Knowledge without a belief: do infants have beliefs?



We say that knowledge is connected with beliefs. Infants do some basic things required to sustain their life, like breathing. We can say they know how to breath. Maybe they do it aimlessly, but they know the method.

But can we call this knowledge a belief? In philosophical sense, of course. Is it a problem for philosophy? And if we can't call it a belief, how can we?


Posted 2018-09-16T12:01:26.210

Reputation: 2 456

I am not up on this stuff, but I think there’s a knotty set of problems of epistemology in non-lingual (animal) and pre-lingual (babies) agents. – Dan Bron – 2018-09-16T12:14:45.520

@DanBron, that's exactly the reason why I thought that not beliefs, but thoughts themselves are truth-bearers. But, well, that was downvoted, maybe because it was a push of personal philosophy, or maybe because people just thought that it's utter nonsense. – rus9384 – 2018-09-16T12:40:54.477

I don't know if I will be able to answer, but the underlying philosophical issue is whether an infant is a "blank slate" on which the culture and the environment writes. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-09-16T12:45:30.167

@FrankHubeny, there, for sure, is genetical memory. And I'd say that temperament gives some moral principles. – rus9384 – 2018-09-16T12:56:22.980

Fetuses actually begin to experience the world and life as individuals even while still developing in the womb. They react to loud noises, emotions, and mother's reactions to the environment. Although obviously still quite bound to the mother's body, they are already beginning to become aware of themselves as individuals on some very basic level. It's reasonable to assume that by late pre-term their brains are developed enough to begin learning. – Bread – 2018-09-16T14:07:39.363

@Bread I don't argue, but breathing is hardly learned action. Can we call the knowledge of breathing (or milk sucking) a belief? – rus9384 – 2018-09-16T14:21:49.733

@rus9384 My comment didn't mention instincts or involuntary responses such as breathing or sucking. I was referring to the idea that infants may actually be born with specific beliefs, even if they are unable to verbalize them. For example, a newborn baby may be born trusting its mother. Another newborn baby may have good reason to distrust its mother, and in fact does not trust her or anyone. Trust is a belief: firm *belief* in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something. – Bread – 2018-09-16T15:25:25.950

@Bread I'm just challenging common idea that knowledge is a belief (neither knowledge is a set of propositions). Trust is more a desire than a belief. – rus9384 – 2018-09-16T15:30:30.607

@rus9384 I understand. I only pointed out that newborn babies know a lot more than how to breathe and suck. If they could talk clearly, we'd all be amazed :D Many people do not realize that babies' "babble" (even cries or coos) is very meaningful, profound at times - we simply don't have the ability to understand them. I mean that they are actually often speaking English or whatever language is shared with their parents or care-givers. They're just too small to enunciate articulately enough for us to understand. But their minds do understand, and they are trying so hard to communicate with us. – Bread – 2018-09-16T15:40:06.797

Yes, I read something very interesting about this. It I can't remember what it was! Generally I would say a belief in the mother and from her comes the idea that the world is ok. Now it seems that adulthood sadly tends to disabuse us of this notion! :) – Gordon – 2018-09-16T15:47:26.127

As far as real infants, the focus is on the nipple whether real or artificial. They also say it is very important that they be held and cuddled. Where psychology places this I don't know. Not belief. – Gordon – 2018-09-16T15:51:16.370

3Knowledge how is distinguished from knowledge what, only the latter is a belief. And yes, infants do have beliefs. – Conifold – 2018-09-16T21:32:35.787

When I read the title of your question, my knee-jerk reaction was to say, "of course infants have beliefs, you silly goose!" But you actually have a very interesting question underneath the hood: Can a person have knowledge which does not consist of some subtype of belief? I recommend you relabel your title to reflect that. Something like this, maybe: "Is knowledge just belief plus some extra stuff, like warrant?" – Ben W – 2018-09-17T04:54:48.633

1@rus9384 What are you counting as a belief? Is the infant’s desire for its own survival a “belief “? – Mark Andrews – 2018-09-18T05:02:19.757

@MarkAndrews, no, desires are not beliefs. Nobody can say I'm wrong in wanting something. It is something you do because you want to achieve goals. – rus9384 – 2018-09-18T05:14:28.217

1@rus9384 I recommend that you revise your question to include this definition of belief. This change might bring a close to the extended number of comments and prompt more answers. – Mark Andrews – 2018-09-18T06:41:39.273

@MarkAndrews, I'm not sure I myself know what belief alone means in philosophy. I just never heard anyone to say desires are beliefs. If there is a common opinion that desires are a subcase of beliefs I would be glad to see it. I'm asking this because I want to know what is a belief. When we can say someone beliefs in something. Indeed, I don't mean theist beliefs. I saw an answer for "Do animals have beliefs?" question. That's why terminology tag. – rus9384 – 2018-09-18T06:53:21.753

1@rus9384. If you are so unclear about the definition of belief, how will you know when your question has been answered? – Mark Andrews – 2018-09-19T03:35:44.353

@MarkAndrews, I think if I give any definition of belief this question stops being philosophical and becomes neuroscientifical. In this sense what is more interesting are mainstream theories of belief. Whether they agree with given proposition. – rus9384 – 2018-09-19T09:24:36.173



Knowledge is connected to beliefs, but they actually have very different meanings.

Knowledge is something we know to be true and usually requires evidence- such as 2+2=4 or that most Christians believe in hell. These are both true statements. That doesn’t mean our knowledge is always correct, but we usually have no reason to question it until better evidence is presented.

Belief is something that is impossible to know, but we use our current knowledge to interpret ideas and come to conclusions that are important to us. So while a Christian knows that English Bibles have the word “hell”, they believe it’s a real place.

Knowledge does not require beliefs, but beliefs require knowledge.

There is some evidence that infants have knowledge, and it’s possible the study also found that infants have beliefs:

At that age [two months], infants show an understanding that unsupported objects will fall and that hidden objects do not cease to exist.

Even though infants cannot know for certain that hidden objects do not cease to exist, the researchers have found evidence that infants believe the objects still exist. Then again, this study was based on the measurement of an infants “gaze”, and the researchers say:

”We believe that infants are born with expectations about the objects around them, even though that knowledge is a skill that's never been taught. As the child develops, this knowledge is refined and eventually leads to the abilities we use as adults."

So who knows? Whether they have beliefs is something we can only believe, or disbelieve, because they can’t talk.


Posted 2018-09-16T12:01:26.210

Reputation: 724

So, you do not agree with justified true belief formula? – rus9384 – 2018-09-17T06:15:13.747

@rus9384 No, because all of Gettier’s examples either include deceit or misinformation, so I don’t agree with his definition of justify. As I said, sometimes our knowledge is not true, and sometimes we’ve been lied to. Christians believe the NT talks about a place called “hell” where God will send people to have their flesh burned forever. They know or have knowledge that their English translations say this, but they believe it’s true. That doesn’t mean their belief or their knowledge is justified, just that they’ve used the knowledge they have to formulate a belief. – Cannabijoy – 2018-09-17T06:37:31.623

Two years is a toddler, not an infant. The study says two months, but you can observe an infant in these early stages and realise it's possible for them to learn this knowledge and developed beliefs based on them, even in that short time from experience and observation, without being 'born' with these 'intuitive' expectations as the researcher suggests, and without structured lessons. – Possibility – 2018-09-17T09:23:35.333

@Possibility thanks for pointing that out. I don’t know why I wrote two years. My inclusion of the study wasn’t meant to offer support for it. I don’t know how someone can come to conclusions about what’s going on in a human mind based on their “gaze” anyway. – Cannabijoy – 2018-09-17T10:45:17.873


An infant might be said to 'know' how to breath, but our use of 'know' here is misleading. We observe an infant breathing, and assume they 'know' how to do it. But do they really know?

Knowledge is defined as information, skills or awareness gained by experience or education. It requires an awareness of relationships between experiences.

So breathing for an infant is not 'knowledge' as such. For the most part, infants are not yet aware of a relationship between these actions we collectively call 'breathing', nor are they aware of how they perform these actions, or that they do so without needing to be consciously aware of it.

An organism's life support systems operate most efficiently on a 'need to know' basis. The total knowledge required by a human being in order to 'breath' is held, not in the consciousness of the infant, but across various cells within the life support system: from air sacs in the lungs to diaphragm muscles and airways. Each of these cells has the capacity for limited functions including relationships with other cells, accomplishing what is required of it by the organism, but each cell is unaware of what we call 'breathing' as a cooperative effort on their part.

In this sense, there is no need for an infant to know they are breathing in order to breath successfully. It's only when they experience or observe a struggle to breath, or receive some other relevant education, that they begin to gain knowledge of what breathing entails. This, of course, can start earlier for some than for others.

Belief, on the other hand, connects knowledge as gained through conscious experience (or education) with conscious thought, word or action. When a child can be said to 'know how to breath' in this sense, they would have some awareness of what it means to 'breath' - for instance, they can respond consciously to an instruction given to 'breath'.

Note: this response, or the knowledge that informs it, need not be correct for it to be a belief. A child in distress, for instance, may simply raise and lower their shoulders or open their mouth - believing these actions to constitute the action 'breath' - without managing to take a breath.


Posted 2018-09-16T12:01:26.210

Reputation: 174

Do you consider other actions done by infants (like milk sucking and crying) done unconsciously as well? Do infants lack consciousness then? Is consciousness required for beliefs? – rus9384 – 2018-09-16T15:56:32.387

Initially, yes - milk sucking and crying are unconscious at first, but the child quickly becomes conscious of these actions, and of the response/comfort/rewards they bring from the environment. Infants do have consciousness - it is limited at first, but develops at a rapid rate as everything they experience is related to each other in time and space, building an ever broader awareness and knowledge of their world. There is much they are aware of in the womb (sounds, etc) - but not breathing, sucking or crying. And yes - consciousness is required for beliefs. – Possibility – 2018-09-16T16:19:43.570

But then are beliefs required for knowledge? Can we say an infant knows how to breath even if doing it unconsciously? – rus9384 – 2018-09-16T16:27:11.823

1.No - some knowledge (even if incorrect) is required for beliefs. 2.Knowledge is an awareness of relationships between experiences. An observer often projects this awareness onto who/what is observed, mistakenly assuming knowledge. Although cells in their body know how to contribute to breathing (but not that it is 'breathing' they're contributing to as such), the infant remains unaware of what breathing entails. So an infant as a conscious being doesn't 'know' how to breath - they can suffocate themselves because they're still unaware of the relationship between airway access and breathing. – Possibility – 2018-09-17T01:38:00.850