Truth and Knowledge: A Critical Realist Perspective
I know I have discussed this here before, but after 2K blog posts I don’t recall when or in what way, exactly, and I have new readers. Even long-time readers may have forgotten this perspectives on truth and knowledge.
I am a critical realist. That phrase doesn’t cover all of my philosophy, but it is a big part of my philosophy and impacts almost everything else, both in my philosophy and my theology.
Here it is in a nutshell: “Truth” is what is real outside the mind. For example, it is true that a tree fell in the forest even if there was nobody and nothing to hear or see it fall. Even if no one ever comes across the fallen tree in the forest, it is true that it fell. Imagine there is a long ago event in time and space that nobody now remembers or knows about. If it happened, the truth is that it happened. Truth is what is really the case—even if nobody ever knows it.
Note: Here I am abstracted God and God’s knowledge from the discussion of truth. Bringing God into it complicates things, so, for now at least, I am leaving God and God’s knowledge of all things aside.
So, to repeat, for the critical realist, like me, truth is reality whether known or unknown. But “knowledge” is our best justified belief about truth. Knowledge and ignorance do not change reality. And, for most critical realist, including me, it is impossible ever to know whether and to what extent a person’s knowledge matches reality in itself. (But unlike the critical idealism of Immanuel Kant, critical realists do belief in “the thing in itself” as more than an “as if” and knowledge as justified belief can “know” the thing in itself to some extent without the huge Kantian “gap” where the mind organizes it before knowing it. In other words, unlike Kant, critical realists do not think space and time, for example, are mere forms of intuition.)
”Knowledge” is justified belief. Some critical realist philosophers call it “justified true belief,” but I leave out the word “true” because I think it begs the question. Can knowledge ever be true in the sense of perfectly matching reality or does perspective ALWAYS intrude in knowing? So there is a degree of perspectivalism in critical realism.
But none of this means knowledge is impossible. It just means that we must keep in mind the difference between the orders of being and knowing.
I recently attempted to read a novel entitled “I Know This Much Is True” by author Wally Lamb. I won’t go into why I gave up. But the title is relevant to this explanation of truth versus knowledge. When someone says “I know this is true” he or she is simply saying, meaning, that he or she believes something (the “this”) is really the case and that belief is justified. How it is justified is another, related matter. But I can’t go into that here, now.
Critical realism is, among other things, a guard against intellectual arrogance but especially, most importantly, a guard against turning any “knowledge” into ideology, forcing “truth” on people. And that because no knowledge can be known to exactly match reality.
”Opinion” is unjustified belief or weakly justified belief, so weakly justified (if at all) that it does not count as knowledge. The line between knowledge and opinion is uncertain, of course, but is, I think, a major subject for philosophy.
Now, departing from philosophy for a moment, as a Christian I think critical realism is strongly supported FOR CHRISTIANS by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament when he wrote that NOW we see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12), especially in matters of spirituality and faith. What I am saying is that critical realism is not just a philosophical construct applicable to, say, the sciences, but also a basic fact of Christianity. That is, when Christians (and others) make truth claims about reality, including God, we use remember that our claims are opinion or at best knowledge and not truth itself. Truth itself is eschatological for us even if it is always “there” in the mind of God. That means that as Christians we have no right to impose our faith, our beliefs, our doctrines, our way of life, on other people. But we can use persuasion and testimony to draw non-Christians toward faith in Christ.
Whenever and wherever Christians have attempted to impose Christianity on non-Christians by coercion, they have abandoned the spirit of Christ (who did not do that) and they have ignored 1 Corinthians 13:12.
But none of this means that religious people have “faith” while others have “facts”—a vulgarized expression of Kant’s philosophy as channeled through theologian Albrecht Ritschl’s theological epistemology.
A justified belief counts as fact even if it is not provable.
I am also reading (or listening to) another novel (which I will now finish) entitled “Enduring Love” by author Ian Mcewan. (It is not at all what the title implies as it is a tragedy that goes deeply into mental illness. It’s kind of a psychological thriller.) In the middle of the book the author puts in the mind of the main character a long monologue (to himself) about science (because he is a science writer) and how the basic “facts” of science have changed and continue to change and will probably continue to change forever which creates for him a crisis of thought which interacts with his crisis of personality.
We all like to think that our truth claims constitute more than justified belief, but, outside of what Hume called the “analytic” sphere (matters of definition), in the “synthetic” sphere, no a priori knowledge is possible in spite of Kant. Critical realism gives up on Kant’s (and others’) search for synthetic a priori truth. It opts not for chronic skepticism but for intellectual humility.
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