a trinity of ‘knowledge-lights’…

Epistemology is the most foundational of topics in philosophy.  How trustworthy is human knowledge?  Or worded another way: How much ‘faith’ (Greek ‘pistis’ for ‘trust’) can we put in what we think we know?  At one end of the spectrum, you have narrow, ‘verificationist’ epistemologies (such as: logical positivism & naive realism) that only trust knowledge that can be ‘verified’ by empirical methods.  At the other, you have skeptical ‘post modern’ epistemologies (such as the phenomenalism of Maurice Merleau-Ponty – The Phenomenology of Perception) which hold that all we can truly ‘know’ is the ‘sense data’ of our perceptions.In his book, The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright follows the thought of renowned Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan (particularly his Generalised Empirical Method) discussing a kind of middle-way between positivism and phenomenalism: ‘critical realism’.  Elsewhere, he has described an ‘epistemology of love’, where love is that which a) respects the ‘otherness’ of the other, while at the same time b) remaining in rich subjective relationship to it.  Critical realism is first critical in that it is aware of its potential for self-deception and the distortion of perception, but it is not so critical that it does not take the second post-critical step of then daring to describe the reality it believes it actually ‘knows’.

I’ve been recently intrigued, however, by a talk on Epistemology by Mark Strom (audio here) where he claims that all human knowledge involves not only acts of love, but also faith and hope.  I find this really compelling.  Our knowledge of any activity, person, principle or thing involves faith, hope and love – in some form, and at some level.

Scientific knowledge, for an interesting example, involves all three.  The natural scientist must first have faith (Greek pistis, meaning ‘trust’) that his object of study, the natural world, will, under the exact same conditions, always behave exactly the same way in the present and future as we’ve observed it to in the past.  She also hopes that the hunch followed will be fruitful, that the experiment designed will be sufficient, and that the knowledge gained will be helpful and worthwhile. And finally, there is also love – the relational dynamism between a subject and object; in the case of science, between the observer and the observed, the cosmologist and the cosmos, the neurologist and the neurons.

Faith, hope and love (I thought for a few minutes today), then can be thought of as the ‘vehicles’ by which knowledge comes to us.  However, this, I decided, is too anthropocentric a metaphor.  Better to see them as ‘lights’ by which we are enabled to ‘see’ Truth.  But of course, this vision remains imperfect, blurry and ‘dim’…

Love never ends. Prophecies? They will be set aside. Tongues? They will cease. Knowledge? It will be set aside. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully knownAnd now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” – Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 13:8-13

5 thoughts on “a trinity of ‘knowledge-lights’…”

  1. Hi Dale and good to see you reviving your blog (I’ve let mine wither I’m afraid).

    I was with you up until you took a sharp turn with “Elsewhere, he has described…” and the rest left me bamboozled.

    Can a cat have knowledge of something? What about a chimp? Could homo habilis (our ancestors of some 2 million years ago)? Can a month-old child have knowledge of something? (I’d claim that all these can and do).

    If so, could the same be said about an ‘epistemology of love’ for them? Or is that bending the use of the word ‘love’ to a breaking point when trying to shoehorn it into living creatures’ perception of the world around them?

    It seems I could take some Buddhist saying about diligence and shoehorn that into some kind of ‘epistemology of diligence’ or a verse from the Qu’ran about purity and produce an ‘epistemology of purity’. But all it would really achieve is some comfort for those who hold those sayings or verses dear and perhaps lend them scientific credibility.

  2. Hey Dale, good to see you posting again, and nice work finishing the degree :) Good to see you’re still floating around too Damian, we all should catch up one day, perhaps even start a lapsed bloggers club… :)

    In the context of the post I see faith as a “necessary evil” to be minimised where possible. For example the predictability of natural laws is a matter of faith but the degree of faith required, in the context of 10,000 years of human experience of the predictability of natural laws, is very slight. On the other hand the degree of faith required to believe that Cthulu is in the house next door is significantly larger.

    I see rational thought as the exercise of ascribing magnitude to the “leap” of faith required to accept knowledge. The larger the leap, the lower the credibility of the knowledge.

    I also think there is a real danger of equivocating common meanings of faith and love with the meanings used in this sort of discussion – the two are only superficially related I think.

  3. Hey fellas, I knew I shoulda waited til after holiday to post that one :) sorry for the delay in response. And yes, Damian, I’ve seen the annoying space-deleting bug, but not bothered (yet) to find/fix it. (I think it might be a bug in the theme I’m using, which there is an updated version of, so will try that)

    You ask a good question. I’d suppose that there would be a gradient of potential (from soil to sunflowers to stallions to susan) for the act of knowing (‘grasping’ abstract objects) in the same way that there would be one for potential for, say, grasping ‘concrete’ objects.

    Interestingly, normal human development (from foetuses to fellas) seems to recapitulate the evolutionary development across this gradient. We even seem to ‘dip down’ out of “full knowing potential” (TM) with substance abuse, sleep or even inattention.

    I’d also want to affirm that many religions have truth within them, so no problem (in principle) with any insights concerning epistemology related to diligence, purity, etc. I do think, rather, that love (as discussed above) is both philosophically and practically so grounded and robust an animal that it would be a sort of umbrella underneath which other such explorations would be found.

    Ian, yes, next time you’re in Auckland… :) Where you see ‘rational thought’ in contrast to (even conflict with?) faith/’trust’, I’d see them both as parts of the same whole, so to speak, or two parallel tracks.

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