Knowledge vs. Belief

Another critical element of most of my arguments with atheists circles around what we mean by “knowledge” and “belief”. This comes up most starkly when atheists use the 4 category classification:

  • Gnostic Theist – You know God(s) exists.
  • Agnostic Theist – You don’t/can’t know, but you believe God(s) exists.
  • Gnostic Atheist – You know God(s) doesn’t exist.
  • Agnostic Atheist – You don’t/can’t know, but you do not believe God(s) exists.

This refined classification (from 3 – theist, atheist, agnostic, to 4 categories) hinges fundamentally on a difference in kind between knowledge and belief. But, I’m extremely skeptical of that difference. It seems to me that knowledge is a specific type of belief, a type that satisfies some (peculiar, particular, or arbitrary) constraints defined according to each individual.

These personal metrics for distinguishing knowledge from belief are founded on sliding scales. For example, let’s say one’s metric is stability. I.e. the more stable a belief is, the more robust it is to perturbation (to new facts, to falsified “facts”, in the face of comparison with others’ beliefs, etc.), the more it can be considered knowledge. E.g. that gravity exists as a force pulling matter together is a very stable belief. It is doubtable, yet adequately justified, only when dealing with very small amounts of matter like trees and trucks, which don’t seem to show measurable gravitational attraction. But it’s certainly measurable on large objects like asteroids. So, it’s a very stable fact, only challengable in very specific conditions.

But let’s examine something less stable, perhaps the fact that poblano peppers are spicy hot. Obviously, different people have different thresholds for what’s hot and what’s not. Personally, having been reared in South Texas, I don’t consider poblanos hot at all. I’d call most jalapenos hot, but many are not. Living in Oregon, now, I find most people around me very intolerant of spicy peppers. But this sort of instability isn’t very interesting, is it? Of course some people think poblanos are and aren’t hot. We’re very used to, comfortable with, different opinions of things. And we have ways of modifying the “knowledge” to make it more or less stable. For example, we can say “most people find poblanos hot” or “the average person believes poblanos are hot”, etc. This sort of re-statement removes some of the context provided by individual people and their belief systems. It seems to lift the factual, robust, more universal part of the context out. This makes it seem more like knowledge and less like belief.

But there are other aspects to the distinction. If we consider a piece of knowledge like “poblanos are hot to the average person” out of any context, it seems/looks like a fact. But if we put it in context, perhaps by considering how to use poblanos in various recipes, that knowledge is destabilized. Hot things can often be masked or changed by other ingredients in a dish, e.g. by adding something sweet. Similarly, relatively mild things can be heated up by adding an enhancer like garlic. Are these modifications, these destabilizing situations important? Well, it depends on the “knowledge” being considered. In this case, I think so. After all, who eats raw poblanos, out of the context of a dish like chile relleno? The context definitely matters. The lifting out of context ends up being a kind of rationalization, a post-hoc justificationism.

My position, here, is that concepts like God(s), souls, chi, essential human nature, etc. are all very tightly coupled to context. They simply cannot be lifted out of context and considered as Platonic ideals. What “God” means to one person will be largely nonsensical to another person. However, what one Catholic means by “being Catholic” or what one Buddhist means by “being Buddhist” will make much more sense to another Catholic or another Buddhist, because these “being X” statements are explicitly dependent on their context.

And it is the context that allows us to make the thresholds between knowledge and belief objective. The context is what allows us to compare our thresholds. If you don’t share context with another individual, you cannot compare what you consider knowledge vs. belief with what they consider knowledge vs. belief.

This is why the above refinement from 3 to 4 categories, seemingly based on an objectively defined difference between knowledge vs. belief, is a useless rationalization, a clever bit of sophistry. There are only 3 categories: those who believe X, those who believe not-X, and those of us who believe neither X nor not-X.


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