The knowledge vs belief


Tuesday, August 07, 2018

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It is too widespread a confusion for me to leave it unchallenged. I am talking about the claim that belief is inferior to knowledge (without more, as lawyers would say).

Michael Abrahams' column in The Gleaner on July 9, 2018 betrayed this confusion and I had to deal with it in passing in a public forum at the University of Technology, Jamaica in 2001 involving Dr Leachim Semaj and Mutabaruka.

Every statement purporting to be fact or true is a belief. Indeed, if you call to mind the basic moods in English language sentences then if it is not a question (interrogative mood), a command (imperative mood), a wish (subjunctive mood) then it is in the indicative mood (an assertion, claiming something). Every such assertion or claim qualifies as a belief, but since some beliefs are quite reasonable, and some are unreasonable, we need to probe further.

In philosophy, the basic understanding is that knowledge is justified or warranted belief. So knowledge is a species of belief!

Indeed, there is another dimension that some philosophers add concerning knowledge: “If someone knows something then what he knows must be true…so a necessary condition of knowledge is that what is known is true. But truth is not sufficient [adequate] for knowledge. There are many truths that no one has ever thought of, much less known. And there are some truths that someone may think about but not know.” (J P Moreland & William Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 2003, pages 71 and 73).

If I say I believe something that claim is not inferior to another person's claim to know that same thing, because there is no necessary doubt in the statement “I believe X”, neither is there necessary certainty in the statement “I know X”. n both cases justification or warrant is needed to make the claim reasonable or justified/warranted belief.

This can be a humbug for most of us. For instance, in my home church where I was a member with my family (after resigning my first pastorate) I was asked to preach near Easter Sunday and chided the popular song He Lives (I serve a risen Saviour), especially the section that says, “You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart.” For me, that is useful only if you need subjective assurance. It is not helpful if you wish to convince someone else about the living reality of Jesus.

In my usual question and answer time after a sermon, a dear sister defended the stanza I took to task by emphasising how much it meant to her in her personal life. I applauded her, but still emphasised the need for more than the subjective, even for self, and especially for others. When we share about Jesus with others they have a right to demand justification or warrant for our belief in Jesus as whomever/whatever to us.

The people that I have served over the years as pastor know what I remind them about regularly that “I am half crazy” and will do unconventional things as a preacher-teacher in the pulpit, like asking questions of the congregation and prompting them to ask me questions about what I shared (time allowing). If learning is the name of the game, then dialogue between the pew and the pulpit is critical to that enterprise.

Free thinkers (non-theists, atheists, agnostics, deists, and others) need to understand as well that when they make bold claims about their views on God and religion they too must provide justification or warrant for what they believe or claim to know.

The burden of proof is always primarily on the one who makes a claim or asserts something.

Rev Clinton Chisholm is academic dean at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology. Send comments to the Observer or

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