Monday, July 21, 2014

What Do We Know, and How Do We Know It?

From time to time I will encounter questions from perplexed Christians, challenges from skeptics, and arguments against God from atheists. I will see these things, and a majority of them suffer from a problem with their epistemology. Now this blog post I am aiming at both laymen and “veterans” to these apologetic and philosophical debates, so I need to explain what epistemology is. Epistemology is just the study of knowledge, hence this blog’s title. We want to know what we can know, and why. Most of the issues people have within Christianity have to do with a faulty notion (or perhaps faulty notions) in what constitutes knowledge. What follows are just some observations about knowledge, and while this list is not meant to be exhaustive, I do hope it will be a help to some people.

1.     In order to know something, you must be certain about it.

This is a popular-level misconception. It states precisely what it looks like: you might believe or think or wish for something to be true, but you don’t really know it to be true unless you are completely certain about it. Why is this a problem? Well, aside from the fact that it’s not quite clear what people mean by “certain,” there is another major problem: it just seems that we all take ourselves to know things of which we would not say we are certain. For skeptics, it seems they would say that we know particular truths of science about how the early universe came about (in any case, I’ve never met anyone who asserts this above criterion for knowledge and who also insists that science does not really know anything about the early universe). Yet very few scientists, if any, insist that these truths are “certain.” It is at least possible, they will admit, that they are wrong in some way.[1] For “regular” people, think about this: do you know your own name? Sure, you might think. I’ve seen my birth certificate. But are you 100% certain your birth certificate hasn’t been faked, or replaced, or altered, or is completely accurate? And besides, even if your birth certificate established certainty, are you really willing to say you didn’t know your own name prior to viewing that birth certificate? That seems crazy. Check that. That is crazy.

Finally, this criterion for knowledge is self-refuting. Some statement is self-refuting when you can take the statement as true, but its truth will mean that the statement turns out to be false. So, if I write, “I cannot write any words in English on purpose” on purpose, then, if we take the sentence to be true, it turns out to be false (since I did, in fact, write those words deliberately in English).[2] So if we say “in order for a statement to be true, one must know it for certain,” we can ask ourselves, “Are we certain that in order for a statement to be true, one must know it for certain?” If the answer is “yes,” then we must investigate and ask ourselves how we know for certain that the certainty criterion is true. I don’t even know how that might be accomplished; it seems like there really still would be room for at least some doubt, no matter how small (after all, this whole article is predicated on the fact that this premise is at least disputable). If we say “no,” that we do not really know this certainty criterion for certain, then we don’t know that the certainty criterion is true at all. And if we don’t know it’s true, then we might think or believe or wish it to be true, but we don’t really know it is. In that case, it can be safely ignored, because it carries no more opinion than that of a psychological state, instead of a piece of knowledge. In that case, it seems that if we take the statement as true, we at least have reason to think that no one knows it is true, if not flat-out false. In any case, it’s at least self-defeating, if not self-refuting, to insist that one must be certain of something. In the next post, we will deal with some other problems in ways of knowing, and maybe even some applications to apologetics and theology.

[1] In fact, in a way, this is what can make something scientific (though not always): it is falsifiable, and always open to revision. It’s exactly why we can have scientific revolutions, because these things are not certain. Despite this, scientists do say they know particular facts, even if they are not certain.

[2] If I did not write those words in English deliberately then, aside from being a huge coincidence, the sentence has no meaning, and thus conveys no truth to us.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Mailbag: Hard Agnosticism

Hi Randy,

Just wanted to get your take on the issue of hard-agnosticism (I think that's the right term here) with regard to the existence of God & the afterlife.  Reason I ask is because I was watching a TV show here in the UK last Sunday where Murray Walker, a famous British F1 motor-racing commentator, was asked in a an interview whether he was fatalistic about life after recently beating cancer, and he answered:

"Where we came from & where we're going to, I don't know, & nobody knows. I don't know anybody who's been there & come back & can tell us what it was like."

In response to the interviewer noting to him that maybe people of faith might have more certainty about the answer to that question, he said, "People who have faith have more certainty about where they think they might be going but they don't know.... they dont know, any more than I do."

Just wondered how you'd respond to that sort of argument? There'd seem to be a couple of ways to rebutt him but one mistake he seems to make - & I'm not sure if you'd agree or not - is that he seems to assume there's only one way of getting knowledge of the afterlife; that is, he thinks knowledge can only come by going to heaven & coming back. But maybe there are other ways of proving (maybe not 100% proof) man has a soul that lives on after death & that would be using philosophical arguments. Maybe it'd be similar to answering people who say stuff like, "Nobody knows whether God exists or not since nobody has seen Him."   The argument would seme to overlook that maybe God's existence can be proved in other ways; namely, one might use classical theistic arguments like the Kalam, Teleological or Moral Arguments to get to a creator God.  Your thoughts?

God Bless

James, London, England


I find your question very interesting because it touches on the cultural and “man on the street” type of attitude that many in the UK (and continental Europe, and even in North America) have toward religious belief. Hard agnosticism is the term for the view that not only does someone not know whether there is a God, but that it is not possible to be known. I think your assessment of his comments might be correct: it definitely is plausible that we can construct philosophical arguments. But not just for an immaterial soul, but also for the merits of what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” In that case, what we have here may not be certainty, but it would qualify as a justified, true belief that Christianity is true. If we have that belief, and if Christianity teaches some kind of eternal state afterlife for the soul (which orthodox Christianity does teach), then, by extension, one has justification for her belief that she will spend eternity with God, or, if by some strange reason she accepts Christianity as true but refuses to side with God, eternity without God in punishment.

However, perhaps his real issue is contained in the interviewer’s question and his answer. The interviewer asked if those who had faith had “more certainty” about religious belief in the afterlife. Walker responded, according to your question, with the comment about people having certainty about what they think, but that they do not actually know. Now I think it would be naïve of us to assume he had the idea of a justified, true belief in the use of the word “know.” Instead, context invites us to believe that he conceives of knowledge in terms of certainty. Now there are several ways of cashing out the term “certainty” (e.g., Cartesian certainty, where the fact in question cannot logically be doubted; rational certainty, where the fact in question cannot rationally be doubted; legal certainty, where the fact in question lies beyond a reasonable doubt; colloquial certainty, where one relies on a strong sense of belief, such as memory beliefs, perceptual beliefs, etc.), but regardless of which he means, none of these succeeds as an account of knowledge. Perhaps the problem of hard agnosticism would collapse into a soft agnosticism if only people had a better grasp of what constitutes knowledge!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Houston, We Have a Perception Problem

We have a perception problem. By “we,” I mean Christian philosophers and apologetics. What is that problem, and is it a fair one? What should we do about it? While I won’t claim to have all the answers to these questions, I am hoping to get some discussion going with respect to these issues.

First, many of us don’t seem to be the most well-adjusted people, socially speaking. By this I mean that people are often flabbergasted by the way we interact with others, especially online. Hardly a Facebook status goes by that we don’t correct some “minor problem” or challenge something someone has said. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes this needs to be done. But I can tell you, if you have friends in the “real world,” it doesn’t need to be done that often. In fact, sometimes, if we have nothing “normal” to contribute, it’s best just to hit “like” and move on. People don’t care, frankly, whether numbers exist, or if their statement was precise enough. As long as you understand what is being said, my recommendation is not to bring it up. And if you don’t understand what is being said, philosophically, and it’s not meant to be philosophical, either think about it alone in private or else discuss it with someone who is interested in these issues. Right now, the perception is that Christian philosophy and apologetics is for weirdoes (smart ones, but still weirdoes). I believe this also can come down to a matter of pride. We want people to notice how smart we are. It feels good when they do. So we make something a complex issue so that we can hijack the conversation into something that’s more about us. That probably needs to stop!

Second, we have the perceived problem that our discipline is either irrelevant or largely irrelevant to everyday life. Sure, the thinking goes, apologetics and even Christian philosophy can keep good theology going, and answer doubts, and help along evangelism—but what about the committed Christian who does not have these doubts and who already has sound theology? What difference does all this make to the average man in the pew? Of what practical use is this?

Of course, I don’t think this thinking is correct; that’s why I said it was a perceived problem. Nonetheless, a perceived problem by the average man in the pew is ultimately an actual problem for us to overcome. What most people don’t realize, but many contemporary preachers do, is that good theology is practical. It works! It’s all a matter of conveying the point of theology and how to live it out. It was once said to me (something along the lines of) “If you don’t understand how to apply a particular point in theology, then you don’t fully understand that particular point in theology.” I think that’s quite true. For Christian philosophy, we need to be able to relate specific points in philosophy and apologetics to specific points of practicality for the average man. No, this cannot always be done in every post (this is because, inevitably, every post would be a popular-level post). But it should be done in the appropriate context. So, if you want to convince your church to take part in apologetics, you should not only extol the general intellectual benefits of apologetics, but link it to practical issues as well. This could be done by linking philosophy to theology and doctrine, and using those points of doctrine as applied in life. So, for example, knowing Christ is a divine person enables us to see that he could not sin; knowing Christ could not sin means it was never even possible that he would fail in his mission. A God who cannot fail morally is a God who is the perfect being, and Jesus could therefore be the sacrifice for sins. Following the example of Jesus Christ in submission to the Father, therefore, is the best example we could follow!

Finally, I want to give one last point. We don’t want to overplay our hand. We don’t want to say that everything is necessary to understanding theology, or the Christian life. Instead, we want to show that philosophy and apologetics are relevant to the Christian life; they can help not only the intellectually curious, but also the person in the pew who never does much with apologetics or philosophy at all! What do you guys think?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Don't Get Too Attached to Any One Scholar

Most anyone who has read my articles or blog posts for any length of time knows that I really like William Lane Craig. In point of fact, one of my projects this summer has been to read the extremely expensive scholarly works of Craig, that virtually no one I know has ever read. I do this via inter-library loan (hooray!), and I’ve read Time and the Metaphysics of Relativity (where Craig shows that the Einsteinian interpretation of spacetime and Special Relativity is fundamentally predicated on old-line verificationism, which has long since been shown to be incoherent), and I’m in the process of reading The Tensed Theory of Time, which will be followed by his The Tenseless Theory of Time. Craig has been a huge influence on my philosophical and apologetic thinking. I’m a Molinist, for crying out loud! Aside from my initial interaction with apologetics through Ravi Zacharias, he was the first apologist I read that dealt with the classical arguments for God’s existence.

All that said, I have to follow my own advice here: don’t get too attached to any one scholar. Why? Well, first, it’s not helpful to have a myopic view of any one man who isn’t the one and only Jesus Christ. As an example, I once checked out a school who was absolutely in love with a particular scholar (this fact was unbeknownst to me at the time). Although it wasn’t a policy or anything, every person I spoke with independently told me I should really read and absorb absolutely everything said by this one guy, and he was the greatest, and theology without this guy was pretty bad off, and so on. I’m not saying all this to insult the school (that’s why I’ve tried to give no dead give-away details); I’m just saying such a view of a finite person gives blind loyalty to someone for whom it is not due.

Second, even if you can overcome the first problem, having myopia with respect to a scholar can blind you to theological/philosophical insights from those whom you would not normally (or maybe ever) read. This is huge: why cut yourself off from insights into the truth? I used to preface nearly every quotation of a scholar with something like, “Now, I don’t necessarily agree with everything so-and-so says,” because I felt like if I quoted from someone, it implied I agreed with all sorts of things. Why would I think a thing like that? You don’t have to agree with everything (or even most things) in order to learn from someone.

So what should we do about it? We should seek to apply sound biblical, theological, and philosophical principles to people around us—especially other Christians. This will help us get at the truth—truth we may not ever have realized had we been so myopic. No, I am not saying you should wholesale agree with all sorts of things. And I do recognize that, occasionally, actually often, there are many sources that would have very little to say that could help you biblically, theologically, or philosophically. My major thrust is not for you to learn from every man, but rather for you to learn from more that one man, or more than one type of man.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Popular Level Conversations

Most of Internet debate is not scholarly wisdom seeking understanding and mutual respect. Instead, it tends to be an attempted validation of an already-acquired intellectual position, no matter the cost. What that translates to, unfortunately, is insults masquerading as intellectualism. People are, generally, less interested in the truth than in validating whatever worldview they happened to imbibe from the TV, college, and surrounding culture. There are, of course, many people who are exceptions (and it’s also true that the Internet tends to bring out the worst in us).

So what’s the alternative? Well, we could just take abuse on the Internet, but that doesn’t seem very appealing, or fruitful. We could just abandon the Internet. But then the only popular level treatments of things will be non-Christian, and we’ve already seen how disastrous it can be to leave an area of life without Christian influence. Instead, perhaps we can continue to progress in our scholarly goals, refuse to be drawn into fruitless engagements, and use the popular level to show people that it is at least rational to be a Christian. For those who don’t want to know, literally nothing we say will convince them. For those who are genuinely seeking for something, may this attitude and trajectory be what God uses to have them realize the truth. What do you all think about how we can do this?