Tuesday, July 15, 2014

You know what! (On knowing and believing)

[Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes]
[Mood: Introspective]

I have been wondering about the difference between knowing and believing. At times, they seem not that dissimilar at all.

Not that long ago, just a few hundred years back, we used to think the Earth is flat. I say, "think" because it would be absurd to say, "we used to know the Earth is flat". But that's what the people living back then "knew". If we could somehow travel back in time and talk to somebody on the street, and ask them, "do you believe the Earth is flat?", it would be about as strange to them as it is to us to expect someone to walk up to us today and ask, "do you believe the Earth is round!" What passes for knowledge has been changing almost continuously since our civilization began. Yet, at every stage and every era, people who were very much like us believed in things that we now know to be absurd or inaccurate. Why then are we so sure of what we think we know today?

We definitely "know" quite a few things about physical reality that we didn't know in the 15th century. And established facts, like the Earth being round and revolving around the Sun, are unlikely to change. We could easily draw some comfort from advances in the physical sciences that have resulted in such awesome inventions as space travel that were unimaginable a few hundred years back. And yet, the physical sciences are but a small fraction of the human experience. We still don't know much about much else although we tend to act as if we do. It seems the government (or some agency) comes up with a new balanced diet every few years. Saturated fat is good. Saturated fat is bad. Raw food is good. Raw food is bad. Carbs are all the same. Carbs are different depending on where they come from. Do we even know what we are supposed to eat? Or do we simply believe in this diet or that until we believe in something else?

The belief--knowledge continuum

It strikes me at times, when I sit down and think about it, that the difference between knowing and believing is one of degree, or magnitude. Knowing, then, is little more than a really strong belief. Belief, likewise, when taken to the extreme, when strengthened enough, becomes knowledge. If we think of it as a continuum where the left end of the spectrum represents total nonsense, absurd and unbelievable stuff, like the stork delivers babies or Santa Claus brings gifts, and the right end represents absolute conviction, and all the obvious and self-evident stuff, most of what we call belief would fall somewhere in between. Where exactly depends on how strong our belief is on any given topic.

Interestingly, and paradoxically, utter belief is simply the flip-side of utter disbelief. When I strongly disbelieve that the stork makes babies, I strongly believe the stork doesn't make babies. In a way, the ends of the continuum represent strong belief, one way or another. There is another similarity as well between the left and the right ends of the spectrum: we rarely think or talk about those things that we strongly disbelieve in or strongly believe in. They are so obvious and self-evident that they seldom arise in our consciousness and seldom demand any significant attention in public discourse. It's as if life happens somewhere in the middle, between the extremes, where partial belief rules.

The relationship between the words "knowing" and "believing" is similar to the relationship between the words "fact" and "story". When you know something, it's a fact, and when you believe in something, it's a story. Isn't this how the movie dialog goes... when the villain reveals his diabolical plan to his sidekick, the sidekick, slightly nervous, not completely convinced, asks his boss, "you think so?". The villain confidently replies, "I KNOW so!". When we say we know something, we're essentially saying we're super confident of it. To know is to believe something so strongly as to convert it from a story into a fact. What if we think of all "knowledge" as simply a set of very strong beliefs? So the continuum might as well look like below:

At the ends of the continuum lie the stuff that most people agree on. Everyone agrees that the Earth is round and not flat. We have pictures to prove this fact. Also, everyone past a certain age strongly disbelieves that Santa Claus brings Christmas gifts (one would hope so, anyway :)) But the in-between area of the continuum where things are not so cut and dried is quite interesting. This is where people personally connect with each other and with the larger culture they are part of. It also makes for much disagreement and worse, war. In the gray area, your facts are not my facts, they are your beliefs, they are your stories. Likewise, you might say what I take for granted as facts are simply stories. I don't believe that the Bible is the word of God, but many do. They "know" it is the word of God. To me, it's a story that some people believe in.

As I said before, the word "know" is often used to express our awareness of certain things called facts. It's as if such facts (or truths or reality) exist outside of us, independent of us. We might say there are certain facts that we simply have to deal with out of necessity, whether we like it or not, because they exist irrespective of us. Other factors that contribute to classifying something as a fact is that large numbers of people, including those that society says are experts strongly believe in the same fact, or there is empirical evidence established by Science. But not everyone believes in Science either, much less in so-called empirical evidence! So, no, there are no holy cows in this discourse. Everything is up for debate!

While facts are generally agreed upon as facts by the people around us and by the dominant culture, belief is a bit more personal. Not everyone believes in the same things as I do. In fact, very few people believe in most of what I believe in and almost no one believes in exactly the same stuff that I believe in. So while "knowing" is about "facts" (there's little dispute and little doubt and a lot of agreement), believing is a bit more ethereal. Belief is not grounded in rock solid foundations. Not everyone agrees and it's not a fact. Belief is personal and local and can and does change over time. Usually it changes slowly but it can change quite abruptly as when someone encounters a great personal tragedy that upends everything that's familiar and comfortable. People have gone from being avowed atheists to believing in the existence of God in a very short time. And vice versa, as well. Given an issue or topic, and given enough time, each of us move along the continuum, adjusting our beliefs and the strength we put into them, as we are influenced by the circumstances of life. Our worldviews tend to shift over time.

The worldview as the sum total of knowledge and beliefs

Our knowledge and our beliefs together make up our worldview. Knowledge and belief are very closely related to each other and can't really exist without each other. We need beliefs and stories to make sense of and interpret the facts and "reality" that we come across in daily life. Wouldn't it be just so much simpler if all we had to deal with were straightforward facts? The modern scientist or engineer would definitely prefer to inhabit such a world. But, alas, life is a bit more complicated than physical reality and we are forced to deal with beliefs and stories. Generally, by and large, our stories do a decent job of explaining and interpreting the facts we come across for us. This is one of the primary roles of the mind. Even if there are a few holes here and there in our stories (as in they don't convincingly explain everything we observe in real life, or because we don't have such a strong belief in some of our stories), they generally fit well with the facts. There's a good reason why this works so well.

It turns out that what we know as facts are actually determined to some extent by the beliefs we hold near and dear. There are plenty of facts out there that we're not much interested in. Why do we pick certain facts and reject others as stories, even though, the same is taken as fact by others? It has something to do with the beliefs and stories that constitute our worldview. Our stories act as gatekeepers permitting in only those facts into our consciousness that fit with the stories and rejecting the rest. Our stories can keep us from coming across certain facts thtat might contradict them. They do this at a subconscious level so we are often not aware that we are really at the mercy of our stories. Stories and beliefs actively keep us from mentally going into certain areas of the human experience and thus keep us from coming across facts that might raise doubts about our beliefs. Recent psychological research demonstrates the importance of such "confirmation bias":

It's quite fascinating to me how we choose the facts that agree with and support our beliefs and discard the rest. In a way, because beliefs and stories are the gatekeepers that decide which facts we should consider, beliefs and stories are the more important parts of our worldview, more important than "knowledge" and "facts". This is counter-intuitive. One would expect to believe in those things that confirm and support observable facts but it doesn't seem to work that way.

Because facts are generally based in empirical evidence, and because they are observable by others who then agree with us, they get more attention in today's world. This is what's happening when we hear a scientist call for more data on this or that issue. We want facts!

Beliefs are not testable. They are a matter of faith which in our culture gets the short shrift. When we believe something, we are displaying a certain amount of faith. But there is a certain attraction that comes with certain stories and we find ourselves wanting to believe in them. Stories that inspire have a particular attraction as do stories of courage, bravery, the triumph of good over evil, etc. In this sense, certain stories have a kind of spirit that attracts our psyches toward them. Then there are those stories that promise to confirm a long-held suspicion. Those stories that come in the form of a breaking news expose can also be quite attractive. What happens next? Well, once a story takes hold of our imagination, facts appear as if from nowhere that support and reinforce that story. We begin paying attention to that part of reality that confirms our beliefs. For example, we begin noticing obese people after reading an article on the high incidence of obesity in the country. We begin to ignore those parts of our reality that don't mesh well with our stories. For example, we begin to look away from the beggar at the intersection after having read a story about the high incidence of addiction among the homeless. What if he takes our money and uses it to get a fix? The story effectively prevents the plight of the beggar from taking up much space in our consciousness.

On the one hand, facts are akin to objective reality, something that everyone agrees on. And yet, they are effectively controlled by our stories. Our dominant culture, our civilization would have us believe that facts, as handed to us by objective reality, whatever that is, and by our school textbooks and mass media, are more important than our beliefs but, in fact (no pun intended), it is the beliefs and stories that trump facts when it comes to the human condition, given human psychology.

My conclusions from this thought process are:
1. Our stories decide which facts and observations enter our consciousness.
2. Facts are less important than stories. They are generally bland and uninspiring.
3. Most "facts" come from physical reality, and not from the much larger spectrum that makes up the rest of human experience. Here, it's the stories that rule.

These ideas are not lost on the elites who shape modern society. They, being well-versed in the nuances of human psychology, are quick to use stories to rouse the masses, as in this quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a French aristocrat who lived in the early 20th century:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”


  1. Great! The distinction between belief and knowledge about fact is a fundamental distinction indeed.

    Now the recognition that we are no more than infinitely small particles of dust within the whole helps us to understand the reality that the whole is out of reach of our understanding and the facts that we perceive at the level of our station (level) could very well be seen as nothing more than illusions from the perspective of the whole reality. All this to recognize that what we call facts are merely functional necessities of living. The pain i feel by crashing my finger under a hammer is functional in my individual life in the sense that it teaches me to avoid such an action in the future. So what we perceive as facts are functionalities of our individual lives.
    The same reasoning applies at the level of the group or the species. There are indeed societal functionalities that make or break the reproduction of the species.

    "Our knowledge and our beliefs together make up our worldview"
    At the least you need to characterize that worldview as being 'individual' or personal which would distinguish it from our 'societal worldview'. But a redefinition of the concepts is, I think, necessary to better grasp the different things that are at work here. My personal take is that 'knowledge and belief' operate at different levels:
    - individual versus societal
    - axioms of civilization (foundation of the house), worldview (walls and roof of the house) and culture (internal and external dressing of the walls and roof = paint or tiles)

    1. Yes, for matters of discussion, debate and convenience, we can classify the sources of the stories that we believe in into multiple categories: individual or personal culture, societal worldview or collective culture, and the axioms of Civilization. However, the lines of distinction are not always very clear. Even the idea of the "individual" comes from certain cultures but not all cultures. A tribal person had little perception of himself as an individual. As far as he's concerned he's to the tribe as a hand is to the body. He's not a free-willed separate individual. If a tribesman falls ill, it's as if the entire tribe is sick. Modern Western Civilization has taken the idea of the "individual" to the extreme. And how unique and individualistic are we really if we need our culture to remind us of it all the time? So at some level, the distinction between us and our culture starts getting blurry.

  2. how unique and individualistic are we really if we need our culture to remind us of it all the time?..so true these days. UBUNTU - a reminder that you are unique & admired even if I yearn for the vast and endless sea.”