Believing What You Know is Not True
“I believe in God, and there are things that I believe that I know are crazy. I know they’re not true.”
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.