The Difference Between Knowing and Believing

Do we believe the plant has captured the Volkswagen, or do we know it?
Knowledge vs. Belief . . . that is the question

Much is made of the concept of proof in the world of science, math, and physics.  Proof is what separates knowledge from belief in those disciplines.  What separates knowledge from belief in daily life? 

We are forever getting into trouble because we confuse belief with proof, and we’re all too often wrong.  If something can be proven, we can say we know it.  If something is merely believed, it cannot truly be known. Yet we make decisions based on belief all the time.

Oftentimes, we take two things that are believed, tie them together, and assert a third thing to be known as a result.  But it’s not.  Two beliefs add up to two beliefs.  They do not equal one proof.

Yet responsible people in our society act that way every day.  They confuse believing with knowing, and make flawed decisions as a result.  Most often this happens because we do not understand what’s needed to actually prove something.  Here’s an example:

You believe your acquaintance Robert lives in Miami;
- and -
You know Miami is a city in Florida.

Therefore, you feel confident saying, “Robert lives in Florida.”

But you’re wrong.  You don’t know it.  You merely believe it, and belief is nothing more than conjecture. Why would that matter?  Let’s say Robert died, or got divorced.  You might make totally wrong assumptions about what would happen to him or his estate based on your knowledge of Florida law, which could turn out to be totally irrelevant.

Mistakes like this happen all the time, at the personal level and even at higher levels.  All stem from the same cause – failing to recognize the difference between belief and knowledge.  This confusion causes us all sorts of harm.

Proving something in the world of science – to truly know it – involves the use of logic and mathematics.  Few of us do that, or even understand the process.  Instead, we have our own definitions of “daily life proof,” which we might use to prove that Miami is a city in Florida.

As it happens, the techniques of mathematical proof can apply here as well, even if we don’t think of them.  We can look at a map, locate Florida, and see that it is within the bounds of the state of Florida.  The mathematics of set theory allows us to construct a proof that Miami is within the state of Florida.  Of course, most people just point to the map, and say, “Miami is obviously part of Florida.”

This is an example of something we know that has a simple, easily understood proof.

What about the belief that Robert lives in Miami?  That’s not so obvious, when you think about it.  There is no map with “Robert” on it.  Instead, we assess what we know about him:
  • He’s mailed us letters from Miami, and our address book says he lives there
  • He meets us in Miami when we go there for conferences
  • He talks about living under the warm Florida sun

We put all that together in our minds, and say, “Robert lives in Miami.”

We assume that is knowledge, but it’s really just belief.  If you combine something that is believed with something that is known, the result remains a belief.  Adding an additional conjecture does not – by itself - make for proof.

It may increase the odds, but that’s a rather different proposition than actually proving something.  For example, we could look at the evidence for Robert living in Miami and say it suggests Robert lives in Florida, even if he is not a resident of Miami.  He might live just outside the city limits, and still meet us, talk about being there, and so on.  But that’s still not knowledge.  Its just more informed conjecture.

What if we asked Robert?  Finally, the “truth” comes out.  He reveals that he also has a home in Colorado, and Colorado has always been “his real home.”  All this time, Colorado was not even on our radar.  Then we look in the newspaper, and find the Florida Dept of Revenue is suing Robert, claiming he’s really a resident of their state after all.  We realize that Robert’s residency is something amorphous; truly not known to anyone.

The lesson here is that cities can only be in one place.  But people can live in many houses while calling one or several “home.”  And observers can define “home” in different ways.  That’s obvious when I say it, but it wasn’t obvious to the people who assumed Robert lived in Miami all this time.  When we look at the barrage of data flowing into our heads, it can be very hard to separate what’s known from what’s believed, and make choices with the best chances of a correct outcome.

The fact is, not everything can be known.  We must make some decisions based on belief and even hope or fear.  But we should do our best to understand when we are doing so, and when we operate from a position of proof - of knowledge.

What do you think?  Has confusion of knowing and believing affected your life?  How so?

John Elder Robison


Anonymous said…
reminds me of your blog on the kids who once tested on the spectrum but after a while tested off. People believed it meant the kids were not autistic or others believed the kids were still autistic but had learned to compensate for their unique neurology . In the end there was no known fact or true knowledge just some results and belief. Which if you ask me is the majority of life , belief in the face of no way to truly know.
That's an interesting comparison. In that situation what was known was the test scores, but the internal neurology of the kids remains a mystery
North said…
Before reading your blog...I would simple like to say it all a make believe world...our knowing is has shades of ego and standing on that soap box of right and wrong. If we could all step back and understand we are all storytellers..and the stories change all the time...we would suffer on to reading your blog of make believe..thank you so much expressing quote a famous person .."Woof"
Nice, John.
You did a pretty good job of tying it together with "Sometimes we have to make decisions based on belief".
I agree. After 9/11, there was a lot of talk about "Evil" in the world. Taking it on as a logic problem, I tried to reduce it until the basic actions of people were isolated from random acts (both from belief and from knowledge), and my result was a single definition: Evil is an action taken based on an UNQUESTIONED belief. Humans don't have time to always know the right thing to do from gathering enough facts, but as a collective group, they can agree to behave according to rules that are evaluated and chosen consciously. Too often, we allow ourselves to be governed by conditioning rather than sensible learning, and whether it is a bully that believes bullying is OK, or an Empire that thinks "Might is Right", or an education system that follows propagandist teaching of History: it is the responsibility of good people to question anything that coerces them into acting in a way that may cause harm, or inaction that allows harm. How many "knew" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? How many believe that God is on 'their' side?
Jean Petree said…
I prefer to have hypotheses, rather than beliefs. I try to generate a few reasons why something could be so. This poses some problems when people want definitive answers from me! Knowledge, I think, is just a set of hypotheses one has a higher degree of certainty about.
A Neurologist once said science was like a drunk man looking for the light switch in the dark. If he gets lucky, he hits it. There is much ado, but it moves slowly, slowly. Knowledge takes ideas on faith.

Next week, everything you've learned could be wrong, depending who is supplying the "proof". Today's miracle drug is taken off the market tomorrow because it causes diabetes or heart disease. Sausage...

But pure science, not the making sausage kind, is beautiful. And rare.
Cheyenne said…
My, this was inspiring. I wanted to comment and let you know that I'm currently writing a play about autism, (I'm a senior in high school), and I'm going around asking moms, dads, anyone, for stories and words of advice for the play. Although these words are your own and I don't plan on using them in my play, you're still helping me to tell my story. I've noticed that although medical definitions tell you something about autism, they're merely one-layered and lack the humanity that stories like yours have. So I wanted to thank you for helping me in my creation of something deeper. If I could ask one thing, would you mind helping in one small aspect of my play? I'm including a scene at the end that uses the names of real people that I've met through blogs and online, (with their permission of course), and a single word that they'd use to describe either autism itself, (from their own or their child's perspective), or one word to describe their child or themselves. It's an artsy approach that I wanted to include to illustrate the realness of these situations, regardless of the fact that the rest of the play was a made up story with made up characters, developed to tell a story. I thank you so much for your hope and for your bravery. I'll remember you as I write my play and need motivation to make someone proud.
poemworld said…
I'm currently reading "The White Luck Warrior," the fifth book in a dark and disturbing fantasy series by R. Scott Bakker. His character Esmenet says this about the difference between knowing and believing: "To know is to have power over the world; to believe is to have power over men." fwiw
M Kelter said…
fortunately i don't know enough to believe in my ability to prove anything, so i'm able to avoid this tension. permanent confusion has it's benefits.
Valerie said…
Everyone has such profound comments. i merely want to add, Robert's situation could be like one our family keeps running into. We live near Indianapolis, Indiana. But we need to access stocks our dad left us, which are being handled by a firm in Indiana, Pennsylvania. By the time we convince the person on the other end of the line that we're not in their Indiana, life must move on and the call must end, to begin all over again the next time with a different rep.

Popular Posts