Tuesday Theology Musings: 0.0 – Can we know?

How do we know what we know? (or epistemology)

I tend to be a fallibilist because of my scientific background, but as a Christian, I must also deal with the existence (though the unattainability of certainty about said existence) of Absolutes. Revelation (and the concomittant doctrines of inspiration and illumination) is the divine mode through which we perceive the True in the Cave of our lives.

Having said that, let us explore how the Bible relates to the Five Modes of Perception, as developed  by Agrippa the Skeptic.

(from The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius, trans. C.D. Yonge, 1853, Book IX – The Life of Pyrrho, Chapter X)

“One derived from the disagreement of opinions; another from the necessity of proceeding ad infinitum from one reasoning to another; a third from relation; a fourth from hypothesis; and the last from the reciprocal nature of proofs.

[DISSENT]
That which refers to the disagreement of opinions, shows that all the questions which philosophers propose to themselves, or which people in general discuss, are full of uncertainty and contradiction.

[PROGRESS AD INFINITUM]
That which is derived from the necessity of proceeding incessantly from one reasoning to another, demonstrates that it is impossible for a man ever, in his researches, to arrive at undeniable truth; since one truth is only to be established by another truth; and so on, ad infinitum.

[RELATIVITY]
The mode which is derived from relation rests on the doctrine that no object is ever perceived independently and entirely by itself, but always in its relation to something else; so that it is impossible to know its nature correctly.

[ASSUMPTION]
That which depends on hypothesis is directed against those arguers who pretend that it is necessary to accept the principles of things taken absolutely, and that one must place one’s faith in them without any examination, which is an absurdity; for one may just as well lay down the opposite principles.

[CIRCULARITY]
The fifth mode, that one namely which arises from the reciprocal nature of proofs, is capable of application whenever the proof of the truth which we are looking for supposes, as a necessary preliminary, our belief in that truth; for instance, if, after we have proved the porosity of bodies by their evaporations, we return and prove the evaporations by the porosity.”

Dissent – the Bible becomes the arbiter of revealed truth, but we as human interpreters can (and probably should) disagree about the message received. Thus the dual (Baptist?) doctrines of inerrancy and priesthood of all believers become essential for our (admitted limited) knowledge of God.

Progress ad infinitum – This becomes both a non-issue and a mystery for the Christian faith. In one way, God is the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause, the end of the infinite regress as Creator God. In another way, many of the issues with which our human minds struggle, “how do sovereignty and responsibility coexist?”, “If God, why evil?” have their explanation and origin in the deep, unsearchable Infinite that is eternity and the God who inhabits it.

Relativity – Existence, substance, and essence only have meaning in relation to the Creator. What is strange is that in some ways, God is Himself relative, or more precisely related, to His creation…in His role as Savior, for instance.

Assumption – Again, a dual approach is taken by Scripture. In one way, the moral Law is absolute and extensive (who hasn’t wondered about the purpose of the mixed fabrics prohibition?). In another, the Bible takes for granted many philosophical concepts…like the existence of a Divine separate from this reality.

Circularity – The Bible, it does not seem to me, to fall for the circular argument. Most of its arguments point back to the revealed character or reputation of God…and sometimes past the revealed into the mystery beyond human comprehension.

Let us now answer the question: “Can we know?” Well…maybe…? Faith requires the leap…but is rewarded with evidence and experience. Revelation, to me, is more than just the transmitted and preserved Word of God in Scripture – it is also the life-long journey with the God who reveals.

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