Friday, May 23, 2008

Excessive Epistemology Becomes Cognitive Cannibalism

If that title doesn't grab you, what will? Its actually a line from a really interesting chapter I just read from a Luke Timothy Johnson book called The Real Jesus. Here's the whole paragraph:

Epistemology---the critical analysis of cognition---can become an irritant when it demands attention. This is because human knowing seems to work best when the subject is something other than itself. Aesthetic knowledge is better at discerning the beautiful in great art than it is at defining the nature of beauty and how the mind grasps it. Moral knowledge is better at distinguishing good behavior from nasty than it is at defining the nature of the virtuous and how the mind recognizes it. In the same way, historical knowing works best when it is puttering around with evidence from the past, but becomes progressively fuzzier when asked about the nature of historical knowledge. Fair enough. Excessive epistemology becomes cognitive cannibalism. But a little bit of it is important as a hedge against easy assumptions and arrogant certainties in any branch of knowledge.

I'm sure that is enough to chew on right there. I think that last line is a really important point. I could stop there and leave it at that, but here's a few more lines from the next page of Johnson's book that I'll mention, and then I want to make a couple concluding comments that take it in a bit different direction. You following me so far? Here's those lines from Johnson:

What is most important, however, is that the serious historian knows and acknowledges that historical knowledge deals only in degrees of probability, and never with certainty. . . . Because of the necessarily fragmentary character of all historical evidence, and because of the inevitable role of interpretive creativity on the part of the historian, serious practitioners of the craft are characterized by deep humility.

Catch that? I would venture to suggest that what is true of historical knowledge can fairly be said of all knowledge, perhaps to varying degrees, so that serious practitioners of the craft (i.e. thought, or truth statements) are characterized by deep humility.

Good enough point right there. But now let me take it in another direction, sort of. Hopefully you'll see how all this is connected. (And if you want to stop here, you might be better off! Don't say I didn't warn you.)

Isn't this suggesting that basically we're all pretty much agnostics? How can you really know that you know what you know?

But I'm not an agnostic, some of you would say. Fine. Neither am I, really. But here's the thing. Isn't all that really distinguishes me from an professing agnostic that I've made a faith commitment and he or she has not?

I would argue that the decided agnostic actually has made a faith commitment, just as I have. They are doing what Kafka was criticized for, they are turning uncertainty into a principle. They are declaring themselves uncertain, and saying that certainty is not possible, at least for now.

Seems like pure honesty, doesn't it? Except if you peel back the layers, really what it amounts to is faith in knowledge (or at least the unreached potential of it). Put another way, everything hinges on the lack of knowledge. The thought is: "Certainly there is more to know, but since we don't or can't know it, I won't believe in it. I will only believe in what I can know with certainty." This is really just the flip-side of faith. It is negative faith. It is faith in knowledge, exercised as a life of decided doubt because our knowledge is just not complete enough.

But when would we ever even know we had complete knowledge? Isn't the agnostic actually exercising a faith that there is some sort of abstract abject certainty out there, however inaccessible it may (yet) be? What is the difference between not making a faith commitment because we don't "know" enough (yet, perhaps) and making a faith commitment that what we don't "know" is God?

Both are basing their approach to life on the idea that there is more reality than we can handle. There is more to know. One decides not to believe because we don't have certainty, and therefore only will ever really believe in him or herself as the ultimate test of truth or reality. The other decides to believe in an omniscient Other and calls truth or reality whatever that Other knows it to be. Both believe in an ultimate reality beyond themselves. One makes a positive commitment and the other a negative one.

I might sound like I'm dissing agnostics here. I'm not. I think we all need to admit more agnostic than we do, and I deeply respect the intellectual honesty of some agnostics that I know. Even though I would push us all to more intellectual honesty still.

To be fair, some agnostics think we just haven't progressed far enough to get at it yet. Once we do we'll find it was in us all along and isn't God. But I don't know. If agnostics and scientists and theologians and philosophers have taught us anything its that the more we learn the more we learn there is more to learn.

Thing is, I feel I have a very good reason to believe in the Christian God, even though I can't have abject proven certainty (if I did it wouldn't really be faith, would it?).

To begin with, at least my belief in a Christian God gives me reason to believe that there can be a connection between knowledge and reality. How does the agnostic even know it is worth even thinking? What basis is there for thought. It could be that thought is an illusion. Our sense illusory. Everything boils down to uncertainty. We can't even be sure we're uncertain. Can't even be sure of anything.

The Christian faith holds that God created, and even indwelt creation. In this act (of grace) the human reality has from the start come from and had a connection with ultimate reality. And as Chesterton quipped: What God has put together let no man cast asunder.

We may not have total knowledge but the Word has become flesh. And while thought alone may not get us to him, but neither is it totally in vain because God has invested himself in creation, and redemption. You can choose to reject the Christian faith, but you have to admit it gives reason to think.

We don't have to be afraid to seek truth. We do have to be humble about it though. And honest. And even, I daresay, fearful. Maybe this is what it means that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

By now, if you are not following me, then you've definitely caught the point of this post's title! I'm not trying to diss agnostics here. I respect the intellectual honesty and humility of the agnostics that I know. I'm just trying to call us to even further intellectual honesty here. All of us. And if I might say one more thing:

This "faith seeking understanding" thing is a lot different than me looking for proof texts to my worldview (which is unfortunately many people think Christianity is about).

I might actually suggest that the easiest worldview to proof text is agnosticism. You can always find reason to doubt. I know. I do it all the time. Doubt bothers me. Don't get me wrong. But I keep coming back to the biblical notion that the possibility for doubt (and sin, I might add) was always going to be the risk of freedom.

And room for doubt means room for you and me. For God so loved the world . . .

1 comment:

Tony Tanti said...

Quite a post Jon. I agree wholeheartedley.

Agnostics must define themselves in a little more detail though as you rightly state that if they are simply defined as people who acknowledge they can't know the truth then that includes everyone doesn't it? I mean it's not faith anymore if someone says "I know this to be true for a fact."