Ben Askins at the Open Faith Network has posted three questions:
1) Of your beliefs, what do you know to be true?
2) Of your beliefs, what have you merely conditioned yourself to believe?
3) Do you know the difference?
This is an interesting set of questions, all really getting at the idea of epistemology, or the study of how or whether it’s possible to know anything. Different philosophers have answered that question in a variety of ways. Descartes, for example, tried to strip away everything he had learned and start over, finally coming up with “I think, therefore I am,” as the first axiom on which to build his philosophy. Some folks think what we can know is obvious — just use our brains and our senses. Others question the reliability of these tools, because perhaps what seems to be external reality is really just the result of some chemical process in the brain. But since all these philosophical ideas come from — or through — our brains, how can we choose from among them?
My personal epistemology is this:
There is a God who created everything, including us and our brains and our senses and the external reality we perceive through them and the reasoning processes we use to analyze our perceptions, and our emotional processes, and all the rest. He has so created us and the universe, that we are able to know that he exists, that external reality exists, and that we exist.
There was a Fall at the beginning of humanity, in which the intimacy between God and people was broken, in which people, influenced by a fallen angel and yet not therefore unaccountable, chose to distrust God and betray his trust in them. Because of this, while we still retain a working brain and senses and reason and emotions and all, they are no longer perfectly reliable.
God took the initiative to heal the breaches, by causing the Bible to be written by its various authors at various times, which is his special revelation of his own nature, our nature, and his plan to heal; and by the acts recorded in the Bible by which, among other things, he saved Noah, delivered Israel from Egypt, came to earth himself as a child, and died and rose again to defeat the fallen angel, remove our sin, give us his own righteousness, and reconcile us to himself; and by his continuing intervention in our lives. Because of this, while we cannot completely rely on what our brains and our senses tell us, we can trust the Creator of our brains and senses to lead us into all truth.
There is a sense in which I condition myself to believe these things, because any evidence I may see — whether general revelation in external reality, or special revelation in the Bible, or particular arguments given by other people, or God himself speaking to me — comes through my brain and my senses, and is therefore subjectively perceived.
But I don’t think the subjectivity of my perceptions means there is no objectivity that I perceive. Just because a subject sees an object doesn’t mean the object doesn’t really exist.
There’s another sense in which I condition myself to believe various things. I am tempted to doubt God’s love, question the meaningfulness of life and the universe, and so on and so on. I counteract this temptation by preaching the Gospel to myself — reminding myself about what I have decided that I know to be true. Sometimes this feels lonely, and sometimes I am afraid that none of it is true after all. But what could convince me either way? Evidence for either position must still come through my perceptions, and I must either trust God or not. I think I have a lot of good reasons for choosing to believe what I’ve outlined above and not to believe what my emotions scare or depress me into suspecting, and that’s why I will say that yes, I know that what I believe is true.
Of course, there are things I am uncertain about, unanswered questions, ranging from theological things like the nature of God’s wrath to personal things like does so-and-so like me. Just because I rather firmly hold to some beliefs doesn’t mean I have all the answers.