Sunday, December 10, 2006

Can I Know That I Know What I Know?

Later this week I will participate in a theological discussion group that will entertain certain issues in epistemology (the study of how we attain knowledge). I am definitely interested in such a discussion but I must admit, I'm a little confused about how to formulate any thoughts about this particular subject (hmmm, that's a tad ironic). It would help if I was trained in philosophy or had read more widely in this area. As it stands however, I am an amateur philosopher, if that, with very little competence in epistemological theory. Not a promising start.

But my concept of epistemological truth is fairly simple and I'm wondering why there is such conflict about its nature and just where that conflict lies.

I'll start with a few definitions, acknowledging that it is possible that the conflict revolves around these very definitions. Even if it does, I propose that these simple definitions are accepted by almost everyone, or at least that people fairly consistently live according to them:

Reality: Everything that actually exists and the actual interrelations between existing things.
Truth: Concepts and propositions that correspond to reality.
Belief: Propositions that I think are true, whose reality are sure enough that I place my trust in them.
Knowledge: Beliefs that are actually true and that I have legitimate justification for believing.
Certainty: The level of confidence with which I hold beliefs and with which I have knowledge.

My basic epistemological premise is that each of us, everyday, live our lives according to our beliefs and/or our knowledge. We acquire our beliefs and gain our knowledge by our varying experiences of reality. From these experiences — and they can be as varied as personal interaction with another being or thing, reading a book that contains truth, or our reflection on our own emotions and mental states — we accumulate evidence and justification for the things we believe and know. Our level of certainty about our beliefs and about the knowledge we possess grows and/or diminishes depending on whether our beliefs and knowledge are confirmed or negated by these varying experiences with reality. And, our beliefs and our knowledge are actually true when they, in fact, accurately describe reality.

I think this is all fairly straightforward, however, this premise is hotly debated in academia, especially when it comes to religious realities. For some reason, both the modern and the postmodern mind seem to think that we cannot have genuine knowledge of anything religious. The modern mind thinks that we cannot know the religious because it either doesn't exist or because we cannot reach adequate certainty regarding our knowledge of it, if it does exist. The postmodern mind thinks that we cannot claim to have genuine knowledge of religious reality because we cannot have genuine knowledge of anything or because there is no legitimate way to adjudicate between all the linguistic and/or cultural contradictions between various religious claims. In my limited understanding of the epistemological scene, this is where the conflict lies.

Why do I not see epistemological conflict where the modern and postmodern do? Simply, I think it is because the modern and postmodern fail to apply the basic epistemological theories, which they live out every day, to the religious question. In day-to-day life, we use different methods of evaluating our experiences that correspond to particular situations. When I go to the store to buy the sturdiest bookshelf for my books, I apply a different set of criteria than when I try to discover what we really know about the life and times of Jesus Christ. And I use a still different set of criteria when I evaluate the spiritual interaction that I have with Jesus Christ, as a person, in order to gain knowledge about that relationship. I think that, generally, the modern mind applies scientific, empirical criteria to religious questions and then rejects religion as either non-existent or not a genuine sphere of religious knowledge because it applies the wrong criteria to that particular question. And I think that, generally, the postmodern mind overskeptically rejects religion as a genuine sphere of knowledge because, in reaction to modernism, postmodern thinkers have rejected almost all, if not all, spheres of knowledge. But the postmodern does not live that way. He would still do most of the same things that I would do when going to the store to buy the sturdiest bookshelf for his books and, when we both buy the same bookshelf, we will have both attained genuine knowledge (and a good bookshelf). That we cannot apply legitimate criteria to achieve genuine knowledge about religious reality seems like a choice made so as to avoid that particular question altogether.

I'm not saying that attaining religious knowledge is easy or that we can have absolute certainty regarding all of our religious beliefs and knowledge. It is easier to formulate the belief that I have food poisoning right now, and to certify it as knowledge, than it is to know if and how the Holy Spirit is working within me (and I have to apply completely different criteria). And I currently have much more empirical certainty about the former than the latter. What I am saying is that there are legitimate methods for attaining justified knowledge of our religious beliefs, and that we should practice those methods when it comes to formulating, investigating and certifying such beliefs and knowledge. In this way we can definitely know that we know what we know.

For more on this, read the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries booklet by James Beilby & David K. Clark, Why Bother with Truth? Arriving at Knowledge in a Skeptical Society.

No comments: