Truth and belief are both terms used in the definition of knowledge. The Dictionary of Philosophical Terms and Names1 defines knowledge as justified true belief, a statement accepted by nearly all Western philosophers. Therefore by looking J.W. Apps’ statement “A belief is what we accept as the truth”, we must somehow take into account its context in knowledge and how knowledge can be justified. However, being a TOK question, the statement is quite likely to be justifiable or else J.W. Apps would not have made such a statement in the first place.
Simply speaking, belief can be defined as the affirmation of, or conviction regarding the truth of a proposition, especially when one is not yet in procession of sufficient evidence adequate to justify a claim that the proposition is known without certainty. As you must believe in something to “know” it, then does belief equal the truth?
Let us take a look at the definition of truth. Pontius Pilate in Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar said “But what is truth? Not easy to define. We both have truths, are yours the same as mine?” Whilst there are many theories of the word “truth”, in simple terms it is the conformity of a proposition to the way things are. However, is it possible then to believe in something which was false?
Can we have a false belief?
Belief and faith are closely linked terms, for faith is the belief of the assent of the mind to the truth of what is declared by another. With faith you believe something. However, there is a difference between accepting something as a matter of faith and regarding it as knowledge. Although to believe in something is different from knowing it, both knowledge and faith requires solid empirical evidence. Faith without empirical evidence is false belief and therefore cannot be knowledge as it is not proven to be true.
An example where belief and empirical evidence contradicts each other occurs in many religions. For example, the Bible tells us of how God created all living creatures (including us humans) as they exist now in seven days. This contradicts with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution where all living creatures have evolved over time through a process known as natural selection or “survival of the fittest”. If this is so, is it possible for a person to believe in both theories of creation at once? Since both theories contradict each other, then it is impossible to believe in both. However, both of these are only theories or hypotheses, thus they cannot be proven to be completely true, yet at the same time neither can they be proven to be false as there is insufficient evidence.
Because faith means you believe in something said by another (or written as in the Bible), you can therefore believe something to be true even when others do not.
The point of view
In the statement “A belief is what we accept as the truth”, the words “belief” implies the self. It does not take into account what other people accept to be true or not, only what you believe. Belief is a personal perception of propositions which exists in the world. Even if one thing is justifiable through science or other empirical evidence, it opens up many other questions open for interpretations. Going back to the previous example, if there was sufficient proof for the theory of evolution to be true and it became accepted as knowledge, it would prompt further unanswerable questions such as “what is the meaning of our existence”. Additionally if there was only one interpretation of everything on each, belief would not exist and we would all become identical in our thinking.
It takes a belief to reach a truth
This goes back to the question of whether it is possible to know something without believing in it. In a way this is possible in real life. An example of this would be the past belief where seeing is believing. In the today’s world of optical illusions, we know when justification through sensory perception deceives us, hence the saying “I don’t believe my eyes”. However, this is false belief because we know it can be explained through science (e.g. a stick is bent in water even though I know it is straight, but because I studied light refraction in physics I don’t believe it is actually bent anymore because of what my eyes tell me).
Belief is something which may or may not be justified, either because of faith or because something tells us it is so, be it a person, a book or sensory organs. Whether a belief is unjustifiable is like whether telling a story to someone is unjustifiable or not. One could tell a story because it is informative, educative and amusing etc. and it would be told in a way as if it were true. However, no matter how much we want to believe a story to be true, we still know it is only fiction. On the flip side of the coin, Adolf Hitler’s belief of Germans as the “pure” race caused such a global catastrophe only because people accepted his ideas and readily believed in what they thought to be true. This is a clear example of how one’s belief can be passed on simply because people took it to be the truth. The acceptance of belief must indicate that to the believer it is the truth even if others know or believe it to be not.
Does it take a truth to reach a belief?
As it is not possible to believe in something which is not true, knowledge ceases to be belief once you know it is true as belief suggests a degree of uncertainty within other. Therefore the above statement cannot be valid as it is the same as saying “I know this apple is red, and I believe it”. If you already know the apple to be red then it wouldn’t make sense to say you didn’t believe it to be red. You could also say you don’t believe it to be red or you don’t want to believe it to be red, but in the end you must because you know it is so. A truth implies belief but not vice versa.
So what is it that we accept as the truth?
Since knowledge is defined as “justified true belief”, knowing something to be true does not qualify to be knowledge until you can justify and believe in it. But does acceptance imply belief? Obviously not, but belief clearly implies what you see to be true, regardless of it being justifiable or not. It would be meaningless to believe in something that we believed or knew to be false or irrelevant, for no matter how important truth may be, it is no excuse for irrelevance.
“A belief is what we accept as the truth”. I wholly agree with J.W. Apps in this statement as I believe the statement, hence to me it is true whether or not anyone else believes the same way. It would be meaningless to believe in something which was false or else clearly it would be meaningless to exist.