Analyse Plato’s views on belief and knowledge, and how he distinguished between the two

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A belief is a thought and often faith in a particular subject or thing in this world. Knowledge is a certain, universal fact that is supported by research and evidence. For instance, it is my personal belief that the existence of a God is a definite; however my view is not accepted, and is doubted by many. There is no physical evidence of an all powerful being, a God existing, so people do not classify it as knowledge, but as a belief. Plato describes this distinction by stating that knowledge is ‘infallible’ and that belief is ‘fallible’.

However, Plato’s interest does not depend upon his mere knowledge that something is taking place, but rather, on what that something is; whether it is a supreme truth which can be explained and defined in some way. Thus Plato views knowledge objectively and refers to it as a ‘faculty’ or, ‘power’ of the mind. Plato asserts that the world of senses is not only unknown, but also unknowable. For example, you cannot say that ‘beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’ as that is merely a matter of opinion, a matter which can only be decided when the senses are used.

However, truth and beauty are not relative to the individual or to the moment. Therefore a sculpture, for example, cannot be both beautiful and ugly at the same time, it is either one or the other. So Plato believes that knowledge can be separated from the senses, by the state of mind and outcome it generates. To Plato, knowledge is dependent on those features of the universe that do not change at all. The fact that ‘man is man’ is unchanging; although man’s physical features may change.

Plato believes that no knowledge can be attained through any learning process; as that would indicate our previous ignorance of the truth, hence, it would be impossible for us to recognise whether the proposition was true or false. Thus Plato deduces that humans are born with an innate knowledge of genuine, independent elements called ‘Forms’ or ‘Platonic Ideas’. He believes in a ‘Recollection Theory’ which simply means that humans have acquired all necessary knowledge before birth, which they then recollect throughout their life time.

So, Plato concludes that knowledge is not gained through education or sense experience; but has been present since the human was conceived. He supports this idea by asserting that our souls must have existed prior to our birth, and would have contained all the knowledge we could have ever possessed; our job is merely to remember these truths as we grow. This type of knowledge is known as intelligible knowledge, as it deals with the forms. The other, elementary type is visible knowledge – which is mere opinion about an experience. This visible information is always prone to change and amendment.

For example, we may discover a black and white pattern and believe it to be a Dalmatian when it could suddenly move, and we find that it is in fact, a zebra. Thus we are only aware of how things seem to us, since the visual aspects of an object are in constant transition. Visible knowledge has no mention of general concepts, or the Forms; so things are dependent upon individual perception and belief. On the basis of visible information we are only aware of how things seem to us, and Plato decided that one cannot obtain knowledge through visible information alone.

To illustrate the nature of this ultimate knowledge through the Forms, Plato uses his famous ‘Allegory of the Cave’ example, mentioned in his ‘Republic’. Imagine the condition of living men in an underground cave, with an entrance open to light from the outside world. These men have been confined through fetters in this cave since childhood, and are only allowed to look forwards. These men would only know each other, and what ever shadows are cast upon the cave walls. They would believe these shadows to be real, and not realise that there are any other objects in the world.

On top of this, if their speech produced an echo, they would put it down to speech by the shadows or ‘other people’. Now, consider what would happen if these men were released into the world outside of the cave – the real world. The would initially be blinded by the bright light outside of the cave, but once their eyes adjusted, they would acquire knowledge of trees, water, houses, and whatever else is outside of the cave. He would soon come to realise that the world he lived in before was one of shadows and beliefs; and would eventually realise that the bright sun was the cause of all that he and his companions used to believe as true.

Through this parable, Plato aims to tell us that we must discard our extreme confidence in opinions and beliefs, if we are to attain true knowledge of the Forms. This example has shown that the senses can deceive you into believing something which is incorrect. Plato labels the senses as A posteriori because they constantly change our opinion and cannot be demonstrated. Hence they should be considered only after true knowledge (which is A priori) has been acquired. A perfect example of priori knowledge is arithmetic – geometry.

In geometry we learn definite truths about exterior, interior angles; sums, such as 2+2=4 and so on. These necessary truths are set in stone, and are unchanging. In order to reach absolute knowledge, Plato talks about the Dialectic. When one goes beyond ‘dreams’, and examines the concepts involved in the assumptions made, they are studying the Dialectic. Plato views the dialectic as the goal of the human life, which is studied once we have recollected our knowledge through the assistance of mathematics. In conclusion, Plato believed that there is a distinction between knowledge and belief.

If you know that something is the case, then this knowledge is certain. You have recollected it from a memory bank which you were born with, hence knowledge is innate. Belief on the other hand is merely a matter of opinion. Say you had a good command of the rhetoric, you would be able to persuade some one else that your beliefs were right and you could change their opinion. Information gained through the senses is a matter of belief and is simply an illusion, as true knowledge is understood by all and cannot be changed or questioned.

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