Conflated and Misunderstood Terms terms atheist science morality belief

We’ve covered a number of different articles about how ‘Words are funny things!‘ and can have multiple meanings. The word, know, is no different in this regard. As a word by itself or in a phrase can be used to describe a number of things.

  • Knowledge
  • Information
  • Awareness
  • Certainty/Uncertainty

Therefore, it can be said that you know something but at the same time do not hold knowledge. This can indeed be confusing.

What is Knowledge?

There are many theories of knowledge, which we have covered in: Knowledge and Certainty. With all of these theories of knowledge, it’s essentially it’s a firm, rigorous, well-justified belief about something true.

Knowledge is a subset of belief.

A belief is simple something you accept as true, think most likely, a positive attitude towards a proposition. ‘I think the bridge will hold my weight’ is the same as ‘I believe the bridge will hold my weight’.

You can have many types of belief, unjustified/irrational, arational, justified/rational etc.

As mentioned, there are many theories of knowledge but essentially it’s a firm, rigorous, well-justified belief about something true.

Having a belief doesn’t entail knowledge.

That is to say: When you believe something, you don’t necessarily know it.

Holding knowledge entails belief.

That is to say: When you have knowledge, you also have belief.

Consider ‘I know I am human, but I don’t believe I am human’ – ridiculous right? What do you believe you are then?

But the other way round ‘I believe I will wake up tomorrow, but I don’t know I will wake up tomorrow’ – that makes sense, yeah?

So, knowledge entails belief because it is a subset (or type) of belief.

It follows that if we understand to have knowledge we have to have belief, we can also understand if we lack belief we are lacking knowledge.

However, if I say ‘I believe I will wake up tomorrow’ do you really want me to also qualify that with ‘oh, but I don’t claim to know that.’? It’s completely surplus to dialogue, and we shouldn’t assume a knowledge claim until someone says ‘I know x is true’ but even then they might be conflating knowledge and certainty.

What is Information?

Information is simply contextualised data or facts. I can tell you that evolution is a fact or the sky is blue and you can hold this information and repeat it, but if you don’t understand the mechanisms of evolution, or why the sky appears blue, this wouldn’t really be knowledge.

Consider √196.
The answer is 14.
This is true.

You now have this information and you even might believe it to be true, but if you don’t understand how square roots work can you really say you’re holding knowledge?

So whilst you might say ‘I know √196 = 14’ it is likely you might be referring to holding information rather than actually having knowledge.

Another example I often see thrown around the internet is how 0.999… = 1 (… = recurring). Some folks might outright reject this even after seeing various ways this works, others might say they accept or ‘know’ the answer but don’t believe it. This says they are either holding a contradictory belief, which is actually quite difficult to maintain, or that they don’t really accept the answer they just acknowledge the information and that’s what people say the answer is, but still can’t fully justify it to themselves.

As I have mentioned this, I will do a brief demonstration.

Algebra
x = 0.999…
10x = 9.999…
10x – x = 9
9x = 9
x = 1
0.999… = 1

Fractions
⅓ = 1÷3
1÷3 = 0.333…
⅓ * 3 = 0.333… * 3
⅓ * 3 = 1
0.333… * 3 = 0.999…
0.999… = 1

You have this information, the math checks out. You can as a math teacher or put it in a calculator and you will get the same answer, so this information is also true. As you have the information, you might say you know 0.999… = 1.

If you don’t understand this fully, you might not believe it even though you have the information and ‘know’ what the answer is. Without an understanding, I am not sure you can fully justify your knowledge, and if you don’t believe the answer is actually true and are just aware that it is considered true then again I am not sure how you can call this knowledge.

So, if you don’t believe that 0.999… = 1, that means you either uncertain of the answer, or you actually believe the answer is something else. This too shows that you don’t actually have knowledge.

Awareness

Awareness can be linked to information in the sense that you’re aware 0.999… = 1, or you are aware of the stories in the bible, but might not have knowledge as to if they definitely did or did not happen.

It can also be used in a different way too. It can be linked to an emotional/sensory response. “I know someone is watching me!”

This could easily be described as an arational belief, something you just feel with no real reasoning behind it. What you are really saying is, “I am aware of my feelings of being watched” rather than any actually knowledge of being watched. The only thing that could really be considered knowledge here is you knowing what you are feeling.

Certainty

Know can also deal with certainty. Whilst epistemic certainty is considered on par with, or even above, knowledge when folks are speaking of certainty they usually mean psychological certainty.

Psychological Certainty

When we speak of psychological certainty we, roughly, are speaking about the strength of a belief. A belief is what we think true/most likely, but we might be only 5% certain or we could be 90% certain, for example.

Psychological Certainty & I don’t know

When folks say ‘I don’t know’ they are actually meaning things like:

  • I am unsure/uncertain
  • I am unconvinced
  • I have not made up my mind
  • I lack confidence

In fact, it can be said that this sort of uncertainty is akin to one of the uses of the term agnostic known as weak agnosticism or the psychological state of being agnostic. This is also known as suspending judgement, not believing x is true or false. With this use, lacking belief both ways, there is already a lack of belief which, as we previously discussed, entails a lack of knowledge.

Whilst this lack of certainty would usually entail a lack of knowledge when used to mean lack confidence or similar it could mean that whilst they had knowledge something has shaken them up and made them doubtemselves, for example:

woman sitting in front of macbook
Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

Consider someone who has spent a lot of time studying.
They have an exam they have been studying for and have studied so hard they should easily ace the test.
On the day of the test, through pressure, worry, stress etc. they found themselves doubting if they would succeed. They lost their psychological certainty.
They ended up getting 100% which showed they had epistemic certainty even where the psychological certainty was lacking.
Even though this dip in certainty seems to show they had knowledge without belief, they still believed the answers they were putting down were the most likely, even if they didn’t have the confidence in them (or more accurately, themselves) before. So they still held belief and knowledge.

Psychological Certainty & I Know

Folks can also use ‘I know’ to mean ‘I am certain of’ rather than holding knowledge too.

If we are completely honest about some of the conversations we have with theists where they claim to ‘know God exists’, when pushed for more information and how they know this they often talk about how they feel it in their heart.

If we think of ourselves, we wouldn’t conflate feelings something is true with knowledge, would we? So, being charitable we would realise the theist also isn’t actually speaking of knowledge, even if they believe they have it. Folk might conflate psychological certainty with knowledge too. In other words, they might assume you saying you’re 100% certain means you have knowledge.

Knowledge Without Belief

Whilst it is usually accepted by most that have studied epistemology that knowledge entails belief, there are some that would argue that it doesn’t. One philosopher, Carolyn Black, addressed this in her paper, ‘Knowledge without Belief’.

In reading the paper it was quite apparent that the argument was more of a semantic one than addressing knowledge. For example, there were a few occasions that seemed to resemble the holding information as knowledge.

Just because someone has knowledge, let’s say they have spent a lot of time studying evolution and understand all the mechanisms that make it work, and they give you some basic information about ‘change in allele frequency’ but not actually covered off the whole topic, you would have the information of what evolution is.

You might disbelieve this but still hold the information. You might pragmatically accept the information with the understanding those who have studied evolution have more knowledge on the subject than you, but still be uncertain if evolution is true or outright reject it.

Evolution is a fact, it is therefore true. The theory of evolution explains the facts, evidence, and process around it. I think any scientist that has studied it at length can fully justify their knowledge in this, but most of us non-scientists can say ‘we accept (believe) the scientist’s findings’. We might say we know evolution is true, but here we are speaking of certainty and holding information rather than something we can fully justify as knowledge.

There were also examples of other definitions of belief being used too. Black quotes Johnson saying:

Johnson defines ‘believe’: ‘To credit… from some other reason than our personal knowledge’, which says that ‘S believe p’ entails ‘S does not personally know p’. But he defines ‘credit’ to believe…

Knowledge without Belief – Black 1971 accessed 22/02/2021

In this, Black argues using this definition of belief is not compatible with knowledge. I would argue that Johnson is discussing a specific kind of belief.. the belief is something still accepted as true, but his qualifier is that we don’t have knowledge of the fact. This is fine, as I discussed, we can hold a belief without knowledge. It might, at this stage, be an unjustified belief, or it could be justified but one we just don’t know if it is true or not. It seems Black is trying to argue that when we have knowledge the belief disappears. That type of belief, sure, but a belief is simply something accepted as true, so belief in total does not disappear. So, like how some today describe a belief as ‘something accepted without evidence’ that isn’t exactly what a belief is, but it could be a type of belief. The only part of that that describes a belief is ‘something accepted’.

Black goes on to make what I would consider a glaring mistake in discourse, one I see many folks on the internet making today:

The clearest case in which knowledge positively excludes belief are ones like the following: (1) I say that my books are in my office. You ask ‘Do you believe that books are in your office?’ I say, ‘No. I know that my books are in my office.’

Knowledge without Belief – Black 1971 accessed 22/02/2021

The problem there is saying ‘No’ because if you don’t believe your books are in your office, it means that you do not accept that books are in your office ergo, you believe they are anywhere but your office. It doesn’t exclude belief, it entails belief. You don’t ‘not believe’ when you know, it just becomes unnecessary to state you believe when you know [have knowledge], because knowledge entails belief. It being excluded from dialogue doesn’t mean it is excluded from our mental state.

Just to reiterate, a discursive exclusion is not the same as a mental exclusion.

Black spends a page or so going over how if she were to say ‘I know p’ I would not say ‘I believe p’ and again taking discursive exclusion to be the same as mental exclusion. You would not say it because it is unnecessary to say it.

Black also brings up an example like the exam student I mentioned before:

If I were a Greek teacher and an unconfident student told me he did not believe he knew the Greek alphabet, but he recited it perfectly in an exam, I would say that he knew it despite his claim.

Knowledge without Belief – Black 1971 accessed 22/02/2021

See here we are speaking of different uses of ‘know’. She’s[Black] even qualified it with unconfident. The student doubted his knowledge due to pressure but still believed the answers enough to present them. The student had epistemic certainty but the psychological certainty wavered due to pressure/confidence. I’d argue the pressure and self-doubt created a contradictory belief that made them doubt they had knowledge, but once ‘in the zone’ their accuracy showed they did indeed have knowledge.

An argument could also be made for the person not having knowledge at all and just information. They doubted they could remember the information, in this case, the Greek alphabet. After all, much of schooling, at least at a younger age, is about recycling information rather than actually learning and understanding the topic. You often get taught answers to questions without the understanding behind why that is the answer. That doesn’t matter to a school, they need you to pass the exam and get a good grade. This is indeed part of why I separate information and knowledge. Knowing the information and having knowledge of a topic can be quite different things.

In a discussion, someone was trying to tell me how they ‘know’ something but they disbelieve it. It was the example I gave with proposition 0.999… = 1. They said they know it is epistemically certain but they disbelieve it. They also argued for things scientists having knowledge of, even though he hadn’t studied being a form of collective knowledge.

Again, I feel this is a semantic issue of holding information and considering that you ‘know the information’ to be the same as ‘having knowledge of the topic’.

He argued that something having epistemic certainty made it knowledge, but that he disbelieved the proposition.

This would tell me that, even though the answer is epistemically certain, he didn’t have epistemic certainty himself. He is aware that it is considered epistemically certain, and pragmatically might even say the proposition is true, yet he himself did not hold epistemic certainty or knowledge.

Conclusion

If you conflate holding information with having knowledge or being aware of other peoples knowledge as knowledge, then arguably yes, you can have knowledge you don’t believe.

I would say this is a semantic game that has moved the goal post at this point. What you have knowledge of is the information stored in your brain rather than actual knowledge of the topic the information represents.

With your ‘knowledge of information in your brain’ it would be quite irrational to say you ‘believe that information is not in your brain’ so again, we have knowledge entailing belief.

Ultimately, it does come down to semantics. If you separate the different uses of know into: knowledge, information, awareness, certainty like I did above, then knowledge will always entail belief. If you decide to group all of them as knowledge, then you can make an argument for knowledge without belief but in doing so you broaden the definition of knowledge to one where it almost becomes meaningless.

As you ‘know‘, I prefer clear, concise, specific, accurate language which is why I am not a fan of the broader definitions of atheism, so it follows I would feel the same about knowledge too.

Summary

We can discursively say we ‘know’ something without actually meaning we hold knowledge. With knowing and know being used this different ways, we can see how we can’t ‘know’ something without believing it and I can understand how folks mistake this type of ‘know’ for knowledge.

It’s quite clear that if a, seemingly, simple word like ‘know’ can cause so much confusion, with the various uses fitting so seamlessly into conversation, then it is no wonder some of our other words cause even more folks to talk past each other.

This is another reason why I do encourage normative definitions from the field of study you might be referring to. If you are dicsussing science, there is a specific definition used for theory or evolution, for example. If you insist a colloquial definition, even if it is a popular one, there is still this chance of talking past people.

The same can be said for any topic. If you’re discussing religion, speak to/read papers of a theologian or someone active in/studying philosophy of religion. If you’re discussing knowledge and beliefs, look to epistemology and epistemologists. If you’re discussing morality, look a touch further than moral subjectivism and actually delve deep into all the ethical theories and papers.

When you read conflicting things, which can happen, especially when someone is trying to make a name for themselves in a particular field, it can come down to peer review or how you reason through the problem, hopefully as rationally as possible, using the rules of logic where applicable.

For some information on how to reason through propositions using the rules of logic check: