You might have heard, or read, that philosophers like to define knowledge as “justified true belief”. This idea seems to go back at least to the ancient Greeks, though according to Plato, Socrates rejected the idea. I reject it too – I think it is nonsense.
Certainly knowledge is a form of belief, but as we cannot in general determine if something is “true” in the “absolutely accurate” sense, and as “justified” is a value judgement that reasonable people might disagree on, it seems impossible to say when any given belief becomes knowledge, so it seems to not be a useful distinction. More importantly, I don’t think it reflects the way the people use the terms “know” or “knowledge”.
To set the stage it is best to clarify my understanding of “belief”. A belief is any idea which I allow to affect my actions. In some case the effect might be minimal. I might have an idea which causes me to say, when asked, that “I believe there is a celestial silver teapot orbiting the Sun beyond the orbit of Mars”. This might be an idea that I hold on to fervently and regale people with it at every opportunity, but which I have no opportunity ever to do anything more with. I know the teapot is too small to be seen with any telescope, and I know I will never go beyond Mars, and never have any opportunity to interact with anyone who does. This sort of belief is a small belief, despite my fervent insistence otherwise. It is small because of its effect. A similar belief might be a belief in the virgin birth of Christ. Maybe it is “true”, maybe it is important. But its effect on the life of the believer is small.
Other beliefs are large. I believe that eating reduced hunger, so whenever I feel hungry, I eat (maybe not immediately) because I don’t like hunger. I believe that Christ is Lord and thar following his teaching will be good for me. These are big beliefs because they affect my life several times every day and are often significant inputs to how I plan my days. I, like everyone else, have many beliefs. Some are big, some are small. Some I hold strongly, others not so strongly. Some I have in common with many other people, other seem to be unique to me. These are all just beliefs.
Ideas that we consider to be “knowledge” are a subset of our belief. The difference is not a property of the belief itself. Rather it is a property of our feelings about the belief. If you like it is a belief about the belief. When we believe something but don’t feel certain, then we need to be careful when using that belief – it might be a good first approximation, but we might want to check that it really applies in this case. “Umbrellas are good at keeping off the rain” – not a bad belief, but looking out the window and seeing the wind suggests to me that the umbrella might not work so well today. Any belief has a degree of confidence, and when the risks are great we might find that a belief isn’t quite strong enough.
The classic example here is the performer “Blondin” who would walk a tight rope across Niagra Falls. Sometimes he walks across pushing a wheel barrow. He would then ask an audience member “Do you believe I could push this with a person in the wheel barrow”. “Sure” they reply. “Hop in then, let’s go” says Blondin, but suddenly the audience member seems less certain. The belief was there, but sometimes the confidence doesn’t match the risk.
Knowledge, then, is a choice to disregard all risks. To say “I know” is to say “I will risk anything for this belief”. Having made that choice, you can stop worrying and second-guessing yourself. If you “know” the chair will support you, you can simply flop down on it without a second thought – every time. Knowledge gives us this freedom, it allows us to act without concern. The belief that we “know” might not actually be true, and might not be reasonable. But if we act upon it without any concern, then it is knowledge – for us.
But there is a slightly darker side to knowledge. As hinted earlier we often share beliefs, and people often are better able to communicate and collaborate if they have a range of relevant beliefs in common. In various circumstances it can be valuable to mold the beliefs of others to match your own – it might give you greater comfort or it might even given you a measure of control. When we say “I don’t just believe, I know”, we are sometimes laying down an ultimatum. We are saying that the belief is beyond question – not only have I chosen not to question it, but you should choose not to as well. If knowledge really is justifiable and true, then certainly we can and should all know the same things. If I know it, then you know it too – surely!!
I think this weaponisation of knowledge applies in all cases. When I decide that I “know” something, I’m trying to convince myself, and all my future selves, that the belief is beyond question and should be accepted. When I then tell others I am trying to convince them too. Saying “I believe and you should too” is unlikely to break through the shell of skepticism that people protect their ideas with. Saying “I know this to be true”, is more able to penetrate.
So knowledge is the weaponisation of belief. It is a way of framing an idea to make it seem more credible, either to your future self or to others, or both. The belief itself isn’t intrinsically different from other belief that nobody claims to know. It is only the belief about the belief that is different.