Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Religious people, Christians among them, claim to know something special about reality. This knowledge is of a general kind, a class of truths. Epistemology asks whether it is justified to assert that any class of knowledge is true.

Most of us don't worry about this question. Our day-by-day knowledge either works or it doesn't. That is, for most of us knowledge is "true" if it works and "untrue" if it doesn't. We "know", for example, that gravity exists every time we take a fall.

But most of us tend to claim knowledge far beyond that which we can experience at first-hand. We "know" that the moon isn't made of cheese even though we haven't been there to verify the fact personally. So the question naturally arises whether or not we are justified in claiming knowledge of a class of truths called "astronomy" or any other class. In what sense, if at all, can any of us claim to know anything about history, or science or medicine or God?

Like so many such questions, they were first recorded well over two thousand years ago. Plato in the fourth century BC reports that Protagoras thought that whatever seems so to us, we know. In that sense, "Man is the measure of all things." But Gorgias claimed that there is no such thing as knowledge. It was left to Plato to try to work out what knowledge is. He asked if it is the same thing as belief; if it can be reached through reason; if it comes through the senses or by some other means.

The debate has raged ever since with, in my opinion, precious few substantial advances. One constant factor has been skepticism - the doubt that knowledge can be taken for granted. It seems to me that the character of proposed answers to "What is knowledge?" has depended primarily on how subsidiary questions are framed.

For example, if one supposes that knowledge allows and indeed requires the statement of a truth with absolute certainty one is likely to come up with one type of epistemological response. If knowledge is thought of as provisional, always subject to change and discovery, then an entirely different conclusion will result.

The history of epistemological thought is long and complex.

  • Plato (428-347) seems to have followed his mentor, Socrates, in seeking knowledge of what is perfect. It's quite clear to everyone that we never experience perfect justice, for example. Justice is always tempered by error and unfairness. So he proposed that we are able through reason to arrive at a concept (what he called the "Form") of Justice. What we perceive through our senses are only imperfect copies or representations of their Forms. We can "know" the perfect, but can have only opinions about the imperfect.
  • Aristotle (384-322) focused more on what knowledge is than on whether or not it exists. He thought that we know universal truth through particular truths. So through knowledge of a number of particular dogs, we get to know what "a dog" is in a universal sense. In turn we know each dog through our senses - or, more accurately, through those senses which are able to perceive dogs. Thus one kind of sense gives us perception of colour, and another kind of sense a perception of heat and other senses other perceptions.
  • Epicurus (341-270) and others also proposed that we arrive at truth through our senses. Atoms affecting the sense organs produce sensations, thus giving us information about the world. This information eventually combines into a system of knowledge to give us abstract ideas or what we know as concepts.
  • Augustine (354-430) proposed that all knowledge exists first as universals in the mind of God descending from there to lower kinds of knowledge. Medieval thinkers developed this basic idea in various complicated ways.

Once the grip of Christian dogma began to loosen during the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, the stage was set for an approach which depended upon rational thought rather than theology.

Those like Descartes (1596-1650) [1], Spinoza (1632-1677) and Leibniz (1646-1716) emphasised that all true knowledge is derived by reason. They became known as Idealists.

Others like Locke (1632-1704), Berkeley (1685-1753) and Hume (1711-1776) proposed that knowledge is derived first through sense experience and then ordered by reason. Berkeley went the whole hog to argue that there is no guarantee that anything other than our sense-data is real. Hume thought that only what could be verified experimentally could be called knowledge. They are broadly known as Realists.

Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) tried to bring the two streams together by proposing two types of distinction:

[a] What he called a priori knowledge is that truth which can be worked out or verified independently of the senses. This sort of knowledge involves only concepts. But concepts can be built upon experience (sense-data) to give us a posteriori or empirical knowledge.

[b] Analytic judgements are those which attempt to explain things. In doing so they don't give us any additional information about reality. A false analytic judgement is one which involves contradiction. In contrast, a synthetic judgement does give us information about reality. If I deny the truth of such a judgement, I deny a fact rather than point out a contradiction in an explanation.

In the late 19th and the 20th centuries, currents of thought have swung this way and that. We're perhaps somewhat too close in the 21st century to discern their long-term effect on the larger sea of human thought. My own observations are that two main movements have begun to diverge significantly from the past:

  1. The dominance in the 20th century of science and technology has, I think, encouraged us to recognise that distinction between the subjective and objective may be of an entirely different character than originally supposed. 

    Thus what we call "subjective" is one way of perceiving the system we know as the human body, and what we call "objective" merely another way. They are not two separate and conflicting parts of reality. This in turn places greater value on empirical data and the methods we use to reduce or eliminate distorted interpretation of that data.

  2. A greater understanding of how language operates has enabled us to more clearly recognise its shortcomings and therefore to use ordinary language more positively. Thinkers like Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) have pointed out that it's not valid to invent special or "private" language to "explain" anything. If one does this, it becomes impossible to discern boundaries between such language and ordinary language. 

    Like most other approaches, analysis of the role of language in knowledge can be taken too far. Some modern philosophers (like A J Ayer) have reduced language as a way of conveying truth to the point where it is no longer useful. It is certainly true that all language is limited in its ability to convey truth. Although he would later modify his views, Ayer promoted a verification principle, according to which a statement can be classed as knowledge if and only if we know which sensory experiences would verify it. In effect Ayer and others have exaggerated the weaknesses of language to the point where it becomes terminally ill. 

Christians and other religious people claim a special type of access to truth. They assert that they have knowledge which has come to them from God, either directly or via inspired writings. Such knowledge, if it can be classed as such, is obviously outside the range of ordinary human thought because it is supposed to have been revealed to us. 

Revelation is knowledge only in the sense that it can be asserted or denied. No other test can validly be applied to it, nor does it fit any of the usual categories of knowledge. Reason can't be applied to it, since its origins lie beyond reason. If it is information, its validity can't be tested by any means except internal consistency - and even then, religious people seem to display a remarkable tendency to tolerate contradictions and inconsistencies within any body of revealed "knowledge".

Revelation, then, is essentially a claim to possess a type of knowledge which is beyond question. It is absolute in the sense that because it comes from God it must be true. That is, its objectivity can't be questioned. If it has been revealed to us that we're sinful creatures, then there's no point in questioning that truth. God is never wrong. I think it's true to say that many, if not a majority, people in the West today don't think of revelation as infallible knowledge.

The modern perception that all knowledge is provisional replaces the medieval contention that some knowledge - revelation in particular - is absolute. Uncertainty about what is known and what is illusion has recently led some to what's generally known as "relativism",

I have a hammer in my hand. I know that it's use is to hit nails into wood. But that knowledge is relative to my purpose. I might want to murder my wife with it. In other words, what I know about a hammer is relative to its use. The same distinction would apply to almost anything, even a complex subject like "history". My "knowledge" of war if I'm fighting in one will be very different from my "knowledge" of it if I'm studying it from afar. 

Relativism, then, is the thesis that knowledge is not absolute, or even just provisional, but relative to particular standpoints. A consequence is that nobody can claim any knowledge except in terms of their own personal experience. There may be clusters of very similar experiences which could be labelled "knowledge", but none is intrinsically more valid than the other. I can't say that I know something and you don't. 

Even in science, knowledge may change according to its context. A biologist perceives the living cell one way, the physicist in entirely another way. They might even contest their differing scientific conclusions. J W McAllister reports I Hacking as suggesting that there might even exist "alternative styles of enquiry among which a choice is open ... [a] view of scientific practice [which] readily accommodates forms of relativism".

Relativism has been attacked by some as subverting the possibility of knowing anything. If what I know may be untrue in relation to other knowledge, they ask, what can anyone be certain of? What happens to morality, for example? Who is to say that murder is morally wrong?

To sum up:

  • Language is imprecise. It can't be relied on to convey knowledge either completely or entirely accurately. The point of logic is to test that language is being used well.

  • Scientific knowledge is a type of knowledge which recognises our ability to arrive at false conclusions. It therefore uses a strict methodology and broad consensus to check all knowledge. Nevertheless, this sort of knowledge is by definition provisional.

  • We recognise that our knowledge is ultimately subjective in the sense that it is the result of a physical process. Our senses register stimuli and our brain interprets and stores them. The process is unable to render more than an approximation of what is "really out there".

  • Some kinds of knowledge are arrived at by our application of reason alone - such as 2 + 2 = 4. The entire body of mathematics is based on the notion that contradictory language isn't a valid expression of reality [2].We don't class as "knowledge", for example, the statement that "Square shapes are round". To do so would render language and therefore mathematics utterly useless as a means of expressing knowledge.

  • Scepticism is useful and necessary, given the uncertainties we face in knowing what "really is". Nevertheless we must in some sense trust our experience. You are welcome to maintain that the brick you dropped on your foot isn't real and that the pain is an illusion. I prefer to infer that a brick dropped on my foot is likely to be real enough to hurt like hell.

  • Relativism appears to be a dead-end epistemologically. It seems, for example, that no religion can make absolute claims if this stance is taken. Thus some would suggest that religion is a function of culture and that none has the right to claim superiority in this respect. If I'm born in Europe I'm likely to find Christianity more compelling than any other religious system. If born in India, Hinduism might be more natural to me.

[1] See Cartesianism 
[2] Relativism in A Companion to the Philosophy of Science, 2000

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