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An essay by Contributing Editor, Susan Humphreys

Definitions of the terms: Belief, Knowledge,
Opinion, Gnosis, Truth, & Justification

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Definitions should help us clarify meanings, so that we can have a better understanding of what each of us mean when we use a word. Otherwise we talk past each other, not with or to each other.

According to my old High School dictionary a belief is "something that is held to be true." By this definition a belief needs no justification. A person simply needs to declare his belief is true for it to be true -- to them. This seems to be the definition that President Trump uses. If he says something is true, it is true.

Knowledge, again according to my old dictionary, is:

"What one knows."

"Know" is defined as "what one is sure of."

Basically according to my old dictionary, the words are interchangeable, synonyms.

In an exchange with Bradley Bowen about his recent essay "Why I Reject the Resurrection - Part 2"  on Patheos, he says the classical definition of knowledge is:

"any belief that is both true and justified for the person with the belief."

This definition doesn’t help very much, though it does add two qualifiers. A belief must be both justified and true for it to be considered knowledge.

This should lead one to ask "True by what standards?" Who gets to determine what is or isn’t TRUE?

For example many BELIEVE that the Bible condemns homosexuality and they point to the various "clobber" passages in the Bible to JUSTIFY and prove the TRUTH of their position.

Others can point to INFORMATION (dare we use the word KNOWLEDGE) that shows those same passages do not condemn homosexuality.

Both positions can claim to be justified, truthful knowledge/belief.

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With no real distinction between knowledge and belief, when two very different and opposing positions can claim to be justified and truthful how is anyone to determine what really is or is not TRUE. Is there any way to distinguish between what someone believes to be TRUE but really isn’t, and what someone else believes to be TRUE and really is?

There needs to be another word and perhaps there is: OPINION. Again according to my old dictionary, an opinion is simply "what one thinks, belief not so strong as knowledge." Here the Dictionary is trying to draw a distinction between belief and knowledge. Though I admit the distinction, "not so strong as" is rather fuzzy.

We are left wondering how do we decide what position is stronger than another position? Do we add up the number of sources that support each side and the side with the greatest number of sources wins?

In earlier essays I used the distinction that knowledge has proof of truth, while beliefs have hope of truth in the absence of proof. I now realize that definition made sense to me but was really inadequate considering how many folks and dictionaries define knowledge and belief. Personally, in my opinion, I still think it is a better definition of the two words than what my old dictionary provided.

I have said: "I don’t believe that God doesn’t exist." Rather, I KNOW that God doesn’t exist in my attempt to give more credence/value to my position over that of another person’s "mere" belief!

Many claim that the Bible is the word and work of God in their attempt to give more credence, value, and authority to what it has to say when compared to the writings of the other main world religions or of science. Others claim the Bible is merely the work of men and no more sacred or less sacred than the texts of the other world religions and of little or no authority when it comes to scientific issues.

Gnosis is another word we can use. It is a word found in religious literature and has been translated as "Knowledge." There were early Christian Gnostic groups that were discredited and pretty much wiped out by other early Christian Groups. From what I have read about those early Gnostic groups I think that translating Gnosticism as "Knowledge" is misleading -- another definitional problem. I think those groups searched for understanding, using all of their senses and personal, firsthand experience. They didn’t want someone else telling them what they were to believe they wanted to discover and understand God, humanity, and the rest of the universe for themselves.

Here, I am drawing a distinction between:

  • Knowledge: what in our modern usage we might define as factual information, such as scientific theories about gravity, chemistry, history, literature, mathematics, etc., and

  • Understanding: understanding what all of that knowledge means, understanding how all the parts fit together to create one whole. Knowledge uses the intellect, while understanding uses the intellect, all of our senses, and our heart to come to a conclusion about what it all means.

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I have run into many people who can spout facts and figures and who don’t really understand what those facts and figures mean, has well as how they apply and affect the lives of real (as opposed to hypothetical) people, and societies.

A good example here are some economists and their "trickle down" economic theories. After the last financial collapse some economist, (I can’t remember who,) commented that he never imagined that financial institutions would do things that could bring about their own destruction. He was/is a prime example of someone who had the facts and figures to justify his economic theory but no understanding of simple/real human behavior (as opposed to hypothetical human behavior).

Knowledge, Beliefs, Opinions, Gnosis, TRUTH how do you distinguish between them? Unless we can agree on definitions that clearly distinguish among these words we will continue to have "failures to communicate."

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Original posting: 2018-APR-2
Latest update : 2018-APR-15
Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys
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