Reflections on Biblical and
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What Is Knowledge?  A New Look at an Old Subject

 

 

Why do philosophers immediately jump from “what knowledge is” to “the validity of knowledge,” usually in the form of “justified true belief” (JTB).  JTB is a giant step beyond what knowledge is as an entity.  The pursuit should begin with a definition of knowledge and then proceed to an evaluation of the certainty of knowledge or whether it is true or not?  I define knowledge as that which a mind contains and about which it functions—carries on its activities.  What is the “that which?”  “That which” is the function of the mind because knowledge cannot exist without a mind.  Knowledge is the functioning of the mind?  At this point I am not making a claim about whether any particular knowledge is true or not, just how knowledge should be defined.

 

Reader, ponder this connection for a moment.  Knowledge and mind are inseparable.  While an object, for example, the moon may exist as an independent object, any “knowledge” of it must be perceived by a mind.  Here, we shall not reflect on what this link between knowledge and mind means for the concept of monism (physicalism or idealism) or dualism, but this association seems most consistent with dualism (the Biblical position).

 

A body of knowledge would be that which a particular mind contains, as propositions.  We could rightly speak of a body of knowledge about a particular subject, for example, neurology, which would be knowledge about nervous systems held by a number of minds, including written form.  But even writing is only the presence of symbols on a page until a mind interprets them as knowledge.  Or, a body of knowledge could be that knowledge of neurology known by one mind.

 

I read novels to help me relax, particularly in the evenings, and to quiet my mind before I go to bed.  Now, a novel contains a great deal of knowledge—most of it fiction.  (See particular notes at the end of this paper on “Fictional knowledge.”But it is knowledge.  I “know” the characters, the plot, and the various events that occur along the way.  Contained therein is a great deal of knowledge—mostly untrue (fiction) except as it might touch on actual historical persons and events.  No one would claim that the story and its characters are true, but they are still some kind of knowledge.

 

Further, JTB inescapably infers that there is knowledge that is not true.  That is, knowledge that is not JTB, is not true or at least not worth considering.  If such knowledge is not true, it is knowledge that is false.  So, knowledge as it is used traditionally in philosophy is really a concern for truth.  Then, why is the focus on the word “knowledge” and not the word “truth.”  I don’t know the answer to that.  Maybe there is an historian of philosophy out there who can answer that origin for me.  I would speculate that “knowledge” does not have the demand and exclusivity that “truth” does.  Truth makes a profound statement that all that is different from its own statement is false.  But one can say this JTB is mine and that you can have your own JTB.

 

There are four traditional “methods of knowing” (epistemology): innate (intuitive, implanted, mystical, inborn), empirical (experiential, experimental, inductive), rational (deductive, theoretical, derived), and belief (faith, assumed, presuppositional).  But are not these distorting what knowledge is vs. whether it is true or not?  (Concerning “innate,” I do not think that the actually selected categories of Kant are important, as they could be listed or defined in a different listing).  Further, we could not all agree on these caetgories.  Even further, I am not speaking solely of categories, but innate, actual knowledge, as when the baby cries for some need.  Such is not a category, but a specific need.)

 

Picture a brain, as the physical repository (storage place) of the mind (not fully accurate, but consider this a working model).  Picture the knowledge that it might contain as printed words.  How could those printed words get into the mind/brain?  There are only two possibilities: they were there when it was formed or they came in later.  Since this mind/brain is attached to a body  with senses and motor functions, bodily mechanism can be a means to get words into that mind/brain.  Let us call that process, active knowledge.  It is also possible that words could be implanted directly into that mind/brain by someone else without any effort on the part of the owner of the mind/brain with or without his awareness in a passive manner.  (I am talking about knowledge per se, not an implanted chip or other storage device.)  This source would be supernatural (mystical), since not part of the natural efforts of the owner would be required.

 

So, how does our view of this mind/brain fit with the recognized sources of knowledge?  Innate is simple and clear, but would also include supernatural sources after the “creation” of the mind/brain, since both innate and supernatural are passive.  Empirical is the process just described whereby the motor and sensory functions of the body are used to acquire information. 

 

Reason (rational, logical) is taking the knowledge that already exists somewhere to gain additional knowledge by induction or deduction or simply transfer (reading or hearing).  Thus, reason is a tool.  So, any knowledge derived in this manner is dependent upon knowledge that exists prior to the reasoning process.[1]  Reason (rationalism), then, cannot be a means of knowledge because it is dependent upon knowledge that is already present. 

 

But, what about belief?  Now, we face something different.  Belief says something about the truth of knowledge, whereby the sources already cited only described how the knowledge got there.  Thus, belief is not a source of knowledge, but a commitment to the truth of that knowledge. 

 

Belief, then, is not a source of knowledge either, but a commitment to the truth (value, worth, importance, accuracy) or falsity of that information.  We are left with only two actual sources of knowledge: passive (innate or supernatural) and active (empirical by natural, bodily means, including transfer by reading and hearing).

 

The traditional antithesis of reason and faith are not sources of knowledge but the evaluation of whether the present knowledge located within a (person's) mind is true or not.  They say nothing about how that knowledge came to be present.  Thus, epistemology is not really about methods  of knowing, but whether the knowledge that is present is true or can be extended by inference (inductive or deductive). 

 

By this analysis, empiricism says nothing about the truth of the knowledge acquired.  Its truth has to be evaluated by criteria that do not come with the knowledge itself.  The same can be said for reason.  Reason only uses the knowledge that is already present.  Virtually all philosophers accept that the valid application of the laws of logic only determine truth when its stated propositions are true.  Thus, reason really does not determine truth, it is only able to make inferences from axioms initially stated.  It does not determine the source of truth, but merely extends it to further applications. 

 

My conclusion is that the longstanding antithesis between faith and reason is false.  Either or both are “givens,” not acquired actively.  Thus, my values and my criteria for reasoning are not my own, but given to me. 

 

*Added after initial posting: It comes to me that the actual act of positing a position is a dependently rational process.  To make a statement of faith, one has to have considerable understanding of language (a rational system of symbols and concepts), logic (to arrange all those symbols and concepts is a rational process), and some rational concept of what it means to make a statement of faith.  It seems as if faith and reason are, then, different words to state the same thing.  This idea is much closer to faith and reason than an antithesis.)

 

Anticipating Some Challenges

 

Some philosophers might challenge that I am operating in a “premodern” context, that is, I am looking at the world no differently from the church fathers and the ancients.  But now we live this side of Kant, Descartes, Hume, Locke, and many others.  One could say that knowing has been made “problematical.”  But I counter with, “Who is authorized to determine how knowledge should be discussed?”  Sometimes one can deal with all other discussion simply by stating one’s own position and that statement is itself a refutation of all other positions.  To say that I or anyone else has to answer all the problems posed by all the “great” philosophers is to let them determine the course of my argument.  That hardly seems “fair.”  Even in that statement, who are those who are “great,” and why limit challenges to them only?  There may be some obscure philosopher who has a brilliant idea that (1) either has not caught on yet (as Spinoza and Kierkegaard lay dormant for some time), or (2) the “mainstream” philosophers have ignored him into obscurity.

 

Cannot one even attribute this attitude to modern arrogance?  How is it that we moderns have some corner on knowledge, truth, and other matters simply because we live after those who have come before?[2]  There are more liberal Christians in the last 150 years than ever existed on planet earth.  Is their knowledge an advance for Christianity?  There are more Muslims on planet earth than ever before.  Is that an advance for the world from an evangelical Christian position?  It seems that the ultimate claim for my position is that no modern advancements have shown the need for changes in Biblical texts.  The Dead Sea Scrolls and other discoveries have shown that the Bible today is not affected in anyway approaching “significance” from such texts.  No, the claim of modernity is an empty claim.

 

Then, there is the problem of acceptance by others.  I have found that one either accepts an argument of another or he does not.  Length and breadth of argument rarely, if ever, achieves what clarity in brevity does.  Further, what standard would be used to determine when I have answered sufficiently?  There will always be the critic who wants another point addressed.

 

(As an aside, all these challenges just embellish my dislike of JTB.  There is simply no recognized standard among philosophers, past or present.  Trying to justify knowledge for every philosophical challenge is not possible.)

 

At this point I am not proposing an apology for Christianity or Biblical truth.  That process would indeed require engagement of other epistemological methods.  For now, I am simply proposing that the consideration of knowledge should not begin with its justification or truth, but how it gets in the mind in the first place. 

 

Consciousness and knowledge.  What about knowledge that exists in peripheral consciousness or the “unconscious?”[3]  These states do not change the concept of knowledge which is not a matter of what is or is not readily available to the mind.  The mind still exists as an entity with a “body of knowledge.”

 

We can equate “knowledge” with “consciousness” of an object or idea.  I “know” an object if I am aware of it, regardless of the extent of my knowledge of it.  I “know” that the Trinity exists, but I will never “know” the fullness of what that means.

 

Fictional knowledge.  I mentioned the content of novels as “knowledge” above.  One reviewer asks, “How is it possible to know that which does not exist?”  It seems that this question really penetrates to the core of what knowledge is or is not.  Certainly, a novel contains knowledge: name of characters, plots, and some sort of ending that usually summarizes all these together.  I “know” that author X has written about characters A, B, C, and D with QRS as the plot.  All that subject matter is in my mind, having first been in the author’s mind.  Thus, this knowledge exists!  Is this conclusion not irrefutable?

 

Again, the question is not really about knowledge per se, but about whether that knowledge is true and what it means to “exist.”  Existence is the area of metaphysics.  Is it then a proper consideration of epistemology?  Certainly!  All the areas of philosophy are linked and interrelated.  What I “know” about “existence” is central, as is how I “exist” in order to “know” (Descartes).  It is simply a matter of what one chooses to posit as a first principle. 

 

“Existence,” “substance,” “essence,” “real,” and other such words are more than we can discuss here.  However, we can at least from the opposite direction of Descartes, say that there is some factor of “knowing” to anything that “exists.”  A planet in a galaxy beyond the most powerful telescope “exists,” but to be given the name “planet” or a proper name that identifies That Planet with particular characteristics (universals) necessitates a mind that knows.  Could one say that identification of an object requires a mind, even though identification is not required for its existence?

 

Perhaps the most important role here of whether something exists is the question of truth that was discussed above.  Is knowledge in a novel true?  That is an interesting question.  I just read a passage in a novel that made me laugh and laugh and laugh.  Can I interact with “non-knowledge?”  I think not—I know not.  But such consideration takes us to back to the core importance of knowledge—whether it is true of not. 

 

As a Bible-believing Christian, I can posit that the great majority of knowledge in all the minds of the world is false because that knowledge exists without God being its ontology and epistemology.  Does That Planet truly exist without a mind to perceive it or to create it?  In a dualistic universe, yes.  In a physicalist, monergistic universe, no.  Chemical reactions and “epiphenomena” are not minds.  There can be no consciousness of inert materials, no matter how strongly these “minds” want to deny their own existence. 

 

Perception.  Can we say that knowledge and perception are the same?  I perceive a chair with certain material, arms, rollers, and a soft fabric.  I perceive the particulars of a particular chair.  My knowledge of that chair is the same as my perception of it. Knowledge and perception are the same thing.  Again, the issue is what is true.

 

We have three synonyms so far: knowledge, perception, and consciousness.  As an aside, the plethora of synonyms in both theology and philosophy cause a great deal of confusion.  I can construct a sentence with either one of our three words here, and without some definitive reflection, the sentences will seem to differ in their meaning.

 

I know my favorite recliner, and what about it appeals to me.

I perceive my favorite recliner, and what about it appeals to me.

I am conscious of my favorite recliner, and what about it appeals to me.

 

Romans 1:19ff.  Every person ever born (with the exception of those with limited brain function) knows God sufficiently to be without excuse.  But exactly what do they know?  Such particulars have been and will be debated until the end of time.  But the most important point is (1) that such knowledge is either innate or implanted (comes from outside the person) or (2) that it is acquired by the speech or writing of someone else that is heard or read.

 

The laws of logic.  What is interesting about certain states of mind that trouble our concept of “existence” and “knowledge” is that the laws of logic still apply.  In a dream, the law of identity and the law of non-contradiction still apply within the context of the dream.  In an hallucination, it is the perception of its being “real” that is frightening.  The demons that an alcoholic perceives are “real” enough to frighten him.  The voices of a schizophrenic are “real” or else he would not be concerned.  In both these states, the laws of logic apply or there would be no problem.  So, it would seem that the laws  of logic govern thoughts whether they are true or not. 

 

Addendum:  Plato and the Original Warranted True Belief

 

Early in the Socratic dialogue with Theatatus, Socrates asks him whether knowledge and wisdom are the same.  Theatatus answers, "Yes."  And, thus we have needless confusion from the beginning of this warranted (justified) true belief.  The problem is that knowledge and wisdom can be synonyms, but they are not always synonymous.  The wise men (Sophists) were know for their duplicity of beliefs, arguing for either side of a position equally forcefully.  Were they wise?  What reasonable person would think so?  In fact, their actions have caused "sophistry" to have negative connotations.

 

Wisdom would have been a better choice for justified true belief.  Wisdom is commonly associated with truth.  So, wisdom would need to be justified and determined whether it was true or not.  But that is not the major point here.

 

The major point is that Sophists have knowledge that is both true and false.  They are identified for this duplicity.  This bolsters my argument above, that knowledge is that which occupies the mind.  Knowledge is anything with which the mind is engaged.  So, the simpler process is to determine whether a particular bit or set of knowledge is true or not, rather than the complex "justification," "truth," and "belief."  On the last term, knowledge can be "believed" to be true, but not embraced (James 2:19). 

 

Endnotes

[1] The Westminster Confession of Faith shows is a philosophically sound document because Chapter 1, Section 6, directs that knowledge (truth) that is not explicitly stated in Scripture may be “deduced” from it.  Thus, Scripture may be more widely applicable and that such valid deduction has the same authority as Scripture.

[2] Alvin Plantinga’s primary concern in Warranted Christian Belief  is whether “classical Christian belief” is  “intellectually acceptable now” (his emphasis).  David Hall rightly calls this attitude Arrogance of the Modern (the title his book on the subject).  Actually, I can demonstrate that the only advancement of moderns is their technology, not their ability "to know" or their wisdom.  Moderns who have this attitude (and it is widely prevalent, even among Christians) are simply demonstrating the intellectual vacuity of their times in a foolish manner.

[3] I choose “peripheral consciousness” to separate myself from the psychological concept of the “subconscious” or “unconscious.”  If some knowledge is truly one of these latter states, it cannot be "conscious.And studies of techniques for probing these areas, such as, hypnosis, have been shown to be unreliable.  I have written on this subject here.

 


 

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