separate these attributes from your sight of the table, you experience it as a single, indivisible percept—yet all you see is a four-legged object; the rest is an automatized integration of a vast amount of conceptual knowledge which, at one time, you had to learn bit by bit. The same is true of everything you perceive or experience; as an adult, you cannot perceive or experience in a vacuum, you do it in a certain automatized context—and the efficiency of your mental operations depends on the kind of context your subconscious has automatized.” (“The Comprachicos” 1971)

Critical Belief

Stephen Boydstun's picture

Rand wrote that the higher animals “possess the faculty of retaining sensations, which is the faculty of perception. A ‘perception’ is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism, which gives it the ability to be aware, not of single stimuli, but of entities, of things. An animal is guided, not by immediate sensations, but by percepts. Its actions are not single, discrete responses to single, separate stimuli, but are directed by an integrated awareness of the perceptual reality confronting it. It is able to grasp the perceptual concretes immediately present, and it is able to form automatic perceptual associations” (OE, 1961, 19).

Nathaniel Branden maintained that higher animals can engage in perceptual abstractions (Mortimer Adler’s term), which is recognition of a number of sensible particulars as of the same kind. The animal does not have the further, human conceptual power, which entails “identifying explicitly of what the kind consists” (Psy of S-E 1969, 30).

Leonard Peikoff remarked that perceptual similarities are seen by animals, but humans go beyond that. We isolate similar concretes and form concepts standing for an unlimited number of concretes (Phil of Obj, Lecture 4, 1976).

David Kelley wrote that in judging of an object, which one is perceiving, that it is a such-and-such, one “classifies the object on the basis of similarities that have been explicitly isolated and named” (ES, 1986, 219).

Rand wrote that “an animal has no critical faculty; he has no control over the function of his brain and no power to question its content. To an animal, whatever strikes his awareness is an absolute that corresponds to reality—or rather, it is a distinction he is incapable of making: reality to him is whatever he senses or feels” (FNI, 1961, 17). She remarked orally that “an animal does not have the capacity to isolate critically the fact that there is something and he is conscious of it” (IOE, c.1970, 246). An animal lacks the human ability “to apply introspection to the processes of one’s own consciousness and check them” (256).

In the preceding statements, notice these phrases especially: identifying explicitly /// isolate similar concretes /// explicitly isolated /// isolate critically the fact that there is something.

In their Scientific American article “The Biological Basis of Learning and Individuality” (Sep 1992), Kandel and Hawkins distinguish between two kinds of learning found in animals with nervous systems. Higher animals, including humans, learn in both ways. One kind of learning is called implicit, the other is called explicit.

Habituation, sensitization, and classical conditioning are forms of what is called implicit learning. Such learning “is slow and accumulates through repetition over many trials. It often [viz., classical conditioning] involves association of sequential stimuli and permits storage of information about predictive relations between events” (80). In contrast, “explicit learning is fast and may take place after only one training trial. It often involves association of simultaneous stimuli and permits storage of information about a single event that happens in a particular time and place; it therefore affords a sense of familiarity about previous events” (80). Explicit learning requires consciousness. Explicit learning evidently occurs only in vertebrates; it requires structures in the temporal lobes.

Within the broad category known as explicit learning, there are degrees of explicitness. In Explaining Behavior, Fred Dretske characterizes those degrees: Consider a rat that has learned through operant, or instrumental, conditioning that to obtain food it should press a bar. The rat could reasonably be said to be guided in its behavior by a belief that is relatively implicit. An implicit belief (explicit, but relatively implicit) is applied in fairly narrow circumstances. A fully explicit belief “can enter into combinations with other beliefs to generate a wide range of different actions” (1988, 118).

Prior to the acquisition of language, our beliefs lie in the more implicit zones of explicit learning and belief. Even at the relatively implicit levels of belief guiding a rat’s operantly conditioned behavior, it is possible to err and correct, although it be in a very local way. Nevertheless, I decline to call such beliefs knowledge. I incline to reserve knowledge for beliefs attaining truth where those beliefs are interconnected within and improvable by a critical consciousness holding them. This lies in the more fully explicit zone of explicit belief, a zone not far from linguistically held beliefs of an intact human mind.

Thanks for the stimulating article, Chris.

I have to leave off here, without reaching many of the issues you have raised. I would like to point the reader interested in those additional issues—standard in epistemology—to an illuminating treatment from an Objectivist perspective. That is an essay, by David Kelley, titled “Evidence and Justification.” It appeared in Reason Papers (#16, 1991).

Perceptual Observation

Stephen Boydstun's picture

The following, Chris, are some capabilities in the typical infant prior to the acquisition of language: By 5 months, she expects that an object endures while the lights are out; she reaches for objects in the dark. By 6 months, she can discriminate an object in the dark by its sound associated in light; she makes the type of reach appropriate for this object. By 9 months, she shows awareness of her movement in a mirror; she turns to locate reflected objects in real space. By 12 months, she uses mechanical aids to extend her reach.

Suppose it is correct to say that this human infant knows that objects of various sorts endure in the dark; that mirrors show particular objects in real space in front of the mirror; and that some objects are beyond her reach and can be reached with a mechanical aid. Then is it also correct to say that the pre-linguistic infant believes those facts?

Do we have perceptions without knowledge? Is knowledge an essential ingredient of human perception? Is belief an essential ingredient of human perception? (See John Heil’s Perception and Cognition, chps. 5-6; David Kelley’s The Evidence of the Senses, pp. 197-228.)

I take it that prior to language acquisition any knowledge or beliefs integral to perceptions are held in schematic forms, rather than in conceptual forms. (See, in Objectivity: “Capturing Concepts” V1N1, pp. 16-18; “Imagination and Cognition” V1N3, pp. 69-78.)

There seems to be no viable way to pry apart knowledge and belief even in the non-conceptual comprehension of the world. It seems, indeed, that knowledge entails belief as a part of itself.

The terms awareness or consciousness are too broad to segregate knowledge from belief that is not knowledge. To use an example of Rand’s: one can experience hunger before becoming capable of identifying the feeling as hunger, as requiring food for satisfaction. Rand’s language in saying that one can have knowledge through a perceptual observation seems right. The experience of hunger is not an observation, but cognizance that what one is experiencing is hunger is a perceptual observation. And it is a belief. (See also Harold Brown’s Observation and Objectivity, chp. 4.)

Reed on Knowledge

reed's picture

Knowledge is truth that we can prove.

Belief is an idea held which may or may not be true.

A lot of what is called knowledge is dependant on assumptions and really falls into the belief category.

A beliefs' quality can be assessed considering the assumptions and the evidence for and against. Unfortunately this is a subjective process.

Very good

Chris Cathcart's picture

That's more exact, yes. Smiling What I proposed was narrower and pertained to concerns of epistemologists. As far as I know, epistemologists are focused on how knowledge in distinctively human, conceptual terms is possible. The broadest sense of "knowledge" is "awareness," which does apply to infants and other animals capable of perceiving. ("Observing" needs some fleshing out to know exactly where and how it applies. My very off-hand guess is that "sensing" is to "entity" what "perceiving" is to "identity" what "observing" is to "unit." Or: Perceiving pertains to the what; observing pertains to the that.)

Rand on Knowledge

Stephen Boydstun's picture

Would Rand’s definition of knowledge as “a mental grasp of reality reached by a process of reasoning” mean that all knowledge requires the comprehension of propositions?

An infant under one year of age, who has not acquired her first word, learns a lot about the world. Is such an infant engaging in reasoning of a kind that Rand means as a requirement for knowledge?

Actually, now that I look it up, it seems that Rand’s definition of knowledge is: “a mental grasp of a fact(Drunk of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation” (IOE 35).

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.