The Moral Landscape (5)

Harris on belief:

While we often make a conventional distinction between “belief” and “knowledge,” these categories are actually quite misleading. Knowing that George Washington was the first president of the United States and believing the statement “George Washington was the first president of the United States” amounts to the same thing.

This is false. To see why let us revise the claim:

    While we often make a conventional distinction between “belief” and “knowledge,” these categories are actually quite misleading. Knowing that John McCain is the forty-fourth president of the United States and believing the statement “John McCain is the forty-fourth president of the United States” amounts to the same thing.

One can coherently believe John McCain is the forty-fourth president of the United States, but certainly not know this. To be sure belief claims are motivated by the perception that they are true, but that in itself does not make them true. To have knowledge one must believe what is in fact true. But there’s more to be said because even true belief is not sufficent for knowledge. I might guess the right answer on a multiple choice test about who the forty-fourth president is, but that does not mean I know it. Some good reason, warrant, or justification (or whatever property it is that makes my true belief a good one) is further needed. The failure to take these into account is a great philosophical error.

Yet I get the impression that Harris wants to avoid the finer points of epistemology, and seems more concerned with how the words “know” and “believe” function in our language:

When we distinguish between belief and knowledge in ordinary conversation, it is generally for the purpose of drawing attention to degrees of certainty: I’m apt to say “I know it” when I am quite certain that one of my beliefs about the world is true; when I’m less sure, I may say something like “I believe it is probably true.” Most or our knowledge about the world falls between these extremes.”

This much is true, but only trivially so. If I say,

    I know Obama ran for president. In fact, I believe he did

I utter something superfluous. But if I say

    I know Obama ran for president. In fact, I’m certain that he did.

It does not seem that I utter something superfluous. Perhaps I am piling certainty upon a certainty, but not obviously so. After all, there is nothing incoherent in the statement

    I know Obama ran for president, but I am only fairly certain he did.

While it is very intuitive to suppose, there are good reasons to doubt certainty is necessary for knowledge. For more see Jason Stanley’s paper Knowledge and Certainty.

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