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So Whadda Ya Know….

By Brian Johnson

[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.

It’s difficult to “know” how much blood has been spilt on the epistemological battlefield – the age-old attempt to “know” how we “know” – if you “know” what I mean.

This posting is my meager attempt to address the issues at hand from an evangelical point of view, and is in part in a reflection upon Vincent Cooke’s article “The New Calvinist Epistemology.”

Epistemology is defined as “the study of knowledge and justified belief” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/). Two elements of this (brief) definition stand out in my mind: What is real knowledge? and What is justified belief?

In most of our epistemological discussions, knowledge is treated as propositional statements. Things like: Tom is 6’4” tall. It could be argued that this is but one kind of knowing. Alongside propositional knowledge, we could add experiential knowledge (playing basketball with Tom), and transformational knowledge (where knowledge of my wife has changed me – I’m a better man now that I’m married).

Additionally, it’s important to distinguish knowledge from reality. While I may know that “Tom is tall”, that knowledge is neither “Tom” nor is it “tallness”. It is just information – a mere subset, and in fact, just one small feature of the reality of Tom.

Thus, I believe we error by making knowledge a kind of shorthand for comprehensive, exhaustive knowledge. Often we find imperfect knowledge sufficient for the task at hand. (Perhaps it’s a matter of precision…)

With regard to justified belief, Cooke brings out an excellent point (via Plantinga): that beliefs can be rational without the support of philosophical justification. That is, there are beliefs that we accept (dare I say must accept) that do not lend themselves to ‘justification’ in the technical philosophical sense.

He goes on to argue that classical foundationalism (the demand that all beliefs be accepted only if they are self-evident, un-doubtable, or evident to the senses) does not meet it’s own demands for justification – i.e. that it itself is not self-evident, nor un-doubtable, nor evident to the senses.

Classical foundationalism has put a wedge between theology and philosophy by demanding ‘justification’ for theological propositions – a kind of ‘justification’ that foundationalism fails to provide for itself. Post-foundational epistemology allows theological propositions (like ‘God exists”) to be accepted as we accept other ideas, which are difficult to justify. (Cooke cites Plantinga’s example of this kind of proposition: “that other minds exist.” This test concept cannot be supported via rigorous justification, but is practically accepted as a ‘basic’ belief.) This opens the door for renewed interaction and dialogue between theology and philosophy – allowing us evaluate theological ideas that previous philosophers simply dismissed.

Personally I’m encouraged by the school of criteriologists (those who believe that in certain circumstances we are justified in accepting beliefs without formal ‘justification’) that Cooke describes, and envision fruitful developments between theology and philosophy in the years to come.

What do you think? Am I justified in seeing the crumbling of classical foundationalism as a positive step for the integration of theology and philosophy?

Does Justifiable Belief Exist?

[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with humanity’s inability to know. At least, this is my sarcastic conclusion after a brief educational survey of epistemology covered in Stanford’s encyclopedia of philosophy.  Actually epistemology covers a few different ways of knowing: knowing how to do something, knowing a person, knowing a place, or knowing propositions.  The Stanford article deals only with the knowledge of propositions.

I’ll summarize in brief starting with Foundationalism, the idea that our justified beliefs (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected) rest upon basic beliefs.  Basic beliefs don’t need justification from other beliefs. Coherentism disagrees, stating that every belief receives its evidence from other beliefs.  For instance, “I think therefore I am,” presupposes a belief that I think and a belief that I could exist.  Or, “I perceived the chair is yellow,” presupposes a belief in the existence of a chair, the belief in a personal ability to perceived, and the belief in the concept of yellow.  Coherentism is critiqued because one can never arrive at a belief; there is an infinite series of beliefs before that belief.  Skeptics jump all the way in and claim something fantastic like, “You can’t know that you have feet.”  They base this on the possibility of radical deception; someone could be in the matrix, or in a dream world, or similarly disembodied and at the same time being in the situation of radical deception would have no way of knowing they were in such a state.  Since you can’t know you’re not in that situation, you can’t know whether or not you have feet.  In order to defeat the skeptics, the definition of knowing underwent changes.  Contextual knowing and fallible knowing are put forth as potential skeptic killers.   Find the full discussion here.  If you have trouble following all the terms and positions visit, Wikipedia has a nearly identical summary with accessible resources.

Simply put, I’m a skeptic.  I found all the other positions too vulnerable to devastating critique.  Foundationalism’s strongest thought, “I think therefore I exist,” is perceptual knowledge based on existence can only be understood by appealing to someone’s perception of their own existence.   If we all believe that we exist, but we could all be wrong.  If no one existed, no one would know.  If we base our knowledge of existing on our perceived existence all we are left with is perceived existence not justifiable belief (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected).

Coherentism finds the truth but can’t accept it.  I believe Coherentism discovers the true reason why justifiable belief doesn’t exist, because belief is based upon belief to an infinite or at least unknowable/undiscoverable degree.  Coherentism wants to build justifiable belief on a web of interconnected ideas, only they missed the web and fell into a bottomless chasm.

Contextual knowing, in my mind, changes the whole topic of discussion.  We take the problem of the existence of justifiable belief (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected) as a universal human question dealing with propositional knowledge and instead ask, “Can we have justifiable belief in a smaller group of humans controlled by selective ignorance?”  In a group of similarly ignorant and mentally disabled patients there might be a belief that can’t be proven false or doubted within the same group.  However, that same belief has the possibility of being corrected.  Either way, we are no longer talking about universal human knowing; we are discussing group knowledge.  This group knowledge is only justifiable belief in propositional knowledge if it isn’t challenged.  I find this view ignores the fact that we live in the age of world-wide communication and information.  An argument starting with ignorance and ending with a positive result is a poor argument indeed.

Fallible knowledge is also not a response to the same question.  Fallible agrees with the skeptics, in so far as they agree infallible knowledge is impossible.  This is just another way of saying justifiable belief does not exist, but belief does exist.  They seek to have justified beliefs based on knowledge’s inability to be justified.  To believe in fallible knowledge is to believe in nothing more than the usefulness of belief itself.

All of the positions agree (even the skeptics) that propositional knowledge exists.  Since they are in agreement on this point, their arguments (in my mind) are centered on the existence of justifiable belief, not belief itself.  Can humans have justifiable belief?  I say no.  I say no with a caveat.  Humans cannot have justifiable belief about themselves or the existent world.  Galaxies, stars, planets, plants, animals and all physical elements can also have no justifiable beliefs about humans or the existent world.  If these things were all that existed, humans would have no possibility of justifiable belief.  I however, do not believe the above things mentioned are all that exist.  (I’m leaving myself an opening for later.)  Is your belief justifiable?