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Knowing vs. Believing

on October 14th, 2011 by Fabrice

Letting GoI mistakenly thought, when I chose this topic for this blog post, that I would easily be able to make my point. However, the more I looked into the subject, the more I realized that pinning down a definition for “knowledge” and “belief” was an uphill battle. So instead of presenting to you a coherent, well thought out and well researched essay, I will just share my musings with you.

When all else fails, turn to Wikipedia. The entry for epistemology, the theory of knowledge, attempts to define what we mean by “knowing.” There are at least three forms of knowledge: propositional knowledge, also known as “knowing that,” procedural knowledge, or “knowing how,” and differential knowledge, which allows us to identify a person or thing compared to others, which we could call “knowing from.” The kind I am interested in discussing here is propositional knowledge.

The main dichotomy between “knowledge” and “belief” in our daily usage lies in the presence or absence of evidence. I say that I believe something when I lack the evidence that would let me affirm that I know it. So, it comes down to whether I have the proof of my belief or not. “Belief,” Vidal and Kleeberg write, “appears to stand on the side of subjectivity, opinion, and faith; knowledge, on the side of objectivity, proof, and science.”

But this is where the definition starts to break down. If I have a “proof” of something, where is the proof for my proof? If, for instance, I know that my wife likes red roses because she told me so, can I really affirm that this is knowledge, or is is only a belief? Let’s see, what are my proofs: she said so, last time I brought some home she looked like she was happy, she has a poster of a beautiful red rose on her office wall, etc. And yet, can I absolutely know that it’s true? Maybe she’s changed her mind. Maybe she only feigned to like them to please me. Maybe I’m not remembering quite right; was it red ones or pink ones that she said she liked? This is an example where I rely on someone else’s word to decide what is true. But I could take the same doubtful approach even when I am the only protagonist. For all I know, I could be living in the Matrix, and I am about to take the red pill.

In all these cases, I am appealing to memory to tell me what I know. The problem with this is that memory has been shown to be quite unreliable. In addition, any time I dig into the past to prove something about the present, I am bound to be off the mark, even if just by a little. This has to do with the inherent impermanence of things. And this last point led me to a better understanding of what knowledge really is.

I can only really know what I am experiencing right now. This knowledge is not mediated by thought. I can be experiencing the sky as blue (whatever brain state this color creates in me), but the very moment I tell myself “the sky is blue,” I am entering a conceptual world which no longer has anything to do with knowledge.

So, my conclusion is that knowledge has to do with experience, while belief has to do with concepts. One is taking place in the now, the other is bound to the past and/or the future.

I welcome any differing opinion on this matter. And don’t forget to be mindful and inquire.


  1. Introduction: Knowledge, Belief, and the Impulse to Natural Theology, by Fernando Vidal & Bernhard Kleeberg. Science in Context, vol. 20, no. 3 (Sep 2007), p. 381.

Posted in Belief, Blog Posts, Inquiry, Knowledge, Memory

2 Responses to “Knowing vs. Believing”

  1. Krys says:

    Greetings Dr. Nye!! I very much enjoyed your “musings.” Personally, I’ll take the blue pill! We have much to talk about; I’m learning that the body has a much more reliable “knowledge” than our brains do, at least when it comes to our “beliefs.” EFT has lead to deeper inquiries; I’ve begun to learn about Applied Kinesiology and muscle testing. What I’ve learned is that my body knows way better than “I” do. So what is the “I” of my personal perceptions of myself, and what is “I” that exists despite my perceptions of myself? LET”S PLAY!!! : )

  2. Fabrice says:

    Here is a video that speaks directly to this issue: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-pwcKOVOIU

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