What makes possible for people to make claims to knowledge or make claims based on beliefs?

Intuitively, anyone can claim anything. Anyone can hold any sort of belief. Practically it also seems that at least some people are eager to also apply these beliefs over others (see politics).

However, how can one decide, which beliefs can be applied over others and which cannot? How can anyone claim ideological authority?

This last part is problematic, because e.g. in politics, even so called democracies are prone to introducing "arbitrary beliefs", because anyone can claim ideological authority, regardless of topic. Specifically, one can claim ideological authority, if one becomes elected. However, if it's difficult to justify ideological authority, then what claims can anyone make? Measuring merely the popularity of beliefs is not enough, since "popularity" can also be an arbitrary measure and it's not necessarily "correct" if the majority is wrong.

In natural and formal sciences it's fairly easy to identify those that make correct claims, because correct claims must be e.g. repeatable. But there are many topics that some people want to make political for example that cannot be displayed "objectively correct". Should these things be discarded entirely as "we cannot know" things?

  • This is a fascinating question to explore. For certain any answer would seek to apply one's beliefs and make claims about what they know you can claim about beliefs and knowledge. Wonderfully circular. Are you particularly interested in the answers with respect to the difference between politics and the natural sciences, or were you just providing them as examples of the broad spectrum of such claims?
    – Cort Ammon
    Feb 28 '18 at 17:58
  • @CortAmmon Natural science is a good example where there are known methods for objectively verifying claims, even if they started as subjective ideas. Politics is an example of a "domain", where accuracy would be desirable (because law applies to everyone) and where the outcomes can be coercive (because law applies to everyone).
    – mavavilj
    Feb 28 '18 at 18:06
  • Just for fun, consider the question of how you can know that particular methods "objectively verify" claims.
    – Cort Ammon
    Feb 28 '18 at 18:44
  • @CortAmmon Well, in some fundamentalist sense one could go back to Descartes' subjectivity, but that's not a very fruitful stance. There's long history of methodology (particularly, practical knowledge) that is known to work in some way. Then there's terminology to distinguish e.g. a priori and a posteriori information. For practical purposes, it doesn't make sense to reduce to "nothing cannot be known". For practical purposes, philosophy doesn't always make sense. Rather, there are some things that are known to work and some others that are "vague" (such as those political beliefs).
    – mavavilj
    Mar 1 '18 at 13:02
  • 1
    ... subjectively most of these people who claim these beliefs are very certain of the dividing line between facts and opinions, and they draw it very sharply. They clearly can divide them. To get towards what I believe you are addressing requires an effort to go from subjective to objective. There's thousands of years of philosophy demonstrating just how enormously difficult (or even impossible) that is. Or rather, it's enormously difficult unless you know something which makes it easy... which drives the argument right back in a circle again. I find it facinating.
    – Cort Ammon
    Mar 1 '18 at 15:49

The topic you are interested is quite a large one. It includes the vast majority of the human condition, ranging from religion to politics to sciences to philosophy to mathematics. Hopefully you don't expect just one answer!

Your last question is, in my opinion, the most interesting. Indeed there are those who argue that we cannot know anything at all. These are known as skeptics, and there are a variety of categorizations of them based on how wide of a claim they make. I, myself, am strongly impacted by Agrippa the Skeptic and his 5 tropes, which were then rephrased many centuries later as the Münchhausen trilemma, which claims that any logical proof must rely upon one of three things:

  • A circular argument
  • A reduction to infinity.
  • A unproven statement (an axiom)

Such an argument makes the strong case that one cannot define "knowledge" to be a provable thing if we seek to avoid all of those three things. And surely someone asking the question of "what can we know" is concerned with the oddities that arise if any one of those three appear.

Indeed, skeptics have the most curious problem one can come across. At the extreme, they state that you cannot know anything. Yet, to be consistent, they must not know that you cannot know anything, for such would be a contradiction. There are countless opinions about how to resolve this, which are certainly beyond the scope of the question.

One you accept that there are people who will make the claim that we cannot know anything, the rest of the questions become more interesting. They refuse to settle down, because there will always be that one unfinished corner of the argument. It encourages a pragmatic approach to the specific issues of politics and science that you address. People do indeed apply their beliefs over others (for whatever that phrase means), and people do claim authority. The validity of those claims is incredibly complicated, especially on a national level, but if I may simplify, I'd like to refer to an argument Alan Watts made. He was talking about the authority of the guru, and why a guru has authority. He made the argument that the guru has authority because the student gives him or her the authority. If the student did not give such authority, then the guru simply would have none. Watts makes a great argument, which I might be able to dig up if you were interested, but the intuitive sense of the phrasing does argue for itself. Our governments have authority because we citizens give them authority. This may be given freely. It may be given at birth before you know any better. Or it might even be given at gunpoint, when the alternative to ceeding authority is death. Whether we find such acts ethical or not, we must admit that it is possible to ceed authority in each case.

Science is another interesting situation. You say "its fairly easy to identify those that make correct claims, because correct claims must be e.g. repeatable." In theory, this is true. In practice, it is more nuanced. Consider the announcement of a new particle from the LHC. While in theory this is a repeatable experiment, in practice, there's no collider in town that can actually do it besides the LHC. When they make their claim, nobody else can repeat their experiment besides the LHC. As such, if you look at how groups of scientists at the LHC announce their discoveries, they spent extraordinary amounts of effort to address this issue. They re-run the experiments countless times, publish all sorts of low level data, and take care to announce only their observations. Even when they announced the "discovery" of the Higgs Boson, they took great care to phrase their statement based on statistics and observations. All because this issue of authority and knowledge is indeed an issue for science. They have to pay attention to it just like the politicians.


Epistemology is the area a philosophy that considers how we know what we know. Although, it is true that Empiricism is a tempting theory for understanding truth, it is limited to the objective and measurable. I believe in justice, though I am not familiar with any units of measure that would apply. I believe there is beauty, though I do not believe that it is objective. At some point what you believe is an element of your personal philosophy. You can believe what you want, but if you want others to agree, you need to either stick to the objective, or work on your ability to discuss and persuade.

  • Are you "sure" about the "limited to the objective and measurable"? I've lately written about the extension of those criteria to the subjective. Where the main rational is that some of the subjective is biased and opinionated, when it could objective, was it accepted by the subjects. For example, perception of music can be claimed "entirely subjective", however one can draw "objective measurements" for music (e.g. technicality), so is it then subjective or does it have objective aspects (which would make it "not so subjective"). What something is "believed to be" does influence.
    – mavavilj
    Mar 1 '18 at 7:48
  • So we are not discussing what I am "sure" of but the definition of Empiricism which is a philosophical discipline. It is based on objective measurements. What unit of measure are you using to evaluate the "perception of music"? Mar 1 '18 at 16:10
  • It's not necessary to use any "isms" here. Merely talk about "empirical verification". It's very broad though, because there's an enormous amount of things that can be known empirically, not all of them "fully" though (because e.g. animals are not rationalizing empirically, but rather there's an interpretative, biological, social/cultural etc. components acting on those observations). So I'm not sure if any info exists as "purely empirical", but for practical purposes consider empirical to mean that "it has an empirical part" (often contrastable to a priori or rational).
    – mavavilj
    Mar 9 '18 at 15:50
  • Empirical verification of perception of music could be related to those portions of music that can be quantified mathematically (in order to measure them). Of course this becomes subjective, because to select what to quantify and then how to relate them to each other, means that one draws a view on the significance of musical things. A better result could be based on comparison with statistical "preferences" (i.e. to match against the preferences of a larger group). Then the "truth" would be related to how much in correlation there's between the "model" and any new observations.
    – mavavilj
    Mar 9 '18 at 15:53
  • This is probably a common way to do testing on humans in practice. To study the effectiveness of a medicine for example, one tests it on populations with known features (e.g. age, gender, health etc.) and then measures how many in the population display correlation with the "expected effects" of the medicine.
    – mavavilj
    Mar 9 '18 at 15:56

There's a lot to this question, so only attempting to answer the first part:

What makes possible for people to make claims to knowledge or make claims based on beliefs?

Just as digital recordings take a "sample" of sound, we humans take "snapshots" of our surrounding reality, then attempt to piece them into a cohesive story-line which is acceptable to our individual logic. Once we collect enough patterns of cause and effect, we have in effect created an instrument to which we measure future scenarios. This instrument will tend to reject any new information which is in conflict with prior programming.

See Confirmation Bias https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

This biased instrument (our concept of reality) is very individualistic since no two persons experience the world in exactly the same way. Therefore, it is very simple for anyone to make a claim of knowledge, since they are simply expressing reality from their viewpoint.

That's why we like good science! The more a claim holds up from multiple perspectives, the higher the probability the claim represents reality.

  • But not everything has an accepted "verification method". Social sciences, economics, humanities in general. And not just scientific fields, but what about opinions that are facts? E.g. it's factual that an engineer is a more useful profession than a game developer, but one could claim it's an opinion.
    – mavavilj
    Mar 4 '18 at 5:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.