Epistemology | The Voice 13.01: January 01, 2023

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The Voice

Epistemology

In the Western world our great technological advancements have ushered in what many have called the “Information Age.” Before the prevalence of writing it proved a struggle to preserve information over time; after writing and before the printing press, the struggle involved dissemination of knowledge; from the printing press until our own time, the struggle centered on obtaining and maintaining access to information. Yet now all of us have access to information beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams on our smartphones. Yet such access to information has led to its own crisis: we have access to all sorts of information, but struggle discerning what information might prove true versus what information may intend to deceive and delude. Such a crisis naturally leads us to wonder how we can know anything might be true; thus we do well to consider epistemology.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge, specifically, how we can know anything and how to well discern what is true. While conversations regarding epistemology have been informed by scientific understandings of the brain, epistemology remains more of a philosophical inquiry. We may have never even known what the word “epistemology” even was, but all of us have been influenced by various epistemological understandings in how we think we understand how we have learned things and how we ascertained whether they were true or not. As Christians who wish to confess Jesus as the Truth and knowledge of Him as essential for a good life and salvation (John 14:6, Acts 4:12), and also trained to be skeptical regarding how philosophies can lead us astray (Colossians 2:8), we do well to consider how we can know things and how they are true.

What is knowledge? Knowledge centers on awareness or understanding of something. We generally think of knowledge as the acquisition of facts; such is known as propositional knowledge, since any fact can also be understood as a proposition. Yet not everything is reduced to propositions of fact; we may also come to know things in our environment, which is known as acquaintance knowledge. We also think of the cultivation of abilities as a type of knowledge, called procedural knowledge. All things which humans might claim to know will generally align with one of these three general categories.

But how can people know anything by acquaintance, procedure, or proposition? All human knowledge will be discerned through two primary means: we have our five senses, sight, smell, hearing, touching, and tasting, and we have our brains and its ability to reason. A focus on what can be understood based on our senses is known as empiricism; the focus on what we can understood through reason is known as rationalism. Knowledge we can gain apart from experience is also known as a priori (Latin “from the earlier”); knowledge we ascertain through our senses and experience is known as a posteriori (Latin “from the afterward”). In the early modern period, many noted philosophers emphasized what could be known from experience, like Bacon, Hume, and Locke; others emphasized what could be known by reason, like Liebnitz, Spinoza, and famously Descartes and his cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”). Immanuel Kant would usher in the modern period of epistemology with his understanding of transcendental idealism, insisting on the beginning of understanding with sensory experience but then developed by reason.

The main challenge in epistemology, however, centers on the intersection between belief and truth. Pontius Pilate might have asked Jesus sardonically regarding “what is truth” (cf. John 18:38), but truth is generally recognized as that which is consistent with what is real and accurate. Belief, in epistemological terms, is the confidence a person has regarding the truth of the acquaintance, procedure, and/or proposition he or she maintains. One’s confidence in one’s belief should depend on how well one is able to give evidence for the truth of the acquaintance, procedure, or proposition through demonstration or rational argument using logical analysis.

We can immediately recognize a significant challenge: just because a person has confidence in the truth of a given acquaintance, procedure, or proposition, such does not mean it is true. A person may have perceived wrongly or remembered wrongly; a person also might not have sufficient background or understanding to fully understand what took place, the skill, or the proposition. While a person at times may be entirely misdirected and inaccurate in their beliefs, far more often their misperception or misunderstanding is more on a spectrum. Nevertheless, just because a person has confidence in their knowledge does not automatically mean said knowledge is truth.

One of the major arguments of our age takes this challenge a step further: can humans really have sufficient confidence in any of their beliefs so as to consider them truly representative of reality? The rationalist, modernist enterprise of the Enlightenment maintained great confidence in humankind’s abilities to reason and to come to an understanding of reality. The postmodernist response, consistent with the skepticism prevalent in ancient times, takes a more pessimistic view: while few postmodernists would deny the existence of absolute truth, most despair of human ability to ascertain it. Modernism imagined people could come to an “objective” understanding of various aspects of their environment, able to look at it from a neutral position; postmodernism suggests there is no complete escape from “subjectivism,” since we can never entirely escape ourselves.

One significant problem which has truly challenged epistemological inquiry is known as the regress problem, or Agrippa’s Trilemma. It is a conundrum known very well to parents of small children: for any and every attempt to demonstrate the knowledge of a given thing, one could ask in response how we can have confidence in the a priori or a posteriori presumption built in. Arguments for such will generally prove circular, requiring part of the argument being made to be true for the argument to be true; dogmatic, in which assumptions must be taken for granted; or regressive, in which every argument requires proof, and then that argument requires proof, ad infinitum. People generally resolve the challenge to their own satisfaction by affirming the existence of certain self-evident or given prior assumptions, known as foundationalism, or suggest things ought to be judged by how well they make sense in our environment, known as coherentism, or a bit of both.

Considering epistemology to any great length will likely make our heads spin. We should recognize, however, how the challenges of inaccuracy in understanding, subjectivity, and Agrippa’s Trilemma cannot find any entirely satisfactory resolution through the exercise of human experience, logic, insight, or reason alone. On their own, humans can never be entirely sure they have accurately apprehended truth, if there is even such a thing as truth, and nothing they might believe is true can find ultimate, absolute proof.

For the Christian these limitations to epistemological inquiry should make sense. Yes, Christians confess the God of Israel as the Creator God of heaven and earth, and His Son Jesus the Christ as the Truth, the Treasury of all truth and knowledge (Colossians 1:12-2:8). God has made humanity in His image and has communicated to and through humanity in what He has made and through His Spirit by means of the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles (Genesis 1:26-27, Hebrews 1:1); thus humans have the capacity for knowledge and can apprehend, to some degree, that which is in accord with Truth. Yet according to that same story humanity is created, not the Creator, and has been subjected to corruption and decay in sin and death (Romans 5:12-21, 8:15-23, 9:19-20). Even when humans are at their most ideal we still will never be able to fully understand and apprehend God’s thoughts and ways (Isaiah 55:9-10); in the corruption of the mind, faculties of reason, and senses, we often fall prey to deceptions and conceit (cf. Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). And so indeed: on our own, we cannot have complete confidence in anything we believe is true; we cannot claim a fully objective posture; without some prior assumptions we can never maintain any confidence anything is real.

As Christians we should make the same confession as Paul: let God be true and every man a liar (Romans 3:4). God made all things according to His purposes (Genesis 1:1-2:3); they have real existence. Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6); all that which is true is in accordance with Him, and He is the foundation of all which is true. God has communicated through His servants the prophets (Hebrews 1:3): we can have confidence in the messages which those prophets have given to Israel and to all people in the Spirit in the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17, 2 Peter 1:20-21). God also has demonstrated His power and might in the things which He made (Romans 1:19-20): we can make inquiry into the creation and maintain some confidence in our apprehension of what God has made and in its affairs.

Thus, God is truth, God has communicated truth, and there is truth all around us. We can come to an understanding of that truth; however, even at best, our understanding will be limited by the finite nature we maintain as God’s creation. We must never allow ourselves to be so self-deceived as to think everything we believe is true is actually true; we have all fallen short of God’s glory and in our understanding of things (Romans 3:23). We do well to use our faculties of reason and sense to come to an understanding of what God has made known in Christ through the Spirit and in His creation, but never have ground to boast in knowing anything absolutely ourselves. Our beliefs regarding what is true might well come close to what is absolutely, actually true; our confidence should never be in our ability to perceive as much as it is in God in Christ through the Spirit Himself. Or, as Paul put it much more concisely, we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).

God in Christ through the Spirit is the Absolute Truth. As humans made in God’s image, we can maintain beliefs regarding the creation and in what God has made known in Christ through the Spirit. We do well to confess God in Christ through the Spirit as the Absolute Truth, and to trust in Him, but in humility always remember we are the creation and a corrupted one at that. We will never understand anything to its fullest possible extent; not everything we believe will prove accurate. May we come to trust in God in Christ through the Spirit, not in ourselves, and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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