Blogarhithmic Expressions: What Do Christians Know?

Blogarhithmic Expressions: What Do Christians Know?

Thoughtful Christian blogger Lyn Robbins (who I knew when he was an undergrad on the Baylor debate team while I was a graduate assistant on the Baylor debate coaching staff -- though I won't say I coached him since I learned more from him than he from me) is right to suggest that we sometimes interpret the gap between "believe" and "know" in a way that unduly mutes advocacy. To have a belief is to believe that it is true. In general, with few exceptions, to have a belief is also to believe it is justified. If it is justified and true and a belief, then it's knowledge. (This is Plato's long-standing definition of knowledge: justified true belief.) So if you believe it, then you think you know it: you think it's knowledge. If you don't think you know it, you don't believe it.

Of course, you could be wrong about what you believe (what you think you know) -- and this is true in any area of human belief. We could be wrong about a scientific belief (turns out Newton was wrong about some of what he believed about motion, and Einstein was wrong about quantum mechanics). We could be wrong about a belief in a defendant's guilt (preponderance of evidence at trial may establish "proof" in some sense, but it isn't infallible proof -- as we have been recently reminded by reports of new DNA evidence exonerating prisoners convicted before DNA testing was available). We could also be wrong about our faith assertions. We can even be wrong about highly poetical assertions. (Imagine T.S. Eliot, toward the end of his life, saying, "I was wrong. It is not now and never was the case that I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas." It might be an interesting exercise to imagine a rationale by which Eliot would reach that conclusion. My point here is just that such a conclusion is comprehensible and possible.) We could be wrong about any of our beliefs -- and since "proof" is inherently fallible in any field of inquiry -- then proveability (or lack thereof) is irrelevant.

Lyn writes: "We are too quick to retreat to a position that says something like this: 'Faith is inherently unproveable. If it were a scientific formula, it would not be faith. Therefore, since we cannot prove matters of our faith in a laboratory or a courtroom, it would be presumptuous of us to say that we know them."

If "proof" means "infallibly establishes certainty" then there's no such thing -- not in laboratories, not in court rooms, and not in faith professions. And if "proof" means that we have some evidence and reasoning we can draw on in support of our claim, then there is proof in faith claims as well as in science and criminal law.

Acknowledgment that we could be wrong -- about ANYTHING -- is appropriate humility. It's not just, as Lyn says, that "It is impolitic to be certain of anything that smells religious." Rather, it is ultimately life-denying (for life means growth and change) to be too rigidly closed-minded on any subject, regardless of its smell. The practical realities of life, the overwhelming size of libraries and other sources of information, the smallness of our brains and the largeness of the number of our beliefs combine to mean that we will always have to take many of our beliefs "for granted": we haven't the world enough and time to investigate more than a small percentage of them in any detail. Still, there's a big difference between "practically off limits to revision for now, given my life's projects, purposes, and commitments" and "necessarily off limits to revision forever."

We don't have certainty. We do, however, have knowledge. I can believe something without certainty, but if I don't think I know it, then I don't believe it. How shall we conceive of knowledge in a way that doesn't imply certainty? The American Pragmatists (William James, John Dewey, et al) offer an epistemology that allows for having knowledge yet also allows for our knowledge to grow and change and that recognizes that nothing is exempt from the possibility of revision. Knowing is intimately tied to doing: knowing is effective doing. Ignorance, then, cashes out as ineffective doing. We act, and our action's effectiveness is the embodiment of what we know. One's knowledge is displayed in all one's doing. Religious knowledge, in particular, is manifest in a way of living, community connections, participation in rituals, values, an ethic, and the cultivation of such qualities as care, lovingkindness, compassion, justice, peace, and equanimity.

Still, there are two ways that we draw a distinction between "belief" and "knowledge" -- though the second is dubious.

(1) In talking about other people's beliefs. I meaningfully distinguish between what "Jo believes" and what "Jo knows" to reflect the distinction between "what Jo and I disagree on" and "what Jo and I agree on."

(2) In talking about my own beliefs when my uncertainty about them is particularly high -- that is, when I am hesitant to act on that belief except insofar as I might want to be taking the gamble.

In the second sort of case, what is at issue is more a pretend belief than a real belief. For example, I might say, "I believe that OJ killed Nicole, but I don't know it." I might say it, but I don't say it often. I live my life, as much as possible, in a 'no opinion' sort of way on that question, and will venture a belief-without-knowledge-claim only if pressed for my guess. It's more a pretend belief than a real one. In a similar way, Pascal's Wager asks us to believe there's a God without believing that we know there is a God -- thus drawing a divide between one's own belief and one's own (believed) knowledge. And that's why the argument of Pascal's wager is so unsatisfying: What we want in matters of faith (as in matters of science, criminal law, etc.) are beliefs that are real beliefs (that are believed to be justified and true and therefore constitute knowledge) rather than the sort of "pretend beliefs" that Pascal's argument recommends.


I also appreciate Lyn's distinction between hope and wishing. His favorite quote, he says, is Peter Kuzmic:
"Hope is the ability to hear the music of the future; faith is the courage to dance to it today." 
Nice. What hope is NOT is the ego's desire for the world to be different from how it is. That's what Lyn calls "wishing." My own favorite quote on the subject of hope is from Vaclav Havel: "Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the understanding that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

In sum. Christians have knowledge-claims and truth-claims to make. I think some forms of some of the claims of some self-identified Christians are false -- but Lyn's right that Christians might as well be willing to say that they're claiming knowledge and truth. He's also right to remind them to be polite about so claiming.

1 comment:

  1. Meredith,

    I appreciate the kind words. I think our two blogs illustrate not only our particular differences but also some of the basic differences inherent in my Christianity and your Unitarian-Universalism. I don't think it is correct to call a claim of knowledge either "rigidly close-minded" or expressing a lack of "humility." No matter how open-minded one is, if one does not eventually come to a conclusion about an issue, knowledge is never reached. Being close-minded assumes that the alternatives were never considered; it does not mean that they are not still being considered. A lack of humility assumes that the person claiming knowledge is claiming authority for that knowledge rather than submission to the knowledge-giver.

    Of course we cannot claim this type of knowledge about everything, or most things, or maybe even many things. But where you and I part company is in your statement that "we don't have certainty." For the Christian, there is certainty about some things.

    I very much appreciate your linking of knowledge and action, what you call "doing." That is a lesson of which we all need to be reminded often.

    Thanks for reading.