The Concepts of Belief, Certainty, and Knowledge

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TOK Essay
Jeana Joy Tan

Belief has been described as “certainty about what cannot be seen”. Does this statement hold true any, some or all areas of knowledge?

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...
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