by J. P. Moreland
There is a very important cultural fact that Christians must face when they undertake the task of apologetics: There simply is no established, widely recognized body of ethical or religious knowledge now operative in the institutions of knowledge in our culture, e.g., the universities. Indeed, ethical and religious claims are frequently placed into what Francis Schaeffer used to call the upper story, and they are judged to have little or no epistemic authority, especially compared to the authority given to science to define the limits of knowledge and reality in those same institutions. This raises a pressing question: Is Christianity a knowledge tradition or merely a faith tradition, a perspective which, while true, cannot be known to be true and must be embraced on the basis of some epistemic state weaker than knowledge?
There are at least two reasons why this may well be the crucial question for Christian apologists to keep in mind as they do their work. For one thing, Christianity claims to be a knowledge tradition and it places knowledge at the center of proclamation and discipleship. The Old and New Testaments, including the teachings of Jesus, claim not merely that Christianity is true, but that a variety of its moral and religious assertions can be known to be true.
Second, knowledge is the basis of responsible action in society. Dentists, not lawyers, have the authority to place their hands in our mouths because they have the relevant knowledge on the basis of which they may act responsibly. Now if Christian apologists do little to deflect the view that theological and ethical assertions are merely parts of a tradition, ways of seeing, a source for adding a “theological perspective” to an otherwise unperturbed secular topic, and so forth that fall short of conveying knowledge, then they inadvertently contribute to the marginalization of Christianity. Why? Precisely because they fail to rebut the contemporary tendency to rob it of the very thing that gives it the authority necessary to prevent that marginalization, viz., its legitimate claim to give us moral and religious knowledge. Both in and out of the church, Jesus has been lost as an intellectual authority and the Christian apologists should carry out his/her activities in light of this fact.
In light of these issues, I want to analyze and respond to three major sources of contemporary skepticism regarding theological knowledge: truth relativism, skepticism, and scientism. Given the intended audience, the discussion to follow will be brief and practical, rather than detailed and technical. My purpose is to provide lay apologists with brief, practical, informed responses to these three problem areas.
What Is Truth Relativism?
To grasp the first source of skepticism, it is important to get clear on the distinction between absolutist and relativist depictions of truth claims. According to truth relativism, a claim is true relative to the beliefs or valuations of an individual or group that accepts it. Let us call this thesis R. According to R, a claim is made true for those who accept it by that very act. A moral analogy may help to make this clear. There is no absolute moral obligation to drive on the right side of the road. That obligation is genuine relative to America but not to England. Similarly, “The earth is flat” was true for the ancients and false for moderns.
Those who claim that truth does not vary from person to person, group to group, accept absolute truth, also called objective truth. In this context, advocates of objective truth advance some form of the correspondence theory of truth according to which truth is a matter of a proposition (belief, thought, statement, representation) corresponding to reality. Truth is when reality is the way a proposition represents it to be. On the absolutist view, people discover truth, they do not create it, and a claim is made true or false in some way or another by reality itself, totally independently of whether the claim is accepted by anyone.
Moreover, an absolute truth conforms to the three fundamental laws of logic, which are themselves absolute truths. Consider some declarative proposition, P, say, “Two is an even number.” The law of identity says that P is identical to itself and different from other things, say, Q “Grass is green.” The law of non-contradiction says that P cannot be both true and false in the same sense at the same time. The law of excluded middle says that P is either true or false or, put somewhat differently, either P is true or its negation not-P is true. Note carefully that these three laws say nothing about one’s ability to verify the truth of P. For example, a colorblind person may not know whether Q above is true or false. The law of excluded middle says that Q is one or the other; it says nothing about people’s ability to discover which is correct.
Assessment of Truth Relativism
Who is correct, the absolutists or relativists? For at least two reasons, the absolutists are right about the nature of truth. First, R itself is either true or false in the absolutist sense. If the former, R is self-refuting, since it amounts to the objective truth that there are no objective truths. If the latter, it amounts to a mere expression of preference or custom by a group or individual without objective, universal validity. Thus, it cannot be recommended to others as something they should believe because it is the objective truth of the matter. This is a serious difficulty for those who “advocate” R.
Second, the absolutist view is the one that virtually everyone presupposes throughout their intellectual lives, and unless there are sufficient reasons to abandon it, the absolutist view should be retained. Unfortunately, relativists have failed to provide those reasons and, in fact, reasons for R are confused in at least three ways. For one thing, consider the relativist claim “the earth was flat for the ancients and not flat to us moderns.” This claim suffers from an ambiguity that makes the assertion somewhat plausible. That is, the claim is ambiguous between
(1) “The earth was really flat for the ancients and not really flat to us moderns”
(2) “The earth was believed to be flat by the ancients and not believed to be flat by us moderns.”
The relativist means to assert (1), but the claim’s alleged plausibility rests on understanding them to mean (2). More formally, the ambiguity rests in phrases such as “P is true for them (him), false for us (me).” Shortening the phrase to enhance ease of exposition, ontologically, the phrase should be construed as “P is true-for-me” and, epistemologically, it should be read as “P is true for me.” The ontological sense is, indeed, an expression of R and it implies that something is made true by the act of believing it.
However, the epistemological sense expresses an opinion that P is true in the objective sense: “I take P to be objectively true, but I’m not sure of that and, in fact, I lack confidence in my ability to defend P. So I’ll hedge my bets and say simply that the truth of P is just an opinion I hold.” So understood, the epistemological sense requires absolute truth. When most people claim that P is true (false) to them and false (true) to others, they are speaking epistemologically, not ontologically, and relativists are wrong if they think otherwise.
The second confusion among those who argue for R is the confusion of truth conditions and criteria for truth. A truth condition is a description of what constitutes the truth of a claim. So understood, a truth condition is ontological and it is associated with what the truth itself is. For example, the truth conditions for S “unicorns live in Kansas City” would be the obtaining of a real state of affairs, namely, unicorns actually living in Kansas City. Criteria for truth consist in epistemological tests for deciding or justifying which claims are true and false. Criteria for S would be things like eyewitness reports of unicorn sightings, the discovery of unicorn tracks, and so on.
Now, in a certain sense, the epistemological justification for a claim is relative to individuals/groups in that some may be aware of evidence unknown to others. In light of the available evidence, the ancients may have been justified in believing that the earth was flat. In light of new evidence, this belief is no longer justified. So in this benign sense, a claim’s satisfaction of criteria for truth is relative to the possession or lack of relevant evidence. But it does not follow that the truth conditions are relative. “The earth was flat” is objectively true or false, quite independently of our evidence.
Finally, sometimes relativists are confused about the three fundamental laws of logic associated with the absolutist position. Some claim that they are expressions of “Aristotelian logic” and, as such, are merely Western constructions or “Western logic” which are not applicable cross-culturally. This “argument” confuses the logical status of a proposition or argument with the linguistic style used to express the proposition or the social processes used to reach a conclusion.
In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas used a literary style in which his prose explicitly follows strict logical form and syllogistic presentation. By contrast, an isolated culture in the mountains of Brazil may use a poetic form of oral tradition, their sentences may not follow an explicit, tidy subject-predicate form, and they may reach tribal conclusions in ways quite foreign to “Western” culture. But none of this has anything to do with the deep logical structure that underlies their claims or with the conformance of their individual assertions to the three laws of logic. It is simply a mistake to think otherwise. The reader is invited to present any declarative utterance in any culture, including the assertion that “Western logic” is culturally relative, that does not conform to Aristotle’s three laws of logic. Any such assertion, to the degree that it is meaningful or asserted as true or false, will conform to the three laws of logic. Any alleged counterexample will either be self-refuting or meaningless. After all, Aristotle did not invent these laws any more than Columbus invented the New World. Aristotle may have been a Western thinker and he may have discovered these laws. But that does not imply that the laws themselves are Western constructions.
What Is Skepticism?
We have all met skeptics who, in one way or another, have raised doubts about what we can know or reasonably believe. When you assert something, the skeptic responds with “Says who?” or “How do you know?” There are many different forms of skepticism and I cannot describe and critique all of them here. For our purposes, let us define the skeptic as someone who does not believe that people have knowledge or rationally justified beliefs. Some skeptics are global skeptics: they hold their skepticism about all beliefs whatever. Other skeptics are local in orientation. They may allow for knowledge in certain areas, say in science or mathematics, while confining their skepticism to, say, ethical or religious claims.
Skepticism and the Problem of the Criterion
It is important to begin our critique of skepticism by clarifying what is called the problem of the criterion. We can distinguish two different questions relevant to the human quest for knowledge. First, we can ask, “What is it that we know?” This is a question about the specific items of knowledge we possess and about the extent or limits of our knowledge. Second, we can ask, “How do we decide in any given case whether or not we have knowledge in that case? What are the criteria for knowledge?” This is a question about our criteria for knowledge.
Now suppose that we wish to sort all of our beliefs into two groups—the true or justified ones and the false or unjustified ones—in order to retain the former and dispose of the latter in our entire set of beliefs. Such a sorting would allow us to improve our rational situation and grow in knowledge and justified belief. Yet now a problem arises regarding how we are able to proceed in this sorting activity. It would seem that we would need an answer to at least one of our two questions above in order to proceed. But before we can have an answer to our first question about the extent of our knowledge, we would seem to need an answer to our second question about our criteria for knowledge. Yet before we can have an answer to the second question, we seem to require an answer to our first question. This is the problem of the criterion.1 If we don’t know how we know things, how can we know anything at all or draw limits to human knowledge? But if we don’t know some things before we ask ourselves how we can have knowledge in the first place, on what basis will we answer that question?
There are three main solutions to the problem. First, there is skepticism. The skeptic claims, among other things, that no good solution to the problem exists and, thus, there is no knowledge. The next two solutions are advocated by those who claim that we do have knowledge. Methodism (not the denomination) is the name of the second solution and it has been advocated by philosophers such as John Locke and René Descartes. According to methodism, one starts the enterprise of knowing with a criterion for what does and does not count as knowledge, i.e. we start with an answer to question two and not question one. Methodists claim that before we can know some specific proposition P (e.g. there is a tree in the yard), I must first know some general criterion Q and, further, I must know that P is a good example of or measures up to Q. For example, Q might be “If you can test some item of belief with the five senses, then it can be an item of knowledge,” or perhaps, “If something appears to your senses in a certain way, then in the absence of reasons for distrusting the lighting or your senses, you know that the thing is as it appears to you.”
Unfortunately, methodism is not a good strategy because it leads to a vicious, infinite regress. To see this, note that in general, methodism implies that before I can know anything (P) I must know two other things: Q (my criterion for knowledge) and R (the fact that P satisfies Q). But now the skeptic can ask how it is that we know Q and R and the methodist will have to offer a new criterion Q’ which specifies how he knows Q, and R’ that tells how he knows that Q satisfies Q’. Obviously, the same problem will arise for Q’ and R’ and a vicious regress is set up. Another way to see this is to note that there have been major debates about what are and are not good criteria for knowledge. Locke offered something akin to the notion that an item of knowledge about the external world must pass the criterion of deriving that item of knowledge from simple sensory ideas or impressions (roughly, testing it with the senses). By contrast, Descartes offered a radically different criterion: the item of knowledge must be clear and distinct when brought before the mind. If we are methodists, how are we to settle disputes about criteria for knowledge? The answer will be that we will have to offer criteria for our criteria, and so on. It would seem, then, that methodism is in trouble.
There is a third solution to the problem known as particularism and advocated by philosophers such as Thomas Reid, Roderick Chisholm, and G. E. Moore. According to particularists, we start by knowing specific, clear items of knowledge: that I had eggs for breakfast this morning, that there is a tree before me, or, perhaps, that I seem to see a tree, that 7 + 5 = 12, that mercy is a virtue, and so on. I can know some things directly and simply without having to have criteria for how I know them and without having to know how or even that I know them. We know many things without being able to prove that we do or without fully understanding the things we know. We simply identify clear instances of knowing without having to possess or apply any criteria for knowledge. We may reflect on these instances and go on to develop criteria for knowledge consistent with them and use these criteria to make judgments in borderline cases of knowledge, but the criteria are justified by their congruence with specific instances of knowledge, not the other way around.
For example, I may start with moral knowledge (murder is wrong) and legal knowledge (taxes are to be paid by April 15) and go on to formulate criteria for when something is moral or legal. I could then use these criteria for judging borderline cases (intentionally driving on the wrong side of the street). In general, we start with clear instances of knowledge, formulate criteria based on those clear instances, and extend our knowledge by using those criteria in borderline, unclear cases.
Rebutting the Skeptic
The skeptic can raise two basic objections against the particularist. First, the particularist allegedly begs the question against the skeptic by simply assuming his answer to the point at issue—whether we have knowledge. How does the particularist know that we have this? Isn’t it possible in the cases cited above that the particularist is wrong and he only thinks he has knowledge here?
Particularists respond to this objection as follows. First, regarding begging the question, if the skeptic doesn’t offer a reason for his skepticism (and just keeps asking “How do you know?” each time the particularist makes a knowledge claim), his skepticism can be ignored because it is not a substantive position or argument. If, on the other hand, his skepticism is the result of an argument, then this argument must be reasonable before it can be held as a serious objection against knowledge. However, if we did not know some things we could not reasonably doubt anything (e.g. the reason for doubting my senses now is my justified belief that they have, or at least may have, mislead me in the past). Unbridled skepticism is not a rationally defensible position, and it cannot be rationally asserted and defended without presupposing knowledge.
Second, the skeptic tries to force the particularist to be a methodist by asking the “How-do-you-know?” question since the skeptic is implying that before you can know, you must have criteria for knowledge. And the skeptic knows he can refute the methodist. But the particularist will resist the slide into methodism by reaffirming that he can know some specific item without having to say how he knows it. For example, the particularist will say, “I know that mercy is a virtue and not a vice even if I don’t know how it is that I know this. But, Mr. Skeptic, why think that I have to know how I know this before I can know it?”
Further, the particularist argues that just because it is logically possible that he is mistaken in a specific case of knowledge that does not mean he is mistaken or that he has any good reason to think he is wrong. Until the skeptic can give him good reason for thinking his instances of knowledge fail, the mere logical possibility that he is wrong will not suffice. Suppose I claim to know when I first went to Disneyland several years ago and the skeptic tries to show I don’t really know this by raising the possibility that I might have been born five seconds ago with a memory and that my memory is deceiving me. The particularist will respond this way: Just because the statement “J. P. Moreland was born five seconds ago with a memory” is not a logical contradiction (like “J. P. Moreland is and is not a human being”) and could be true as a bare, logical possibility, that does not mean we have good reasons for actually believing the statement is correct. The particularist will insist that unless there are good reasons for believing the skeptic’s claim (and the skeptic doesn’t give such reasons), the bare possibility that it might be true is not sufficient to call into question what I actually know about my Disneyland visit.
The particularist and skeptic have very different approaches to knowledge. For the skeptic, the burden of proof is on the one who claims to know something. If it is logically possible that one might be mistaken, then knowledge is not present because knowledge requires complete, one hundred percent certainty. Of the two main tasks in the quest for knowledge (obtaining true or justified beliefs and avoiding false or unjustified beliefs), the skeptic elevates the latter and requires that his position be refuted before knowledge can be justified. To refute something is to show that it is wrong. The skeptic thinks avoiding error is better than gaining truth and thinks he must be shown wrong before anyone can claim to know anything.
The particularist elevates the value of gaining as many truths as are available in the world and tries to rebut the skeptic. To rebut something is not to show it is wrong, but simply to show that it has not done an adequate job of showing that it is true. After all, the particularist recognizes that we all know many things before we ever talk to skeptics. He places the burden of proof on the skeptic and requires the skeptic to show that his skepticism is true and should be taken seriously before he allows the skeptic to bother him about knowledge. The particularist does not need to refute the skeptic (show skepticism is false), he merely needs to rebut the skeptic (show that the skeptic has not adequately made his case for skepticism). Given that the skeptic cannot consistently argue for his skepticism, there is no reason to deny what is obvious to all of us: that we do know many things.
Two Forms Of Scientism
We have all met people who think that you can’t know something if you can’t prove it scientifically. Since most religious or ethical claims cannot be tested in the lab, they can’t be known. Such people embrace what is known as scientism. Scientism is the view that science is the very paradigm of truth and rationality. If something does not square with currently well-established scientific beliefs, if it is not within the domain of things appropriate for scientific investigation, or if it is not amenable to scientific methodology, then it is not true or rational. Everything outside of science is a matter of mere belief and subjective opinion, of which rational assessment is impossible. Science, exclusively and ideally, is our model of intellectual excellence.
Actually, there are two forms of scientism: strong scientism and weak scientism.2 Strong scientism is the view that some proposition or theory is true or rational to believe if and only if it is a scientific proposition or theory, that is, if and only if it is a well-established scientific proposition or theory which, in turn, depends upon its having been successfully formed, tested, and used according to appropriate scientific methodology. There are no truths apart from scientific truths, and even if there were, there would be no reason whatever to believe them.
Advocates of weak scientism allow for the existence of truths apart from science and are even willing to grant that they can have some minimal, positive rationality status without the support of science. But advocates of weak scientism still hold that science is the most valuable, most serious, and most authoritative sector of human learning. Every other intellectual activity is inferior to science. Further, there are virtually no limits to science. There is no field into which scientific research cannot shed light. To the degree that some issue or belief outside science can be given scientific support or can be reduced to science, to that degree the issue or belief becomes rationally acceptable. Thus, we have an intellectual, and, perhaps, even a moral obligation to try to use science to solve problems in other fields that, heretofore, have been untouched by scientific methodology. For example, we should try to solve problems about the mind by the methods of neurophysiology and computer science.
Note that advocates of weak scientism are not merely claiming that, for example, belief that the universe had a beginning, supported by good philosophical and theological arguments, gains extra support if that belief also has good scientific arguments for it. This claim is relatively uncontroversial because, usually, if some belief has a few good supporting arguments and later gains more good supporting arguments, then this will increase the rationality of the belief in question. But this is not what weak scientism implies, because this point cuts both ways. For it will equally be the case that good philosophical and theological arguments for a beginning will increase the rationality of such a belief initially supported only by scientific arguments. Advocates of weak scientism are claiming that fields outside science gain if they are given scientific support and not vice versa.
If either strong or weak scientism is true, this would have drastic implications for those who try to integrate their scientific and theological beliefs. If strong scientism is true, then theology is not a rational enterprise at all and there is no such thing as theological knowledge. If weak scientism is true, then the conversation between theology and science will be a monologue with theology listening to science and waiting for science to give it support. For thinking Christians, either of these alternatives is unacceptable. What, then, should we say about scientism?
What’s Wrong With Scientism
Note first that strong scientism is self-refuting. A proposition is self-refuting if it refers to and falsifies itself. For example, “There are no English sentences” and “There are no truths” are self refuting. Strong scientism is not itself a proposition of science, but a proposition of philosophy about science to the effect that only scientific propositions are true and/or rational to believe. And strong scientism is itself offered as a true, rationally justified position to believe. Now, propositions that are self-refuting do not just happen to be false, but could have been true. Self-refuting propositions are necessarily false, that is, it is not possible for them to be true. What this means is that, among other things, no amount of scientific progress in the future will have the slightest effect on making strong scientism more acceptable.
There are two more problems that count equally against strong and weak scientism. First, scientism (in both forms) does not adequately allow for the task of stating and defending the necessary presuppositions for science itself to be practiced (assuming scientific realism). Thus, scientism shows itself to be a foe and not a friend of science.
Science cannot be practiced in thin air. In fact, science itself rests on a number of substantive philosophical theses which must be assumed if science is even going to get off the runway. Now each of these assumptions has been challenged, and the task of stating and defending these assumptions is a task of philosophy, not science. The conclusions of science cannot be more certain than the presuppositions it rests on and uses to reach those conclusions.
Strong scientism rules out these presuppositions altogether because neither the presuppositions themselves, nor their defense, are scientific matters. Weak scientism misconstrues their strength in its view that scientific propositions have greater rational authority than those of other fields like philosophy. This would mean that the conclusions of science are more certain than the philosophical presuppositions used to justify and reach those conclusions—and that is absurd. In this regard, the following statement by John Kekes strikes at the heart of weak scientism:
A successful argument for science being the paradigm of rationality must be based on the demonstration that the presuppositions of science are preferable to other presuppositions. That demonstration requires showing that science, relying on these presuppositions, is better at solving some problems and achieving some ideals than its competitors. But showing that cannot be the task of science. It is, in fact, one task of philosophy. Thus the enterprise of justifying the presuppositions of science by showing that with their help science is the best way of solving certain problems and achieving some ideals is a necessary precondition of the justification of science. Hence philosophy, and not science, is a stronger candidate for being the very paradigm of rationality.3
Here is a list of some of the philosophical presuppositions of science:
- the existence of a theory independent, external world;
- the orderly nature of the external world;
- the knowability of the external world;
- the existence of truth;
- the laws of logic;
- the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as a source of justified beliefs in our intellectual environment;
- the adequacy of language to describe the world;
- the existence of values used in science (e.g. “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”);
- the uniformity of nature and induction;
- the existence of numbers and mathematical truths.
There is a second problem that counts equally against strong and weak scientism: the existence of true and rationally justified beliefs outside of science. The simple fact is that true, rationally justified beliefs exist in a host of fields outside of science. Strong scientism does not allow for this fact and it is therefore to be rejected as an inadequate account of our intellectual enterprise.
Moreover, some propositions believed outside science (e.g. “Red is a color,” “Torturing babies for fun is wrong,” “I am now thinking about science”) are better justified than some believed within science (e.g “Evolution takes place through a series of very small steps”). It is not hard to believe that many of our currently held scientific beliefs will and should be revised or abandoned in one hundred years, but it would be hard to see how the same could be said of the extra-scientific propositions just cited. Weak scientism does not account for this fact. Furthermore, when advocates of weak scientism attempt to reduce all issues to scientific ones, this often has a distorting effect on an intellectual issue. Arguably, this is the case in current attempts to make the existence and nature of mind a scientific problem.4
In this article, I have analyzed and responded to three major sources of contemporary skepticism regarding theological knowledge: truth relativism, skepticism, and scientism. Though the discussion has of necessity been brief, I believe it provides useful information for lay apologists who are seeking to gain a hearing for the Christian faith in the day to day marketplace of ideas.
J.P. Moreland is Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, California. He is the author of numerous books including Scaling the Secular City and (with Scott Rae) Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics. Portions of this article have been revised from chapter seven of his book, Love Your God with All Your Mind (NavPress, 1997).
1 See Roderick Chisholm, The Problem of the Criterion (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1973); Robert P. Amico, The Problem of the Criterion (Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993).
2 See J. P. Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), chapter three.
3 John Kekes, The Nature of Philosophy (Totowa, N. J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980), p. 158.
4 See John Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992) for more on this point. See also, J. P. Moreland, Scott Rae, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000).