Theory Of Knowledge (Epistemology) And It’s Useful Distinctions
It just so happens that the primary obstacles to belief in God, in our culture, are those which limit our knowledge. For example, if we are only able to gain knowledge about physical things, and not immaterial or non-physical things, then the question of God’s existence is automatically discounted (since God is an immaterial entity).
I’d like to look at some common views or theories of knowledge which happen to be some of the most common, pressing and erroneous obstacles that stand in the way of people, at the very least, from considering God’s existence in an effective and honest way.
(1) Scientism: Science is the only way to obtain knowledge.
(2) Relativism or Post-Modernism: Truth is relative. I.e. “That’s true for you, but not for me.”
(3) Empiricism: Things that we cannot touch, taste, smell, hear or see cannot be known.
(4) ‘Strong’ Agnosticism: Since we cannot be absolutely certain about anything, we simply cannot really know anything for sure.
(5) Fideism: Reason and evidence have no role in coming to the knowledge of God. We just need to have ‘blind faith’ and believe.
(6) ‘Default’ Atheism: We clearly see that the physical world exists, but we don’t see anything beyond it. Therefore, the default position is to think that the physical world is all there is.
Now, go through the list and ask yourself these questions concerning each view:
Does this view directly address whether God exists or doesn’t exist?
If evidence for God’s existence, for example, were offered to such a person, how would they react to it?
What, if anything, can be a useful concept that this view suggests?
How would you demonstrate why this view is false?
I ask these particular questions because most of these views don’t even attempt to address whether God actually exists or not – thus sort of ignoring the evidence for God or ruling the evidence out of hand, before it is even offered. This is crucial to note.
What use is providing evidence to someone who’s already closed to the possibility of even the possibility of knowing about the object in question? (I’ll leave you to answer that!)
One Example Critiqued
Let’s look at example (1) [Scientism] to get an idea of what I’m trying to do with these questions.
Question 1: Does this address whether God exists? No, not directly, because it is a claim about what counts as knowledge. The view claims that only things which are demonstrable by scientific means count as knowledge.
That being said, this is important because if God cannot be demonstrated by scientific means then we cannot know about God! For someone trying to persuade this person that God exists, this obviously is an issue!
Question 2: As mentioned in the answer to question 1, unless God can be demonstrated directly through scientific means then any evidence other than this type will not count, if presented to a person who’s view is scientism. Thus, any evidence offered along the lines of an intuition of God, subjective personal experience, or even abstract philosophical arguments (like ontological or moral arguments) will most definitely be thrown out of hand immediately.
Question 3: Although this view goes too far in saying that science is the only (or even best way, in some cases) to gain knowledge, one positive point that scientism makes is that it does value science [as examples (2), (4) and (5) do not] as a legitimate source of gaining knowledge – that is, we can get knowledge from scientific means. Thus, as a Christian trying to engage others to think and discuss whether Christianity is true, I would prefer to use evidences and arguments that use scientific data with such a person.
Question 4: How is this view false? Well, very simply put, this view self-refuting. Why? Because this view says that only things that can be known by science count as knowledge. But then we must ask, how does one know that? By science? Nope.
In other words, this view doesn’t meet it’s own criteria! It cannot be known by scientific means that we can only know things by scientific means! It doesn’t pass it’s own test for what counts as knowledge. Thus, this view – by it’s own criteria – cannot be known!
Distinction To Be Made
My main purpose was to show how philosophy can help us to make distinctions clearer. The distinction I want to offer in this piece is that of epistemology – knowledge – vs. other types of claims. If a claim about knowledge is made, then it needs to stay within the domain of knowledge.
For example, one cannot make a claim about what the limits of knowledge are and then use that as a reason for why God doesn’t exist. If you exclude God from what we can know, all that does is to exclude God from knowledge we can attain – it simply doesn’t address whether he exists or not.
Let me give an example. Suppose you lived thousands of years ago in Europe. You approach the coast of the Atlantic ocean and think, “I wonder if there’s anything beyond the blue sea – anything beyond the horizon. . . . Nobody has ever tried to go over and see . . . .”
Should you conclude that there is nothing across the sea, since you have no knowledge or evidence concerning it? Should you conclude that only the Eastern world exists? Or, is it logical to simply say that you don’t know whether there is or isn’t, but am open to evidence either way?
In the same way, even if we have no knowledge and cannot gain any knowledge about an immaterial or supernatural reality – that doesn’t prove naturalism or atheism. It just means we don’t know. This is why (6) above is erroneous (by the way).
Technically, such an argument would confuse two categories – epistemology (knowledge) and ontology (being). Thus, a claim about knowledge is about knowledge, not being (whether something exists). This is done all the time during, unfortunately, professional debates. So it’s an error to be aware of because it is common.
Gaining a grasp of what categories exist and how they interact with each other is therefore a primary philosophical tool for anyone to have at their disposal!
Although this has been a basic look at this topic, I hope it has been helpful in some way.
Next time we’ll look at some distinctions that need to be made when moral claims arise!