Our Knowledge Crisis

“There is no truth,” he barked authoritatively.

“That’s interesting,” I replied. “It sounds to me like you are making a claim here that you think is true.”

“What do you mean?”

I shifted in my seat. “Well, you just said it is true to say…that there is no truth. Right? Sounds like you are making a truth claim here.”

He blinked at me for a moment.

I continued. “So, where does that leave us? Well – it sounds like your statement ‘There is no truth’ is actually self-refuting. Clearly you do think there IS truth. If you didn’t…you wouldn’t be trying to convince me of the truth of your statement!”

There was a pause.  “Not really,” he shrugged. And our conversation ended.

 

The Knowledge Crisis Explained

This conversation…and many more like it…happen all the time. People live in a daily crisis of confidence in what they can actually know and rely on. There is – a crisis of knowledge playing out in our lives.

Listen to people’s growing scepticism of authority, the continual claims of “fake news” in media, and consider our tendency to throw up our hands and claim, “I give up. There is no truth.”

Look – don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think it’s our fault that we’re in this mess, and I don’t think we are being stupid. I think there are good reasons why we have ended up in this confusing time, and it’s not all down to wrong choices. Though it is the result of wrong beliefs. I think we are standing on the shoulders of people who have brought confusion and who have undermined our ability to “know” things.

Yet I also think there is hope for the future. Let me explain why.

 

What does it mean to Know?

If there really is a crisis of knowledge, then you might be asking, “what is knowledge anyway?”

To answer this question, let’s go back to Plato, who described knowledge as “true belief with account.”[1] For him, to know something is to have true belief and reasons to justify our belief.

Knowledge is often described today as a stool with three legs. If a claim lacks any one of these legs, it cannot be claimed to be knowledge.

The knowledge legs are, “belief, truth and justification.”

Belief:

Perhaps I believe that 2+2=4, or lying is wrong or God exists.

Truth:

Truth is what corresponds with reality. So a true belief about the world describes something about how the world actually is.

Justification:

Justification is the reason and evidence that supports my belief.

 

Do you agree that’s a good description of what “knowing” something is all about? Well, these three legs have received a beating over the years. So much so, that our ability to objectively sit on the stool and know things has become diminished.

How has this happened?

 

Grounding of Knowledge

Prior to 1650, the pre-modern’s grounded their knowledge in a transcendent source (or God) who exists beyond human knowing. When Plato expressed knowledge about a horse, for example, he said this immaterial equine idea has been made real in the world. So – people could see horses in the real world and know they were seeing them. For Augustine, these ideas existed first in the mind of God.

However, something happened after 1650 which began to erode people’s ability to know. Thinkers stopped grounding knowledge in a transcendent source. Rather than bother with God, Enlightenment philosophers decided that human reason alone was sufficient to ground knowledge. No God required. Before the Enlightenment, people looked beyond themselves to ground knowledge. At the Enlightenment, people began to stop doing that and instead they began looking inside themselves instead to ground knowledge.

So – how successful was this new epistemological project? How enlightened was it?

Not very.

 

Unsuccessful Grounding of Knowledge

Descartes claimed that knowledge could be grounded in human reason alone. We can only believe what cannot be rationally doubted. He said, “conviction … remains [with] some reason which might lead us to doubt, but KNOWLEDGE is conviction based on a reason so strong that it can NEVER BE SHAKEN.”[2] Yet, he had a problem. His claim did not only reject false beliefs, it also rejected many things we DO know about the world. Worse, Descartes claim even rejected itself because his claim wasn’t self-evident and immune from possible doubt. Even so, his ideas began to erode people’s ability to know.

David Hume then tried to regain certainty by proposing a different idea. He said we can have knowledge, but only about things we can experience with our five senses. All ideas are products of impressions (sensation).[3] If you’ve ever heard someone say, “I only believe what I can see or touch,” then that’s Hume’s approach to knowledge. But – this approach also fails. Why? Well, if knowledge is only about what we can sense, then this eliminates much in life that we do know but not through our senses. For example, mathematics, the laws of logic, cause and effect and the assumption that the future will be consistent with the past. Hume’s ideas lead to scepticism about the world, just like Descartes.

Kant was the third modern who tried to ground knowledge inside human reason. His radical approach was to suggest the following. Previously, people have assumed that the world shapes how people think. But what if it’s the other way round and our minds…shape the world? In that case, we construct reality for ourselves. “Kant’s philosophy is human autonomy … [which] means giving the law to oneself.”[4] But – there’s a problem. This approach doesn’t help us account for what we intuitively know. Kant’s ideas suggest we all construct our own reality, so that if he’s right there are therefore no universal truths. But I think there are universal truths that all cultures agree on. For example, think of moral issues. It’s never honourable to double cross your friends, show cowardice or hurt children. These are always wrong in every human culture. But if Kant is right, this should not be the case.

These three great thinkers claimed that human reason could explain everything we know about the world, and by implication they tried to say we have no need of a transcendent influence on our lives. We don’t need God to explain our knowledge about the world. But – their ideas failed to account for what we know about the world. Their ideas don’t help us. Instead…they undermine our confidence in what we can know.

 

Scientific Revolution

While all THAT was going on, the scientific revolution was also happening. The scientific method develops in the West and starts to give answers, succeeding in breaking down nature so that it can be rationally understood. People started to wonder, “perhaps science does what Descartes, Hume and Kant failed to do? Perhaps science gives us the certain knowledge we want? Perhaps all we can really know is what science tells us?”

I’m a big fan of science. I love it. But however much I benefit from the application of science today, to say that “only science gives us knowledge,” is just a false statement. Why?

First – the claim is self-refuting again. To say that only science provides true knowledge is a statement that undercuts itself because the statement itself is not the result of science, but an assertion of our opinion. If we are right in our statement, then clearly science is NOT the only source of knowledge!

Second – there are other areas of life that help us know things that are not related to the scientific disciplines. This about the historical method for understanding the past, or mathematics and logic, or the study of ethics and the observation of beauty. Again, we find that this rational scientific approach to knowledge fails to account for the knowledge we have about the world.

So where does this leave us? Well, since the Enlightenment, we have struggled to really know many immaterial things that we intuitively know are part of our universe. This makes us increasingly sceptical about life.

 

Post Modernism

Post modernism has risen in response to the undermining of certainty and knowledge in the Enlightenment period.

People are increasingly suspicious of all truth claims. And you can understand why! We’ve lost the certainty that we can really know. There is no real truth, so only power remains. The ones that assert most power get their way in the world. No wonder people spend their lives in Twitter arguments and outbursts of outrage. The only truth is how I feel and what I know. And you either agree with me and submit to my power…or you effuse to submit and therefore are a problem to me! So – we stay in our little social network communities with people who we seem to agree with. At least we can know that we agree together, right?

There is Hope

Sometimes, we stop doing things in life not because they don’t work, but because they have just gone out of fashion.

Grounding knowledge in God is unfashionable for many people these days. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. All the alternative approaches we have attempted since the Enlightenment are seriously problematic. But we can always stop, turn around, and choose to pursue knowledge as grounded in God.

Hey – why not? This worked for centuries! Let’s recover it. It doesn’t mean we need to loose ANY of our scientific prowess or advancement. But it probably will mean that our lives begin to be marked by hope, rather than despair.

“Skilled living gets its start in the Fear-of-God, insight into life from knowing a Holy God.” Proverbs 9:10, The Message.

[1] Plato, Theaetetus (201c-d).

[2]Descartes Epistemology, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy,  https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-epistemology/#InteJust, accessed 25th June 2019.

[3] David Hume: Causation, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, IEP, https://www.iep.utm.edu/hume-cau/, accessed 25th June 2019.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant/#KanCopRev, accessed 25th June, 2019.

Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash

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Respond

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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