Epistemology 101: Science, Faith and Authority Part I

This three-part blog series is essentially the talk I gave at the recent Clearing the Air Forum, which was entitled “Discovering Truth in the Synthesis of Science and Faith.” The audience was comprised of scientists, church leaders, journalists and other interested parties so this is a fairly lay introduction to epistemology.

I was asked to address the epistemological issues around the climate change debate from a Christian perspective. In some ways I feel significantly under qualified to address this issue, I have no degrees in or knowledge of climatology, I am a theologian with an interest in Philosophy of Religion. Despite this, my research into religious epistemology has led me to some conclusions as to how faith and science should relate and how those of us who are Christians should respond to scientific challenges or purported scientific challenges to our theological beliefs. I’ve also gained some understanding on the role of testimony and the way believing things on the basis of authority figures in our knowledge. So, given this, I would like to share a few of my conclusions with you.

What is Epistemology?
Epistemology is one of those technical terms that often makes peoples eyes glaze over but it is important to grasp what it is. You may know it as “ways of knowing” or “the theory of knowledge.” Human beings are knowers, we like to gain accurate information about the world, about morality, about God and a whole host of other subjects.

Sometimes we do this task well and sometimes we do it poorly. A person, for example, who believed the moon was made of green cheese on the basis that he had resolved to believe this if a coin-toss came up heads (and it had in fact come up heads) has believed poorly. The way he believes is irrational, it does not count as knowledge, his belief is unjustified and so on. Epistemology involves asking questions such as, what is it to have knowledge, what is it to be justified? The idea is to help gain clarity as to what knowledge is, how we ought to believe and so on.

The subject and literature is vast and I cannot really do it justice here, so I will just give some basics.

Since the time of Plato it has been widely acknowledged that knowledge involves at least two things: belief and truth. I have found that scientists often get irritated when they are told that their knowledge is a form of belief. This, however, is based on a verbal confusion. In epistemology to believe something is to simply think that it is the case, it is to assent to a proposition. I believe that the sky is blue if I think that the sky is blue; if I do not think this, if, in fact, I think that the sky is over-cast and grey then I do not believe that the sky is blue.

What is meant by truth is defined best by Aristotle, “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” A belief is true if what you think is the case actually is the case. My belief that the sky is blue is true if the sky is blue and it is false if it is not blue but some other colour such as green. Truth is determined by facts about the world, the way things are; the point of being a knower is that one tries to match what one believes with reality. Knowledge involves achieving this match.

My Knowing P then involves at least two things:

[1] I believe P
[2] P

The problem is that while these two conditions are necessary for knowledge they are not sufficient. Suppose I decide to choose beliefs about a particular subject matter on the basis of a coin-toss. Every time I throw a heads I will affirm the proposition and every time I throw a tails I will deny it. If such a method were employed I would, at least sometimes, form true beliefs but I would not have knowledge as my grasp of the truth would be the result of a lucky guess. Some third condition (or conditions) are needed.

One of the biggest issues in epistemology today involves working out what this third condition is. The normal starting point in the discussion is the idea that knowledge is a justified true belief, I know when I believe P, that P is the case and that I am justified in believing P.

[1] I believe P
[2] P
[3] I am justified in believing P

At the same time it is also widely acknowledged that this position is incomplete. In a short but very important paper Edmund Gettier put forward a series of counter examples to the idea that knowledge is justified true belief. Consider the following. You are watching the All Blacks beat the Spring Boks on Sky TV and so you justifiably believe “the All Blacks beat the Spring Boks.” As it turns out, Sky has mucked its coverage up and the game you are watching is a repeat of a previous Tri-Nations win. Coincidentally, however, the All Blacks are playing the Spring Boks this very night and they win the game. Your belief is true and justified, yet it is not knowledge. Something more is needed to turn justified true belief into knowledge.

Much of the debate in the contemporary epistemology is about how best to fix this problem and arrive at an answer as to what is needed to be added to true belief to make it into knowledge. Broadly speaking, accounts of knowledge fall into two schools, internalist and externalist.

The internalist school emphasises properties that are internal to the consciousness of the knower, conditions the knower could be aware of on reflection – such things as appearing to be true, not having any reasons to think something false or reasons for thinking something false that are not outweighed by other reasons. It involves being coherent, believing responsibly and not carelessly and so on. These are all things that the knower can be aware of in an important sense.

Externalist positions, on the other hand, emphasise conditions that the knower may not be aware of and may be unable to become aware of. Such things as basing one’s beliefs on what is, in fact, a reliable method or cognitive process, having properly functioning cognitive faculties, the belief being caused by the truth in question or tracking the truth in the right way. Frequently one cannot demonstrate the truth of these conditions for the obvious reason that we need to use our mind and belief sources to conduct such a demonstration in the first place. What is important on this view is that these sources are actually reliable, that they work properly, hook up to truth in the correct way and so on.

The basic point is that despite slogans such as “you are entitled to believe whatever you like” not all beliefs are equal. We should aim to believe what is true, there are good and bad ways of believing, being rational involves trying to avoid the latter and seek the former.

In Part II, I look at testimony and authority and in Part III, I look at what to do when authorities clash.


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