Tag Archives: epistemology

an epistemic prolegomenon for theology

Even given the doctrine of God’s self-disclosure or revelation, and given the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience)… You will never, in your lifetime, know everything about God.

Or… see the doctrine of ineffability.

knowing God

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? (Galatians 4:8-9)

There is a lovely tension in Christian epistemology between our ‘knowing God’ and being known by God (both of which, to be clear, are about an interpersonal kind of knowledge, not about simply knowing an infinite quantity of ‘facts’ about God or us).  One of the central announcements of the NT is that Jesus has revealed God in not only a fresh, unexpected way, but also in a full (and thus final) way.  God can at last be known.

But this knowledge of God in the face of Christ does not catapult humans into a state of omniscience.  ”Who has known the mind of the Lord?”, asks Scripture elsewhere.  And in the passage above, Paul suggests that the point is not our knowledge of God, but God’s knowledge of us that matters.

There is continuity and discontinuity here with the knowledge proper to the natural sciences.  Continuity in that in both cases, reality often has to surprise us for us to ‘get it’.  It’s often not what we expected it to be.  Truth has that ring to it.  But it also has discontinuity in the obvious sense that nature does not and cannot ‘know us’ as we know one another – let alone as we can be known by God.

answers, questions & tensions

My few posts on this blog touching on epistemology are a drop in the ocean of literature on the topic, the majority of which I’ll almost certainly never know about, let alone read.  But allow little wee me to suggest that the wisdom of human experience tells us that any proper pursuit of knowledge should be accompanied by all three of the following: answers, questions and tensions.  The opposite way of saying this is that as long as we retain our position as finite observers and non-omniscient know-ers, we must not have only answers, only questions or only tensions.

I reckon this is the case for all kinds of knowledge.  Scientific knowledge of the natural world has all three.  Every answer and natural discovery opens up new questions and fields of natural research.  Science both closes and opens gaps in knowledge, so don’t listen to anyone who talks as if we’ve figured out how the entire universe works from top to bottom.  Personal knowledge of other persons has them too.  Does one every completely know their mate or partner or friend?  The more one thinks, speaks and acts as if they do, the worse mate, partner or friend they will be.  Even theological knowledge of God, which dares to speak words about the Ultimate (only because of its conviction that the Ultimate has first spoken to us), remains a discipline that has real questions.  Don’t listen to any preacher who speaks of God as though they’ve got him easily boxed up and packaged.

When it comes to knowledge and know-ers, sometimes the knowledge claimed says something about that which is known – the melon might actually be a bit browned compared to other melons.  But it can also say something (or everything) about the one doing the knowing – the melon might only appear browned because the viewer forgot she was wearing sunglasses.  Each type of know-er will have their strengths, but strengths become weaknesses if not balanced by the other kinds of know-ers.

The mistake common to ‘answers’ type (or ‘black and white’) people is to be so intent on finding answers that they pushing away questions or not marrying up one answer with another, so they need the question-asking and tension-finding type people to humble and grow them.

The mistake common to ’question’ type (or ‘grey’) people is to be so focussed on questioning everything that they ignore the answers and tensions that might be right before their eyes, so they need the answer-giving, and tension-finding types to reign in their advocacy to various devils.

The mistake common to ‘tensions’ type (or ‘both/and’) people, which I count myself to be within, is to be so familiar with finding tension and paradox that they fail to acknowledge times when it just might be either/or, or a different both/and than they currently hold to, so they need the answer-giving and question-asking types to disturb and re-frame the tensions they have grown (possibly too?) comfortable with.

knowledge of self – knowledge of the other

Feuerbach wasn’t entirely wrong.  Projection is a real thing.  Anthropomorphism is well known: that we can project human characteristics onto animals.  When it comes to Feuerbach and God, I think he just throws out the baby (that humans can know anything of God) with the bathwater (humans are prone to projection). For him, projection is a reason to doubt any/all knowledge of, and hence the existence of (for who can be bothered believing in something you can’t know!?) God.  For me, projection is the temptation to make God into a mere idol.

But the salient insight here is the importance of knowing self (and your tendency to project – or indeed your tendency to dismiss the possibility for any knowledge simply because full/perfect knowledge seems impossible) in the quest to know any ‘other’.  Both the knowing subject and the known object must be a part of any thoroughgoing epistemology.

patience…

With any discipline or line of enquiry, patience is a virtue.

We must have patience regarding the amount we will ever be able to know about a given topic.  Whether your ‘-ology’ is of ‘bios’, ‘theos’, or ‘cosmos’, it’s essential to remember that there will always be more questions.  For some, this is an enquiry-stopper.  ”Heck, if we can’t know it all, why bother?”  For myself, however, this is invigorating!  More to learn!  More to think about!  More to consider!  Let’s get to it!

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

true knowledge

A delicious quote:

Knowledge involves the encounter of the probing and projecting subject with the object of its investigation, but it is true knowledge, not when the object is conformed to the imaginative activity of the subject, but when the imaginative activity of the subject is conformed to the reality of the object, when our thinking becomes, in some sense, the image in which its originating object is more or less faithfully reflected. (Tom Smail, Like Father Like Son, 30)

non-omniscience

Humans don’t ‘know’ everything – and that is true for even the person with the most inclusive epistemic position. Continue reading

beyond

Whether we are looking through a microscope or a telescope, everything we see points beyond itself…

…and that’s just for descriptive modes of analysis.

moral truth

To demonstrate not only the difference between scientific/descriptive knowledge and metaphysical/prescriptive knowledge, but also the greater degree of both accessibility and authority in the latter, consider the following:

There are scientific experiments which everyone knows (accessibility: tick) without question (authority: tick) simply should not (prescriptive: tick) be performed1.

EDIT: lest it need to be said, the previous post makes no claim, of course, for human omniscience in any area.

  1. and there honestly is no need for me to give examples of such experiments []