by Steven B. Cowan –
In the last issue of the newsletter, I showed that Scripture supports the notion that Christian truth-claims can be known and are not simply matters of subjective opinion. Part 2 continues with a discussion of the nature of knowledge and its connection to the human desire for certainty.
Knowledge and Certainty
Let’s begin by asking where we ever got the idea that the things we believe as Christians are simply matters of faith; that we could not claim to know them the way we know that the earth is round or 2+2=4? I cannot give you a full-blown answer and trace the entire history on this matter here, but the long and short of it is this: beginning with the Enlightenment of the 18th century, in the work of philosophers like Rene Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, we in the West gradually came to believe two things:
1. That to have knowledge, rather than mere opinion, one had to have absolute certainty. Any belief that could not be certified as beyond any and all doubt, could not be said to be known.
2. That the best way to have certainty, or at least near-certainty outside of purely intellectual things like mathematics and geometry, was to limit what we can say we know to the deliverances of science. This is a view called scientism – the idea that science is the only real source of knowledge (or at least the only thing that approximates knowledge).
The effect of these cultural convictions brought on by enlightenment thinking was that moral and religious knowledge get demoted to the unknowable, to matters of mere opinion or blind faith. As a result of this demotion we eventually wind up with the postmodern idea that it doesn’t really matter what you believe in these areas as long as you are sincere, as long as you are authentic. We can’t know the truth in morality and religion, and maybe there isn’t any truth to be had anyway, so pretty much believe whatever you want as long as you tolerate everybody else’s ignorance too. Or, if you are still enamored by the modernism of the enlightenment, you wind up with the New Atheism which says that since these things are unknowable at best, we are better off without them—so let’s just eradicate religion and absolute morality from the world altogether.
The problem with all this is that the two convictions on which they stand are erected on sand. Let’s first consider scientism. Again, this is the view that science is the only real source of knowledge. But there are a couple of serious problems with scientism. First of all, it is self-defeating. To say that it is self-defeating is to say that it is self-contradictory; that it fails to live up to its own requirements. To see what I mean, consider the statement, “I cannot speak a single sentence of English.” That’s self-defeating! If I can’t speak a sentence of English, then I couldn’t have spoken that sentence—but I did! So, that sentence contradicts itself. Scientism is self- defeating in exactly the same way. Take the statement, “Science is the only legitimate source of knowledge.” For that statement to count as something we know, it would have to be a scientific statement. But it’s not a scientific statement. It’s not a statement of science. It’s a philosophical statement about science. But, since the statement says that only scientific statements count as knowledge, this statement cannot be something we know—at best it’s a matter of mere opinion or faith.
Also, consider the fact that science, as a rational discipline, has several important presuppositions or assumptions— assumptions that would have to be true in order to do any science at all. For example, science presupposes the existence of a world external to the human mind. It also presupposes the uniformity and orderliness of nature. It assumes the validity of the laws of logic and the principle of causation. It assumes the importance of honesty in reporting the results of scientific experiments. All of these presuppositions must be true if science is to be done and if science is to give us knowledge. But here’s the catch: none of these presuppositions can be proven scientifically. All of them are philosophical claims and can be given only a philosophical defense (if any). But if scientism is true, then none of these presuppositions of science could be considered rationally acceptable, thus making science itself rationally unacceptable.
So, what’s the point? The point is that scientism is false. It simply cannot be the case that science is the only legitimate source of knowledge.
All of this leads us to another conclusion as well. I said that the enlightenment led us to embrace the idea that knowledge requires absolute certainty. This is what drives the claim that we cannot have moral and religious knowledge. These are matters about which we cannot have absolute certainty; hence, we cannot have knowledge about them. The problem, however, is that it’s just not true that knowledge requires certainty. There is an implicit assumption in the claim that knowledge requires certainty. The assumption is that without absolute certainty we must be totally uncertain. If I cannot be absolutely certain that there is a God or that murder is morally wrong, then I must be reduced to complete uncertainty and skepticism about such matters. But this does not follow. It is, in fact, a false dilemma. It assumes, again, that there are only two options in the quest for knowledge – absolute certainty or total uncertainty. But the fact of the matter is that certainty comes in degrees and less than absolute certainty can and does justify legitimate knowledge claims.
Now what I want to say at this point is that everyone really knows and understands this. Let me just give you a couple of examples. Do any of you believe that you are trapped inside the matrix right now (you know, from the sci-fi movie)? Well, can you prove with absolute certainty that you are not in the matrix right now? The answer is no. But, is it silly for you to believe you are not in the matrix right now? Is it somehow wrong or misguided for you to claim that you are not in the matrix? Of course not. How about other minds? Do you know with absolute certainty that there are other minds besides your own? Well, is it legitimate for you to claim to know that there are other minds? Of course it is. But, this proves that we all believe that knowledge (even about very important things) does not require absolute certainty. All we need for knowledge is some significant justification for our beliefs–some evidence or reason for our belief that makes it probable to some sufficient degree. In some cases we don’t even need that. In case like the matrix and the problem of other minds, most philosophers are convinced that all we need is the absence of any decisive defeaters to our beliefs. In other words, belief like the belief in other minds and the belief that there is a real world outside my mind are basic beliefs, beliefs that I simply take for granted, that are not based on evidence. But, these beliefs are justified and can count as knowledge as long as we have no compelling reason to doubt them.
Now, since absolute certainty is not a requirement for knowledge, the fact (if it is a fact) that the evidence for Christianity does not rise to the level of absolute certainty is no obstacle to our being able to claim that we know it to be true.
Next time, we’ll finally get to the answer to our question: How can we know that Christianity is true?