Sometimes this image is used to explain what agnosticism is and how it's independent from belief:

enter image description here

It makes some sense but I still have confusion understanding it.

What is the difference between knowledge and belief?

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    Suggest that you add the tag epistemology (to which knowledge should be a synonym tag IMO but I can't edit tags yet...) Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 17:09
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    What is the source of that image?. I think of agnosticism is very much interdependent with belief, it is a qualifier of belief, how -strongly- one believes. TO me in that picture, agnostic atheist and agnostic theist are pretty close together, in that they just have milder leavings towards one direction or the other. And it would kinda weird to have someone who is gnostic (totally sure of themselves) but somewhere between theist and atheist.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 17:17
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    @Mitch I've added the source. Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 17:21
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    The classical answer here is that knowledge is justified true belief.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 17:21
  • Knowledge - You learn it from your own experience Belief - You learn it from others
    – user843
    Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 15:56

19 Answers 19


Strictly speaking I believe definitive knowledge is never obtainable, as Karl Popper has convincingly argued.

Simply put; Karl Popper argued that there can always arise occasions where that, that which we hold to be confirmed knowledge (truth), will be falsified by a new observation.

In other words; what we accept as being knowledge is actually merely belief with a certain degree of perceived certainty. I say perceived certainty, as Popper argued that it holds no actual certainty value at all; it can merely be perceived as propositions that have consecutively been corroborated by evidence. But as stated before: only one observation that contradicts such a proposition, believed to be knowledge, could be enough to falsify it.

Therefor, I think we'd be wiser to classify different gradations of belief (and disbelief for that matter) on imaginary scales:

  • Irrational belief1--|--|--|--|--|--|--|--Rational belief2
  • Irrational disbelief3--|--|--|--|--|--|--|--Rational disbelief4

1) Belief despite the lack of corroborating evidence
2) Belief due to overwhelming corroborating evidence
3) Disbelief despite overwhelming corroborating evidence
4) Disbelief due to the lack of corroborating evidence

Knowledge then, I think, should be considered that part of the first scale that leans towards the right end of the scale (rational belief), while keeping in mind that this knowledge is never definitive.

Perhaps this image, somewhat in line with your image, better demonstrates what I mean: enter image description here

  • What's the source of that picture?
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 17:51
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    @Mitch: It's my own actually. Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 18:09
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    Shouldn't the two labels on the bottom be reversed? If one gains corroborating evidence, one would go from irrational to rational, not the reverse. Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 12:12
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    @MichaelDorfman, No, you're not reading the sign correctly. Assume the person below the axis disbelieves regardless of evidence; their disbelief is rational to the extent there is no corroborating evidence, and their disbelief is irrational comensurate with the amount of evidence supporting that view.
    – user678
    Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 14:50
  • @bwkaplan: Sorry, I'm still not getting that. If the person below the line disbelieves regardless of evidence, their disbelief is irrational and independent of evidence (by definition.) It still seems to me that this graphic would make more sense if we reversed the bottom two labels; then we have a vertical axis running from disbelief to belief (bottom to top), and a horizontal axis running from no evidence to a plenitude of evidence (left to right). Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 16:31

Knowledge is a particular kind of belief, one that has (or has more) evidence, and justified at that (of course there is the classic Gettier problem with this definition).

The picture you gave shows two axes, one from theism to atheism (the subject matter about what one knows/believes), and an orthogonal one or gnosis to agnosis, or what I take it, to be the degree of belief with gnosis being knowledge (certain belief) and agnosis being...

Well, that's the problem. What is that axis 'measuring'? Is it the certainty (which would presumably go from 'sure' knowledge to ...unsure. Is unsure knowledge the same as belief? I think of knowledge as one kind of belief, a very sure kind of belief, rather than in opposition to belief.

For the diagram, I'd say that the a/gnosis axis is really trying to quantify 'certainty'. At one end one is -very- sure of one's belief that a god exists (or doesn't). At the other, one is completely unsure of the statement.

My problem with this diagram is that is seems perverse to say 'I believe that X, but I am completely unsure of X'. Those seem contradictory. If you are completely unsure of X, then I would say you can't believe it. I guess one could be a theist and be unsure about it, but if one were -completely- unsure of it, then that wold just be an agnostic, directly in the middle, rather than being an agnostic theist.

The meta-lesson that I learn from this diagram is that a nice clean diagram does not necessarily exhibit coherent or consistent concepts.

Is the 'gnostic/agnostic' axis about a continuum between proof and faith? That might be a more orthogonal and coherent thing, but there's no evidence in the picture that that is the case.

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    +1 for "The meta-lesson that I learn from this diagram is that a nice clean diagram does not necessarily exhibit coherent or consistent concepts."
    – Lucas
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 5:01
  • The analysis of the diagram is incorrect here. An agnostic doesn't say they are "completely unsure" - they say either that they are not completely convinced "yet", or that what they believe cannot be completely proven. One could view this simply as believing based on an inductive proof while understanding that's evidence, but not a strong or often conclusive proof, and desiring a deductive method instead (sometimes even understanding or believing that is impossible).
    – LightCC
    Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 15:56
  • Many folk would disagree that knowledge is a kind of belief. For logical reasons certain knowledge has to be 'knowledge by identity' and is therefore an experience or state of being rather than a belief. But this may be debatable depending on how we use the words. Is the experience of pain a belief? To me it seems to be 'knowledge by identity'.
    – user20253
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 12:51
  • Knowledge is not a type of belief. If you witness a car crash, you don't have to believe in it for its reality to remain in place. The knowledge is there both in the witness and the marks it's left in the world.
    – Marxos
    Commented Apr 1, 2021 at 22:48
  • Perhaps a better example, is that 1 + 1 = 2, doesn't require any belief.
    – Marxos
    Commented Apr 1, 2021 at 22:59

Knowledge, of the kind you're asking about, I think, usually requires evidence and reasoning. In extreme cases where such knowledge doesn't require both evidence and reasoning, such as in parts of symbolic logic, knowledge requires only reasoning.

On the other hand, belief doesn't require any reasoning or evidence whatsoever.

If I know that the sun burns at, or around, a certain temperature, then either there exists some perceptual data as evidence of this, or some perceptual data exists which, along with reasoning, implies the sun as burning at, or around, that certain temperature. So, a claim of the sun burning at, or around, that certain temperature comes as sufficiently grounded.

On the other hand, if one believes the sun burns at a certain temperature, there might not exist any evidence or reasoning which grounds such a claim. One could believe something in one's sleep quite easily. Unless you believe dreams provide us with empirical information about the sun, I think this indicates beliefs as not needing evidence or reasoning. This isn't to say that no beliefs can get grounded via reasoning or evidence. Plenty of knowledge, also is believed (I know I have a hand, and I believe it too). However, no belief purely as a belief need get grounded via reasoning or evidence to qualify as a belief. Knowledge does need at least some sort of ground, and if a claim is not grounded via reasoning or evidence, then it comes as a strongly believed speculation at best.

Unfortunately I don't have any "atheist" or "agnostic" literature citations here, but as I recall reading "atheist" and "agnostic" literature they do seem to use the terms at least somewhat in that way.

The Wikipedia on "Descriptive Knowledge" says this: "The difference between knowledge and beliefs is as follows:. A belief is an internal thought or memory which exists in one's mind. Most people accept that for a belief to be knowledge it must be, at least, true and justified."

  • Belief requires evidence. But it can be completely subjective or personal evidence. Everyone has a reason for each of their beliefs, even if the rest of humanity disagrees with that reasoning or sees the evidence for it as false or inconclusive.
    – LightCC
    Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 16:00

Broadly speaking, knowledge is objective truth while belief is subjective truth. That is, knowledge is typically thought to be that which is true independent of circumstance; it is universally true (non-contingent). Belief, however, is an idea or concept which is held as true to the individual who holds it, and not necessarily to anyone (or everyone) else.

It is, however, entangled with many other ideas and notions in philosophy and as such there is no simple definition that will wholly suffice in answering your question. See Epistemology {SEP}{Wiki}, PhilosophyOnline's article on knowledge and belief, Analysis of Knowledge from SEP as Joseph also points out, and (philosophical) Hermeneutics.

  • Is your first sentence true? How did you prove it? Or is it subjective? If belief forms the bedrock of an understanding between knowledge and belief, what does that say about the vulnerability of belief?
    – Axeman
    Commented Sep 18, 2011 at 22:41
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    Belief and knowledge have always been vulnerable to philosophical skepticism. This problem is inherently unresolvable, given the way things are (i.e. we don't observe things directly, only representations of things, our minds can always be fallible, etc). Some things require a leap of faith. :)
    – stoicfury
    Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 21:27
  • @stoicfury - One solution would be is to reserve 'knowledge' for 'knowledge by identity'. This can be certain and absolute since it is not belief.but experience. Thus the sage does not believe but becomes truth. (Al-Halaj was crucified for claiming 'I am truth'). This issue captures a vital epistemological difference between 'Western' philosophy, which must be content with belief, and mysticism, which has little respect for mere belief.
    – user20253
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 12:59
  • @Axeman: it doesn't say anything about the vulnerability about the belief -- it says the belief has the possibility to be WRONG.
    – Marxos
    Commented Apr 1, 2021 at 20:57
  • @TheDoctor, "vulnerability of belief" is my own shorthand, which stoicfury had no problem comprehending. It says something about "vulnerability of belief" to the extent that I meant that phrase to represent what stoicfury was distinguishing about belief, the potential to be proven more complicated than stated. That you think that the main challenge to belief is that it could be WRONG shows a simplicity of thought, that really doesn't even understand my major challenge to his statement of how to partition knowledge from belief.
    – Axeman
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 14:23

Suppose I flip a coin and don't look at it. I have no knowledge that the coin landed heads up. But I may choose to believe it landed heads up if I want to.

Interpreting your diagram:

Agnostic atheist: "I do not believe that a god exists. God might exist or might not, I don't know. Perhaps evidence might make me believe in the future, but right now, I don't."

Agnostic theist: "I choose to believe that a god exists by faith. I wouldn't consider this knowledge though, as I don't have rigorous evidence or proof."

Gnostic theist: "I know that a god exists. I have proof/evidence that I consider rigorous."

Gnostic atheist: "I know that no god exists. I have proof/evidence that I consider rigorous."



  • What is knowledge?

    • Knowledge could be a part of particular truth or universal truth.

    • When we are aware of knowledge from other source, we consider it as valuable facts that may be adapted for our own purpose relevantly. We consider knowledge as facts that have possibilities to be useful for us.

  • Failure on Knowledge

    • If such knowledge unable to be implemented successfully to support our purposes, this will not be our knowledge and we disbelieve it, but still there is a chance it will be valuable for someone else, and we can share it to someone else. Knowledge may be a particular truth, therefore knowledge may be shareable.


  • What is belief?

    • Belief must be considered as a part of a universal truth.

    • Belief is our assertion to knowledge. Belief is knowledge as universal truth that we accept.

    • We accept a knowledge as a belief and we share a belief as a knowledge to someone else.

  • Failure on Belief

    • Since belief is a part of universal truth, therefore if our belief was proved to be wrong, it shouldn't be shared as knowledge to someone else.

The points are:

  • Knowledge is what possibly useful facts for us,

  • Where, a belief is an assertion of usefulness of a knowledge.

  • May be a knowledge is someone's belief, but what i believe for sure is a knowledge (knowledge is not always a belief, but a belief is always a knowledge)


Knowledge is useful or explanatory information. An item of knowledge need not be believed by anybody. For example, there is lots of knowledge in books, computer programs and even genes that nobody knows. The information is just as valuable and just as much in need of explanation as knowledge that happens to be believed by somebody. See "Objective Knowledge" and "Realism and the Aim of Science" by Karl Popper for more on this issue.


You aren't alone - far too many people get Belief and Knowledge confused.

A Truth is something grounded in reality - demonstrable either directly or via sound rational progress from direct evidence.

Any concept one considers to be true (which is not the same as a Truth) is a Belief. When that concept is a Truth, then that Belief is Knowledge.

  • Not a terrible answer by any means, but is there any chance I could persuade you to unpack this a little bit? Maybe back up some of your claims with citations?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 17:23
  • Well, the specific way of putting it as I did goes back to Epistemology 101 which I took in '90 so I don't remember (hopefully understandably) the exact citation - but one need only consult a dictionary to see that the definitions of the words line up with what I've said... Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 17:27
  • Offering an actual citation from a dictionary might be acceptable, but I would definitely encourage you to please provide a cite from a philosopher if you can.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 17:28
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    Just in passing, SEP has an article on "knowledge analysis" that might be helpful as far as identifying potential sources to cite.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 17:30
  • If the question were one along the lines of "how to we establish that something is grounded in reality" or "how do we identify a belief", I'd think a cite from a philosopher is necessary. When we're dealing with basic terms and just clarifying what they mean, it seems rather silly. Words have meanings - and dictionary definitions provide the common frame of reference for the conceptual meanings of words to be made clear. If we can't at least agree on a frame of reference for conceptual definitions then it doesn't matter what we know anymore, communication is impossible. Commented Sep 16, 2011 at 17:44

Knowledge is based on evidence whereas belief does not need any evidence.

I think the "Knowledge hierarchy" is interesting in this case:

enter image description here

So let's get through it:

Data is only symbols / signs. Data comes from sensors. A simple example is the output stream a visual sensor produces. This sensor might be your eye and the data comes in the form of electrical impulses.

Information is data with context and interpretation. In the eye example that could be some structure: Your brain knows that the data it gets is grouped. What arrives at the same time is related; things that are closer together are related. From the different signals of single rod cells an image is formed. So information can only exist with data, but it is more.

I would define knowledge as an extrapolation of information. So you try find patterns in information with context. In the eye example I would say that knowledge is the following: You see the following image:

enter image description here

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Puppy.JPG

But without knowledge that has no further meaning. But you have seen that pattern before. And you have seen the pattern what happens next before:

  • People say sweet
  • You feel happy
  • You're tempted to +1 this post ( :-) )

You got this knowledge by combining lots and lots of information:

  • You have seen the pattern "fur", "eyes", "mouth" before
  • You have seen the combination before
  • In your first years you were told many times "that's a dog"

so you derived that "dog" is what these patterns mean. And as you know these patterns, you have compresses a lot of information and even more data: You can predict what can happen and what can't. Your predictions might not be always right, but they have to be right most of the time. How do you know they are right? Well, that's another question.

One questions that I think is interesting is:

Is knowledge always correct?

Well, I think here you will get problems with terms. I would call one of them universal knowledge and the other personal knowledge. The universal knowledge does fit to every information all the time. In that sense it cannot be wrong. But it is rather a theoretical construct. We only have personal knowledge as we only have limited data and therefore limited information. As our capacities to detect patterns are limited we also accept errors. So our knowledge has not to fit all information we get. We sometimes simply ignore information (Was that fish just talking? Nah, I have never seen that before. Let's ignore it.) or we actively try to get more information (Did the fish talk again? Probably somebody tried to fool me. Lets seek for hidden cameras.)

Humans have developed amazing abilities to get and share knowledge. A good strategy for checking if knowledge is useful / valid is falsification. For everything you know, there has to be some information that had the possibility to change your mind: "If XY happens, then my knowledge about Z is wrong.".

So much about knowledge. But what is belief?

Belief does not need any data / information / knowledge. When you ask religious people what you could do that would make them not belief in god any longer, you will get one answer: Nothing. No data / information can "remove" belief.

Colloquial meaning: I belief

Sometimes people say I belief when they are not sure about something. But that's something different.


Well, you asked what the difference was between "knowledge" and "belief" but then you went and brought Agnosticism into it and if we are talking about God then it is vital that we also make the distinction between "belief" and "faith".

Essentially, whether we're talking about faith in god, or just faith in something or someone else, faith can be considered as the ability to know something to be true without the need for any evidence or proof. This amounts to being able to treat something we are actually unsure of as if we are certain about it. This comes in quite handy in situations where, for example, we are unable to be sure of something before we are required to act.

A belief is any knowledge which is considered to have enough evidence in its support that it might as well be considered truth and so we choose to treat it as such until we become aware of evidence to the contrary. This is still faith, however it is faith in the knowledge that we consider to be the evidence which ultimately sways us... and as faith is knowing something to be true though we don't, as soon as you have any sort of "proof" then faith becomes belief - which we could also call knowing something to be true that we feel has a reasonable expectation of being true due to our knowledge of its past states over time and our faith in that knowledge staying valid and relevant when its pattern is projected towards the future. But that's kind of a mouth-full, so while it is both those things, belief is ultimately knowledge which we treat as true because our belief in the proof comes from our faith in the evidence.

Agnostics WOULD be outside of belief (in God, at least) because it is the very search for it. Or perhaps the wait for it. Agnostics have simply seen no evidence compelling enough for them to have want to have faith in it. Or rather, they have seen no evidence that they consider convincing enough to be proof and as such they have no belief in the matter. Yet. :)

Does that help? I didn't want to go TOO into it, after all. ;)


Knowledge means you have or know the or an information.

Belief is you know or believe or are convinced that something is exactly so and are ok with this enough that you are not actively engaging to oppose your own belief.


I would suggest that the right framing here is in terms of multiple dimensions of modal logic.

I can assert that the dog in front of me is brown. I can be certain or uncertain of his brownness. But if it were controverted, even if I were quite certain, it would not affect me deeply. I hold this belief largely in an alethic mode, as knowledge. All that matters about it is its degree of certainty.

I can also assert that he has a personality. I can again be certain or uncertain, but the answer holds more meaning. I talk to him. He knows that when I say 'OK', he has effectively made a request, and we are pursuing his agenda. But that is hardly proof. I am not altogether certain. Yet when that is controverted, it hurts -- I feel foolish. I do many things on the basis of his limited personhood that I would not otherwise do. I hold this belief in a doxastic mode, as an everyday belief. What matters primarily is the degree to which it informs my actions.

Finally, I can assert that hurting him is to be avoided. Again this can have both of the other dimensions, I can be uncertain, and I may or may not consider this when acting. But when I don't, it hurts in a different way -- I feel less valuable as a person. I hold this belief in a deontic mode, as a moral belief. What matters primarily is the degree to which I bear it as a duty.

To me, it seems that the assertion "There is no God" can clearly be held in each of these ways. The average person might actually hold it as an alethic assertion, like Montaigne, it might have no effect on their life, if it is their tradition, they go to Church anyway. The agnostic probably holds it as a doxastic assertion. They refuse to act as though there is a God, because it seems silly. I only consider those atheists who hold it as a deontic assertion, who feel driven for reasons of internal consistency to assert it with force.

Something is a belief, for me, only if it can have all three of these dimensions. Mathematical and scientific facts are not beliefs, because they are held strictly as knowledge. You act on them, but you do not choose to. Random observations that have no effect are not beliefs because they lack influence over action. Totally abstract points of logic are not beliefs because they might guide your deductions, but they do not influence your real judgment of right and wrong.

I believe my dog is brown, but it is not in this sense a belief. That he has a personality entails the fact that hurting him is wrong, so it becomes a belief.

  1. Knowledge is a subset of true beliefs.

  2. A belief is a mental state that may or may not refer to facts .

  3. Truth and falsehood are properties of beliefs.

    • A true belief refers to facts.
    • A false belief does not refers to fact.
  4. Facts can only be defined ostensively, e.g. "Paris is inside of France" is a fact.

True beliefs based on erroneous inferences do not count as knowledge, e.g. by looking at a stopped clock at the right time of day. A groundless belief is one that has no evidence whatsoever. A groundless belief can be true but nevertheless does not count as knowledge, e.g. a gambler's firm belief that he will win.

When one has no ground for supposing a proposition is either true or false, she or he suspends judgement. This is the position agnostics take. A person is called a sceptic if he or she does not believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it is true.

*More rigorous study uncovers endless doubt. See Bertrand Russell's Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits for details.


Short Answer:


  • if you are gnostic you know that there is god
  • if you are agnostic you don't know if there is a god


  • Theist believes in a supernatural being/religion
  • Atheist doesn't believe in a supernatural being/religion

Antitheist, doesn't believe in god and thinks theists/religion is something bad.


  • Most people, even theists, are agnostic, because they don't necessarily claim that there is a god (only hardcore fanatics should be considered gnostic, if you have some doubts then you are agnostic)
  • If you don't actively practice a religion you are always an atheist


If you are Secular you believe that the state and religion should be separated.

  • The state doesn't has any opinion on one's religion and doesn't influence the decision
  • The religion should not interfere with the state (education and law) Most countries are secular because of diversity and the tons of failures in the holybooks etc.

The IS is an example of a group against secularism, I think there are even people in some 'first world' countries (USA) against a secular state. Map here


Knowledge is information digested by a sentient being that may be factual or the contrary or anything in between that can be recalled or factored with other knowledge to produce new knowledge. Knowledge is information which has been perceived by a sentient being able to later recall and consider it in any number of different ways.

Sometimes it is the derivative evaluations of experiences or the consideration of possibility which can result in new knowledge and epiphany's that open up new branch points and possibilities for consideration. Philosophy is certainly built upon the limbs and branches of such a tree.

Belief on the other hand is being convinced of the truth of particular knowledge without the requirement of facts and or evidence to backup the validity of that knowledge in reality or otherwise.

Belief is something that can punctuate both Science and Theology in the sense that the knowledge to explain phenomenon isn't a requirement to be convinced of it's validity and is as such subjective.

If the belief is related to phenomenon that can be proven to be consistent between independent observers and reproducible 100% of the time in controlled conditions, it is said to have become objective knowledge (possibly having originated from the subjective belief of an individual). This is what motivates most scientists to research specific problems for which there is no answer.

Belief without the necessity of explanation permeates much Theology and this could be defined as faith. The difference is that faith cannot be proven or disproven because it is subjective by it's very nature and therefore differs from individual to individual. It may disproven objectively (lacking proof or evidence to stand up to consistent reproduction of phenomenon related to said belief) or it may not be disproven at all because it does not include any phenomenon which manifests in objective collaborative space for the subjective believer to be convinced of it's validity.

Belief can pertain to concepts rather than measurable phenomenon as well such as a belief in prevailing good or bad (a concept of universal morality and possible duality). A belief in life (a concept of universal existentialism, sentience and mortality). A belief in death (a concept of immortality and staged progress of sentience).

It is safe to say belief can pertain to any knowledge whether experienced in reality or considered and imagined in the mind but never has the requirement of proof of possibility because it is subjective. When more than one person share the same belief, it still remains independently subjective and personal.

Oddly enough, one must be at peace of mind to be able to consider such ideas. For most of us that is between the challenges of living that we experience from day to day which again are different for us all. Chances are when we are asked the same thing under the duress of extreme stresses and under the torch, our answers might differ from those we come to while in a peaceful state. Perhaps what we truly believe is what we never fail to protect despite the cost to our person.

One is a statement that can be contemplated while at peace, the other is something about which that we will never give up. Perhaps that is the real sense of belief, though I might be mixing it up with determination.

  • I definitely believe mathematical facts that have been demonstrated to me, so belief can be based in evidence, and you should not define it in terms of the lack of evidence.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 18:25

I see it more convenient to reply to the question by using Kant's terms that describe knowledge by the properties of necessity and generality, rather than contingency and particularity; note that the latter properties suite the subjective state of belief. Although it is true that on reflection we see that 'actually' our knowledge states are incomplete and contingent, and even particular, if we want to distinguish knowledge states from again, belief ones we should take into consideration these properties of knowledge however 'perceived' (subjective) they could seem to us.

Therefore, this would be the difference between knowledge and belief, which suggests that knowledge is not reducible to belief, which in its turn, has immediate consequences for a JTB theory of knowledge.


To begin, we should be wary of the fact that the term 'knowledge' is used in different ways in colloquial speech, and is often the focus of highly contested political issues. 'Knowing' (in the understanding of the lay public) invokes existential security: to know something is to have a solid foundation on which further human action can rest. In the absence of knowledge people can become frightened, indecisive, and weak — they lose that firm foundation on which their actions might be based, and hesitate — and thus debates about what constitutes knowledge are (more often than not) thinly-veiled, aphilosophical attacks meant to undercut the political or social power of some disliked person, group, or institution. We should take care to segregate these political gambits from the proper philosophical question.

Philosophically speaking, the term 'knowledge' is best thought of as the systematic suspension of disbelief. When we say we know something, we mean that we accept a particular claim about the world without entertaining the possibility that it might be incorrect. This is broad definition of knowledge that only deals with the cognitive aspect (it is pre-epistemological), but what's important to note is that it is not affirmative — not a protestation of truth — but anti-disfirmative. Knowledge doesn't have to express itself as true, it merely rejects critiques and counter-assertions. When a claim is forced to affirm itself against critiques and counter-assertions, its status as knowledge is explicitly in question; it does not regain its status as 'knowledge' until the opposing arguments are put to rest and can once again be systematically ignored.

Of course, justifying such systematic suspension of disbelief analytically is a more complicated undertaking, and there have been several historical approaches to the problem. The three most prominent have been:

  • Idealism, in which action and understanding are predicated by transcendental 'ideals' or 'forms' that determine the nature of things
  • Rationalism, which holds that logical consistency, intellectual rigor, and introspective analysis yield fundamental 'truths' from which action and understanding can proceed
  • Empiricism, where sensory experience (through precise and systematic measurement) determines the functional application of action and understanding, and thus delimits and constitutes knowledge

These are often held as exclusionary positions — I generally argue against that, since it's clear that each position necessarily invokes elements of each of the others — and they generally each have their unique ways of standing up against cynicist and nihilist arguments that seek to deny the mere possibility of knowledge or meaning. But it's through this common effort to try to systematically justify the suspension of disbelief that we can approach the religious problem laid out in the questions and start to understand what 'knowledge' means in each case:

  • Theists 'know' there is a god, and justify that suspension of disbelief by pointing at an assortment of moral virtues, communitarian values, and philosophical ideals they find difficult to hold or imagine in the absence of a god.
  • Atheists 'know' there is no god, and justify that suspension of disbelief by referencing the absence of evidence or certain logical paradoxes that are entailed in such a belief (depending on whether they lean more towards empiricism or rationalism)
  • Gnostics (or mystics more generally) 'know' that there is a higher order to the universe that can be accessed (if not necessarily expressed), and justify that suspension of disbelief (as often as not) by seeking to transcend the failures of lower-order 'knowing' encapsulated in 'worldly' knowledge
  • Agnostics 'know' that some things cannot be known, and justify that suspension of disbelief by pointing at the excesses of overcommitment to points of knowledge

Each group 'knows' by suspending disbelief in a dimension important to it; each group's 'knowledge' is mere belief to the other groups; everyone fails to recognize that disputes aren't mere matters of difference but cut down to the foundational bones of worldviews, bones that support and structure human action and understanding. It is not a simple problem by any means, and treating it as though it is does disservice to all.


There are two kinds of certainty people experience. The first is based on empirical evidence and the second is based on a moral commitment to a proposition, which is an existential act of the will. An example of the former would be the understanding that if I jump off a building, I will fall. An example of the second might be a conviction that the only way to repair the economy is to cut public services. Colloquially, we call the former kind of certainty "knowledge", and the latter kind "belief".

A claimed characteristic of "knowledge" is that it facts are open to falsifiability, whereas the facts of "belief" are generally not. (String Theory, for all its deep mathematical underpinning can be never be more than a "belief", because it is not - and never will be - falsifiable by any experiment we can perform, nor by any ladder of logic we can construct)

What this means with regards to the atheism/theism and gnosticism/agnosticism question is simply this: the first is a domain of "belief" about deities, and the second is simply a red herring put up by its proponents to help them understand their particular position, and perhaps to justify it to others. The self-evident truth however is that neither theists nor atheists know in any unfalsifiable way whether gods do or do not exist, and so they must all be agnostic on this point, despite any pretensions they might have to the contrary.

Thus, our fanciful quadrant must collapse to a single dimension of religious agnosticism. At one end are the evangelical atheists, and at the other are the evangelical theists. There are both idiots and luminaries to be found in both camps, and somewhere in the middle lies that vast stolid majority of the world's people - neither wholly convinced nor wholly unconvinced, neither wholly caring, nor wholly dispassionate: the truly agnostic agnostics.

  • I think you have some good points, but can you provide more citations for your answer to distinguish it from just being your personal opinion? I think, that the four quadrants get you the same as the single line, except the four quadrants also highlight that those who think the answer is knowable but that they do not know it themselves are somewhere in the bottom-middle. Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 21:22

Knowledge is a rational belief. A belief is rational if you can explain (to yourself) why your belief is true. An explanation is only valid if it is rooted in the belief in objective reality as its first premise.

In other words, knowledge is what we believe to be objectively true. Sounds simple, but there is a catch. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix Truth is. You can only "see" it for your Self.

Let me explain what it means. We think of and understand things by running a 3-dimensional simulation of that part of reality in our heads -- and that's the only way we can truly understand anything.

(and yes, you can say that knowledge is a function of time -- running the simulation shows how things evolve through time)

We can then use language to put what we "see" -- our simulation, our understanding -- into words, to compress a 4-D (space + time) model into its verbal description, and in that form, it can be communicated to others. This superpower puts our species in a class of our own. It allows us to share our understandings and/or experiences with anyone willing and able to work it in reverse, unpacking, from our words, a copy of our simulation in their heads -- until they can "see" what we "see", looking at things from our perspective.

That last step is critical. In Heraclitus' words, "learning many things does not teach understanding, -- because simply "listening" is not enough, but seeing is believing.

Or, quoting from John's Gospel, "and the light in the darkness shineth; and the darkness comprehended it not."

Or from Chandogya Upanishad, "Now that light which shines above this heaven, higher than all, higher than everything, in the highest world, beyond which there are no other worlds, that is the same light which is within man.
. . . .
He [who speaks of Truth] sees, thinks, understands, and knows everything as his Self. This whole world is his Soul

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