Knowing Truth: A Confidence Builder in Truth

The field of epistimology within philosophy exists to answer the skeptic’s question: “can we know anything at all?” I believe how we answer this question is the most important basic point in Christianity and society today. This point is so important because the answer that is commonly held is not really a biblical one, but it is a presupposition that is not really challenged because of the low value much of the church and society puts on philosophy. In this blog I want to outline the basic answer I’ve come to believe on this question and outline how it works with knowing Christianity is true.

To point out the problem, people often feel they cannot understand the Bible even though it was written for simple people living more than 2000 years ago. People often feel real knowledge is somehow limited to science and mathematics and have little confidence they know much outside of the narrow field they have learned. This development of radical specialization and skepticism about what we can know is a fairly new development and is unfounded.

Key Question 1: What is truth?

Truth is what reality is really like. While this is accepted by most, outside of some strong skeptics, the point of disagreement is with what we can know about truth. Some postmodernists accept that truth is limited to societies or persons “my truth” vice truth itself however the more popular view seems to be there is truth about reality we just can’t know it fully or directly in some way.

Considering for a moment what it would mean if there was only “my truth” and no reality behind everything. If this was the case there would be no consistency for anyone to know anything about anything, if even my own ability to think is not true then how am I even writing this blog or thinking of it, and how could you possibly read it or get anything at all out of it? Also this post being for Christians we can assume there is reality and truth since we believe in fact there is a God, Jesus lived and died in history so moving forward for this blog I will just assume truth is what corrisponds with reality and move into the more pressing questions.

Key Question 2: What is knowledge?

Knowledge is defined as justified, true belief by Roderick Chisholm. We can test this by thinking of different examples. For instance my belief about there being windows in my house is 1) something I believe 2) justified by the fact that I have seen them 100 times 3) true, in that it corresponds with reality that I do have windows. If you sit and think of examples you will most likely find these three criteria sufficient for just about anything we call knowledge with a couple of exceptions.

A few examples of how Justified True Belief is not Knowledge

Edmund Gettier brought up a few strange examples that show that sometimes we can believe we are justified in our belief  and a thing can be true but it cannot be knowledge. These examples all have to do with being right but the evidence you have not actually provided the thing in question to be true like you think it does. If we believe something is true based on a bad understanding even if that thing is true then it seems like we didn’t really have knowledge of that thing. To get around the issues Gettier brings up Richard Feldman gives a creative fourth condition that strengthens our theory of knowledge.

A knows p
(i) p is true.
(ii) A believes p.
(iii) A is justified in believing p.
(iv) A’s justification for p does not essentially depend on any falsehood.

This new way of defining knowledge works nicely. There is however a bigger issue that really gets to the heart of the question. The issue is called the Agrippian trilemma and centers around the idea of how can anything really be justified if the belief that justifies it also needs to be justified. In my windows in my house example I am justified based on having seen them multiple times, but how do I know what I saw were windows? well because windows are rectangular and have glass and let you look outside, well how do I know that… Etc. There seems that there are only three ways to really get down to how I know anything:

1.  Infinite regress, my justifications just go on forever

2. Circular, my beliefs come back around on themselves providing justification on each other

3. Foundationalism, there are foundational justifications onto which all my beliefs are based

In terms of infinite regress it seems this is actually impossible as I can’t have a literal infinite number of beliefs. The circular idea sounds reasonable until I consider how I ever get started believing anything at all. It seems that I can’t get started on the circular view because there are no foundational beliefs to get started with. So foundationalism seems like the only real option.

When it comes to foundationalism we need to then ask how do we form these foundational justifications? This is where we begin to get into many of the issues today. The common sense answer seems to be I can see and hear and touch and use my five senses to acquire knowledge. This idea though is greatly watered down in our current society. The common answer is that we start only with our own idea of the way things are.

We supposedly know this because there are things like illusions and hallucinations where we thought we perceived reality but were wrong. There is perceptual subjectivity or relativity where we sometimes assume we are seeing something that actually turns out to be something different. There are issues in vision or in nerve damage or in hearing issues etc where we don’t perceive reality rightly. There are “baptized” issues like the effects of sin, where some say we are totally depraved in that we cannot even say our basic access to reality is trustworthy. There is also the idea we interpret reality using language and then an interpretation driven by our community, religion etc.

The idea is we actually don’t access reality in our mind instead we access our own interpretation which is subject to all kinds of biases from the items mentioned above. The skeptic will say this means we have no hope at all of accessing anything.

Figure 1: Problems with accessing reality

These access problems are often referenced in high school science books and liberal arts literary criticism. Often in the church there is an idea of humility being not being very sure of what we know sometimes taking Paul’s words out of context to do so:

For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
— 1 Corinthians 2:2

The true meaning of the verse being Paul’s focus on delivering the gospel and not trying to appear wise before them, not that Paul actually believes that was all he knew, elsewhere we see Paul has a deep well of knowledge on many topics. For instance in Acts 17 Paul shows a knowledge of Greek philosophy. Paul was a trained Pharisee, a Pharisee of Pharisees in his own words that knew the Hebrew scriptures by heart.

In critical theory or postmodern theories it is often taken that it is impossible to get outside of the beliefs of our cultural group this is because everything we believe is always interpreted through our cultural “lens”. In churches often postmodernism is not the accepted norm but these issues are still taken to severely limit what we can know.

Key Question 3: How can knowledge be justified?

So can knowledge be justified with all these access to reality issues? The answer is clearly yes, we access reality every day. We drive to work, we talk to people we perform our job, we read books and watch TV expecting to understand what we are reading and viewing. We know we access reality, yet I am convinced these widely taught skeptical issues have a major impact on our confidence that we really do know or can know many things.

To answer these skeptical theories I would suggest one main theory and a few other answers to skeptical questions. The theory I believe explains well the way our access to reality really works is direct realism.

Figure 2: Direct Realism

As shown above direct realism still acknowledges we do interpret what we believe but it adds one very key element. In the theory championed by Edmund Husserl we have direct access prior to our thinking and concept forming. We are able to form concepts that align with reality because the essence or properties of our concepts align to the properties of the actual object we are thinking of to the extent that we are able to observe it. Through this direct simple seeing/observing we can compare our concepts with reality to correct them and to actually get closer to the truth. The more careful we are about comparing our interpreted concepts the more we can have beliefs aligned with truth.

Now a word about knowledge and certainty. One issue in epistimology has been the thought that we need to be certain in order to know something. Decarte is famous for his idea that because a dream is indiscernable from reality at the time it is possible we could just be dreaming right now. So Decarte goes on to reason toward what he can know with absolute certainty, famously “I think therefore I am”. However Decarte is mistaken here in his approach. In fact we know many things that could be wrong, most of them even. I know the sun will rise tomorrow though there are possible scenarios where that could not be true (sudden supernova or my death etc.) yet I do know the sun will rise tomorrow. For this reason our knowledge of the world can be knowledge and yet be possibly wrong. A better aim is to think about probability. Is it at least 51% likely that I will wake up tomorrow and the sun will have risen? It is a bit of an arbitrary measure but one has a feel for knowledge in this way. A couple of other helpful points Feldman gives are:

1. Given no counter evidence we should stick with our current belief.

2. When given equally likely possibilities stick with the simplest and most obvious explanation.

Answering the skeptic

The skeptic still has questions on this theory though. As you will notice one of the columns from Figure 1 did not move into Figure 2 this is because between simple seeing or observing and the mind there are still various things that can go wrong like hallucinations, physical issues, illusions etc. To answer the skeptic here we can utilize part of Alvin Plantinga’s Proper Function theory. Now I do reject from the start the idea that Alvin Plantinga sometimes seems to assert that these access issues are so significant they call for a new theory altogether, I think as we can see from the above direct realism gets around most of them. What Proper Function does get us is around the final few issues. The idea we should take from Proper Function theory basically states that a person can achieve knowledge if:

1) they are designed to know truth in the environment they are in

2) they are functioning according to their design

With these two features we can state that because we are designed to know truth and are properly functioning then everything works as it should according to direct realism. When we are not properly functioning according to God’s design plan then we run into the various problems we see in the far right column in Figure 1.

How can we know Christianity is true?

Given this construct we can then go on to really access both nature and scripture. We can then access the arguments for the reliability of scripture, the evidences in nature for God and His goodness via our moral sense and witness miracles when God brings us into contact with them. Other blogs have covered these arguments in depth the point here is the arguments in this blog get us confidently around the skeptics smokescreens of the day to a place where we have the ability to really get at truth.

1 thought on “Knowing Truth: A Confidence Builder in Truth

  1. Lisa Cahoe Reply

    Yes, something to think about. If we constantly believe there is no truth, we will find ourselves wandering around aimlessly. I wonder if most of us just accept what is popular culture in place of what is Truth.

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