Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Epistemology)

Continuing in this short series on Apologetics, here is part II which deals with Epistemology, the second area of Philosophical Apologetics.

Epistemology

The study of how we know things is called Epistemology, from the Greek episteme (belief), and logos (knowledge or understanding). It is in this sense that Epistemology is often considered first in the order of philosophical inquiry, for before we can have any knowledge about what kinds of things exist, or how things change over time, or what powers or liabilities substances may have, we would first have to know about how we know these things, and whether or not when we say we know something, we actually do know it.

Current theories of Epistemology differ noticeably from classical theories of knowledge, most of which derive from Plato and Aritstotle who presented knowledge as justified, true belief, even though it is Xenophanes who is often referenced as the father of Epistemology. Moreover, Aristotle’s correspondence theory of truth was the standard theory of truth for well over a millennia, and at least until the Enlightenment in the West. It is stated succinctly:

“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”

Although late 19th and 20th century philosophers and theologians have claimed that the Correspondence Theory (CT) of truth is no longer a viable epistemic theory of knowledge, the fact remains that the CT is still the most common-sensical, and most commonly used approach to knowledge. Thus, it cannot ever be fully discounted, nor relegated to some philosophical dustbin of history. It will always have its defenders, and, most who defend Christianity as a true worldview, will rely on the CT as their primary approach to truth, since a straightforward reading of Scripture best aligns with the CT.

As such then, we have two classical theories, one about truth itself, the Correspondence Theory (CT), and the other about knowledge of truth, or Justified True Belief (JTB for short).

However, there have been major shifts in Epistemology since the classical and Christian medieval eras. Two such shifts were seismic in their impact on Western thought, and our current approach to knowledge. The first such shift came with Rene Descarte, whose attempt to find epistemic certainty established a theory known as foundationalism as the best available theory for guaranteeing knowledge. Foundationalism, in short, is the theory that all justified true beliefs have to be grounded in some foundational beliefs that themselves are not justified by other beliefs. They are justified by something we call “givens” or “raw feels” or “direct experiences.”

Foundationalism

Foundational beliefs are directly given, usually through introspection, direct perception, or something like hearing a personal testimony and remembering it. For Descarte, the foundation of all other beliefs was “Cogito Ergo Sum” or “I think therefore I am.” Or, in other words, because I am a thinking thing, I can at least have certainty that I exist, for something, the “I” or self, has to be doing the thinking. There is obviously much more that could be said about Foundationalism than this, both its “Cartesian” version, and more contemporary versions. To illustrate, however, here are some examples of how Foundationalism might work.

Call a particular belief, (B), for short. Each belief has some proportional content to it, call that (P).

  • B1 = Tony believes that (P1) “the trees outside his back window are green.”

How does Tony know that B1 is justified? Answer: He simply sees trees that appear green to him. The perception of the trees itself is not a belief, it is a “given” that forces the belief upon him.

  • B2 = Tony believes that (P2) “he is thinking about Foundationalism as a theory of justified belief.”

How does Tony know that B2 is justified? His internal introspection of his own thoughts (his thinking about his thinking) cannot be false. The content of his thoughts could be wrong, but that he is having those particular thoughts is neither true or false, he simply is having the thoughts he is having, it is a given that forces the belief to emerge. Givens on Foundationalism are something like non-propositional, direct awarenesses, or immediate experiences.

Still, in the 20th century, Foundationalism fell on hard times, which lead to an emergence of other theories of truth and justified belief. Two alternative theories to Foundationalism are: the coherence theory, or Coherentism, and Post Modernism.

Alternatives to Foundationalism

Coherentism argues that there are no real givens, or direct experiences, that cannot be doubted, and therefore there are no real foundational beliefs. All direct experiences: perception, testimony, memory, even introspection, could, after all, be faulty. We can see this since it is obvious that even the most apparently true perceptions in fact could be faulty, either because they are interpreted wrongly, or they are just not real (like vivid dreams, or drug-induced illusions). Or, we could see how even the famed “Cogito Ergo Sum” may not work on a Hindu understanding of the “I” or “self.”

As such, what matters is not what foundation one’s belief structure stands on, but to what degree one’s individual beliefs logically cohere. In other words, does one have a network of beliefs with as few contradictions as possible. The main problem with Coherentism is that it seems to ignore the truth value of particular beliefs in favor of how those beliefs relate to one another. Thus, that one could have many individual beliefs that cohere well together, but otherwise have little to nothing to do with reality, seems clearly possible, and this is crippling to the coherentist view.

Coherentism in this sense, seems to abandon the Correspondence Theory of truth, and neglect the requirement that beliefs be related somehow to reality, or, in other terms, to a metaphysical counterpart. If Foundationalism is a bottom up belief structure, like a building or pyramid, Coherentism is like a web of beliefs, or a raft, that hangs in mid-air, or floats amid a sea of moving waters.

Post-Modernism, if it can be called an epistemic theory at all, is essentially a view that says no beliefs require any justification at all. And that primarily because it views “truth” fundamentally as a construct or project of either individual minds, or of cultural communities. Reality for the Post-Modernist is simply inaccessible, and because it is inaccessible, every claim to “truth” is inherently false, as it is fundamentally an interpretation of one’s personal experience of something we know not what.

Post-Modernism as an epistemic view can be traced back to Immanuel Kant who made a fateful distinction between the noumena and the phenomena, or “the thing itself” and “the thing for me” (in German “das Ding an sich” and “das Ding fur mich.”) For Kant the activity of the mind made it impossible for us to ever know “the thing in itself” and we could only know “thing thing as it appears to me.” Post-modernism, in this restricted, epistemic sense, says that knowledge is essentially unattainable, because every “fact” about the world, even scientific ones, goes through an interactive, interpretive process.

On Post-modernistic theories, therefore, we should see claims to truth as expressions about one’s experience of the world, not of the world itself. Or, more nefarious perhaps, Post-modernists who have also bought into versions of Critical Theory, see statements as fundamentally “power plays” (alla Nietzsche) aimed at achieving far more immediate and pragmatic benefits. Truth, or claims to it, on this view are primarily assertions of the will to power, means to try and control others for personal or national gain. “Truth” claims are expressions of the philosopher’s desires, not actual conclusions about the world.

Furthermore, on Post-modernist views of knowledge, abstract thought and metaphysical speculation become almost totally irrelevant, or, are seen as linguistic games that have these far more mundane goals. As such, “God talk” is often not about an actual divine, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, causally efficacious personal Being and Creator of the universe, but rather about our human concepts of such a Being, and how those concepts cause us to think, or not think, to do, or not do, certain things in the physical world.

“Post-modern Christianity” has become a popular trend since the 1960’s, and is often connected to liberal and progressive forms of Christianity, but need not be so liberal. For theologians have pointed out for centuries that reason itself is damaged through the Fall of Adam, and, in that sense, there are always, and only, finite and flawed interpretations of reality.

While some people who attach themselves to post-modernism, tend to see foundational truth claims as ever-changing and always in need of reinterpretation, this doesn’t have to be the case. But, it does make it very difficult to understand how there can be any universal truth of the Gospel that transcends both time and culture. The “poster-boy” for this kind of Christianity was for many years Bishop John Shelby Spong, who was notorious for rejecting almost every metaphysical and moral claim of the Bible, yet still presenting himself as a believing Christian, and leader in the Episcopalian church. Occasionally one will see atheist “Christians” who are still employed as pastors or preachers by some church that has bought into post-modernism like this.

A counter to this kind of extreme post-Modernism in so-called Christian circles, might be a modified or moderate post-modernism, one which takes into account the fact that reason seems often not only deficient, but also not neutral. In other words we are creatures of desire as much as reason, and if there are real noetic effects of sin, then there may be a form of reason itself that must be redeemed in order for us to really think properly about anything.

Still, as an epistemic theory, post-Modernism has rightly been shown by professional philosophers to be not only a self-refuting proposition, but also a fairly dangerous one at that. Much of the rise of philosophical popularizers like Jordan Peterson has been due to their withering critique of Post-Modernism.

Externalist Answers to Epistemological Problems

The second seismic shift of the Epistemological landscape started with a landmark paper written by Edmund Gettier in 1963, whose name is now synonymous with certain epistemological thought experiments, know as “Gettier problems.” Gettier basically showed in his very short essay (just under 3 pages) that one can have justified, true beliefs, yet still not have real knowledge about something. The key to what makes the difference between having a justified true belief, yet not having knowledge, depends on how I came to have the justified, true belief. In short it cannot be the case that in my “mental journey” to having a justified and true belief, there was a false belief, or something purely accidental, that lead me to have that justified and true belief. I cannot say I know reality, if it happens by sheer luck, or through some falsehood, that I hold a justified, true belief!

Without going into detail on how Gettier showed this discrepancy in the classical formulation of knowledge, these problematic thought experiments led to what is now called “externalist” views of knowledge, or views that posit that a belief can be justified based on how it was formed, and that regardless of whether or not the believer is aware of any reasons for actually believing what she does.

Reliablism, or Proper Function views are called externalist views of justified belief. They rely not on whether there are foundational beliefs per se, or what those beliefs may be (although some Reliablist and Proper Function advocates, like Alvin Plantinga, are also foundationalists), but focus mainly on how the beliefs themselves are formed. Thus, the Proper Functional view, for example, posits a model of what it thinks it would take for a belief to be justified, and, if that model is correct, then we can assume we have at least some justified beliefs, and hence some knowledge. Robert Audi, a Christian philosopher, describes reliablistic interpretations of knowledge succinctly:

“Knowledge, so conceived, results from the successful functioning of our epistemic equipment, which consists above all of finely tuned perceptual, memorial, introspective, and rational instruments.” (Audi, Epistemology)

In this sense, knowledge is the result of the proper functioning of our mental “equipment,” similar to how the healthy flow of blood in the body results from the proper functioning of our heart. How we know whether our mental equipment is functioning properly, however, is another problem.

There tends to be two ways of looking at externalist views like Proper Function as an epistemic theory: a naturalistic, and a supernaturalistic way. Naturalistic views treat human beings as basically highly evolved, yet purely biological animals that have luckily developed the right kinds of cognitive tools to accurately collect data and track facts about reality. There just happens to be a lucky, accidental interaction where that thing that is me forms beliefs about the natural world that are accurate representations of the world. What demonstrates the reliability of this process is something like the fact that we continue to survive fairly well in our environments.

On naturalistic accounts like this, if I have a perceptual experience of the green trees in my backyard, it is because evolution has endowed me with the right kind of visual processing equipment to receive such perceptual data, and because the trees themselves cause me to have those perceptual experiences. There are only two things: my brain with its bio-chemical reactions, and my environment. In short, the natural world triggers functions of my brain, which then cause me to have beliefs. However, when it comes to other kinds of true beliefs, for example like “2 + 2 = 4” or “If Jane is taller than Sally, and Sally taller than Sue, then I know that Jane is taller than Sue,” it seems like naturalistic, proper function theories are inadequate. Naturalistic theories seem riddled with such problems regarding how we know things, or whether the things we know are true, or, if blind evolution is the correct, why true beliefs would actually aid survival, as opposed to false ones.

When it comes to supernaturalistic theories of proper function, no one has done more to develop a rigorous system of how we can have justified (or in his terms, “warranted”) true beliefs grounded in the proper function of our cognitive capacities than Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (perhaps the 20th century philosopher most responsible for the resurgence of Philosophy of Religion as a serious academic discipline). On Plantinga’s “Reformed Epistemology” view, we can have justified, or warranted, beliefs based on the proper functioning of our mental faculties, because those faculties have been designed by a Divine Being, namely God, to function in specified way, and in such an environment, as to produce accurate and true beliefs about not only the physical world, but also the metaphysical and spiritual world. As such we can have true perceptions of physical realities, and also we possess a “sensus divinitatus” that gives us some true beliefs about the spiritual realm, and even God.

Epistemic Options for Christian Apologetics

For the purpose of Christian Apologetics, the question that lies before the defender of orthodox Christian claims is to what extent he feels we must justify our true beliefs, and, how he thinks we should go about demonstrating that justification. There are essentially two camps when it comes to religious epistemology, that of the Plantingian sort, which suggests justification is external to the believer, and grounded primarily in the process of belief formation; and internalism, which suggests that justification is accessible to the believer, and must be grounded in personal reasons for believing. On internalist views, without good reasons that the believer herself is also aware of, there is no justification to believe any proposition of the Christian faith.

On the first view, beliefs cannot really be justified through arguments or evidence. Justification comes through the witness of the Holy Spirit, as He awakens our sensus divinitatus or “sense of the divine,” which itself has been put there by the Divine Architect. Here we find ourselves believing true things, because the process of God enlightening us to reality is a reliable process. This epistemological view is best suited to presuppositional apologetics, which suggests that arguments and evidence are ill-suited to bringing the skeptic to belief in God, because reason itself is, due to sin, a deficient and faulty mechanism if God exists, and a totally unreliable process if He does not. There must be a God, if we are to think at all that we are able to reason properly. Thus, we should start with God, and only then can we talk about what reason is capable of doing for us, and the justification of our beliefs. Arguments and evidence can be brought in later to bolster confidence in Christian belief, but ultimately what matters is the process of belief formation.

This is to be contrasted with the other, somewhat more common, mode of religious epistemology, which tends to see justification as something internal to the individual, and grounded in that person’s reasons for believing a particular claim. As such, internalists, who tend also to be foundationalists, will suggest that evidence and arguments are the better way for an individual to have justified, true beliefs. Here reason is certainly damaged, but God has allowed men to be able to have a sort of “natural light of reason” as part of his common grace. And that natural reason can be drawn to God through rational argumentation and a fair presentation of the evidence. This epistemological view is best suited toward evidential (or classical) Apologetics, which places a strong emphasis on deductive and inductive arguments for certain Christian claims, e.g. the Resurrection of Jesus.

Epistemology: Conclusion

In conclusion, there are options for Christian apologists when it comes to epistemological theories about knowledge, but, for the most part we would want to adopt minimally some version of the Correspondence Theory of Truth. Even if some kind of Post-modernistic thinking that takes into account the role of personal experience in one’s ability to reason about the world is necessary to work into our epistemology, we should not goes as far as to believe we must throw out truth claims because of the interpretive facet of the human mind.

In the next post we will look a the third area of Philosophical Apologetics: Ethics.