he Concepts of Belief Essay Sample

he Concepts of Belief Pages
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Over the years, philosophers have tried to grapple with the concepts of belief, certainty and knowledge. Despite numerous controversial claims and arguments that come from both sides, we have yet to come upon a general consensus. However, the contention here is that belief can contribute to all areas of knowledge. Even though belief can be associated with all areas of knowledge, it is a complex concept that exists in different degrees and preconditions. Therefore not all kinds of beliefs can contribute to knowledge as there are certain limitations we need to be aware of. Just as how children believe in Santa Claus, tooth fairies and Easter bunnies, a baseless belief is one that cannot contribute to any areas of knowledge because it does not necessarily require any epistemic logic or reasoning. One only needs to believe something to be true based on almost any form of justification or none at all as Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “I confused things with their names: that is belief.”

World War II, the Crusades and the 9/11 are glaring examples of the monstrous atrocities that can be committed when one believes in something without any moral common sense. This is of course, not an attack on religion, but rather the interpretation of religion. People are susceptible to gullibility when it comes to believing the radical teachings of another person as they don’t take the initiative to question and examine the justifications to these teachings. And as social animals, we have always held belief to a certain degree and the dangerous thing about belief is that it can overpower one’s ability to reason to an extent that even in the face of contrary evidence, he will continue to believe it. Although a belief supported by scientific evidence represents a benign form of belief, it also acts as a barrier toward further understanding[1]. For ages, scientists and philosophers have held onto beliefs that hindered them to progress beyond their discoveries and inventions. And so, we can see that one can attain all sorts of knowledge, but not through superficial or rigid beliefs.

For example, (1) Joe believes in X (2) X is true (3) Joe has good reasons to believe in X. If the first is absent, Joe should believe in X because it is true, if the second is false, then Joe has an erroneous belief, and if the third is absent, Joe has made a lucky guess rather than knowing something[2]. And so, belief can only contribute to knowledge only when all three conditions exist. Now, being certain about what cannot be seen is in itself controversial as it triggers vast spectrum of speculations by sceptics. But contrary to the famous saying that that “seeing is believing”, it is possible to acquire reliable and reasonable information that contribute to certain areas of knowledge through non-empirical means.

Knowledge, defined as justified true belief[3], can be attained though different ways of knowing such as through language, perception, reason and emotion. Now, this begs the question, how can one even be certain of something that cannot be seen and what more believe it? This subjectivity falls under scrutiny but there are ways of explaining why “faith without sight” can be obtained through some (not all) ways of knowing, particularly through language and reason. Language is the primary way of which we acquire knowledge about the world itself. By communicating with one another, we are hence able to emerge from the little spheres of our personal lives and tap into the collective experience of the community and this makes possible an “intellectual division of labour” which is a key factor of our survival and success as a species. For instance, when a subject reads a newspaper article about a robbery in the area, though he did not see it happen before his very own eyes, he can believe it based on obvious reasons. After that, he receives a call from a relative who claims to be the victim of the same robbery, and after which, he becomes absolutely certain of the incident.

This is a reasonable belief and we can therefore conclude that he has now attained knowledge. This explanation can also be illustrated using the education system itself. Every day, students go through the same mundane activities in school; they sit in classrooms and listen to endless lectures that range from the sciences to arts. Do they question the teacher’s knowledge of which is imparted to them and insist that the teacher provide substantial evidence to the reliability of the source of their information? Most often not, as this would be rather ridiculous. Though we should not abandon the inquisitive mind, we can’t expect our teachers to take us to the volcanoes to believe that volcanic eruptions are real nor can we expect to be taken back in time to witness the Civil War to believe that it happened.

One can also attain knowledge through reason. In our daily lives, we are constantly using reason to gain a deeper insight into the immediate evidence of our senses. Reason is a powerful source of knowledge as it gives us certainty about what cannot be seen and is rationalism’s fundamental philosophy of life. To be able to reason based on a logical and rational premise is crucial to arriving at a conclusion that serves its purpose of increasing our knowledge. Rationalists like René Descartes are particularly impressed with areas of knowledge such as logic and mathematics, which seem to be both certain and useful[4] and claim that reason provides belief of a high epistemic status, thus being able to develop subjectively comprehensive forms of knowledge in certain areas such as in science, mathematics and even religion. It should be clear to us that faith is not a belief without evidence, but rather a decision to reckon as true something that is not visible. For instance, most religions, even Agnosticism (except for Atheism and Scientology) believe in an unseen divinity and claim that faith is not a resignation in view of our limitations to knowledge nor a retreat into the irrational, but rather an act of affirmation[5], and therefore embracing the idea that the universe itself was designed by a Designer and did not randomly appear out of nowhere.

They believe that this proposition is based on reason which contributes to the development of knowledge about the natural world. We may use deductive reasoning, which moves from the general to the particular, to explain the logic behind this. Syllogisms, which consist of two premises and a conclusion, three terms and quantifiers, enable us to form the structure of this reasoning method. For example, Every physical thing in the universe that exists has an origin and a creative design/ God is a pre-existent Creator/Therefore, when we trace all the way back, every physical thing that exists comes from God. Thus, the fact that the human mind is able to gain knowledge based on its cognitive ability to reason without any sensory evidence whatsoever embodies the essence of rationalism – that there are alternative methods to gaining knowledge that are independent of sensory experience.

However, the main dispute here is that empiricists argue that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience[6] and insist that knowledge can only be attained through our five senses; sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Radical empiricists like John Stuart Mill would contend that there are no a priori truths at all — even what we have been calling analytic truths are really just empirical truths[7] and Robert A. Wilson has once remarked: “Don’t believe anything. Regard things on a scale of probabilities. The things that seem most absurd, put under ‘Low Probability’, and the things that seem most plausible, you put under ‘High Probability’. Never believe anything. Once you believe anything, you stop thinking about it.” Empiricism also argues that reasoning may lead to informal fallacies which could potentially affect one’s way of reasoning and renders reason as an ineffective and flawed way of knowing. For example, in deductive reasoning, there is the danger of having a belief bias as we have the tendency to believe that an argument is valid simply because we agree with the conclusion[8], and we tend to make hasty generalizations made worse by a phenomenon known as confirmation bias[9], meaning that one ignores the evidence that goes against their claim and only attends to the ones that support it.

For instance, a person who has prejudices against Mexicans may assume that all Mexicans carry out drug-affiliated activities despite having a Mexican classmate in his school. Besides this, there is the question of the reliability of language as a way of knowing as it can be manipulated and is prone to inaccuracy and false accounts. Relativism also comes into play when we try to validate our view that truth is justified true belief as relativism claims that “all truth is relative” and what is true for someone could be false for someone else[10].

Nevertheless, despite certain limitations of language, we can still gain important information with a good balance between taking knowledge by authority and relying on our own resources. And if “all truth is relative”, then the statement itself can only be relatively true, how can we then base any form of logical and systematic way of knowing on an unsubstantiated and flawed concept? Also, empiricism is a philosophy marred by its incoherence and contradictions. In the case of religion, atheists (who worship empiricism) define faith as “belief without evidence” and limit evidence to that which can only be tested through empirical science and acknowledge it as the only true way to knowledge and understanding. The irony here is that atheists have a strong faith in the inferiority of faith itself, and since the concept of empiricism – that empirical science is the only way of knowing – is not the product of any scientific experiment, it is therefore a faith in itself.

A belief that is immune to doubt may be conscious or unconsciously manifested and it is a multifaceted concept that can be interpreted in different ways, but we cannot deny the fact that a reasonable and substantiated belief can be attributed to all areas of knowledge. Though there is a need to be careful with what we believe in, nowadays, with schools, books and the growing influence of mass media, people rely on language and reason to gain epistemic knowledge without any physical proof as it is embedded in a coherent system of beliefs. Therefore, belief is a mental representation of the world and can be attributed to all areas of knowledge; it is simply a matter of how we choose to use it in our efforts to gain a deeper understanding of the world in which we live in.

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[1] Jim Walker, The Problem with Beliefs
[2] Austin Cline, What is Belief?
[3] Richard Lagemaat, Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma, page 24 [4] Richard van de Lagemaat, Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma, page 112 [5] Pope Benedict XVI
[6] Richard van de Lagemaat, Thoery of Knowledge for the IB Diploma, page 86 [7] Chapter 4: Reason, www2.drury.edu/cpanza/reason3.html
[8] Richard Lagemaat, Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma, page 116 [9] Richard Lagemaat, Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma, page 121 [10] Richard Lagemaat, Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma, page 10

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