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.

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