Not long after 9/11, I was talking to an elderly Dominican priest. I was startled to discover that he thought the felling of the towers was an inside job by the CIA, of some such US authority. The evidence for this was all over the web. Adherents to this particular theory are known as truthers, as in “the truth about 9/11,” much as believers in the theory that Barak Obama was not born in Hawaii, but in Kenya, are called birthers. Each of these theories is supported by a slew of websites and internet forums constantly presenting and re-presenting the evidence for their contention, although truthers have the more vigorous and voluminous support. In fact, 9/11 conspiracies have the largest following since the various theories about the assassination of JFK seized the public imagination, and the term “grassy knoll” came to have a specific meaning in the vernacular of the US. There’s never been any shortage of theories on a bewildering range of topics, from the trivial to the socially disruptive. With minimal effort, I can find a mass of evidence that Neil Armstrong did not land on the moon, but was in a TV studio in Houston, or that the Shoah was invented after the war.
Sensible people like us know the truth about these things: teams of Al-Qaeda killers hijacked four airliners and flew them, with their passengers, into the twin towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania; Barak Hussein Obama was born in Hawaii, a US citizen; JFK was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon and returned safely to earth; and the Holocaust took the lives of over six million of Europe’s Jews, and about 5.5 million others.
How do we know these things? Or, to put it another way, in respect of such things, what do we mean by knowing? Is it perhaps more comfortable, and more accurate, to say that we believe these things?
In Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi uses the following illustration in discussing the use of statistical confidence intervals in judging experimental results, to 95% confidence interval. Whilst its purpose is to illuminate one of the statistical components of experimental design, it offers a nice contrast between things known to be true and things reasonably concluded to be true. Suppose you are handed an opaque bag containing 100 marbles, which may be either black or white. You are asked to draw a single marble from the bag, and then to make a judgement about the statement, “The bag contains ninety-five or more white marbles.” You draw a black marble. What conclusion do you draw with respect to the statement? It is measurably reasonable to say that the statement is very probably false; alternatively, that you believe the statement to be false. Now suppose that you are the one who counted ninety-five white and five black marbles into the bag. What conclusion do you draw? Does the improbable drawing of a black marble alter the fact that you know the statement to be true?
Almost every conclusion of science relies on statistical inference in support of its truth claims, and the place of probability has become more and more prominent in science in the last century or so. At least with the claims of science, we should be able to trace the strands of inheritance by which the conclusions have come to us, even if, in practical terms, we are in no position to verify the evidence for ourselves. However, scientific conclusions and models of reality are only a tiny part of what we believe we know, and the personal verification of the greater part is even more unlikely than the lesser.
How many of the things that we casually claim to know, do we know in the sense of the marbles we put in the bag, and how many in the sense of an article we have read in a scientific journal, and how many in the sense of the factuality of the Shoah? The reality is that most of what we take to be our “knowledge” is the testimony of trusted witnesses.
The contrast between the situation in which the contents of the bag of marbles are known, and that in which they are unknown, but postulated, illustrates one clear distinction between knowledge and belief. The conclusion drawn from statistical inferences is always less certain than the knowledge gained from a complete personal enumeration. But there are many others. The earth, as everyone knows, goes around the sun, does it not? How did we come to this “common knowledge”? Here’s Polanyi.
Why did Copernicus exchange his actual terrestrial station for an imaginary solar standpoint? The only justification for this lay in the greater intellectual satisfaction he derived from the celestial panorama as seen from the sun instead of the earth. Copernicus gave preference to man’s delight in abstract theory, at the price of rejecting the evidence of our senses, which present us with the irresistible fact of the sun, the moon, and the stars rising daily in the east to travel across the sky towards their setting in the west.
It’s so ingrained now that we do not even notice that rejection of the evidence of our senses. Les Murray still pays attention to this evidence, and provoked mild ridicule for observing, correctly, that the sun travels in a different direction in the northern hemisphere.
Edward Oakes S.J. wrote, passim, about the sociology of knowledge in Peter Berger’s A Rumor of Angels,
The real problem is that almost all of what people claim they know—and not just the esoterica of science—must be taken on faith, from the number of planets in the solar system…to the age of the earth and the chemical composition of water.
He then quoted Berger.
One of the fundamental propositions of the sociology of knowledge is that the plausibility, in the sense of what people actually find credible, of views of reality depends upon the social support these receive. Put more simply, we obtain our notions about the world originally from other human beings, and these notions continue to be plausible to us in a very large measure because others continue to affirm them. . . . Most of what we “know” we have taken on the authority of others, and it is only as others continue to confirm this “knowledge” that it continues to be plausible to us.
Let us say, for the purposes of discussion, that knowledge derives from personally accredited direct experience, and that belief is a conviction based upon the testimony of witnesses considered reliable. If we then classify the example statements made above, we will find that all of the common-sense things we know about events in the larger world are beliefs, rather than knowledge. This bears out Oakes analysis. On the other hand, I know, when I have put the marbles into the bag, what the distribution of white and black marbles is.
Where does faith fit into this picture? It seems to fall somewhere between knowing and believing. To return to the example of the marbles which I have placed in the bag. Do I have faith that there are only five black marbles in the bag. It’s not faith, but certainty. What happens, though, if I draw a black marble on three successive attempts? If I am in company, I begin to suspect that all is not as it seems. A comparison would be with a “magician,” who seems to defy reason in his performance. But we “know” that legerdemain is involved. So even my certitudes are susceptible to doubt if the evidence contradicts them, and continues to do so.
Do I have faith that the earth orbits the sun? Not exactly. I have faith in the processes that lead to the conclusion, but I believe in the conclusion. Can my confidence in the processes be shaken. Of course. The processes of scientific consensus are of critical importance to modern Western culture, and have cultivated magnificent intellectual developments. The validity of these developments seems to be borne out by the success of the technology that has been built on those intellectual foundations. These processes are identified in large measure with the critical mindset of the Enlightenment. That framework, however, as Polanyi and T.S. Kuhn (in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), have pointed out, is showing cracks.
On the Enlightenment view of faith and knowledge, Polanyi quotes Locke, from A Third Letter on Toleration.
How well-grounded and great soever the assurance of faith may be wherewith it is received; but faith it is still and not knowledge; persuasion and not certainty. This is the highest the nature of things will permit us to go in matters of revealed religion, which are therefore called matters of faith; a persuasion of our own minds, short of knowledge, is the result that determines us in such truths.
There is an assumption of transparent mapping from the forms of critical enquiry advocated by Locke to each person’s corpus of knowledge. Polanyi’s book directly challenges such assumptions. He responds to Locke on the basis of the analysis he has conducted to that point on the limitations of objectivism, and the inescapable element of unspecifiable personal philosophical and axiomatic commitments.
We must now recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge. Tacit assent and intellectual passions, the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework.
It seems to me that the “faith” we have in scientific processes, or in the academic structures that underpin research into history or philosophy is similar to the religious faith experienced by most believers, and both are subject to similar assaults on their stability. This is clearly true for those schools of Christianity that stress the unity of faith and reason. While such a faith will have a more forthright struggle with the assault of modern scientific materialism, more dogmatic religious groups, for example fideist Christians or traditional Muslims, are, in the medium and long term, even more vulnerable. While the former are constantly engaged with the science of the day, the latter can only assert that every apparently true conclusion that is inimical to a fideist position is actually false, and that the dogmatic position is always and everywhere true. This creates tensions within those ordinary believers who are aware of the intellectual developments “outside”, and those tensions contribute to undermining religious confidence. Such undermining by the gradual receding of Berger’s “social support” is not easily distinguishable from the undermining of confidence in particular scientific theories as discussed by both Kuhn and Polanyi.
If this view is acceptable, then the triptych of knowledge, belief and faith will tend to reduce to a diptych of knowledge and faith, where “faith” encompasses those processes and structures whereby we come to believe in things outside the range of our resources to verify.
There is another dimension of knowing, which is by far the most important. It belongs to our direct experience, it is the ground of all our other knowing and believing, yet its elements cannot be proved, although they are only very rarely called into question, and then only in very abstruse and specialised milieux. This dimension encompasses such things as the reality of the external physical universe, the actuality of the past, the independent existence of other minds and the meaningfulness of language. Such fundamental understandings may also be classified in the realm of faith; a faith so subtle and all-encompassing that it is disconcerting to regard is as such: elemental, unquestioned, and the ground on which all of our understanding is constructed.
With this realisation, we can better appreciate St Augustine’s maxim nisi credideritis nisi intelliigitis; if you will not have believed, you will not understand. All of our understanding is constructed in a dialectical play between the panoply of our beliefs, many too deeply embedded to be acknowledged, let alone questioned, and the enquiries we constantly conduct into the nature and behaviour of the world around us.