Question: [After seeing a video on youtube of an atheist going around interviewing Christians on their view of knowledge and why they believe what they do]… Epistemology is not my strength. Could you help me out in better understanding it to be prepared for someone like this.
Epistemology is one of the most fundamental fields of thinking for anyone. Whether a person is a believer, atheist, agnostic, or even someone that has never picked up a book on or heard of the word is irrelevant. Everyone engages in epistemology whether they realize it or not.
Epistemology is a branch of philosophy; in a nutshell it is the study of knowledge and how it is obtained. This goes into questions like: what is truth, how can I know something, how can I know that I know something, is what I know true, and can I know what I do to be true? Those are just a few examples but for our purposes here we won’t go too in depth. So it is evident that even if you have never heard of the word, we clearly engage in these questions even if we have never thought of them. There are many things we believe for various reasons. For example our senses give us knowledge about the world around us. We know that bananas are yellow and turn brown when bruised because of what we see and experience. So in that sense our knowledge of bananas being yellow is based on our faculty of sight and experience in that every time we have seen a ripe banana it has been yellow.
In contrast to this we can all think of a time that we once believed something that we no longer take to be true. For example, perhaps at one point you believed in Santa Clause because your parents told you he was real and every December 25th you had presents with his name on it. As an adult you no longer hold this belief, (at least I hope you do not) but the question is, why? To have knowledge one must have what is called a “justified true belief”. Merely believing something does not make it true. There are many things many people believe that simply cannot be true no matter how sincere they are. They are simply sincerely wrong. But how do we know? Let’s unpack what a justified true belief must include.
First we need a justification for a belief. Let’s use the Santa Clause example as an illustration. The belief in Santa Clause was once held because there were certain justifications that gave us credibility to believe it: cookies and milk were gone, presents were under the tree, and so forth. However, when the truth is revealed that it has been the parents the whole time, we now have what is called a defeater for that belief. A defeater is something that invalidates a justification that one had for a previously held belief and is therefore unwarranted in keeping that belief. So the first step to having a justified true belief is that you have justifications for a belief with no good defeaters. This is not to say that people won’t ever disagree with your point of view but rather that you have defeaters for their defeaters which warrant you in keeping your beliefs based on those justifications. So if my justification stand through the test of defeaters then I am warranted in keeping what I hold to be true.
Second we need our justification to be true. That being said the next logical question is, “what is truth”? There are a few theories of truth but for purposes here we will get right to it and take the correspondence theory of truth. This states that truth is whatever corresponds with reality. So if my belief that Santa Clause exist is justified on the belief that 2+2=5 then, although I have a justification for this belief, my belief is not true. In other words my justification does not correspond accurately with reality. So not only do I need a justification, but beliefs regarding the things in question must be true (meaning they correspond with reality). And lastly, of course, I must believe whatever it is I want to hold to be true. Once those things are properly acquired then we have what is called a “justified, true belief” which gives us knowledge of reality.
Who cares right? Well the important question to ask ourselves is, “how serious do I take my beliefs”? Have you ever sat down for a few minutes, wrote out what you believe about God, the after life, Christianity, etc and then asked yourself, “now what are my justifications for my beliefs, are they accurate, what are the defeaters against them and could I defeat those defeaters in order to keep my beliefs and do these beliefs line up with reality”? Does this sound like too much? It will only if you do not take your mental life seriously which is a big no no according to the greatest commandment that tells us to love God with all our minds. Those who do not take this seriously are one of the reasons the world does not take us seriously. Also, these are good conversation starting questions when engaging with an unbeliever because they too must have justifications for their beliefs. (click on the link in the next paragraph for more on that)
One more thing to note is that the question of epistemology is at root the very thing we are fighting against when we engage with our secular culture. How so? Because two main epistemic views dominate our culture and society: scientific naturalism (scientism) and post modernism. Scientific naturalism (scientism) in a nutshell is the view that only physical things exist and therefore the only way to gain knowledge is through science which uses our five sense. That is to say if I can not see, touch, taste, smell, or hear something then it is not something that can be known to exist or does not exist at all. So clearly this leaves God out of the picture, morality, the soul, consciousness, love, etc. The second, post modernism, is the view that knowledge and truth are subjective and dependant on everyone you ask. In other words, there is no way to gain objective knowledge and there is no truth. Space would not permit me to go more in depth about these views but just understand that this is what we are fighting against. Click here to watch the second class of our apologetics course regarding these issues.
Lastly there is the question of certainty. It is quite possible and almost always the case that we are not 100 percent certain about the things that we have good reasons to believe. Does this mean that we can not know what we believe to be true? In short, no. Take for example a student who studied long hours for a test. The morning of the test his friend asks the question, “Do you think you know the answers to the test”? And in a response filled with nervous anxiety the student responds, “I don’t know”. Here is a case of uncertainty. However the next day he learns that not only did he pass the test but he got a 100 on the test. He knew every answer even though had uncertainty and even though he didn’t know that he knew all the answers. We must not allow doubt, although sometimes useful, to run our mental lives. It is vital that you understand that certainty is a question of your own psychological state about the question at hand, not about the question itself. So it is perfectly find to admit that you are not 100 percent certain about something, but are still justified in holding to the beliefs that you do based on the knowledge that you have. As long as your claim to knowledge is more plausible than the negation of what you claim to believe. In other words, I believe in “x” because to believe in “not x” is less plausible given this, that, and the other.
So one more time, epistemology is the study of knowledge and how it is obtained, to have knowledge you must have good justifications that are true and be able to answer any posed defeaters to your justifications. The two epistemic views we are fighting against are scientism and post modernism. We must be able to present defeaters for this view in order to argue for our position. It is ok to be uncertain about an issue because certainty is a question of your confidence and not a question of truth itself regarding the thing in question.
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