Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Epistemology - the alternative

Part 1, Part 2

Now, what becomes obvious, despite the current popularity of street-level postmodernism, is that we do have a sense that there is such a thing as objective truth. Postmodern writers, despite what they say, write assuming that they are able to convey something real about the nature of the universe – even when what they write is supposedly denying this. And the assumption of empiricism is that there is such a thing as objective truth, even if modernism doesn't provide us with an adequate means of knowing what the objective truth is.

So what we really need is another epistemological foundation – one that doesn't throw away the idea of objective truth (like postmodernism), but one that doesn't ground the idea of objective truth in the first instance in the observer (like modernism), which we have seen is also a dead end in epistemological terms.

The universe didn't start with the arrival of Descartes, and as I hinted before, the epistemological basis of the first scientists wasn't that of the modernists. Modern science actually arose, by and large, in post-Reformation Europe. The Reformation took place at around the same time as the Renaissance, but whereas the Renaissance was a humanist movement that looked back to the classical era, the Reformation was fundamentally a Christian movement, that was shaped by people with a high regard for the Bible. The epistemology of the Reformation was widely shared in post-Reformation Europe, even though the man in the street would perhaps have been no more able to explain it than the man on the Clapham Omnibus can today explain postmodernism, despite the fact that he has an aversion to the idea of absolute truth.

So what was this epistemology? It was based on the Bible, and it is founded upon the idea of a God who had created the universe. There is a gap between this creator God and humanity, caused by the rejection of the authority of God by humanity. This means that the creator God is now hidden from humanity, and the universe is “messed up”. But God wanted to act to restore the proper relationship between himself and humans, and has acted to do so.

God has made himself known to humans, firstly in general revelation (the idea that when we look at the universe, or ourselves, there are signs that there is a god), and secondly in special revelation (the Bible gives us a much more full account of what God is like, in particular in the person of Jesus, and these are consistent with what we see in the world).

The picture we are given about God in the Bible is that (from the point of view of a working epistemology) he is eternally consistent and he is the creator of the universe. Humans were created within the universe to know God, and he is seeking to make himself known to us.

So what, in short terms, is the nature of this epistemological foundation? It is that we can know truth because there is an external absolute who created us to know it. We are unable to know more than subjectively, but we can be confident that there is a correspondence between our subjective knowledge and objective truth about the universe because there is an objective knower who is making it known to us.

What are some of the effects of this?
  • Our instinct that there is such a thing as objective truth would be well-founded – it isn't simply a by-product of a chemical reaction. Nor is it simply a “good working hypothesis”, with no necessary basis in anything that is real.
  • No human viewpoint is artificially “privileged” - everybody has access to both “general revelation” through which God makes himself known and now also “special revelation” in which God gives more detail about what he has done to deal with the gap between himself and humanity.
  • The gathering of knowledge about the universe (“science”) is a reasonable pursuit – if God is eternal and consistent, we can work on the basis that all else being equal, the universe will behave in a consistent and predictable way. So naturalism is a sensible methodological approach within this epistemological framework. Further, perhaps one could argue that the more knowledge that we gather about the universe, the more clearly the God who created it will be revealed.
  • On the other hand, since God as creator is free (in the same way that he was free to create, or not create) we have to allow the possibility that not everything about his actions will be comprehensible. His consistency doesn't mean that he is bound by the laws of the universe (which after all, he would have made!), but it does mean that he is bound by the laws of his own nature. What are the limits of this? Perhaps one could argue that naturalistic consistency would apply unless this would override God's purposes to make himself known – his self-revelation.
  • Due to the difference in nature of the creator and the created, we wouldn't expect to know exhaustively about what God is like – but that doesn't prevent us from truly knowing about God.

  • It can hardly come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog that this is very much my epistemological foundation. I see big flaws in the alternatives, all of which are dealt with in this reformed epistemology.

    In future posts, I'd like to try and show how different epistemological worldviews shape other aspects of people's philosophy.