Luring the Indians out of the Woods
By: Jonathan Harris
Epistemology can be defined as the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity. Essentially, it is the philosophical theory of knowledge. How is it that we can make a claim to know certain things and not others? What is knowledge? How do we obtain knowledge? How do we know if our knowledge is true? What is truth? All these questions, have to do with epistemology. This is an important field of study for us as Christians, because we are met with challenges from skeptics within this realm all the time, sometimes without even noticing it. Before we develop a Christian epistemology, I’d like to start out by introducing you to the tenets of skeptical epistemology. This will provide a contrast that will enable us to have a great confidence in our faith as well as to learn how to rationally give good reasons for a Christian position while rejecting all others.
Today in our society, it seems like everyone is preconditioned with a certain degree of skepticism. Not all skepticism is necessarily anti-Christian, but as a philosophical system it is quite contrary to our religious faith. For instance, it is good to be skeptical about questionable truth claims made by individuals who possess ulterior motives. A good example would be the global warming phenomenon. When we examine those who are promoting cap and trade and the kyoto protocol, etc. it becomes clear that most of the faithful followers are also opposed to capitalism. Now, it doesn’t follow logically that those supporters necessarily are supporting carbon offset legislation “just” because they want to destroy capitalism, but it is wise to be skeptical about their motives and look into the matter further. So ripping down all forms of skepticism is not what I want to do. In fact, Paul commended the Bereans for searching the Scriptures to see if he himself was being accurate. That’s a healthy form of skepticism. But when it comes to knowing truth, and forming a philosophical foundation, skepticism is weak, but unfortunately very popular, and very hard to argue against for someone who hasn’t been introduced to philosophy yet.
Let me give you an example of what a philosophy teacher who holds to skepticism might say to you the first day of class. The professor may ask, “How do you know what’s true.” A well-intentioned student will usually raise his hand and say, “I know what’s true because my senses tell me what’s true.” The professor might further inquire, “Why do your senses tell you what’s true?” The student may say, “Senses tell me what’s true because their designed to,” in which case the professor will incessantly ask, “Why?” Either at the point of this question, or else a few questions down the road, the student will quickly realize that he’s in a trap, and shamefully sit down upon the realization that the professor has the ability to keep asking the question, “why?” until the answers run out. This is a bullying technique used by skeptics to shake the faith of anyone who believes that they can know truth. Unfortunately, as you can see, the professor isn’t offering an alternative view on truth, he’s merely taking potshots at the student. The professor’s philosophical views are hidden, and therefore safe, while the student’s views are out in the open and under attack. The professor’s approach is called itinerant skepticism which is the idea the question, “What is truth?” will always yield an infinite regress if pursued. An easy way to counter someone who uses this argument is to put the burden of proof back on them. You could say, “Why should I answer your question.” If they don’t give you an answer to that, then you can say, “Well, until you give me an answer I’m not giving you one.” If they do answer your question, then you can say, “Why?” For example, if the student said, “We are designed,” and the professor said, “Why?” the student could say, “Why should I entertain your question.” The professor may say, “Because I want to know what truth is,” to which the student can respond by saying, “Why?” You see, the proponent of such an idea defeats his own criteria for knowing truth, by merely begging the question.
Extreme Skepticism maintains that logic is unattainable. In other words, we can’t know any category of truth. Truth may exist, but there’s no criteria by which to verify it. This position is a logical fallacy. You see, the statement “Truth cannot be known” requires a statement of truth. It’s self-refuting. If I said, “Every sentence in the English language has less than three words in it,” I would be refuting my very argument by my very argument. Saying that truth cannot be known means that you must know some truth. This is easy to see. When someone makes this statement simply reply, “Do you know that?” If they say know than they don’t believe their own statement, if they say yes than they don’t believe their own statement.
Soft Skepticism is a position which says, “Truth can’t be known, but I’m not sure I know that.” They believe it is questionable as to whether the very statement they build their worldview on can be known by them. If you asked a soft skeptic whether he knew that truth can’t be known, he would say, “No,” but rather that he “thinks” he knows. If you ask him whether he knows that he thinks he knows, he would say that he thinks he thinks he knows. Pretty soon you would have an infinite regress. This means, the person isn’t even clear on what their position is. If he thinks he thinks he thinks that skepticism is true, then he doesn’t really have a belief. You can’t reasonably doubt anything unless you know something.
Global vs. Local Skeptics
A Global skeptic applies his skepticism across the board. He would say, “It is doubtful (or impossible) that we can know truth in any area.” Local skeptics on the other hand believe some areas contain knowable facts, while other areas are impossible to know. This view is predominant in academia. They believe that in the area of science and mathematics truth can be accounted for, however, in the area of ethics, philosophy, and religion nothing can be known. What they don’t realize is that every academic pursuit is connected with other academic pursuits. For instance, the evidence for Jesus Christ’s resurrection alone touches the fields of history, religion, philosophy, psychology, science, and mathematics. Many will ignore historical testimony and psychological evidence simply on the basis that Christ’s resurrection is a religious issue which can be true for some and not others.
There are two basic arguments that skeptics use. The first is called the possibility of error, and the second is called the problem of the criterion. A skeptic might ask, “Have your senses ever fooled you?” or, “Has your memory ever been wrong?” The obvious answer to such a question is yes. Our senses can fool us. Optical allusions and magician’s tricks fool us all the time. The skeptic will quickly assert, based on this testimony, that nothing therefore can be known. The problem with this first argument is that he uses our senses to disprove the reliability of our senses. Yet another self-refuting statement. He maintains that since we can examine something with our senses to find out that our senses were fooled, therefore we can never trust our senses. Unfortunately, the skeptic is trusting in his senses in order to make such a claim. The criterion argument is an attack on the criteria for knowing anything. It states that one cannot know truth without a criteria for such knowledge. In other words, there exists no standard by which truth can be measured. This is another statement that blows up on itself because there is no criteria for the claim that there are no criteria.
Theories of Knowledge
Methodism (not the denomination) states that before I can know anything I have to have a criterion that answers the question how I know it. There are two things we need in order to claim any statement as being true. You have to know some criterion that tells you how you know something is true, and you also need something that indicates whether the thing which is true actually satisfies your criterion. So basically, you have to answer how you know something before you can know it. The problem with this view is- if I have to have some criterion for knowing something, I have to have a criterion for my criterion. This turns into an infinite regress invalidating the entire theory.
This view is addressed at length earlier in this piece, but for all practical purposes, it is the idea that we don’t know anything.
Particularism is the idea that human beings start out as “knowers.” There are some things which are just self-evident. Natural law is a product of particularism. There are certain things we know without having to know how it is we know them. We accept the fact that we were programmed (in the Theistic view) with a conscience and a sense of certain truths. Self-awareness, mathematical knowledge, and moral knowledge all are examples of things human beings “know” apart from any of the five senses and are inherent within us. This is the view of Scripture. Those without the law being a “law unto themselves” as Romans states has this idea in mind. A Christian can take this model a step further and state, “Since we innately know certain things such as our being designed, it is logical to conclude that our senses are meant for their intended purposes.” Therefore our senses become tools by which to examine the world accurately because they had their origin in a Being of logic, rationality, and order.
Skeptics and particularists are always debating about the burden of proof. The skeptic always wants to say, “Prove you know that!” While the particularist says, “Prove I can’t know it!” A skeptic may say, “Prove you went to work this morning.” The correct answer from the particularist would be, “I can’t prove to you one hundred percent that I went, but you cannot give me a good reason to think I didn’t. In fact, all the criterion indicates that I did go. Unless you can give me a good argument proving that either I have misread my criterion or that my criterion were wrong, why should I listen to you?” The skeptic may state, “Because I want to show you that you can’t know whether you went to work.” The particularist then can say, “Prove you want to show me whether or not I went to work.” Hopefully, such a statement will show the ludicrous nature of the skeptic’s proposal. The skeptic thinks that knowledge requires a level of absolute certainty, which is really the motivation for even asking the question in the first place. The particularist should focus on rebutting the skeptic, instead of refuting him in such cases. Refutation requires proving the other person wrong. Rebutting instead states that the opposing side hasn’t shown that they are right. So in regards to the example above, acknowledging the fact that there may exist good reasons for thinking you didn’t go to work (called an epistemological “if”), the skeptic hasn’t presented any of them.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line in this discussion is that every philosophical system has axioms which it uses to work off of. Not even skeptics drive their cars on the right side of the road because they believe they will get killed. In practical day to day life those claiming they can’t know seem sure to know an awful lot. Whenever dealing with someone who is a skeptic it’s important that we answer a fool according to his folly which means calling out his self refuting claims. We can have confidence that our Christian Faith is accurate.