Epistemology - Philosophy of Knowledge
I. To understand the confusion of the present problems re knowledge a brief history may be helpful:
The Pre- Modern:
1. There is a transcendent reality above and beyond this world, and in this transcendent reality there can be found the ultimate knowledge of everything. (Plato’s ideal world or a Christian belief that God exists and God knows all things completely)
2. This world is dependent on the transcendent reality and has an objective existence. There is an objective reality that can be known.
3. Humans are made to understand this world, for there is coherence between us and the ‘invisible’ transcendent world, and there is coherence between us and the objective, ‘visible’, material world around us. For Plato, the ‘logos’ within us is a fragment of the eternal ‘logos’, so rationality and knowing are fundamental to our nature. For the Christian, humans are made in God’s image to think His thoughts after Him, to have dominion over this world and to understand it, to ‘name’ it – so knowledge is possible.
4. Our human nature, despite its inadequacies, is sufficient to enable us to have accurate knowledge. Plato believed that knowledge of the nature of things in this world is possible despite our finiteness, and he believed that knowledge even of ‘God’ was attainable, though only with great difficulty, and that this knowledge was even more difficult to make known to the ordinary person. For Christians, despite the challenges of both finiteness and sin, it was believed that true knowledge of both this world and of God was possible, because of the grace of God.
1. It is assumed that an objective world exists and that truth exists. This assumption was made even though philosophy from the time of the Greeks onward (and even earlier in Hinduism and Buddhism) had struggled with the question of whether there is indeed an objective world or truth ‘out there’.
2. I, myself, finite as I am, am free, looking at the world, to know things as they are in themselves. I can have objective knowledge. Modernism (or rationalism) has a prejudice against prejudices – that is, I am able to start without any beliefs (such as belief in God) and still have true knowledge.
"Know then thyself - presume not God to scan. The proper study of mankind is man." Alexander Pope —Essay on Man
"Humanism is the abandonment of theological preoccupations for a concentration on the finite - and the exploration of it in all directions."
"There is no immemorial tradition, no revelation, no authority which is beyond question and which can be used as a standard by which to interpret experience. There is only human experience interpreted by the light of further experience."
H. J. Blackham — Objections To Humanism
3. There is a supreme confidence in human reason. “Reason appears in possession of the throne, prescribing laws and imposing maxims with an absolute sway and authority” (Hume).
"Naturalistic humanism challenges men to rely on their own intelligence, courage and effort in building their happiness and fashioning their destiny in this world of infinite possibilities." Corliss Lamont
"The problems that humankind will face in the future, as in the past, will no doubt be complex and difficult. However, if it is to prevail, it can only do so by enlisting resourcefulness and courage. Secular humanism places trust in human intelligence rather than divine guidance. Skeptical of theories of redemption, damnation, and reincarnation, secular humanists attempt to approach the human situation in realistic terms: human beings are responsible for their own destinies.
The ethical life can be lived without the illusions of immortality or reincarnation. Human beings can develop the self-confidence necessary to ameliorate the human condition and to lead meaningful, productive lives." Secular Humanist Declaration
"Man is that part of reality in which and through which the cosmic process has become conscious and has begun to comprehend itself. His supreme task is to increase that conscious comprehension and to apply it as fully as possible to guide the course of events. Julian Huxley - Religion without Revelation
4. In modernism truth tends to become abstract. Philosophers sometimes forgot that philosophy should be about ‘life’ and the practice of it. Instead it had a tendency to become more and more purely ‘academic’, focused on questions of the possibility of knowing, rather than on knowing ‘for the practice of living’.
"I care for a philosopher only to the extent that he is able to be an example...Kant clung to the university, subjected himself to governments, remained within the appearance of religious faith, and endured colleagues and students: it is small wonder that his example produced in the main university professors and professors' philosophy." Nietzsche: writing of Kant
5. Modernism was optimistic about human nature and about the future. Our scientific knowledge of the world around us and of ourselves will enable us to create a new and better world. This confidence in science and technology is still very much with us.
"Man's reason will conquer the universe." Huxley
"We are committed to the use of the rational methods of inquiry, logic, and evidence in developing knowledge and testing claims to truth. Since human beings are prone to err, we are open to the modification of all principles, including those governing inquiry, believing that they may be in need of constant correction. Although not so naive as to believe that reason and science can easily solve all human problems, we nonetheless contend that they can make a major contribution to human knowledge and can be of benefit to humankind." Secular Humanist declaration
"We believe the scientific method, though imperfect, is still the most reliable way of understanding the world. Hence we look to the natural, biological, social, and behavioral sciences for knowledge of the universe and man's place within it. Modern astronomy and physics have opened up exciting new dimensions of the universe: they have enabled humankind to explore the universe by means of space travel. Biology and the social and behavioral sciences have expanded our understanding of human behavior. We are thus opposed in principle to any efforts to censor or limit scientific research without an overriding reason to do so." Secular Humanist Declaration
"Science, as such, does not acknowledge the supernatural and requires free inquiry into natural history and human existence. Scientific inquiry is a liberation from religious dogmatism, blind faith, vacuous myths, and human emotions, In fact, all scientific explanations, as such, are naturalistic."
Robert Hall - Free Inquiry
"The scientific spirit and the scientific method have proved the most effective agents for the comprehension and control of physical nature. It remains for man to apply them to the comprehension and control of human destiny.. . the scientific method of accumulating and organizing knowledge can be profitably extended to the entire psycho-social field, to the workings of society and of human nature, in such a way that knowledge can become in a full sense the basis of wisdom." Julian Huxley - Religion without Revelation
1. There is nothing transcendent (neither God nor anything else) that understands everything – so there is no objective truth available to us. It is pointless to even ask the question whether there is an objective world, for we have no way of knowing the answer to such a question. All we have available to us is the language we use to describe what our senses perceive.
"When I reflect on the natural fallibility of my judgment, I have less confidence in my opinions than when I only consider the objects concerning which I reason, and when I proceed still further to turn the scrutiny against every excessive estimation I make of my faculties, all the rules of logic require a continual diminution and at last a total extinction of belief and evidence.
Thus the skeptic still continues to reason and believe even though he asserts that he cannot defend his reason by reason.
I cannot possibly by any argument pretend to maintain its truth."
David Hume - Treatise Of Human Nature
"Among great philosophers Hume, who hung his nose as far as any over the nihilistic abyss, withdrew it sharply when he saw the psychological risks involved and he advised dilution of metaphysics by playing backgammon and making merry with his friends. The conclusion of Hume's philosophizing was indeed a radical skepticism which left no convincing logical grounds for believing anything natural was there at all and he saved his reason by refusing to take the implications of his philosophy to heart."
Kathleen Knott - Objections to Humanism
"Should it be asked me whether I sincerely assent to this argument which I have been to such pains to inculcate, whether I be really one of those skeptics who hold that everything is uncertain, I should reply that neither I nor any other person was ever sincerely and constantly of that opinion. I dine, I play backgammon, I converse and am merry with my friends and when after three or four hours of amusement I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold and strange and ridiculous that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further. Thus the skeptic still continues to reason and believe though he asserts he cannot defend his reason by reason." Hume
2. In knowing I am not free, ever. I always come to every issue with prejudices, with beliefs, with a background – and these ‘glasses’ determine what I ‘see’. Some postmodernists emphasize the ‘shared knowledge’ (or prejudices) of various communities, others stress the isolation of the individual ‘knower’.
3. Reason is a weak tool, and can never lead us to true knowledge, for it is constrained by our prejudices. Reason, and the ‘claim’ of knowledge are weapons that have been used by the ‘powerful’ to maintain their power and interests at the expense of the ‘powerless’. Knowledge becomes a weapon in the culture wars for various groups to reinforce their already held positions, and to use against each other.
4. Postmodernism is passionately anti-abstract. Sartre wanted to create a philosophy “that makes human life possible.”
5. There are no grounds for optimism about humanity, or about the future. Not even scientific knowledge is certain.
"Heisenberg's Principle of Indeterminacy shows that there are essential limits to our ability to know and predict physical states of affairs, and opens up to us a glimpse of a nature that may at bottom be irrational and chaotic—at any rate, our knowledge of it is limited so that we cannot know this not to be the case.
The situation in physics is made more paradoxical by Bohr's Principle of Complementarity, according to which the electron must be regarded both as a wave and as a particle, according to its context. The application of these contradictory designations would have seemed thoroughly illogical to a nineteenth century physicist...What is remarkable is that here, at the very farthest reaches of precise experimentation, in the most rigorous of the natural sciences, the ordinary and banal fact of our human limitation emerges.
Godel's findings seem to have even more far-reaching consequences, when one considers that in the Western tradition, from the Pythagoreans and Plato onward, mathematics as the very model of intelligibility has been the central citadel of rationalism. Now it turns out that even in his most precise science—in the province where his reason seemed omnipotent—man cannot escape his essential finitude: every system of mathematics that he constructs is doomed to incompleteness. Godel has shown that mathematics contains insoluble problems, and hence can never be formalized in any complete system."
Barrett: responding to the rationalists claim that reality is 'predictable through and through'
Science and technology (the tools of knowledge) have a ‘dark side’ that can as readily destroy the human person and society as give aid.
"A sense of weakness and dereliction before the whirlwind that man is able to unleash but not to control." Barrett
"A gnawing and crumbling skepticism and relativism"- Nietzsche
Black Rook In Rainy Weather
On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident
To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.
Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can't honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then-
Thus hallowing an interval
By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical,
Yet politic; ignorant
Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant
A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content
Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the angel
For that rare, random descent.
II. A Christian Understanding of the Limitations on Knowledge:
We face several challenges in responding to the skepticism of our postmodern culture. Is knowledge possible? Can we truly know? What are the limitations on our knowing?
The first limitation on our knowledge is our finiteness -
1. We need to grow in knowledge. Knowledge requires application and hard work.
2. We all have a limited number of particular gifts. No matter how much education we receive or hard work we put in, some of us will never do well at math or music!
3. We all have limited mental capacity, varying from individual to individual, even in the areas of our giftedness.
4. Our knowledge is constrained by time and space. Is particular knowledge accessible to us, because of when and where we live, or because our lives are simply too full? We need to sleep!
5. The difference between the knowledge of ‘hearing’ about something and the knowledge of experiencing it and reflecting on it afterwards. (Having a baby!)
6. Because of our finiteness our knowledge is always partial, never complete. Even when we are fully submitted to Scripture with a passionate love for God and for His truth, yet, we still ‘know in part’, still ‘see through a glass darkly’. Not until the consummation shall we know ‘as we are fully known’.
7. Some knowledge is too great for us, or as Job says, ‘too wonderful for me’.
a). The Trinity
b). The divinity and humanity of Christ
c). Sovereignty and responsibility
d). Another person or even the physical universe
But – Finiteness is not a problem for the Christian.
1. The angels, as finite creatures, must still be learning.
2. If there were no fall we would still have to grow in knowledge.
3. Jesus, in his perfect humanity, had to grow – not only in stature, but also in wisdom.
4. We will continue to grow in our understanding through all eternity.
Why – Is there no problem for the Christian?
1. God knows all things completely.
2. He has created us in His image to know (finitely) as He knows (fully).
3. He has made the universe for us to understand – there is a coherence between us and the physical world in which we live, and over which we are made to have dominion.
4. He delights in revealing truth to us about Himself, about ourselves and about the world in which He has set us.
5. We may know truly, though not exhaustively.
The second limitation on our knowledge is the reality of the historic fall and our sin -
1. God has hidden Himself from us behind a veil of judgment, and, in addition, He sometimes hardens the rebel heart in further judgment.
2. The complexity of the world is ‘twisted’ by the curse, so that we never can know well enough to avoid the ‘thorns and thistles’ of this fallen world.
3. The knowledge that comes to us from our fellow humans is distorted by their sin, sometimes by willful errors of understanding, sometimes by blind ignorance, sometimes by purposeful miscommunication and deception.
4. Our own broken-ness and sin is the most serious source of limitation on our knowledge. We have become ‘enemies in our minds because of our evil behavior’ as Paul says.
a). We cannot know even ourselves fully for our hearts are deceitful.
b). We all have the problem of pride, the desire to have mastery and control. We want to know in order to exalt ourselves against God. Sometimes, the cleverer we are, the harder it is to know. Thus, ‘not many mighty, noble or wise’ enter into the kingdom.
c). We, in our sin, make mistakes in our thinking of which we are unaware.
d). Particular sins – for example, of envy, anger, greed, lust – these all put limitations on true knowledge.
e). Satan delights to deceive us.
1. Shakespeare – Hamlet’s problem of uncertainty and paralysis of the will, because of not knowing with certainty
2. Jane Austen in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ – ‘a truth universally acknowledged’
a). The prejudices of a society are often wrong
b). The first impressions of people are misguided by ‘pride’ and ‘prejudice’
c). The pain of true knowledge
3. Scripture also speaks of the difficulty of coming to ‘know’
a). Only the acknowledgment of blindness will enable us to see
b). Love is necessary for knowledge
c). Moral commitment and knowledge are bound up together
Response to our limitations –
1. Humility before God because of our finiteness as creatures
2. Humility before God because of our sinfulness
3. Humility before others so that we may learn from them
4. Humility before creation
5. Humility before Scripture
6. Awaiting the unveiling at the close of the age
Knowledge, despite sin –
1. The Christian will have, in one sense, a more radical skepticism than the postmodernist, because we recognize the noetic effects of sin.
2. But, we will have a more optimistic view of the possibility of true knowledge.
a). God has not abandoned the human race to final judgment, but has committed Himself in His covenant with creation and with the race.
b). God has not left Himself without a testimony. There is the ‘light’ of the ‘logos’, the wisdom of God speaking to all mankind, the knowledge of the moral law written on the heart – so we are inexcusable for not knowing.
c). Despite sin all humans still bear the image of God – a defaced statue
d). There is still coherence between us, as human persons, and the universe in which we live.
Implications for us in making God’s truth known –
1. Humility about our knowledge
a). Hierarchy of truth – some things are clearer than others- so humility before our fellow believers
b). Acknowledgement of our own inconsistency in living the truth we do know
c). Honesty about the failures of the church in the past to live up to the truth
2. The need to demonstrate the truth that we know – to do the truth
3. There will be knowledge of the truth in every unbeliever we meet
a). They live in God’s world
b). They are made in His image
4. People have to be challenged in their pride – a pride that blinds their understanding and makes them claim autonomy
5. We may need to approach them via the imagination, rather than directly
6. The necessity of praying for the work of the Spirit
III. Varieties of Apologetic Systems:
For presentations of different apologetic systems see the works of individual authors (some mentioned below) and also:
Five Views on Apologetics, Stephen B. Cowan, Ed., Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2000
(Presentations and Responses – William Lane Craig, Gary R. Habermas, Paul D. Feinberg, John M. Frame, Kelly James Clark)
Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Norman Geisler, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1999
1. The Classical Method
Demonstrates God’s existence – Theism – as the correct worldview to believe. This demonstration is made by the use of the ‘theistic arguments’ (made famous by Thomas Aquinas), and is then followed by appeal to historical evidence to establish e.g. the deity of Christ, his historical resurrection, the reliability of Scripture et al. Proponents include Anselm, Aquinas, William Paley, B. B. Warfield, R. C. Sproul, Norman Geisler, John Gerstner, J. P. Moreland, and some would include C. S. Lewis. (Robert L. Reymond argued that Shaeffer was a classical, or what he calls ‘empirical apologist’)
This approach uses historical, archaeological, prophetic, philosophical and other evidence to demonstrate the truth of Christianity. It is a one step approach (contrasting itself with Classical Apologetics) tending to regard natural theology as an unnecessary first step, but insists, for example, that it is possible to establish the existence of God by proving first the resurrection of Christ. Proponents include William Paley (some put him in 1), Bernard Ramm, John W. Montgomery, Clark Pinnock, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Gary Habermas and Josh McDowell.
3. Cumulative Case Apologetics
Basil Mitchell, one of those who first described this method, suggested that arguing for the truth of the Christian message is not strictly a formal argument to ‘prove’ Christianity, or an argument from probability. “It is more like the brief that a lawyer makes in a court of law or that a literary critic makes for a particular interpretation of a book. It is an informal argument that pieces together several lines of data into a sort of hypothesis or theory that comprehensively explains that data and does so better than any alternative hypothesis” (Craig). Proponents include Mitchell, C. S. Lewis, C. Stephen Evans and Paul Feinberg. “Christian theorists are arguing that [Christianity] makes better sense of all the evidence available than does any other alternative worldview on offer, whether that alternative is some other theistic view or atheism” (Feinberg). The Christian hypothesis would explain the existence and form of the cosmos, the nature of morality, religious experience, historical facts such as the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, etc. Some theorists would call this approach Verificationalism. E. J. Carnell and Gordon Lewis are proponents. (Lewis thought Schaeffer was a verificationalist.)
4. Presuppositional Apologetics
Presuppositionalists stress the noetic effects of sin, and argue that the unbeliever has to be challenged at a more fundamental level than the previous 3 approaches do. All people have assumptions, or presuppositions, underlying all they think and believe. No one starts from a place of neutrality. The unbeliever has a heart turned away from God toward idols, especially the idol of the self, and this pre-commitment prevents the unbeliever from being able to respond to the ‘reasons’ of the above apologetic methods. The Christian apologist should gladly acknowledge their presupposition of the truth of Christianity. God exists and He has spoken – this is the starting point of apologetics. Evidences and arguments may be marshaled to support the truth claims of Christianity, but at base the apologist argues that all morality, all meaning, all rationality presupposes the existence of the God who has made Himself known in Scripture. “We should present the Biblical God, not merely as the conclusion to an argument, but as the one who makes argument possible” (Frame). The apologist demonstrates that unbelievers cannot make sense of, or live consistently in, the (imaginary) world created by their unbelief. Proponents include Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, Gordon Clark – and most would include Francis Schaeffer here.
5. The Reformed Epistemology Method
“Since the Enlightenment, there has been a demand to expose all of our beliefs to the searching criticism of reason” (Clark). The apologist who holds this view argues that there are many things, indeed the most precious, that we believe without ‘rational evidence.’ Belief in God does not require the support of evidence or argument to be rational, for people are born with an innate knowledge of God. The thrust of this type of apologetics will be primarily defensive, dealing with arguments against Christian belief, but “will encourage unbelievers to put themselves in situations where people are typically taken with belief in God” (Clark) to awaken the ‘sleeping’ or ‘suppressed’ knowledge of God within them. Proponents include Kelly James Clark, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, George Mavrodes, and William Alston.
Fideists argue that religious faith does not need to be supported by reason, for faith and not reason is what God requires of us. Karl Barth and Soren Kierkegaard are examples of fideists. Barth argues in his commentary on Romans that it is completely inappropriate to seek to reason about God by appealing to testimony in creation. Some (Buswell, for example) accused Van Til of being a fideist; and certainly some of those who see themselves as disciples of Van Til come close to a fideist position, insisting that even Paul’s ‘reasoning’ in Acts 17 was a mistake of which he later repented.
IV. Additional Notes:
Inductive reasoning moves from particulars to draw general conclusions. Inductive is ‘a posteriori’, that is, it draws conclusions after looking at experience.
Deductive reasoning moves from general ideas to particular instances. Humans are mortal. John is human – therefore John is mortal. It is ‘a priori’, that is, it draws its conclusions before examining experience.
Some presuppositionalists criticize classical and evidential apologists for only demonstrating a probably existing God, for most inductive reasoning only provides a degree of probability.
Theistic arguments –
The Cosmological argument – the universe must have been caused by something other than itself, for it is finite (this is true of its continuing existence as well, which must be caused by God).
The Teleological argument – the argument from the evident design of the universe – Paley’s watchmaker
The Ontological argument – argues from the conception of a perfect being to His necessary existence
The Moral Law argument – moral laws imply there must be a Moral Law Giver
The Religious Need argument – the universal existential need for God in the human heart implies there must be God
The argument from Joy – we are born with a longing for heavenly bliss, and this points to God’s ultimate satisfaction of that joy
(Author: Jerram Barrs
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