Knowing a Lot About Nothing Much
Ever since Wittgenstein and Foucault burst onto the scene, the justification of knowledge has been a big issue. To Wittgenstein and the post-modernists that emerged in his wake, all knowledge is the product of perspectives and the sub-set of language which reflects and reinforces each particular perspective. The meaning of “linguistic signs” came from the processes of learning the language of each respective perspective, or world-view. Thus post-modernism was born: all human knowledge is circular, conditioned, and relative. The assertion, “This is the truth” becomes “This is my perspective”–a far less significant claim.
One consequence has been the growing focus upon the basis for knowledge, and how knowledge itself can be justified or regarded as authoritative. Historically, there have been three basic tendencies offered in the non-Christian world to justify knowledge. The first tendency is rationalism. The second is empiricism. The third is subjectivism which is where post-modernism would probably be anchored. John Frame argues that these three should be regarded as tendencies, rather than schools, since advocates of one of these perspectives inevitably mixes in doses of the other two. [John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1987), 9.109]
We can illustrate this by considering rationalism.
The rationalist, or the idealist, wants a certain ground for knowledge that is not dependent upon human senses or human subjectivity. He would ground certainty in criteria:
For example, we have experienced a great many “circular” objects, one of which, however, is perfectly circular. In all of them there are defects, tiny in some, more obvious in others. Thus we have never experienced a more perfect circle. Yet somehow, mysteriously, we know what a perfect circle is. We can test circles to see how close or how far removed from perfection they are, because somehow we have in our minds a criterion of circularity. [Frame, op cit., p. 111.]
These criteria form certain and infallible premises, from which we can deduce truth logically. For example, the classic rationalist might reason:
A circle is perfectly round
That shape has corners
Therefore, it is not a circle.
But the notion that we can deduce all knowledge from infallible, self-evident, and certain criteria quickly collapses upon examination. As Frame argues:
We can, however, deduce very little from such a priori ideas. Certainly, we cannot deduce the whole fabric of human knowledge from them or even enough knowledge to constitute a meaningful philosophy. Nothing follows from the laws of logic, taken alone, except possible more laws of logic. From propositions about our own mental states, nothing follows except further propositions about our own mental states. . . .
Thus, if knowledge is limited to the sorts of propositions we have just examined, we will know only about our own minds and not about the real world. We cannot reason from our mental states to the real world because our mental states often deceive us. Thus rationalism leaves us know with the body of certainties that Plato and Descartes dreamed of but with no knowledge at all of the real world. [Ibid., p. 113]
Which is to say that rationalism can provide only the certain knowledge of tautologies–that which is true by definition. It may be most certainly true that the red barn is red, and the knowledge expressed my be genuine, but we have discovered nothing significant or meaningful at all.
The rationalist seeks certainty outside of God and His Word of revelation to us. Consequently, certainty and the criteria for thought are grounded in man’s own innate ideas and his reasoning from them. But the quest for meaningful certainty becomes hopelessly lost. Abstract truth cannot move out to the real world. Faced with being locked up in Plato’s cave, cut off from the real world, the rationalist inevitably resorts to empiricism, to data from the senses, in order to escape the prison of generalised, abstract innate ideas. But it does so only by means of contradicting the fundamental precepts of rationalism itself. Inescapably, rationalism elides into an irrationalism of internal contradiction.
But rationalism also leads to scepticism and ignorance.
Rationalism seeks the most abstract knowledge possible, but in doing that it finds it can make no specific claims about the world. The idolatrous quest for exhaustive human knowledge always leads to emptiness, skepticism, and ignorance. [Ibid., p.114]
As a justification for human knowledge, rationalism is a blind alley.