The Difference Between "Knowing" and "Believing"

This is a pretty basic issue, and I should have covered it earlier. In an earlier post I explained Lonergan's explanation of how we attain genuine, objective knowledge, but I neglected to explain Lonergan's definition of "belief."

In that earlier post I explained how it is true that when people refer to a place called "Texas," I can be reasonably certain that they are referring to a real place, even though I've never been there. The fact is, while I can conceive of an alternative explanation to explain the various references to the state of "Texas" that I've encountered in my life, I cannot reasonably affirm that this explanation is true, or even plausible. When a person "grasps the evidence for excluding alternative views, then he does not believe but knows" (Lonergan, Method 42).

Obviously there are a lot of things that we affirm as true, even though we are aware that alternative views exist, and that there is evidence to support them. This latter point is very important -- the mere existence of alternative views is not enough to downgrade an affirmation from knowledge to belief. There are, after all, people who deny the Holocaust, or the Armenian genocide, but these views are easily excluded by intelligent, reasonable, and responsible people. It is only when one does not grasp the evidence for excluding alternative views that a particular affirmation is considered a belief.

Non-Religious Belief

"Belief," as Lonergan understands it, is not only important in religion, but also plays a large role in "most other areas of human activity," including science (42). Scientists, after all, rely heavily on the work of other scientists. As Lonergan puts it, "it would be a mistake to fancy that scientists spend their lives repeating one another's work" (43). They can attain "immanently generated knowledge" in their own work, but this will likely be founded upon "beliefs" about the validity of the work of others.

Knowing and Believing in Religion

Sometimes people will affirm something as true, and will strongly believe that they have "evidence for excluding alternative views." This does not necessarily mean that they "know," just that they think they know. What are called "religious beliefs" are almost invariably beliefs, but there are people who believe that they can affirm these with certitude. Why do they do this?

St. Thomas Aquinas argued that "it is dangerous to dispute in public about the faith, in the presence of simple people, whose faith for this very reason is more firm, that they have never heard anything differing from what they believe." (ST II-II 10.7). It is difficult to imagine someone having "never heard anything differing from what they believe," even in the most religiously homogeneous societies, but when alternative beliefs are held only by people outside of one's society, it is easy enough to demonise those people and thereby dismiss there beliefs as a consequence of their moral perversity, or some other serious failing.

The fact that Jewish people have denied Christian claims about the divinity or "messiahship" of Jesus has often been explained by Christians as a sign of their "perfidiousness." So Christians raised in such an environment have, in their experience, encountered two types of data relevant to the issue: Christian claims that Christian beliefs were true, and Christian claims that heresies and non-Christian beliefs (or the non-Christian failure to affirm Christian beliefs) are attributable to the moral failings of heretics and non-Christians.

If a person raised in such a environment never encountered any reason to question this view, they might think that they "know" that their beliefs are true, because as far as they are concerned, they have evidence for excluding alternative views.

On the other hand, Christians living in a pluralistic society knows that non-Christians do not believe differently because of some moral failing. The "evidence" for Christian views is hardly decisive, and it is not the case that non-Christians cannot point to similar "evidence" to support their own views. In the absence of any decisive evidence for the "truth" about these matters, knowledge is not to be had. All we can know is that we cannot "know," we can only believe.

Belief and Faith

Religious belief has the same structure as non-religious belief, but, as Lonergan says, "now the structure rests on a different basis, and that basis is faith" (118). The distinction Lonergan makes between "belief" and "faith" is rather different from the official teaching of the church:
Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. (emphasis in original; CCC §150)
The word "inseparably" would seem to suggest that Lonergan's distinction between the two is implicitly excluded. Indeed, Lonergan notes that, in making this distinction, "we must acknowledge the existence of an older and more authoritative tradition in which faith and beliefs are identified." Nevertheless, he says making this distinction is justified because in doing so "we are departing, not from the older doctrine, but from the old manner of speech" (123).

I think I'm going to return to this topic with a fuller treatment in the future.

Works Cited



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good article dude! May I suggest reading Lonergan's Method in Theology pp. 105-120, 296-98, and Avery Dulles' commentary on that in his book "The Assurance of Things Hoped for" pp. 154-55 [although his brief exposition of Lonergan's shift on this subject from Insight to Method is essentially correct, his commentary that "In some passages he [i.e. Lonergan] gives the impression of holding that all religious people have one and the same faith, and that they are divided not in faith but in beliefs" shows that he didn't actually grasp that that was precisely Lonergan's main point, and not some heresy he may appear to "hold"! Also, absolutely fundamental on this topic are 4 of Lonergan's essays in Third Collection, i.e. the three lectures on 'Religious Studies' (absolutely brilliant!) and one more whose title I can't remember right now. Then there is Lonergan's essay entited, quite appropriately, "Faith and Beliefs" in his Philosophical and Theological Papers, 1965-1980 (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan vol. 6, University of Toronto, 2004). Finally, you can find further commentary on this in Frederick Crowe's essay on "Lonergan's universalist view of Religion" in the recent edited collection of Crowe's essays "Developing the Lonergan Legacy" (quite expensive, but you perhaps might get hold of a copy from a library). And there are many other essays on this absolutely fascinating topic. To my mind, Lonergan's quite original (and revolutionary) understanding of it is still unfortunately ignored by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, with the results that we get narrow documents such as Dominus Iesus, which completely ignore the universality of God's gift of his love--producing the religious experiences which constitutes what may be called the universal, pre-conceptual 'faith' as the 'eye of love' common to all religious people--and the cultural superstructure of one's religious tradition by means of which one's religious experience is interpreted. Many thanks again for the many insights of your blog. God bless, Luca

10:34 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Luca, thank you for your comments. I am familiar with some of the other texts you identified, and will hopefully someday get around to reading the others.

Lonergan's philosophy of religion is certainly more compelling and sophisticated than that implicit in Vatican teaching, but it also has implications that are unacceptable to people with a mythic-literal faith (to use James Fowler's term).

1:58 a.m.  

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