At first, I thought that I would just look into the things people believe and why they believe those things. But, as usually happens, matters are a little more complicated than that. I should have known; after all, the philosophers have gotten hold of knowledge, which includes belief, as a category for inquiry. They even gave this study, as philosophers are prone to do, a ten-dollar name: epistemology. Not to be confused with eschatology which, in Christian theology (and perhaps in other theologies as well), is the study of matters related to the end times. That is a matter of belief, but not related to the study of knowledge or belief. I mention it because, when I was at university, I got those two words confused for the longest time.
Yes, I’m wandering. It’s easy to do when dealing with belief, since almost anything you can think of can be a matter of belief. But wait. There is even a school of thought in philosophy, fueled by neurobiology, called eliminative materialism. This school of thought holds, as I understand it, that consciousness does not really exist at all and that therefore things like belief are illusory. (Thanks to Wikipedia for that.) I’m in the process of tracking down more information on this theory, but it frankly sounds a little bit too reductionistic for my taste.
Be that as it may, I have a habit of starting out a project like this by looking for definitions. When I say I’m interested in looking a belief, for example, I figure it’s a good idea to have some guidelines for the type of thing I’m dealing with. This is especially important in this case, as it turns out, as belief seems to be a fairly elastic concept. From the definitions I’ve seen so far, it seems like there is a sort of hierarchy of knowledge/belief that revolves around how much confidence the individual has in the thing believed. Which in turn is very elastic, as what one person would say is a matter not only of faith, but of blind faith, another person would claim as a matter of sure knowledge. We’re looking at quite a wide gulf between the two, faith and knowledge, sometimes.
Anyway, the progression, as I’ve been able to classify it so far, goes something like this, at least as far as general definitions run: knowledge, opinion, belief, faith.
First, there is knowledge, which The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: The Macmillan Company & The Free Press, 1967) defines as “justified true belief” (vol. 4, p. 345). This definition assumes that knowledge is, indeed, a species of belief. There are apparently some who would argue “that knowledge cannot be a kind of belief…because they exclude each other” (p. 346). According to Anthony Quinton, the author of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Knowledge and Belief”, this argument is based on a notion that belief implies not knowing. Quinton dismisses this argument as absurd, and I tend to agree. So, I think, it is justified to call knowledge the most secure form of belief. It is a belief that has lots of facts to back it up.
It might be a toss-up as to whether the next level of belief is “opinion” or the general understanding of “belief” itself. The definition of “opinion” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition, 2003) differentiates them this way: “Opinion implies a conclusion thought out yet open to dispute….Belief implies often deliberate acceptance and intellectual assent” (p. 870). That sounds to me very much as if opinion implies belief on a more factual basis than belief requires. In fact, the second definition of “opinion” is that an opinion is “a belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge” (p. 870).
Merriam-Webster defines “belief”, in the first instance, as “a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing” (p. 111). The third definition calls belief a “conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon esp. when based on examination of evidence.” I suppose that the caveat “based on examination of evidence” might be seen as putting opinion and belief on approximately the same footing. On the other hand, it seems to me that “evidence” does not necessarily imply hard fact. I guess I’ll have to look that up, too – but not now. For the moment, I’ll work on the assumption that the progression can legitimately be considered to run with opinion having more bearing of fact behind it than belief has behind it.
This brings us to faith. I think it is fairly clear that faith would rank after belief when ordering the species of knowledge based on how much reliance on proven fact they each imply. As a synonym of belief, Merriam Webster says: “Faith almost always implies certitude even where there is no evidence or proof” (p. 111). That same dictionary’s definitions of “faith” run from “belief and trust in and loyalty to God”, to “firm belief in something for which there is no proof”, to “something that is believed esp. with strong conviction; esp: a system of religious beliefs” (p. 450). There is also something in there about loyalty as a general concept, but that is beyond what is being considered here. That is one of the beauties and frustrations of the English language: one word can have widely different meanings and implications. Aside from that, the point here is that, as a species of belief, faith has the least to do with proven fact. It is also abundantly clear that faith is the species of belief that has the most to do with religion, although it can have much to do with other objects of belief as well.
So, I’ve got a tentative definition of terms that will give me an idea of the sorts of things I want to look at as a part of this project. Thus far, I’ve been trying to avoid too much philosophy. Reading philosophy tends to give me a headache. I doubt I’ll be able to avoid it forever. I just hope that when I do get into it, it won’t confuse me too much. Meanwhile, I’ll just continue to follow up on what I’ve found and will continue to find in light of this hierarchy of belief. At least it gives me a structure to start with. I just wish I didn’t have this fear that someone has already gotten there first and already constructed the same hierarchy. Well, if they have, I’ll find it eventually.