Belief and Knowledge Reconsidered

E. John Winner

How did we ever come to use such an expression as “I believe . . . “?  Did we at some time become aware of a phenomenon (of belief)?  Did we observe ourselves and other people and so discover belief?

— Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1)

§1. Recently, while reading Section 10 of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Part II, a thought occurred to me, and I am here trying to trace through this thought and its implications, following a completed rereading of the Investigations, as well as On Certainty, which elucidates the problem more extensively.

The thought was actually very simple.  I suddenly realized that I found it impossible to believe that if I opened my door and stepped outside, I would find myself on my porch.

It was not that I doubted that this would happen.  I certainly don’t doubt the existence of my door or my ability to walk through the doorway or that there is a porch outside my door.  It’s simply that belief – believing – has nothing to do with the process of opening my door and stepping outside onto my porch.

Nor could it be said that I have “knowledge” – in the classical sense of “justified true belief” – that there is a porch outside my door onto which I would step since, obviously, if I have no belief that there is, there would be no truth to justify.

Nor could I even say that my ability to open the door, walk out the doorway, and step onto the porch was somehow a “knowledge how” rather than a “knowledge that.”

The point is that none of the categories of judgment discussed – knowledge how, knowledge that, justified true belief, belief itself – are in the least relevant to opening a door, walking through a doorway, or stepping onto a porch.  I accept that there is knowledge involved here, a “way of knowing” as some might put it, but it is not of the widely accepted variety.  (I will try to get back to that.)  But it certainly has absolutely nothing to do with belief of any kind.  I do not go to the door to step outside, believing there is a porch just beyond.  I do not “know” this in any conventionally understood sense.  I simply go to the door and open it and walk out onto the porch.  I may be thinking of any number of things – a song, a philosophical argument, my job, my dog – but believing in my porch is not one of them.

§2. Of course, it is entirely possible to respond to a properly phrased question (‘do you really believe there’s a porch just outside your door?’), ‘yes, I believe there is a porch outside my door.’ That might be part of, for instance, a philosophical discussion with a precocious undergraduate student.  But a response just as cogent would be, ‘what, are you nuts?  Of course, there’s a porch outside my door.’  And notice that there isn’t any reference to ‘belief’ in the response.

Or if the discussion took place in my home, I could simply get up, walk to the door, step out onto the porch.  And this response would be a complete and adequate reply to the question.

§3. Samuel Johnson’s famous response to Berkeley’s extreme idealism was to kick a rock and declare “I refute him thus!” This is widely discounted as an actual argument, for the obvious reason that Berkeley was making a logical claim, a demand for absolute justification of matter as anything other than appearance, which cannot be achieved.  Ultimately, all of what we hold true is achieved through inference and any inference risks counterfactuals or imprecision.  Even the classic “Socratic syllogism” encounters difficulties, once confronted with Christian theology: “All men are mortal; Jesus is a man; Jesus is not mortal.”  Oops.  Well, as human, he is kind of mortal, but as God he is kind of not mortal.

But mysteries of faith aside, the deductive syllogism (so Aristotle assures us and set-theory seems to prove) should be an iron-clad enclosure of one term by another and by another.  But as just another form of inference, it depends on shared assumptions – assumptions held to be universal and true.  Logicians and epistemologists have not gotten us around this.  Unraveling any chain of inference will ultimately lead to an assumption or set of assumptions that simply must be accepted, for any reasoning to be engaged.

But there really is this thing that I can touch.  Touching it achieves something requiring no logic and no theory.  I lift my leg and kick it.  I have engaged in similar behaviors hundreds of times, since I was an infant.  I don’t have to believe it’s there; I don’t have to “know” it’s there (in the classical sense) or even to know what it is. I don’t have to believe I have a leg. I don’t have to worry about “free will” or “determinism.”  I lift whatever it is that “my leg” is (and with which I have been familiar for my entire life), and I kick that thing we call a rock – whatever it might “really” be – and I have been doing this – i.e. kicking things – for as long as I can remember.  It is part of my being to kick rocks!  I don’t need a logical argument for this.

There is no universal category needed here; there is no “truth” needed here.  I kick the rock.  End of story.  Johnson was entirely right.

§4. What if Boswell had remarked, “Johnson was so drunk that day, he kicked a dog thinking it was a rock.” Or: “Johnson, in a fever, called out “rock!” and kicked out at nothing but air.” So, we might say, “He believed he was kicking a rock, but he wasn’t.”  Of course, this would be a psychological remark, not an epistemological one.  All things being equal, Johnson kicked a rock.  He didn’t believe this, because he didn’t have to.  He was accustomed to moving in a world where things called rocks exist, and where these could be kicked.

“So, he knew it was a rock.”  He could know it in terms of a post-hoc explanation: “I knew it was a rock.”  Or the morning after, sober and fever-free, “I thought I was kicking a rock.  I now know it was a dog” or  “it was just empty air.”

This “I thought it was a rock” clearly stands in for “I believed it was a rock.”  But again, not in any epistemological sense.  There is, for instance, no hypothetical that Johnson attempts to verify:  “In studying this geological formation, I believed it likely gold ore, but upon testing, it proved pyrite.”  This sentence could be open to logical analysis, since it could be used in a scientific report, and we want the report to be accurate.  But “Damn!  I thought I was kicking a rock”?  Why would we want to analyze this logically (beyond, say, an interest in linguistics)?  Note that a bit of humor could follow here:  “How’d that dumb dog get in the way?”  And some social ribbing as well:  “I told you that was a dog.”  “Boswell, you’re my biographer; write that I kicked a rock.”  “And mention the four pints you guzzled at the Boar’s Head Pub?” “Not if you want to be included in my will!”  This would never happen in a scientific report, though sometimes, one might wish it would!

Why do I not satisfy myself that I have two feet when I want to get up from a chair? There is no why. I simply don’t. This is how I act. (2)

In common parlance, ‘I believed,’ ‘I thought,’ ‘I was sure that,’ and the like, are after-the-fact explanations of behavior; the belief, the thought, the sense of assurance are not themselves incorporated in the behavior.

No, wait, I take that back, to this extent:  A sense of assurance is involved in the relevant behavior.  It is behavior that has been repeated so often, it has become habitual.  I no longer check my stance, nor measure the distance between my foot and the rock, nor hesitate with some trepidation that I might miss it.  I don’t worry what the rock is.  A mere glance and I kick the rock. And I can honestly say, when asked, that I know I kicked a rock.  This is not quite a “knowing that,” nor quite a “knowing how,” although I suppose one could make the case that it mixes elements of both.  But there is something missed in doing so:  The sense of assurance, and my leg’s ready facility for kicking out, the body’s tension as it prepares for the impact, the various physiological changes in response to the thought and the behavior, and its interaction with the world.  What I want here is a new term, a new set of terms – I want to say here that the body itself knows what it’s doing, and does so from habituation of that behavior.  (An end to Cartesianism.)

“But your mind made the decision!”  At what point did my mind get divorced from my body?  Do I have to set out thinking: “Now I will get up from this chair. Now I will walk across the room. Now I will open the door. Now I will step out onto the porch. Etc.”?  Then add the necessary epistemological warrants:  “Now the present subjective self, believing there is a porch, will justify that belief (hence proving it true), by willing the body under its control to move legs in a given direction, and thus afterwards know that there is a porch outside that door.”  It’s much simpler to just step out onto the porch.  Let the legs do the walking, that’s what they’re there for.

Outside, someone asks:  “You knew there was a porch out here.”  I answer, “I did.”  But this adds nothing.  In other circumstances it might.  We might be exploring an abandoned house, and going out a door we hadn’t entered through.  We find the porch, and with a smile, I say “I knew there was a porch out here.”  Smiling, because I’d not be speaking truthfully.  I may have thought it probable; and on the basis of that probability, I could then say ‘I believe there’s a porch out there,’ before opening the door.  But I did not know it.

But on the porch of my own house, if someone says, “you believed there is a porch out here, right?”  I would think the question strange.  Because custom has prepared my stepping out onto the porch beyond any ability to question it.  One might even suggest that my body has been so accustomed.  An itch on the neck and my hand scratches it.  Do I even have to think of this? My legs carried me through the door, onto the porch.  Why ever would I doubt them?

The idea that my body has habituated knowledge can be debated.  What has become clear in the discussion so far is that there are a number of forms of belief and knowledge, and the proper use of either of the respective terms for any given form is context dependent.

§5. The difficulty comes when we have to address belief and knowledge in areas where protocols of justification, means of verification or falsification, are unavailable or we are uncertain of them or untrained in them. The most obvious instance of this is the existence of a divinity.

“I believe in God” is easily said.  We hear it all the time, from many people.  And they mean it.  The have a sense and an assurance, a confidence that this sense refers to a reality, an existent object.  So they are not simply asserting something about themselves, but about the world.

We also frequently hear others say, “I don’t believe in God.”   They also mean what they say.  They are saying that whatever the sense of ‘belief in god’ might be, they simply don’t have it.  They assert this of themselves, and assert of the world that what they would consider trustworthy protocols for the verification or falsification of any belief in a divinity are lacking.

But what does it mean to say “I believe there is no God”?  Is it something like saying, “I believe there is a nothingness on my porch” (with the door closed and me inside)?  That comes close to believing in a null existent.  What is that?

Actually, what I suspect is a trick of the language.  Isn’t “I believe there is no God” akin to “I believe that any statement affirming God’s existence will inevitably prove false”?  But this makes a very weak claim on the nature of reality.  Because if trustworthy protocols for the verification or falsification of any belief in a divinity are lacking, then those for the belief that God-affirming statements will be falsified will be at least as lacking; more so, because it’s primarily about language, only by secondary reference about the world.  (Those who say “I believe in God” aren’t interested in true sentences about God’s existence.)

But what of those who claim, “I know there is a God”?  They even insist on a quasi-protocol for verification, i.e. “trust the sacred text!”  Here we have a problem.  This “trust the sacred text” is not anything we can practice as verification.  It’s rather the suborning of verification.  It’s the practice of refusing to verify or falsify and giving the authority over that verification to the writers of the sacred text (and its interpreters).  It is really knowledge of the self: “I know that I accept without question the sacred text (and its authorized interpretation).”  Yet it is a stronger sense than that of belief.  We seem to be crossing the line into a third domain, rarely discussed in philosophy, namely that of faith.  And here I personally find difficulties.  I do not believe in God.  I do not know where the line is, between “I believe in God” and “I know that God exists.”  That there is a line is obvious.  Talk with liberal Christians and then with conservative Christians.  The distinctions are obvious.  Yet what their boundaries are is not clear.  And they all say “I have faith in God.”

I admit to a number of faiths.  In this context, I admit faith in the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path. I also admit that a life of experience led me to accept that faith.  But does this make a continuing, sustained belief in the efficacy of those Truths, that Path anything more that?  Need it?

But there’s a difference here.  I am not admitting faith in any unseen entities.  I admit faith in a principle and in a practice.  I am not asserting any superiority here; I am simply explaining why I do not understand the meaning of faith for those professing it for a divinity.

§6. But these issues haunt us in other areas.

One child might say to another: “I know that the earth is already hundreds of years old” and that would mean: I have learnt it.  (3)

I took a course in calculus as an undergraduate; but that was a long time ago.  Mathematics requires practice, and I haven’t kept up with it.  So, if I attend to a lecture by a physicist on quantum mechanics (and I’ve watched a number by Richard Feynman, available on the internet), the most I can come away with are general models of sub-atomic behavior, and some general principles extrapolated from those behaviors.  I can rightfully say, “I have learned something about quantum mechanics.”  However, it is not clear that I can say “I now know something about quantum mechanics,” although likely I can say that “I know some of the principles that physicists hold to be true about quantum mechanics.”  I know this, because the physicist taught me this.  But I don’t know quantum mechanics in the same way he or she does.  Indeed, right now, taken as I am, I cannot know quantum mechanics the same way a physicist does, because I lack the necessary mathematical acumen.  If I chose to devote myself to the study of mathematics, I could acquire that knowledge.  But for now, it simply is not my knowledge.  My knowledge here involves what I have been able to understand of the physicist’s lecture.

I know what any non-physicist knows about physics, which is very little.  What I do know is that I trust that physicists know something about physics.  I trust they took the necessary mathematics and physics courses, engaged in the necessary experiments, followed the protocols of justification required to acquire knowledge about physics.  So, if asked about physics, I can re-iterate the little I know. Whereof I cannot speak, I refer to a physicist.

But, speaking about Feynman, there is something I believe – or know in any way that we can know history – something more, namely, that on 6 August 1945, a device he helped engineer with his knowledge of physics wiped the city of Hiroshima, Japan, off the face of the earth.  The eye-witness accounts are overwhelming.  The photographic evidence is undeniable.  I feel assured that were I to visit Hiroshima today, I would see physical evidence as well.  Were I to investigate all the paper-work of the Manhattan project, even understanding as little of the physics as I do, the documents would speak conclusively.  I wrote “I believe, or know in any way we can know of history.” What I should have said is that “I would judge this to be the case, on the weight of the evidence.” This really does constitute a knowledge.

Although it may raise questions concerning whether I would trust Feynman to make certain ethical or political decisions, his work on the atom bomb certainly increases my trust in his knowledge of physics.  Scientists sometimes remark that the reason we can “believe in” quantum mechanics is found in its usefulness in, say, the production of microwave ovens.   But, microwave ovens present no argument for belief.  Since I don’t really understand quantum mechanics, I can’t learn anything about it by trying to study the microwave oven.  I would still need to learn the mathematics involved.  But the existence of the microwave oven, with the reliable assurance of those who have worked on their development that quantum mechanics was of assistance in that development – this increases my trust in the physics involved.

I am left, then, with a kind of instrumentalism and a kind of conventionalism.  I trust the physicists, because their physics seems to work.  And I do so and argue others do so, to the extent that we can share the same world, even if to some extent we must trust experts in certain fields that we may not have direct knowledge of.  And after all, we can trust certain methodologies of justification, such as those in mathematics, because we can ourselves train in those methodologies, even to the extent of becoming experts ourselves.

But what happens when the methodologies themselves get undercut or alter radically?  What happens if certain string theorists are right that physics has entered a “post-empirical” era with research and proof reduced entirely to mathematics?  Or what happens if biologists stop looking at squiggly living things under a microscope, and devote themselves entirely to computer modeling?  What happens if mathematics itself should cease to be a tool and instead become a kind of art-form; a fanciful play of forms for a certain kind of intellect?

As noted with the microwave oven, some scientists have suggested we ‘believe’ in their science.  Is it not enough to trust them?  Or are we entering a period when we must have faith in them as well?


(1)  (Part 2, §10)

(2)   (§148)

(3)  Ibid., §165.


12 responses to “Belief and Knowledge Reconsidered”

  1. Animal Symbolicum

    I’d like to hear whether you find the following congenial.

    Suppose: We learn to use ‘believe’ in a variety of contexts. Many (though not all) of those contexts are importantly similar to each other and to contexts in which we learn to use ‘try’ or ‘intend.’ In these contexts, we are flagging either some failure or some possibility of it. “I was trying to open the door (but I failed).” “I believe she’s home (but I could be wrong).” “I thought I could get to the store this way (but I was wrong).”


    (1) One way of putting (part of) your view is this, perhaps: One problem with attributing to you the /belief/ that if you walk out the door you would find yourself on your porch is that there’s no clear sense in which you could be wrong, in that we have no idea of what it would take for you or for others to be convinced that you’re wrong. By contrast, we’re probably pretty confident about what it would take to convince us that I am wrong about our friend’s being home.

    (2) Here is a common view: “Failures are explained by citing the /absence/ of the appropriate mental states, such as beliefs and intentions. For example: ‘He didn’t think the cops would find him’ means ‘He did not have the belief that the cops would find him, and ‘She didn’t intend to step on your toe’ means ‘She did not have the intention that she step on your toe.’ Since failures are explained by the absence of particular mental states, successes must be explained by the presence of them.” I, for one, don’t find the latter inference to be obviously warranted. I suspect it looks warranted only to those who picture mental states as parts of a mechanism, items that push and pull in some strange way. Might those who want to insist on your /believing/ that if you walk out the door you’ll find yourself on your porch be wedded to this picture of beliefs as special items with special causal powers?

  2. Thank you.

    I like this essay. I’ve been disagreeing with “knowledge = justified true belief” since forever. It seems so obviously wrong.

    But just a few examples, if I may.

    When I first learned to drive, I spent some time studying the “rules of the road” book in preparation for taking the drivers license test. That might be described as acquiring beliefs. But when I have had to renew my drivers license, which occasionally requires a written test, I have found it quite impossible to acquire beliefs about rules of the road. My knowledge of driving is sufficient, that it seems a waste of time to try to learn those rules.

    John Searle discusses learning to ski at around page 150 of his book “Intentionality”. I thought that was quite good. I’m not sure that he mentions “belief” but he does talk of representations. He suggests that representations may be temporarily useful to the learner, but as we learn we become less dependent on those representations. And that seems about right. Or, as I would say it, beliefs are useful to help us get by when we lack the knowledge. But beliefs are not knowledge. At best, they are a substitute for knowledge.

  3. Animal Symbolicum
    Yes, I think “belief” is best used as an explanation of already performed behaviors (for instance, mistakes).. Its present-tense function seems more of what Neil remarks as “a substitute for knowledge.”

  4. davidlduffy

    I look at how these terms are deployed and operationalised in psychology and neurology. If one reads articles entitled
    “Monkeys represent others’ knowledge but not their beliefs”,
    “A nonverbal route to conceptual knowledge involving the right anterior temporal lobe”,
    “Are All Beliefs Equal? Implicit Belief Attributions Recruiting Core Brain Regions of Theory of Mind”,
    “Development and Validation of the Gamblers’ Beliefs Questionnaire”,
    most of us know (!) what these are about, without much soul searching.

    When I read in “Damasio’s error – Prosopagnosia with intact within-category object recognition” that “core impairment is not in recognizing physically similar exemplars within non-face object categories. Instead, the impairment presents specifically for recognizing exemplars of the category of faces”, I am aware that certain metaphysical assumptions are being made, but I don’t think a philosophical analysis will help. I am pretty sure I too could set up an empirical test of these different types of knowledge that could be useful in predicting which brain region has been affected by a stroke.

    Neurologists talk in terms of apraxias (ie disorders of knowing how), agnosias (disorders of high level perception of or association – knowing that), neglect (disorders of attention), generalized acute and chronic confusion, and delusional states (false beliefs about the world). It is only in the latter case that there might be some room for disagreement.

  5. Just a quibble that Berkeley was not asking for justification of anything – he made it clear he was not a skeptic. Rather he was making a positive claim that the whole idea of the matter substrate was incoherent and he thought he had positive evidence that this was the case.

  6. The point being is that Berkeley would have regarded Johnson’s demonstration of supporting his point rather than refuting it.

    What is real is that experience of kicking the rock, Berkeley would have said ‘yes – exactly’. No need to invoke some matter substrate. The rock he kicked was the rock he experienced, there was no other rock.

  7. ej

    “I suddenly realized that I found it impossible to believe that if I opened my door and stepped outside, I would find myself on my porch. […] But a response just as cogent would be, ‘what, are you nuts?  Of course, there’s a porch outside my door.’  And notice that there isn’t any reference to ‘belief’ in the response.”

    I tend to see this in terms of ordinary language use (your main target seems to be philosophical usage). In ordinary language we tend to use the word ‘believe’ when there might be reason for doubt, or when there is a ‘distance’ between what is believed and current perceptions (“I am given to believe…”) or in polite forms like: “I believe you wanted to see me?”

  8. Neil Rickert

    I’ve been disagreeing with “knowledge = justified true belief” since forever. It seems so obviously wrong.

    But then I wonder who ever did consider this a good account of knowledge.

    Plato seems to have toyed with it then abandoned it. How did it ever get to be a standard definition? Did someone after Plato rescue it?

    Or did a careless reading of Plato just become ingrained?

  9. Or are we entering a period when we must have faith in them as well?

    I would say, definitely not. We should always distrust science just the way scientists used to tell us we should.

    Even someone like Feynman, where we have such dramatic evidence that he knows his stuff.

    I will trust that the theory behind nuclear weapons is sound because we have such evidence. If someone tells me that on this basis I must believe that there are infinitely many universes in the Everettians sense then I will not assent.

    On the other hand if I have evidence of a quantum computer finding the factors of the product of very large primes then I would have to take seriously the question of exactly where all the calculations took place. But not until then.

  10. Robin Herbert,
    “Or did a careless reading of Plato just become ingrained?” Yes, that is my suspicion.

    Thanks for your reply; although brief, it evidences thought.

    I think that what Wittgenstein realized was that the whole effort by Frege and others to ‘purify’ ordinary language was doomed to failure. Although certain vocabularies, grammars, and rhetoric are expected of ‘specialist’ discourse, in fact there is no language usage that is not ‘ordinary language’; or derived from it. There just isn’t any special sense of “belief” that will make it a technical logical/ epistemological term, beyond careful redefinition by philosophers who would have it so.

    On review of your comment: I’m not sure that discovering locations in the brain for activities of ‘belief’ is actually going to be very useful in considering how we use this term.

  11. davidlduffy

    Hi EJ. My point isn’t about brain localization, but about the scientific vocabulary derived from the ordinary usages of these terms, but which has some sort of validation via experiment . Grayling in his article about On Certainty, points out that certainty is a (potentially fallible) psychological state. Just like belief in both everyday and the psychological usages I documented.

  12. marc levesque


    “It was not that I doubted that this would happen. I certainly don’t doubt the existence of my door or my ability to walk through the doorway or that there is a porch outside my door. It’s simply that belief – believing – has nothing to do with the process of opening my door and stepping outside onto my porch.”

    I’m sympathetic. Sometimes the way in which words like belief or knowledge are used doesn’t seem to match up most of the time with the way (I’m thinking) I use them, for me belief fits in with an attempt to convey how sure I am about something, like “I believe, I think, I’m thinking, it seems, it could be, I’m not sure …”.