Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Crisis of Epistemology

Much of the conflict of ideas relating to religion in America can be depicted as a conflict of epistemologies, namely, of an inductive approach to truth versus a deductive approach.  Call it science versus religion.  Call it natural versus revealed revelation.  Call it open-mindedness versus presuppositionalism.  Call it rationalism versus empiricism.  Call it "philosophy" versus "theology."

The one approach starts with certain assumptions and proceeds to integrate experience with those assumptions.  The other starts with experience and builds general conclusions from there.  Of course Kant pointed out that we inevitably use both.  We have certain "innate" frameworks through which we filter experience (cause-effect, for example).

So what may seem like obvious choices turn out to be rather muddy in reality.  Yes, we all process reality by way of certain presuppositions.  But how big should these be?  Some presuppositionalists see these as huge macro-systems where if you accept one thing as a presupposition, you must then accept the entire system.  This is nothing but lunacy that blows away like a puff of smoke against the smallest stepping out of doors.

Then again, some empiricists pretend like they are completely objective and have no intrinsic biases or starting  points.  Once again, this is lunacy that evaporates on the smallest peak of light.

In a perfect world, these two would coincide precisely--the general conclusions to which our experiences build would coincide with the general presuppositions from which we start.  In life, of course, these often conflict.  We get out of our birth zone and find other personalities and other cultures out there.  Those who come out of the cave recognize that some of their assumptions were options rather than absolutes and that some of their assumptions were just wrong.

Since presuppositions are only subject to revision--they are assumptions rather than evidentiary in nature, they can be tricky.  There is a tendency for various epistemological tribes to treat them as unfalsifiable.  This of course means that those who do not share the same assumptions cannot really have a conversation with them.   Those who have the assumptions are, in a sense, the "elect" and that is that.

However, at some point the common sense "tests" for truth may become overwhelming.  Presuppositions may come into conflict with experience.  Presuppositions may shout of incoherence.  Presuppositions may fail to "work" in life.  For most there will be a breaking point, where epistemological stubbornness yields to a gush of reality.

Let me skip to the end.  The two kingdoms of deduction and induction best work together.  We need a core set of micro-assumptions to think at all.  The micro-assumptions of deduction are logic.  The micro-assumptions of induction are a generalized form of the scientific method.

The best epistemological model for the Christian is "faith seeking understanding."  In my opinion, faith must in theory be falsifiable or else our claims to be a people of truth are meaningless.  To pass muster as claims about truth, faith must be modifiable and subject to critique.

And we must also recognize that easy answers like the church or the Bible are not as easy as you might think on more detailed examination.  For example, not only is the interpretation of the Bible subject to significant debate at countless points, but even when we feel relatively certain about its original meaning, we must then determine how God wants us to apply it today in varied contexts.  Protestants by historic definition reject any absoluteness to the trajectory of the church.

This is not to say, however, that evidence is absolutely determinative.  It can be coherent to have faith despite the appearance of the evidentiary landscape, because all data is subject to interpretation.  In that case, however, one should be honest about the lay of the evidence and invoke some degree of blind faith.  To be coherent, the invocation of blind faith may require one to modify basic common sense understandings of the world.  Few of those who would invoke blind faith in this way can thus be consistent with the way they live the rest of their lives.

Some thoughts I've shared before...


Angie Van De Merwe said...

You know, even Dr. Glenn Martin, who held to presuppositionalism, used to say that one could not absolutize anything but "God". But, this was an inductive way "to know", which still begs the question of interpreting the text, which you point out very well...

When one begins with "the human", one still has the question of what makes for "the human". We can observe "the human", but behavior doesn't necessarily reveal all the information to make a valid judgemnt about another's life. And neuroscience brings another dimension to understanding "the human", which is the inborn tendencies in our genes.

Blind faith, certainly is not a viable way to live one's life. This is why "love" doesn't answer the problem of the human condition, because love cannot be a universal practically speaking. It is a personal word.

Self interest has been the foundation of Western society, because we believed that the individual mattered in the larger scheme of things. Society was the result of the individual's pursuit of their "life", in liberty and happiness.

Liberty was the unifying element to American society. All citizens were equal before the law. And each citizen had a right to pursue his own interests....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

AND, if one thinks about the statement to absolutize nothing but "God", one ends with questions, as "God" is undefined, which is "faith".

Faith that seek understanding is a scientist pursuing truth wherever it may lead, and in whichever discipline interests him.

FrGregACCA said...

"Protestants by historic definition reject any absoluteness to the trajectory of the church."

Jesus founded a Community, the Church. He did not write a book.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Jesus founded NOTHING. Men founded the "Church"! Just as "men" put together the text.

Every supposition one can affirm as to "jesus" is dependent on some understanding of the "jesus tradition"....

So, I agree that Protestantism didn't affirm the "absoluteness" of the Church...

Rick said...


Good thoughts, and we need to seek a proper recognition of the two. You do seem to be coming just from a human point of view, leaving out any mention of God's role in this.


"Jesus founded a Community, the Church. He did not write a book."

While He was here, He communicated a message that was faithfully retransmitted. He founded that "community" through that message.

Likewise, if one believes in the Trinity, Jesus/God did at least "inspire" the writings of the book.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The only thing that one can depend upon is what investigative science can reveal. Revelation is not about a tradition, but about human knowledge.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"Faithfully, re-transmitted"? Sources? Translations? no, never...the Church was a politically motivated power structure that imposed itself upon other's consciences, thus, the sell of indulgences.

Education is an important value to maintain a civil society, that isn't dependent on "feeling" or "identity" of a "collective" sort, but an independence of mind that evaluates, critiques and comes to conclusions about values, and commitments.

FrGregACCA said...

But the Book in question presupposes the Church, the Community, and gives it the ultimate authority, quoting Christ as promising it, the Church, the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I think I've shared in the past about a dissertation by John White, I believe. He had three views of "truth"
1.)correspondence, Plato's view which underwrites much of contemporary Protestant theology.
2.)coherence, Aristotle's view, which was an empirical view and supported a Catholic view.
3.)pragmatic, would this be Ockam's view? it is utilitarian.

But, there are others, linguistic, which is multicultural understanding of a "way of life", wasn't this Wittgenstien?...etc. I'm sure there are more.

I have a book that is really good on "Philosophical Dilemmas" by Phil Washburn. It covers the major questions and how they are answered with a pro and con to each answer...interesting, indeed!! I'm slowly digesting it...

Ken Schenck said...

Fr Greg, I am not meaning to dismiss the trajectory of the church as community, but the consensus of the community in 1200 was that priests must be celibate and that women cannot be priests. I am a Protestant because I believe God sometimes backs the community of faith up and returns to earlier paths.

Rick, I'm not meaning to leave God out. The problem is rather the difficulty in knowing for sure exactly what God wants us to think. The Bible has countless different senses of meaning and application. The individual sense of the Spirit is not infallible. The position of the church is mediated through transitory political bodies.

God just doesn't appear to Moses very often these days (those who claim to have had such experiences are generally viewed with some suspicion...)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Ken said, "I am a Protestant because I believe God sometimes backs the community of faith up and returns to earlier paths."??? Meaning?

The only way that one can "go forward by going backwards", is to have their heads screwed on backwards.

You are committed to the Wesleyan Church, which has its "costs", which I'm sure you've counted. Any denomination has a vested interest in protecting their dogma (and church doctrine). Otherwise, there is no reason to suggest the Church is relavant.

Since pietists are interested in behavior, more than intellectual endeavors, it stands to reason that the "Academy" would be suspect. And the Church's interest in "formation" is important to "making followers" of your denomination's interpretation of "holiness".

If one seeks to understand the deductive and inductive ways of combining correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic views within scripture and the "real world", "Logos Christology" is useful for the "Church's mission"...and the scientist's value of understanding "the human" in experience. Isn't it?

The problem is the ethical dimensions of using an experiment to produce such an identity, or entity, whichever is useful for the purposes of "God", I suppose.

Humans are more than subjects to be manipulated with rhetoric about "God". That is political positioning and manuevering of another's life. I do not value that. Honesty is the best policy. But, then, those that really believe that "God exists" and he "controls all" or "foreknows all" are not being dishonest in their pursuit of Church rhetoric, I suppose. I just disagree.

FrGregACCA said...

Ken, in 1200 (and long after) a PORTION of the Church mandated, and continues to normally mandate, celibacy for its priests. However, that is not the case in the non-Roman Apostolic Churches.

However, all agree that this could be changed in Rome tomorrow. It is a question of discipline, not dogma.

I agree that sometimes we have to go back, as with the ordination of women (see my piece on that: http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/2011/02/progressive-dynamic-tradition-part-ii.html).

I also note, however, that Protestantism is itself divided on this issue, and that it has nothing to do with the places at which Protestantism most fundamentally disagrees with the four communions directly descended from the earliest Church(es), founded directly by the Apostles.

Rick said...


However, the church cannot vary from that message He/Trinity communicated.


"The problem is rather the difficulty in knowing for sure exactly what God wants us to think."

So is God unable, or unwilling, to make it clear?

Ken Schenck said...

I'm sure God is able and I'm sure he has reasons for making us wrestle to find the right path on so many occasions. Perhaps it makes us grow up.

Rick said...

"Perhaps it makes us grow up."

I like that answer. Funny but true.

I do want to say that I am all for the community aspect of understanding, which makes paleo-orthodoxy an attractive view.