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The Difference Between Knowledge, Thought, and Belief

Updated on July 13, 2017
HelenKirkby profile image

Helen has been a self-taught philosopher ever since she received a secondhand copy of Dewey's "How We Think" for her fifteenth birthday.

What is Epistemology?

Epistemology is a fancy word from the Greek episteme, meaning 'knowledge', and logos, meaning 'logical discourse'. It is a branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge. From the get-go, it is clear that a kind of paradox arises from studying knowledge; after all, how do we arrive at a theory of knowledge without succumbing to a circular, self-reinforcing argument?

The key is to work backwards from a hypothesis, as in the scientific method. We begin by examining what we think we know and test theories based on different pieces of knowledge.

Philosophers throughout the ages have tried different approaches to a theory of knowledge. Much of the debate in epistemology revolves around these questions:

  • What is the nature of knowledge?
  • What is the criteria for knowledge, and/or 'justified belief'?
  • How does knowledge relate to concepts such as 'truth', 'belief', and 'justification'?
  • What is the nature of skepticism and its consequences?
  • What is the source and scope of knowledge, and/or 'justified belief?

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) once said,

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties.”

As a leading figure in the field of scientific methodology in the early modern era, Bacon proposed the inductive method as a way for the human mind to gain truthful knowledge. In a nutshell, the method starts from gathering sensory experience to store in the mind as propositions. Sense experience is then derived from the abstraction of notions. By doing so, Bacon's system presupposes a rationalistic yet self-correcting empirical method at arriving at facts.

The Baconian Method

The inductive method, otherwise known as the Baconian method, was originally described in the Novum Organum, meaning 'New Instrument', in order to replace Aristotle's Organon, a collection of works on logic. This 'new instrumentality for the acquisition of knowledge' consisted of steps, not unlike the modern scientific method:

  1. Prepare: Note and describe meticulously the requirements necessary in order to make systematic and careful observations to produce quality facts.
  2. Induce: Allow the mind to generalize from a set of facts into one or more axioms, but take care to not generalize beyond those facts. This is opposed to the process of deduction, which is the ability of the mind to go from general to specific.
  3. Gather: Put together additional data or use existing data and the new axioms to establish additional axioms.
  4. Repeat: This entire process is repeated step by step to build a base of knowledge which is always supported by empirical data.

Knowledge, Thought, and Belief

Despite being hailed as the father of empiricism, Francis Bacon is probably more accurately described as the father of experimental philosophy. His double starting point (both empirical and rational) brings together two major opposing schools of epistemology—namely, the British Empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) and Continental Rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz). Rationalists in the branch of epistemology claim that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. Empiricists, on the other hand, claim that sense experience is the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

Without getting too deep into philosophical jargon, history and the like, consider this: when someone says 'This is –,' 'I think –,' or 'I believe –,' they are asserting the same essential meaning in terms of truth value. In other words, they are claiming propositional knowledge, or 'knowledge-that' as opposed to 'knowledge-how'. The only difference between these different statements is actually what they think (whether it is real or imagined) the reader thinks. The human mind does this for a few reasons.

The most obvious reason is to avoid ego-confrontation. The Baconian method is a pretty good way to arrive at facts with the understanding that these facts might change with the more we experience. How we present these facts to others, however, depends on the gathered data we have of others.

Now, we can begin to separate the difference between knowledge, thought, and belief.

So is my Knowledge Real Then?

Since someone can't be sure (to some degree) whether what they think is 'real or imagined,' how do they know that they know anything at all? While this is a valid conclusion in and of itself, even what we imagine to be true affects our individual decisions everyday. Take, for instance, the idea of positive and/or negative reinforcement: we are more likely to repeat an action that has been interpreted to be positive and we are less likely to repeat an action that has been interpreted to be negative by others. If we repeat said action and a different response occurs (that which was positive is now negative) we are forced to reconsider our 'original proposition,' as in Bacon's method. This is, after all, how we assimilate ethics into our lives. Therefore, the question is not whether it is 'real,' but rather, to whom is it real?

The metaphysical difference between someone's beliefs, thoughts, and knowledge ultimately depends on whether that someone has prior knowledge (through sense experience) of their audience having the same knowledge (through reason) that they do. But, there are many instances when someone lacks the prior knowledge about the audience they are speaking to. They could be simply be strangers. What happens, then, is that we deduce specific knowledge about them, sometimes incorrectly.

There are specific pieces of information that we can deduce most people to share knowledge in, like the sun rising. This is why we say 'The sun rises each day,' and not 'I think the sun rises each day,' or 'I believe the sun rises each day,' unless we know we are speaking to a skeptic.

The Problem of Infinite Regress

Skepticism arises as an answer to the problem of infinite regress that was touched upon in the beginning of this article. Formally, it describes the fact that any given justification of knowledge depends on another belief for its justification. It may seem counter-productive to end an article on epistemology with the explanation of skepticism, but no theory of knowledge is complete without the answer to doubt.

It is this apparent impossibility of completing an infinite chain of reasoning that leads to the belief that no belief is justified; but, as we have seen with the Baconian method, just because the chain is infinite, does not mean it is altogether useless. In fact, the more comprehensive we can possibly build our base of knowledge, the better the method can work in terms of self-correction.

Even if one believes that absolute certainty of knowledge is impossible (i.e. fallibilism), it does not necessarily follow that we must abandon all knowledge. We simply need to recognize that because empirical knowledge can be further revised through observation, things that we think we know might turn out to be false and things we never considered might be true after all.


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    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 8 months ago from Australia

      Thank you for the hub. It's a great clear summary and refresher course.

      A famous mathematician named Kurt Godel has an "Incompleteness Theorem" which proves mathematically that science can never answer all questions (basically because with each answer comes many more questions).

      Stephen Hawking has a free online essay defending Godel on this.