Friday, December 9, 2011

What is Knowledge?

Lately I've been studying the philosophy of religion and various explanatory theories about religion. Philosophy of religion, and the different naturalistic explanations of religion, is an area that many people don't spend a lot of time reading about, and I think that is problematic since the fields are packed dense with fascinating ideas and arguments. Therefore, some of these ideas might just be interesting to blog about, especially if I can examine them through a Mormon lens.

The real aim of the philosophy of religion is to try and answer the question: "Can we know anything about God?" and "Is religious knowledge possible?" But first,we have to clarify the term "knowledge." What counts as knowledge? What conditions must be satisfied before we can claim to "know" something?

At a minimum, to count as "knowledge" something must be believed, it must be a true belief, and you need to have good evidence to justify that true belief.  Or, in other words, knowledge is "justified true belief." (See the venn diagram above). That's a pretty good working definition to keep in mind whenever we hear someone claim to know something.

The first criteria, that you must believe something for it to count as knowledge, is fairly straight forward. A belief is an experiential expectation. Or in other words, belief carries with it an expectation based on experience. I believe the sun will rise tomorrow based on my own experience of this happening over and over again. I believe that gravity will cause whatever goes up, to eventually come back down. Nuff said.

However, beliefs - no matter how certain we are of them, or how sincerely the beliefs are held - can be just plain wrong. For example, some people really do believe the world is only 6,000 years old, others believe they have been abducted by aliens, some insist that they are the Jesus Christ, while others believe that Rick Perry will be the next President of the United States. Clearly, beliefs can be untrue. Therefore belief alone does not qualify something as knowledge. To be considered as knowledge, beliefs must therefore be true beliefs.

Finally, for a true belief to count as knowledge, we also must have good reasons to believe it. Something doesn't count as knowledge, even if that something is true, until we have good reasons for believing it's true. To illustrate why this is so, imagine going to a carnival where they have a large jar of jellybeans. If you guess how many jellybeans are in the jar, you win a prize. If you were to guess the correct number of jellybeans in the jar, everybody would assume it was just that - a lucky guess. It would be silly for you to claim that you knew how many beans were in the jar. Even though you had a true belief about the number of jellybeans in a jar, you had no good evidence for believing it. Therefore, you did not know it. It was merely a lucky guess. Lucky guesses don't count as knowledge.

Moving on. The next question to consider is what counts as good evidence? And this is where battle lines are drawn and debates rage. The English mathematician William Clifford is famous for saying "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." Amen. And there are a wide variety of "kinds of evidence" that people appeal to; some better than others.

First, most people appeal to their own experiences. They claim to know something because they have had direct experiences through their senses of sights, sound, touch, taste, smell, or proprioception. However, as good as our senses are at helping us experience the world around us in a valid and truthful manner, we need to remember that our experiences need to be interpreted correctly. We have all had the experience of thinking we have seen or heard something, only to later discover, on closer examination, to have been mistaken. Optical and auditory illusions are commonplace. Therefore, sense experiences, as good as they are, need to be interpreted and checked for validity because they can occasionally be interpreted incorrectly.

Second, many people appeal to reason as an important component of evidence. We use reason to know that 2 + 2 = 4 without any need to appeal to experience or senses. We can know it a priori (which is knowledge independent of experience) that 2 + 2 = 4. Other reasoning is done a posteriori, or on the basis of experience of some sort. Reasoning is usually categorized inductive or deductive reasoning. The application of the scientific method is a good example of reason. Reason has been a powerful tool for acquiring knowledge ever since the Greek philosophers invented logic and the Enlightenment thinkers, such as Francis Bacon and Galileo, invented the scientific method.

Other "kinds of evidence" that are less reliable than sense experience and reason, are appeals to authority, intuition, revelation, and faith. Things get really squishy and subjective when we try to use these kinds of evidence as foundations of knowledge. Here's why:

First, appeals to authority is nothing more than "secondhand" reason and experience. People might claim to know something because somebody else (some authority) told them so.  In this way, appeals to authority are the worlds most commonly used short-cut. Appeal to authority can be valid if the authority appealed to has expertise in a certain field of knowledge, such as a world renowned scientist who has valid evidence for his claims, and a reliable track record in making them. However, if the authority appealed to is only an "authority" because of a position they hold (whether through election or appointment) then they might not be very good "secondhand" sources of knowledge. For example, a Catholic Bishop or Mormon Apostle, might not be good sources of knowledge about biology, human psychology or climate change, although they might be good sources of information about theology. However, when authorities (whether scientists or theologians) stray from their area of expertise, then they no longer become authoritative sources of information.

Second, intuition is nothing more than shortcut or "blink" assessments of things; immediate insight, gestalt feelings, or hunches. We are usually pretty good with our intuitions, but they can also be way off the mark. Our hunches need to be tempered by careful analysis and empirical validation before they can be considered knowledge. Intuition that is not founded on any other evidence is groundless, and really amount to nothing more than faith.

Third, revelation via religious authorities is sometimes offered as evidence for religious knowledge claims; "I know because God revealed it to me," or "I know because God revealed it to me." However, appeal to revelation is usually nothing more than an appeal to authority, and the validity of the claim is contingent upon the reliability of the religious authority in question. Therefore, knowledge claims based on revelation should be screened with the standard tests of reliability that we employ for any other knowledge claim (such as a scientific claim made in a peer reviewed journal). Because there is no way to verify the religious experience that led the authority to claim revelation in the first place, revelation usually fails as a valid source of knowledge. We just can't get to it and verify revelation in any meaningful way.

Lastly, people who claim to "know by faith" are simply misusing language. Saying "I just know," in this context, is nothing more than saying, "This is what I believe." Saying you know something because you absolutely believe it, ignores that fact that our strongly held beliefs can be unreliable. Saying "I know because I trust my religious leader or scriptures," is nothing more than an appeal to authority. It therefore fails to be a source of reliable evidence.

Therefore, as we begin to try to answer the question whether we can say we know anything about God, or whether the arguments for or against God are convincing, we need to keep this definition of knowledge in mind.

The late Christopher Hitchens summed up the need to have good evidence for any claims of knowledge: "What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof." Exactly! And that goes for people on both sides of any argument - especially the argument about whether we can know God exists, or does not exist.

Next, I will discuss why we should argue for the existence of God, what arguments we will examine as evidence for or against God's existence, and what concept of God we will be arguing for and against.

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