Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Gen Eds Series P3: How do I know what I think I know?

This is my third philosophy post in a series called, "General Education in a Nutshell." Philosophy is the first of ten subjects I plan to overview in this series. These are the subjects a person normally takes in college (or high school) to be a generally educated person (most of them also make up what is sometimes called the "liberal arts").

The first two philosophy posts were:
1. The technical term for this week's subject is epistemology, which is the name for the branch of philosophy that asks what truth is and how we know if something is true. "How do I know that I really know what I think I know?"

I want to start by anticipating an answer that might immediately come to the mind of someone who knows the Bible a bit. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). So someone might answer the question, "What is truth?" with the answer, "Jesus."

Of course that is an important answer, the most important one for any person to know in a relational way! Perhaps you have heard it said that "truth is a person."

However, I'm not sure that it helps me answer a question like, "What color is that flower?" or "What is the speed of light?" I believe that Jesus was with me when I connected a battery cable the other morning. But "Jesus" is not a particularly helpful answer to the question, "Will I get shocked when I connect this battery cable?"

In short, Jesus is the answer to this question when you are asking it in a particular kind of way. But it doesn't take much reflection to know that most of the times we ask this question, he is not a really helpful answer. "Did you turn the electricity off so that I can work on this plug?" "Jesus?"

2. One claim that I will make in this post is that, whether we like it or not, we all use basic reasoning and rely on basic evidence to make our way through this world. We can talk loftily about worldviews or the narrative of salvation history, but there is a basic logic and reasoning we use that is far more basic to our day to day lives--and far more forceful. [1] I have sometimes called it "micro-reason" such as we will look at in next week's post, basic logic.

So it is fine to have lofty worldviews and presuppositional frameworks. But treat them as pictures and proverbs, snapshots of the truth. Micro-reason, basic logic, is undeniable. Only the most intellectually perverse can resist it for very long. The same goes for what you might call, "in your face" evidence. We can resist evidence for a very long time, but "in your face evidence" slaps us in the face and forces us to reckon with it whether we like it or not.

Of course I believe God is a God of truth--the real truth. "All truth is God's truth," meaning that something that is truly true in one part of existence will inevitably be compatible in some way with every other truly true thing. [2] The problem is not with the truth or with God. The problem is that we humans have a persistent tendency to mistake our ideological systems for God's own thoughts as they fully and "literally" are. [3]

Our thoughts about God and about the world strongly tend toward the imprecise. They are pictures. Meanwhile, God's ways "are higher than our ways" (Isa. 55:8-9). How foolish of us to think that our simplistic systems come anywhere close to God in his exactness!

So when it comes to the systems of thought we humans so often construct, micro-reason and in-your-face evidence are like truth viruses in our pretentious systems (that have always been modified throughout history). They unravel our claims to have everything figured out. They "de-construct" our nice tidy worldviews and ideologies. [4]

3. It is important for us to pause and reckon with the fact that the Bible also gives us pictures of God rather than God in his exactness. To think otherwise is to make the Bible into an idol, to mistake pictures for the thing itself. Even when we speak of images of God, Jesus is the image of God rather than the Bible. The Bible gives witness to the image of God.

But the primary function of the Scriptures is much larger than the cognitive. It is transformative. God uses it much more to form us than to inform us. It is for God to master us, not for us to master the subject of God so we can pass a test. The Bible is the "answer book" in the sense that God leads us to himself through it. It is not the "answer book" when it comes to questions like how many neutrons carbon 12 has.

Human language can point beyond itself because of its capacity for metaphor and symbol. The God-given vehicle of the poetic allows human language to point toward the infinite in a powerful way. The danger of Christian fundamentalism is that it treats the Bible as if it can contain God in literal terms. [5] It pretends to have certainty on that which cannot be fully grasped or contained. It actually tries to shut down the poetic nature of inspired Scripture and treats it as if it is a set of rational propositions.

4. Further, even when we try to understand the Bible, our limitations get in the way. The Bible does not enter our heads without going through the filter of our reasoning and experiences. It does not come built in on my hard drive. I cannot escape interpretation when I read the Bible. I do not see the Bible as it is. I see the Bible as it appears to me. The Bible has to be "inputed" into my brain, and that means my understanding of it is inevitably "infected" by my fallen mind.

Hopefully, I rely on the Holy Spirit to help me. Hopefully, I am part of a community that has carried over something from the Christians before us. Hopefully I wrestle with Scripture in a community that is also seeking to hear and experience God as new challenges arise. But a quick look at what even the most godly individuals and communities have come up with throughout the last 2000 years shows that these are not infallible paths to God's mind.

No one simply sees the Bible as it is or was. We all read the Bible through the glasses we are wearing. We all reason its meaning out, affected by our life experiences. P.S. This means "scholars" too.

Even if the Bible had the answers to all the questions I could ever ask, I cannot escape myself to see them as they are. There are tens of thousands of different churches that demonstrate that the "Bible alone" has not in any way resulted in a common understanding of the Christian faith. [6] Any sense of the Bible's clarity surely must have to do with salvation, not the details.

And, the more you understand the Bible, the more you understand it in context. You see how its meaning was a function of its first audiences thousands of years ago. You see that it was written to people quite different in culture and thinking than someone like me in twenty-first century America. Contextual understanding, without something more, tends to distance the meaning of the Bible from us today.

So, on the one hand, God uses the Bible to lead us to the most important answers to the question, "What is true?" The Bible is special revelation. The Bible gives witness to the most important truths--the existence and nature of God, the way of salvation, the hope of eternity.

But it does so by using the greatest capacity of human language--its poetic capacity, its ability to use metaphor and symbol to point to that which cannot be captured in human words. And even here, it does not tell me what to think about cloning or stem cell research. On so many issues--even abortion--we wrestle as communities of faith to connect biblical teaching that addressed one world with our world and its issues.

Often when we think the Bible's answer is straightforward, we are simply defining the words as a mirror of what we already think. The more a person knows about what the Bible really meant, the more likely it is that he or she will find the need for wrestling with it in order to know how to apply it to today.

5. This observation brings us to the terms pre-modernmodern, and post-modern. I want to discuss these terms and then throw them away when we are done.

René Descartes (1596-1650) seems to mark an important turning point in epistemology, and he is often called the "father of modern philosophy." Prior to him, the reality of the world outside myself was largely assumed. Truths about the world were more or less assumed to be "in" the world. Beauty was seen "in" the world.

Although earlier philosophers recognized from time to time that our perception of the world could be skewed, the question of how played a role in what I saw in the world was underdeveloped at best. There was more or less the assumption that "What I see is what is there."

This time before Descartes is sometimes called the pre-modern period. Descartes then is said to usher in the modern period with his questioning about what can I know is true for certain. Think of the time when he lived. The Protestant Reformation had taken away a more or less common understanding of God in the early 1500s. Now any individual with a Bible could in theory decide what he or she thought God thought on any issue. Descartes, interestingly, was Catholic.

In England, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was developing a "scientific method" for discovering what was true about the world. Rather than doing science in his head, as most before him, he had the revolutionary idea of gathering evidence to try to determine what was true about the world. No more was it assumed that we know what was true about the world. With Copernicus' (1473-1543) new idea that the earth went around the sun, assumptions about the world that had stood for as long as anyone could remember were now uncertain.

So Descartes asked, "What can't I doubt?" He realized he could doubt almost anything. You can doubt whether God exists. You can doubt whether you're dreaming right now. You can doubt that the straw is really crooked even though it looks crooked in water.

But he decided he couldn't doubt that he was doubting. "I think; therefore, I am," he concluded (cogito ergo sum). [7] He concluded that he knew for certain that he existed. About everything else outside himself, he could not be entirely sure.

6. Descartes thus commenced the modern period in philosophy. Old debates over whether reason or experience were the best path to truth were revived but this time with a vengeance because they were raised in the context of modern uncertainty. Descartes took the side of the rationalists, those who suggested that the best path to truth was through reason.

Plato had argued for an extreme version of this approach in the 300s BC. Plato believed that we could not trust our senses for truth. For him, what you seeheartouchsmell, or taste are unreliable sources of truth. Rather truth is something we need to "remember" with our minds from the time before our souls took on a body.

John Locke (1632-1704) then took the side of the empiricists, who suggested that the path to certainty in truth was through our senses. Again, Aristotle had argued for a version of this approach in the 300s BC when he suggested that "there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses." [8]

But it was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who broke the tie between these two approaches to knowledge. [9] The content of our understanding, he argued, comes into our minds through our senses. We get that content after our experiences, after the fact (a posteriori). But the organization of that content, the way our minds glue those inputs together, is built in or, as we say, innate. We have this software, as it were, from the beginning, built in (a priori).

There is something quite simple and profound about Kant's solution to the age old debate between reason and experience. We obviously interact with the world around us through our senses. We see things. We hear things. We touch things. We smell things. We taste things.

But our minds clearly organize these inputs. They interpret these inputs. Some of these patterns of organization are common to all human beings. From psychology, we now realize that there are physical structures and chemical reactions in our brains that we have in common with one another. Whether you think of God as designing us this way or of them evolving so that we might survive better (or some mixture of both), these structures glue causes to effects and facts to values. They interpret reality in a way that helps us make sense of the world and survive in it.

7. Of course our cultures, families, and environments also have a huge effect on the way our minds interpret our world, put values on things, and give rules to our behavior. Some of our built-in software is decisively shaped by our earliest years of life. Our genetics and environment shape the "paradigms" through which we view and process the world.

We see another person and we might assume that what is obvious to me is obvious to them. If they were raised in a similar culture and context, if they have some of the same genetic predispositions as me, maybe we will find the same things obvious. But if they were born somewhere else, raised somewhere else, if they have a different set of genetics, they may very well find an opposing interpretation of the world obvious.

When we get to the subject of psychology and world cultures in this series, we will have recourse to explore these sorts of differences more extensively.

8. Now I want to return to the terms pre-modernmodern, and post-modern. If Descartes is sometimes said to have ushered in the modern period, what is the "post-modern" period? The emphasis of the modern period was on objectivity. The goal was to rid ourselves of all our biases and let reason and experience speak for themselves. So we rid ourselves of all logical fallacies and we follow the scientific method of gathering evidence and drawing conclusions.

Post-modernism was a late twentieth century movement that more or less concluded that the goals of modernism were unattainable. No one can ever be objective. Human truth claims have as often been about power than about anything like truth. The meaning of words can be ambiguous. Ideological systems have a persistent tendency to unravel over time.

Some of the key figures of this movement arguably went to extremes in their attempt to make these points. Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) wrote playful and obscure books whose implied point was that the meaning of words is completely unfixed and unstable. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) argued that "truth is violence" and that every claim to know forces an idea on history. Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) suggested that science doesn't really make progress. It only changes paradigms.

Nevertheless, we all seem to do pretty well at making our way through this world. We even seem to do pretty well at communicating with each other. Richard Rorty (1931-2007), another post-modern thinker, suggested that we can speak of reality in pragmatic terms. Some ideas work better than others. He suggested a kind of pragmatic realism that acts as if the world is there and that we know things about it because it works.

9. So I am ready to modify our terms. In the end, we are all inevitably "pre-modern" in many ways. That is to say, we can never become fully objective. We can never see the world as God fully and literally sees it. We cannot ever achieve a "God's eye view."

Why? We can't not least because we do not know all the data. It is really laughable even to think such an absurdity. The number of things to know about any given situation or subject must surely approach the infinite. As humans we sift through this barrage of data by selecting the bits that seem to be the most important, and we thereby de-select a lot of other data.

God knows all the data in all its relationships to all the other data. We know an infinitesimal amount of the data and can see a small handful of possible connections.

Therefore, we are all "unreflective" to some extent about the world. We are all pre-modernists in that respect. But we can become more "reflective." We can move toward greater objectivity by considering more possible ways to interpret the data. We should aim at objectivity. We should aim at sound thinking and logic. We should aim at forming the most likely theory given the evidence. But we always should know that we can only get more reflective. We cannot ever become fully reflective.

We thus can form a kind of poetic and pragmatic epistemology. There are ideas that work better than other. The idea that I can fly doesn't work very well. Let's say that's a false hypothesis. We should think of our ideologies as pointers toward truth. Ideas that work and that help us live well in the world are good ideas.

There are also ideas that point toward something greater, like God. We should not think that these ideas exhaust God or are fully literal. Our thoughts about God and the deepest truths of the world enter the territory where we must speak poetically because the literal cannot capture them. Here we enter the realm of mystery, where God speaks to us in parables and pictures.

Some Christians have spoken of a kind of critical realism. By faith we believe that there is something more than the appearance of things in my mind. By faith I believe there really is a world outside myself. By faith (not blind faith), I believe that God exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6). The world outside myself exists and is real.

But my personal knowledge of that world will always be vastly partial and it will be inevitably skewed. I do not abandon reason and experience as "working" paths to walk through life. I do not abandon special revelation as true pictures of that which I could not discover on my own. But I acknowledge that I see through a glass darkly. I see, but I do not see fully or with complete accuracy.

Next Week: Philosophy 4: Critical Thinking

Classical Reading
  • Rene Descartes, Meditations on the First Philosophy
  • John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  • David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
  • Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
  • Michel Foucault, The Order of Things
  • Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
[1] There is some truth to the claim that our ideas play themselves out in our lives, but it is much more the case that we live out our lives negotiating the "evidence" in front of us using basic reasoning skills. We only play out our ideas in life if they seem to work. If they don't on a significant enough scale, we chuck them.

[2] An idea made popular by Arthur Holmes

[3] It is worth giving a definition for the way I am using the word literal. To take a word "literally" is to take it in its normal sense rather than in a metaphorical sense. To say "God is love," for example, is not to speak of him literally. It is to give a picture of God by comparing him to something in human experience with which we can relate. We know God by analogy, not literally, on his own terms.

[4] The word deconstruct came from Jacques Derrida, a postmodern thinker whom I believe went too far. His idea was that the meaning of words disintegrates even as we are constructing them. They "de" construct. So it is that often our systems of ideas have internal inconsistencies that ultimately unravel them if we take them too seriously. If, instead, we treat them as pictures of the truth (rather than the literal, exact truth), they can remain useful to us.

[5] "Fundamentalism" seems innocuous enough. It aims to get back to the "fundamentals" of a particular faith (so there are Islamic fundamentalists). Three key characteristics show why we should be cautious about fundamentalism in all its forms. 1) It usually happens as a reaction to changes in its context, both internally and externally. So American fundamentalism emerged as a defensive reaction to modern developments in science and the study of the Bible. 2) Because it emerges as a force in times of uncertainty, it tends to overemphasize the certain. It prohibits change by strict limitations of truth to its Scriptures and enforces particular interpretations of those Scriptures. It thus acts as if it can capture God in human words. Indeed, it is essential to eliminate mystery so that no changes can be made to traditional forms of the religion. 3) Given these dynamics, it is no surprise that fundamentalism tends to have a militant flavor. In Islam, it can create terrorists. In Christianity, it creates Christian soldiers marching to war against whoever or whatever is thought to be threatening tradition.

[6] The Bible does not tell us how to connect the material of its many books to each other. The Bible does not tell us how to play out its specifics in our time and place. Indeed, the meaning of many passages is seriously "under-determined," meaning that we lack sufficient information to interpret all of them with certainty (which is why even scholars often disagree on the meaning of the Bible). For these reasons, the Methodist notion of prima scriptura, "Scripture first," is much more coherent an approach to the Bible that sola scriptura, "Scripture alone," which is not even possible.

[7] Actually, in our world of artificial intelligence and neuropsychology, perhaps he should have concluded, "I think; therefore, a thought is."

[8] Prior Analytics.

[9] Kant was reacting to David Hume (1711-1776), who took Locke's empiricism to an extreme. If our minds are entirely a "blank slate" (tabula rasa) then anything we cannot connect to experience isn't real. So we experience a cause (vase falls) and we experience an effect (vase breaks), but we do not experience the glue that connects them as cause-effect (vase falling caused it to break). We see facts (hitting me hurts) and we feel values (you shouldn't hit me), but we do not experience the glue that says the value is a fact (hitting me is wrong because it hurts me). Kant sought to justify these connections.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for doing this.

Practically, it seems that at least some of us, maybe all, believe a lot of things because we want them to be true, not because they are true. (And, in some cases, even if it is reasonably certain that they aren't true. For evidence of this, see most any political speech, and the reaction to it.