Some Reflections on Epistemology

Some Reflections on Epistemology September 14, 2019

To be honest, I tend to shy away from discussions of epistemology (the theory of knowledge, the sub-discipline of philosophy that attempts to understand and clarify the concept of knowledge and the conditions or criteria for what counts as knowledge).  First of all, I don’t enjoy discussing “Calvinist epistemology” which has been a big topic in philosophy of religion in recent decades.  Second, epistemology is HARD, at least it seems hard to me. Thinking about epistemology often gives me a headache.

On the other hand, questions about the nature and scope of human knowledge are important, and there are some fun and interesting puzzles and bits of logic that come up in discussions of basic epistemology.  I enjoy puzzles, especially the sort of logical puzzles that often arise when doing basic philosophy.

Recent comments on Part 11 of my series defending the Swoon Theory concern some basic issues of epistemology, and for some reason I could not prevent myself from jumping in and responding to some of the comments concerning epistemological issues.

 

So, I thought I would share some of those comments and some of my responses to them in a separate post, so that those who are more interested in epistemology than in the issue of the resurrection of Jesus would have a place to focus on some of the epistemological issues that have been raised here.

Here are some comments from Phil Tanny (I don’t know if that is the actual name of the commenter) that got me thinking:

PROVE YOUR AUTHORITY

As example, if a theist can’t prove their holy book is qualified to deliver credible answers to the very largest of questions, then we need not dig our way through thousands of arguments based on Bible verses, right? If all those arguments are based on the Bible, and the Bible is an unproven authority, then all the arguments are merely someone’s speculative opinion.

The very same situation exists for the atheist. If the atheist can’t prove that their chosen authority, human reason, is qualified to deliver credible answers to the very largest of questions, then all of their logic calculations on such subjects are merely someone’s speculative opinion.

500 YEARS OF INCONCLUSIVE DEBATE

What if the “answer” delivered by 500 years of eternally inconclusive God debate led by some of our brightest minds on all sides is that nobody knows what they’re talking about, that we are ignorant on matters of such enormous scale?

We ran an experiment. We tried to find a “knowing” with great enthusiasm. We failed, over and over and over again for 500 years. Why not accept the results of the experiment?

THE QUESTIONABLE DICHOTOMY OF EXISTS VS.  DOES NOT EXIST

Theists and atheists all seem to agree that a God must exist or not exist, yes or no, one or the other. To us, this either/or choice seems the only possibility that is coherent, logical, reasonable etc.

Well, reality is not obligated to adapt itself to what makes sense to us. In fact, the overwhelming majority of reality, space, does not fit neatly in to either the “exists” or “doesn’t exist” categories.

This observation might cause us to wonder whether the question being asked in the God debate (exist or not?) could be so flawed as to render useful answers impossible.

It seems to me that there are some serious problems with the reasoning and arguments presented in these comments, but whether the comments are right or wrong, logical or illogical, they are interesting comments that are worthy of further consideration and discussion.  Although I tend to shy away from discussions of epistemology, including epistemology of religious belief, I have some thoughts and opinions about these comments, so this is, perhaps, a comfortable way for me to ease into thinking about some basic issues of epistemology.  (I will keep a bottle of Ibuprofen handy, just in case my head starts to ache).

I had three main responses to Tanny’s PROVE YOUR AUTHORITY comments:

My first objection involved this point:

Whenever you demand that someone prove X, and whenever you present REASONS and ARGUMENTS to support one of your beliefs or CONCLUSIONS, you are ASSUMING that human reason “is qualified to deliver credible answers” on those important issues.

Tanny’s demands to prove such-and-such ASSUME that “human reason is qualified to deliver credible answers” on important questions, specifically in epistemology (concerning what we can KNOW). Tanny’s offering of REASONS and ARGUMENTS also ASSUMES that “human reason is qualified to deliver credible answers” on important questions, specifically in epistemology.

But Tanny has NOT PROVEN that “human reason is qualified to deliver credible answers” on questions of epistemology, so Tanny appears to be contradicting himself, or, more precisely, he appears to be a hypocrite. That is to say, his comments embody a violation of the very principles and beliefs that he is trying to promote.

My second objection involved this point:

In order to PROVE that human reason is “qualified to deliver credible answers to” questions of type X, one has to USE human reason. (There is no such thing as “proving such-and-such” without making any use of human reason.)

In USING human reason to PROVE that human reason is “qualified to deliver credible answers to” questions of type X one must ASSUME that human reason is qualified to deliver credible answers to questions of type Y (say: questions about the proper scope of human reason).

But nobody has, at this point in the discussion, PROVEN that human reason is qualified to deliver credible answers to questions of type Y.

So, by Tanny’s logic, one must first PROVE that human reason is qualified to deliver credible answers to questions of type Y.

My second objection is that Tanny’s comments imply an infinite regress of demands for proof concerning types of questions about which human reason is qualified to deliver credible answers.  Since nobody can provide an infinite number of proofs, Tanny’s demand for proof is impossible for anyone to satisfy, and thus is an UNREASONABLE demand.

My third objection focused on Tanny’s demand for proof from Christian believers concerning the inspiration and authority of the Bible:

The logical response of a Christian believer to this view would be that Tanny is BEGGING THE QUESTION against the use of the Bible to answer questions, and that Tanny is arbitrarily making human reason the ultimate authority on epistemology (how we KNOW stuff).  When Tanny demands that the believer PROVE that the Bible is qualified to deliver credible answers to the very largest questions, he is demanding that human reason be used to evaluate the inspiration and authority of the Bible. This demand, however, ASSUMES that human reason is qualified to deliver credible answers to issues of epistemology (how we can KNOW stuff).

In other words, Tanny is placing a demand on the Christian believer for proof that the Bible is qualified to deliver credible answers to the very largest questions, but he hypocritically sets aside the analogous demand that he prove that human reason is qualified to deliver credible answers to questions of epistemology (questions about what we can KNOW and how we can KNOW stuff).

It might be helpful to keep in mind the example of LOGICAL POSITIVISM.

One of the main problems with Logical Positivism is that it sets up a standard or criterion of KNOWLEDGE that it cannot itself satisfy. For Logical Positivism a statement or claim can constitute KNOWLEDGE only if it is possible to VERIFY the statement or claim by means of empirical facts or observations. But it is not possible to VERIFY Logical Positivism by means of empirical facts or observations. So, the claim that Logical Positivism is TRUE, is a claim that FAILS to meet the very test that Logical Positivism proposes. According to Logical Positivism, we cannot KNOW that Logical Positivism is TRUE.

[There is a similar problem with a common form of SCIENTISM, which asserts that scientific investigation is the only legitimate way to arrive at knowledge.  The problem here is that scientific investigation is NOT how this epistemological claim is arrived at, so this form of SCIENTISM fails its own test, just like LOGICAL POSITIVISM failed its own test.]

This points us to a general problem in epistemology. First, what we are looking for is a criterion or test that will help us determine whether a bit of alleged KNOWLEDGE is actually and truly a bit of KNOWLEDGE. Second, when someone proposes such a criterion or test, we need to evaluate that proposed criterion or test. How can we do so?

It seems that at a bare minimum, the proposed test should be able to satisfy its own requirements. This is a kind of logical self-consistency that we expect of a true or correct criterion of KNOWLEDGE. There might be additional requirements, but this one seems very basic and reasonable. Logical Positivism failed to meet the very requirements that it proposed, so that was viewed as a fundamental defect of that epistemological criterion.

Suppose somebody comes up with an epistemological criterion that has the required functionality (it could help us determine whether a bit of alleged KNOWLEDGE is actually and truly a bit of KNOWLEDGE), and it also was able to satisfy its own requirements, so that based on that criterion, one could KNOW that the criterion was correct and true.

But if this were the ONLY test (the test of logical consistency), then there would still be a potential problem with the proposed criterion: the JUSTIFICATION of the epistemological criterion would (apparently) rest upon the very criterion that is being proposed. But this is CIRCULAR REASONING. This is like quoting the Bible to prove that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God.  Such reasoning is ILLOGICAL.

So, when we are dealing with basic questions of epistemology, we need to be on the lookout for:

logical inconsistency (Does the epistemological criterion FAIL to satisfy its own requirements?)

AND

logical circularity (Does the justification of the epistemological criterion ASSUME the truth or correctness of that criterion?)

 

I have not yet objected to Tanny’s comments about 500 YEARS OF INCONCLUSIVE DEBATE, but I did try to summarize his reasoning in a clear and simple argument:

1. IF it is possible for humans to KNOW the answer to the question “Does God exist?”, THEN 500 years of debate about the existence of God would produce a definitive answer to this question.
2. But 500 years of debate about the existence of God has NOT produced a definitive answer to this question.

THEREFORE:

3. It is NOT possible for humans to KNOW the answer to the question “Does God exist?”

 

I did point out that the “God debate” is much older than just 500 years:

The God debate is much older than 500 years. It goes back at least to pre-Socratic philosophy, and Socrates predates Jesus by more than 400 years. So, the God debate is about 2,500 years old. The Greeks, of course, did not have the same concept of God as Christians do, but there are enough similarities to consider ancient Greek philosophy to be a part of the God debate.

But I assume that Tanny would see this point as strengthening his argument rather than weakening it.

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