A Philosopher's Blog

Believing What You Know is Not True

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on February 5, 2016

“I believe in God, and there are things that I believe that I know are crazy. I know they’re not true.”

Stephen Colbert

While Stephen Colbert ended up as a successful comedian, he originally planned to major in philosophy. His past occasionally returns to haunt him with digressions from the land of comedy into the realm of philosophy (though detractors might claim that philosophy is comedy without humor; but that is actually law). Colbert has what seems to be an odd epistemology: he regularly claims that he believes in things he knows are not true, such as guardian angels. While it would be easy enough to dismiss this claim as merely comedic, it does raise many interesting philosophical issues. The main and most obvious issue is whether a person can believe in something they know is not true.

While a thorough examination of this issue would require a deep examination of the concepts of belief, truth and knowledge, I will take a shortcut and go with intuitively plausible stock accounts of these concepts. To believe something is to hold the opinion that it is true. A belief is true, in the common sense view, when it gets reality right—this is the often maligned correspondence theory of truth. The stock simple account of knowledge in philosophy is that a person knows that P when the person believes P, P is true, and the belief in P is properly justified. The justified true belief account of knowledge has been savagely blooded by countless attacks, but shall suffice for this discussion.

Given this basic analysis, it would seem impossible for a person to believe in something they know is not true. This would require that the person believes something is true when they also believe it is false. To use the example of God, a person would need to believe that it is true that God exists and false that God exists. This would seem to commit the person to believing that a contradiction is true, which is problematic because a contradiction is always false.

One possible response is to point out that the human mind is not beholden to the rules of logic—while a contradiction cannot be true, there are many ways a person can hold to contradictory beliefs. One possibility is that the person does not realize that the beliefs contradict one another and hence they can hold to both.  This might be due to an ability to compartmentalize the beliefs so they are never in the consciousness at the same time or due to a failure to recognize the contradiction. Another possibility is that the person does not grasp the notion of contradiction and hence does not realize that they cannot logically accept the truth of two beliefs that are contradictory.

While these responses do have considerable appeal, they do not appear to work in cases in which the person actually claims, as Colbert does, that they believe something they know is not true. After all, making this claim does require considering both beliefs in the same context and, if the claim of knowledge is taken seriously, that the person is aware that the rejection of the belief is justified sufficiently to qualify as knowledge. As such, when a person claims that they belief something they know is not true, then that person would seem to either not telling to truth or ignorant of what the words mean. Or perhaps there are other alternatives.

One possibility is to consider the power of cognitive dissonance management—a person could know that a cherished belief is not true, yet refuse to reject the belief while being fully aware that this is a problem. I will explore this possibility in the context of comfort beliefs in a later essay.

Another possibility is to consider that the term “knowledge” is not being used in the strict philosophical sense of a justified true belief. Rather, it could be taken to refer to strongly believing that something is true—even when it is not. For example, a person might say “I know I turned off the stove” when, in fact, they did not. As another example, a person might say “I knew she loved me, but I was wrong.” What they mean is that they really believed she loved him, but that belief was false.

Using this weaker account of knowledge, then a person can believe in something that they know is not true. This just involves believing in something that one also strongly believes is not true. In some cases, this is quite rational. For example, when I roll a twenty sided die, I strongly believe that a will not roll a 20. However, I do also believe that I will roll a 20 and my belief has a 5% chance of being true. As such, I can believe what I know is not true—assuming that this means that I can believe in something that I believe is less likely than another belief.

People are also strongly influenced by emotional and other factors that are not based in a rational assessment. For example, a gambler might know that their odds of winning are extremely low and thus know they will lose (that is, have a strongly supported belief that they will lose) yet also strongly believe they will win (that is, feel strongly about a weakly supported belief). Likewise, a person could accept that the weight of the evidence is against the existence of God and thus know that God does not exist (that is, have a strongly supported belief that God does not exist) while also believing strongly that God does exist (that is, having considerable faith that is not based in evidence.

 

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9 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on February 6, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    Free medical care! Free college education for all! Free guaranteed income!

    People know it is not true, but even intelligent people believe it.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 7, 2016 at 12:27 am

    A good example of cognitive dissonance is abortion on demand. Everyone knows killing a baby is a moral evil, and our society tells us killing a baby is a moral evil. But sometimes, our society tells us, killing a baby is a moral good. And many people (like you, professor) believe killing babies is both a moral good and a moral evil, depending upon the circumstances. That is cognitive dissonance.

    • ronster12012 said, on February 7, 2016 at 6:32 am

      AJ

      Same process as is used in wartime, ie. dehumanization of the enemy. By making the killed less than human one avoids uncomfortable feelings and maintains the emotional equilibrium of the killer. Can’t have people making up their own minds about life and death, can we?

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 7, 2016 at 10:28 am

        Very true. All the patriotic nonsense about our troops “fighting for our freedoms” while in reality they are attacking and invading foreign nations and murdering innocent peoples who were never a threat to us or our freedoms.

        • ronster12012 said, on February 7, 2016 at 11:09 am

          AJ

          It’s probably always been thus….hard to enthuse the punters into getting disembowelled or decapitated for bankers or strategists who want to move pawn one square on the great chessboard.

          • ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 7, 2016 at 11:14 am

            True. I hope professor Mike will examine his own cognitive dissonance as opposed to pointing out the errors of others.

  3. ronster12012 said, on February 7, 2016 at 6:51 am

    “I believe in God, and there are things that I believe that I know are crazy. I know they’re not true.”

    We are only assuming that he is saying that belief in God is crazy as read literally, there are two statements 1/ I believe in God and 2/ there are things I believe that are crazy.

    Perhaps he is just playing with everyone. He is a performer….

    I don’t put much weight on what people say they believe, at least under normal circumstances. It is what happens when the pressure is on that counts, hence the old saying “there are no atheists in foxholes”.

  4. WTP said, on February 8, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself – that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.

    The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.

    Does this remind anyone of anyone?


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