“If I told you, you would not know; you simply would have been told.”
-Robert Heinlein, Friday
What is the difference between knowing something, and believing something?
This is something separate from the factual nature of a thing. A fact is a fact after all, and will remain a fact until it ceases to be a fact for some reason. It isn’t going anywhere. A fact is an end product.
If I believe something to be true, this does not require any direct connection with whatever proposition that I have chosen to believe. It is essentially confidence in a hypothesis. I may believe the latest news about what’s going on in the middle-east, and in doing so I am placing confidence in the statements that the reporter has made. There may well be factors, such as the credibility of the source or my own experience/knowledge base; but I need not have any direct personal experience with the event in order to believe it. When we argue in order to “prove” a belief, what we are doing is attempting to give justifications for the confidence we have placed in a proposition, while persuading the opponent to do the same.
To know something however requires something different. It requires an experience. When I tell you that I know that the car is parked outside I am implying a personal experience that led to that knowledge. I can say that I know such and such a person, and I am essentially telling you that I have had some experience with that person that allows me to know them. It is impossible to prove something that you know merely by words. At best we might persuade someone to believe what we are saying, but this alone will not lead them to the knowledge of a thing. I cannot prove to you that there is a car parked outside unless I take you to the window and guide you into your own experience of seeing the car. This alone allows you to know that there is indeed a car parked outside.
The Greeks give us the word gnosis. Often the word pertains to the knowledge born from some type of mystical experience, and while this usage is certainly correct, I feel that it is applicable to more than just that mystical experience. This term refers not to a belief, or even to the factual correctness of something. It refers to knowledge born of an experience. It is not a theory, or even confidence placed in something that someone may have told us. It is directly related to a personal experience.
So in life, we can really only KNOW things that we have experienced. We are free to believe and doubt all else as we will.
All the believing in the world doesn’t make a matter true however, and very real experiences can be misinterpreted and poorly integrated.
Throughout our lives we make countless observations, and draw conclusions based on those observations. While admitting the limitations of our own subjective perspectives, there is yet the tendency to treat the conclusions(beliefs) we have drawn as facts(knowledge). However many of the conclusions we draw from “observation” are really beliefs, and not properly knowledge. For the majority of the twentieth century, it was commonly accepted as fact that the speed of light was the maximum limit that matter, energy, or information could travel. We claimed to KNOW that there was no velocity greater. Now in the beginning of the twenty-first century, physicists have apparently made a startling discovery. The acceleration of certain sub-atomic particles to a speed greater than that of light. What is occurring now is the realization that while the notion of light as a cosmic constant was treated as knowledge, it yet shows it’s true colors as a belief. A belief which may well be in the process of being overturned based on new observations.
The Renaissance shows us the shift in thinking about these matters. We see a pronounced turning point in human history, where the distinction between knowledge and belief began to be blurred and what either really represented began to be lost.
“The real reason why Copernicus raised no ripple and Galileo raised a storm, may well be that whereas the one offered a new supposal about celestial motions, the other insisted on treating this supposal as fact. If so, the real revolution consisted not in a new theory of the heavens but in ‘a new theory on the nature of theory’.”
-C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image
Now I do not feel that a belief is of lesser quality than knowledge. I do however feel that their distinction is important to understand, and that we realize that each is merely of a different substance than the other. Where knowledge is incomplete, we can yet choose to believe something; and that choosing of belief can open us up to a world of possibilities that might never present themselves otherwise. We are all possessed of a myriad of beliefs. They are beliefs where we have had no direct experience by which to claim knowledge. These beliefs allow me to interact in ways that I simply could not otherwise interact. It may not always turn out to be factually true, but it’s potential usefulness seems quite apparent. While the belief that the speed of light was the ultimate speed may have limited us in some ways, it nonetheless allowed a tremendous body of research and theory that has proven quite useful. The development of atomic power is a testament to this, as are numerous applications of twentieth century physics.
In closing, I hope that I have highlighted the distinction between these two concepts. The value of knowledge seems rather apparent, but so too is belief. We must understand the distinction if we are ever to have productive and meaningful discussion in most cases. Our world is founded as much on belief as knowledge, and to deny this is to deny the use of what can be an invaluable tool. We can use our beliefs in ways that are creative and constructive, or they can serve only to destroy. The choice is ours. A search for knowledge means a search for experience, otherwise there can be no knowledge. The gaps of ignorance that exist where we have not yet acquired knowledge need not remain empty and useless. The tools are at our disposal, but it is important that we understand they are not all created equal. Belief is vital in the quest for knowledge, but we have to choose and apply the beliefs that fit into our puzzle in a coherent manner. This is the nature of the very personal Journey of the individual, and it is a journey that can be filled with Truth and Purpose…if we would but believe in such things.