Gnomicon 187

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  187
Thursday 15 November 2012
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The fact that a great many people believe something is no guarantee of its truth.
W. Somerset Maugham (25 Jan 1974 – 16 Dec 1965)

Maugham has long been a favorite author of mine, especially as a writer of the short story.  And his exotic locales in the Far East and on the islands and archipelagos of the Java and South China Seas link him inextricably for me with another favorite writer, his older contemporary Joseph Conrad (3 Dec 1857 – 3 Aug 1924), who likewise located much of his fiction in that then still alien part of the world.  I very much appreciate Maugham’s wryness, amused and musing skepticism about things, his painterly mastery of words in capturing portraits of places and people.  Anyone looking for interesting stories beautifully composed can do a lot worse than reading Maugham – or Conrad!

But it is not so much for launching into a discussion of the short story as perfected in Maugham (which I have in fact done elsewhere) that I use this citation, but for addressing it substantively.  This topic of eternal fascination to me is one I have touched on earlier, but Maugham’s pointed observation prompts me to revisit the issue.

At bottom it arises from my desire to untangle – both in general and, more specifically, for my own ends – the wide-spread confusion between ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’, between ‘know’ and ‘believe’.  These two verbs, these two nouns, are most assuredly and absolutely not synonymous, though they are often so treated.  Often, I suppose, confounding the two merely eventuates in harmless self-delusion, but the confusion could be and is on occasion more consequential.

I hold no animosity as such against religion and mean no disrespect here, but the ‘area’ offers a convenient springboard into the conversation.  Not long ago I heard a person with whom I have a nodding acquaintance – but no deep familiarity – declare thus: “I know that God loves me.”  My immediate but unuttered thought was two-fold: 1) how arrogant to think that one can ‘know’ who is in God’s affections; and 2) no, you don’t know that God loves you but you may very well believe that God loves you.  I have a problem with the notion that she knows this about God, but none whatsoever with her belief about God in this regard.

We all have beliefs of all kinds about all kinds of things – relationships, religion, the stock market, politics, war, peace, and on and on – but few of us have much usefully concrete knowledge about any of these matters.  Let’s be honest about that much, at least!

Now, when it comes to something like matters of religion, to me it doesn’t really matter if somebody wishes to think that what she believes is what she knows – it usually has no effect on my reality (except, of course, possibly in the case of the connected fanatic).  But to give one example of a different scenario, when a politician confuses his belief that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq with the knowledge that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then we are involved in something of an entirely different order of magnitude, something with very definite real-world consequences.

Another instance of something that we today know: the DOW kept dropping yesterday (Wednesday 14 November), losing over a hundred points during President Obama’s afternoon news conference alone, and closed down a full 185.23 points at 12,570.95.  That’s down 541.49 points, or 4.1%, in the eight days since the election.  On the basis of this knowledge I offer the following example of a belief that I hold: this recent performance of the unsentimental stock market is not an encouraging harbinger of real things to come!

Thus, although I most definitely have nothing against belief as such (I clearly have many of my own!), to me it is extremely important that everybody – and especially those with their hands on the levers of military and police power – keep very distinct in their minds a cognizant and percipient awareness of the very real difference between what they know and what they believe, between belief and knowledge.  And that all of us act accordingly.

For the historical record, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427 – 347 BCE), whose great ontological constructs are to me personally as admirable and beautiful as they are fanciful, does unreservedly deserve a great deal of credit for endlessly raising this critically important issue of the distinction between ἐπιστήμη epistēmē ‘knowledge’ and δόξα doxa ‘opinion, belief’: what we know and what we believe.

And so I come full circle from Mr. Maugham’s concise if somewhat circumlocutory articulation of the matter.

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