Often in discussion with non-theists online, I witness a certain caricature of “belief” as though it is unnecessary to attaining knowledge. A recent post I read here, seems to echo these sentiments which I would like to address.
In this post, the author quotes Carl Sagan who states: “I don’t want to believe, I want to know.” This quote is ambiguous since it could mean at least one of two things. Sagan could be saying that (1) “belief” is antithetical to the quest for knowledge. If this is Sagan’s intended meaning, the history of epistemology is against him. According to most standard definitions of knowledge–whether on internalist or externalist accounts–belief is a necessary condition for knowledge. For example, according to the standard tripartite definition of knowledge, a person S knows that P, if and only if:
1. S believes that P.
2. S is justified in believing P when S believes P.
3. P is true.
Thus, it is not so much that belief is antithetical to knowledge; instead, it is a necessary component in order to know anything at all. Belief, in this more appropriate sense, is much like what J.P. Moreland states in his book Loving Your God with All Your Mind: ” A belief is a person’s view, accepted to varying degrees of strength, of how things really are” (Moreland 70).
Unfortunately, belief is a loaded phrase in some online circles. So loaded is the word “belief” that it indicates one who is willing to accept a proposition without any justification. So what I think Sagan and the author of the blog are getting at, though, is that mere belief should not be our end. Rather, we need to have beliefs which are justified for us in some way. This would be the precise way to state Sagan’s sentiment, and I think the more helpful way in conversation. We all, unquestionably, have beliefs. The issue, though, is whether those beliefs are justified or not.