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SHOULD BELIEF PRECEDE KNOWLEDGE?

[From The Rosicrucian Digest January 1935]
 
 
The question of the necessity of belief preceding knowledge was first made a popular issue by the ecclesiast and scholastic philosopher, Anselm, during the period of 1033-1104 A. D. It was popular in the sense of being generally discussed among the thinking and learned people of the time. His doctrine that faith or belief must precede knowledge was made in reference to the doctrines and dogma of the early Christian church. A superficial examination of his doctrine would make it appear to be but an exhortation to accept upon faith the truthfulness and infallibility of the church's doctrines rather than to await a time when they would be in accord with reason alone. He used as an analogy: He who has no faith in light can never come to know light.
 
The question has arisen a number of times since Anselm and is one of considerable controversy today. In a consideration of it today it is often asked, "And what was the real significance that Anselm attached to his doctrine? Did he mean that any traditional doctrine, based upon an intangible authority or source not now in existence, should be accepted purely upon faith in the hope that its veracity would become known to us by virtue of our faith alone?" If this was meant, it puts a severe strain upon reason, for it is quite probable that there could exist at the same time irrefutable facts of which one could have knowledge and yet which would not be compatible with the traditional doctrines. It would mean utter disregard of all knowledge not in accord with the object of our faith solely upon the hope that the belief would eventually be realized as knowledge. It is because most students understand Anselm’s doctrine in this manner that it has been severely criticized as a checking of rational thinking and a hindrance to the advancement of knowledge. It is argued by the opposition that logically, belief must follow, not precede knowledge. "How," they ask, "can a man believe what he does not know?" Further, "If he presumes to believe what he does not know, he can never really come to know the truth about what he believes." The first contention is based upon the reasoning that knowledge alone inspires belief. We experience something, personally or otherwise, and that experience constitutes our knowledge. What we think we know, we believe. We put a dependency in our reasoning and in our senses. What appeals to the former is accepted as fact and forms our beliefs, our convictions, and consequently our faith. It is admitted by the opponents of Anselm's doctrine, however, that our experiences may be faulty, our judgment erroneous, and our senses deceived; but until we learn that, our conclusions, based upon our previous experiences, remain as knowledge and continue to form the same beliefs. When we eventually come to know that what we formerly thought was true is false, we, if fair with ourselves, they state, reject the former judgment, accept the new, and readjust our beliefs and faith accordingly.
 
The latter contention of the opposition is founded upon the reasoning that if one presumes to believe what he has not experienced or had knowledge of, he is but forming an opinion. This opinion, they contend, may become so established as to prejudice the mind against further investigation of the subject, and thus prevent real knowledge of the subject from being acquired. These opponents, however, have introduced a word not included by Anselm in his original doctrine, and that is "opinion." We who think that Anselm attached a more profound philosophical meaning to his doctrine than his critics give him credit for, in his defense will therefore proceed by a consideration of this word "opinion." Our opinions are our judgment. A judgment or conclusion is the result of reasoning. Such a conclusion has not been actually experienced as positive knowledge but must have been composed at the time of its origin of some factor of positive knowledge. Man cannot form an opinion which is not related to or established upon some reality experienced. Our thoughts are composed of ideas related to actual objects of knowledge. The nature of the opinion itself may have in reality no actual existence. An opinion, however, stands in relation to positive knowledge. We do not mean that an opinion is of the same or greater value than positive knowledge of something; but an opinion of a thing in absence of knowledge of it stands as equal to actual knowledge of something else.
 
Human understanding embraces what we think as well as what we know. We may say, for example, we know through experience that our present economic state is unsatisfactory; and we may think or form an opinion about a theoretical, satisfactory, economic state that has not as yet had existence. Both, however--the economic state which is known and that one which is an opinion--constitute our understanding of economic states. Wrong opinions, it is true, give way to actual knowledge because, in relation to it, they seem erroneous; but then, too, knowledge, when found to be false, must give way to true knowledge. The element of probability now enters into the problem. Knowledge can be wrong, but it is cloaked in a greater degree of probability than is opinion until proven wrong. Opinion may become knowledge, and then again it may not. Though this probability surrounds an opinion, a true opinion inspires as much confidence as does knowledge. Anselm's opponents contend that knowledge inspires belief because of our confidence in our sense experiences and our reasoning processes by which we came to know. Opinion, as we have seen, is the result of the same reasoning processes, though not directly a product of our sense experiences, and thus must inspire confidence in its nature also. When we doubt an opinion, it is no longer an opinion. It has either been changed by actual knowledge to the contrary, or the formation of a new opinion. As long as we hold to an opinion we have a confidence as to its being right, with only the probability that it might at some time be proven wrong. We see, therefore, that there is associated with opinion, that which Anselm's opponents said was merely associated with knowledge--namely, belief and faith. It is belief and faith in the existence of a thing, condition, or a state, which inspires our investigation of it. If we have belief or conviction about anything, we may eventually experience it, come to know it, and then confirm our belief. It is quite possible that without having a belief in the existence of a thing, when we eventually come to experience the actual thing we will not appreciate it and its true value will be lost to us.
 
Looking at this problem in the manner we presume Anselm looked upon it: If one had no belief in the existence of God, he would never seek out ways and means to confirm that belief. It would be possible perhaps that without the belief in God to experience in some way or another the manifestations of God, the realities of God's nature, without a realization of what they were. A previous belief or faith in a thing is the building of a frame in which later the picture can actually take form. It may be true, as we have shown, that our faith or our belief in something is wrong, and we may later come to experience knowledge which reveals the falsity of our belief; but without the belief, the true nature of that knowledge could not be fully appreciated and is even apt to be passed by as inconsequential. All things which we experience are not sufficiently interesting to us for us to retain them in memory. They are discarded by us as unimportant because we lack an appreciation of their importance. If we think and form opinions and have faith in what we think are the important things of life, even before we have actual knowledge of them, then when we do experience those things which will compose the knowledge of our belief, we will recognize them, embrace them, and retain them. Knowledge must be very forcibly impressed upon us before it is accepted if it is not easily identified with some previous opinion or belief which we have. Knowledge which has in it some element related to a belief or an opinion is welcomed as a friend. It bears marks of familiarity and though it may differ in many respects from our belief, at least it is hailed and considered because it is not strange to us. Therefore, we say that definite beliefs and faiths invite knowledge. A man or woman who forms few definite beliefs or has few faiths, you will find, has little in the way of knowledge for the former draws the latter. One must be ready, however, at all times to make a change in his belief and in his faith when he finds that it is not in accord with actual knowledge. Bigotry and intolerance make their entrance only when one will not change an opinion and a belief to make it conform with true knowledge.
 

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