Epistemic or Epistemological?
An Epistema-something Rambling
First problem: I recently discovered that “epistemic” is a word. This is a problem because “epistemological” is also a word and now nothing in life makes sense. Using the word “epistemological” is now sort of like using the word “cinematographically,” which in certain contexts is correct, but no matter what sounds absurd compared with “cinematically.” In light of this, I’ll use “epistemic” until someone tells me what I’m doing wrong (or right).
With that out of the way, one of the things I have been reflecting on a lot lately is my own epistemology. If this word is unfamiliar to you, you’re not alone. Here’s basically what it means:
Epistemology — (n.) the study of how we know what we know.
Over the course of the Fall 2018 semester, through a series of readings, I have experienced a major epistemic shift that has been several years in the making. In short, I now realize that faith makes way more sense than reason and reason is actually really inadequate in a lot of different ways. I think this is something worth talking about.
Looking back, this shift began in my Junior year of high school. Before that year—partly as a result of attending a classical school and partly because I am an INTJ in a family that has four INTJs in all—I valued logic and reason way too much. In my mind, logic was the only trustworthy way of knowing and philosophy was everything. But then, for a wealth of reasons, in my Junior year I started to consider the role of stories in how I know what I know. Then, in my Senior year, I ended up writing a 30-page thesis on why Christians should reject rationalism in favor of an epistemology that embraces both logic and story as equally legitimate ways of knowing.
That was the first shift: from mere logic to logic & story.
Then I read War and Peace, which is, in my not so humble opinion, the best book ever written by a not-Holy-Spirit-inspired human being. At one point in the book, Tolstoy has this wonderful revelation and writes,
“Every single thing I understand, I understand only because I love.”
That was the second shift: logic & story to logic & story & love.
Now skip ahead to last semester. The easiest way to do this is to just go through the books. Pseudo-Dionysius: Argues that in order to know a transcendent God, you have to pass beyond all knowledge, all logic, all reason, and plunge into “the darkness of unknowing.” He is totally right. Knowledge is a type of grasping, and if God is graspable then He is smaller than me—and nobody wants that. Thus, if I really want to know God then I have to pass beyond all knowing. 1 Corinthians: Worldly wisdom is foolishness to God and God’s wisdom is considered foolishness by the world. Thus, natural reason is actually foolish… Dante: Natural reason (Virgil) is able to get Dante all the way to Paradise, but is unable to get Dante into Paradise. Reason can get you to the gates of Heaven, but it cannot get you inside—for that, you need special revelation and grace. Martin Luther: Our appetite isn’t the only thing that got corrupted by sin, our reasoning capacity got corrupted as well. Ta da! We can reason wrongly! So how are we even to know when we should trust reason? Do we use reason to decide when to trust reason? Yikes… Everything I read in Race & Ethnicity in American Literature: You can know that slavery is wrong through reason, but you don’t know that slavery is wrong until you’ve read slave narratives—even and especially if you think you do.
So where does this leave us? We now have logic & story & love & unknowing(?) & special revelation & grace & experience & faith & ...
But here’s the claim I really want to make: All that I know, I know by faith.
Some people will freak out if I say this. My 10th grade self certainly would have. It is tempting to say that reason is the only way of knowing. But consider this: How much of your current knowledge have you actually acquired through reason? Actually take some time to think about this. Do you know that you need to eat in order to survive because you reasoned your way to the conclusion? What about that you need to drink and sleep? What about that your parents (hopefully) love you? What about that you love anyone in life that you have ever loved? What about gravity? What about the existence of Abraham Lincoln? The reality is, most of the things we believe or “know,” we have acquired through things other than reason.
Now consider the definition of knowledge. According to the best definition I’ve ever found, knowledge is a justified true belief. What is the only noun in that definition? Belief. The other two are adjectives. This means that knowledge itself is fundamentally a belief, just a certain type of belief.
Now consider the people you know. Do you know them through reason? Of course not. Reason can only deal with propositional statements and no human being is reducible to propositional statements. To say that I know things about you is wildly different from saying that I know you.
Now consider this. (This is a fun one.) In order to prove something, you have to use something outside of itself to prove it. So basically, I can’t say that unicorns exist because unicorns exist. Okay. Now try to prove that reason is the only reliable way of knowing using something other than reason. … Did you succeed? Ironically, the only reason we think reason is reliable is because we have reasoned our way to thinking that! Think about it. The idea that reason is the only reliable way of knowing is fundamentally a belief. No one knows that and no one can prove that. Ironically, the statement “reason is the only reliable way of knowing” is just as religious as the statement “God exists” because it is equally based on faith.
So where does this leave us? Can we even know anything? Well… No, not in the common usage of the word “know.” We can only believe things with full, justifiable conviction. It turns out we need a well-developed epistemology of belief if we are to know anything in life reliably…
So where do we begin?
Honestly, I don’t know how to answer this question. I’m still thinking about it. After all, this entire post is nothing more than a rambling of what I’ve been thinking about lately. It is by no means conclusive and is probably wrong in a lot of places. But here are a few things I’d like to suggest.
- I think we have to give some amount of credit to the desirability of an idea. (Note: Desirable does not equal pleasurable. We should not believe that which brings us the most pleasure. But we should be willing to believe in a reasonable account of reality in part simply because that account is desirable to us.) The reason I believe the Bible is true isn’t because I’ve reasoned through every single proposition it makes. Rather, I believe it primarily because, in my view, it explains reality in the most desirable possible way. Sure, there are certain parts of it that I don’t completely desire to be true, but the parts that I do desire to be true, I desire to be true so much that I am willing to accept the undesirable parts on the basis that I simply do not yet understand them. I also have a history of undesirable biblical claims becoming desirable once I understand more about them. So desire plays a pretty big role in my epistemology, and I actually think that’s a good thing.
- There are some beliefs that don’t have any consequences at all in my day to day life. Do I have any reason to believe that Big Foot exists? No! But what would it change in my day-to-day life if I did believe that Big Foot exists? It would have absolutely no effect. If I have reasons to believe that inconsequential beliefs are false, then I shouldn’t believe them, but if I do anyways, at the end of the day who cares?
- I should believe what is reasonable (so long as what is reasonable includes more than just what is “reasoned”). This is what makes the first point okay.
- If a belief leads me to love others more and better, then it is, to at least some extent right. The more loving it makes me, the more true it is. (Personally, I think we have to add another qualification to make this point accurate. But you can only add this qualification if you’re a Christian, or at least believe in a benevolent, personal God. The qualification changes the first sentence of this point to this: “If a belief leads me to love God and others more and better, then it is, to at least some extent right.” Though of course, the other problem with this point is that everyone has a different definition of “love” so… there’s that too…)
There is a lot more that could be said here and a lot more that should be said, but at the end of the day, this entire article is simply a rant and an invitation to you to join the conversation. Why do you believe what you believe? How do you know what you know? What is your epistemology?