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Saturday, 03 January 2015 12:59

Who Knows?

Written by  Matthew Jordan
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My first real encounter with philosophy came in high school. One of my social studies classes included a section on philosophy, and the teacher began that part of the course by setting a chair on top of his desk and asking us, “Does this chair exist?” You can probably guess how the conversation proceeded from there. Most of us found it obvious that the chair really did exist, and the teacher responded to our confidence with a further question: “How do you know that the chair exists?” We replied: “We can see it and we can touch it; it must exist!” The teacher, in response, pointed out that our senses are not perfectly reliable. He also pointed out the possibility that maybe we were sleeping, having an especially vivid (if rather dull) dream about a chair. After all, things that exist in our dreams often seem utterly real—until we wake up. So what was our basis for believing that we were awake and not asleep? By now, of course, we were knee-deep in one of the classic problems of philosophy: is knowledge ever possible, and if so, how is it obtained?

Many Christians will be tempted to reply that we gain knowledge from Scripture, and that’s the end of it. As the bumper sticker goes, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it!” This reply sounds very pious, but it’s deeply problematic. For one thing, the same kinds of questions my teacher asked about that chair can be asked about the Bible. Why should we believe that Paul was correct when he told Timothy that “all Scripture is God-breathed?” How do you know that Luke’s Gospel belongs in the Bible but The Book of Mormon does not? Furthermore, a moment’s reflection shows that the Bible cannot possibly be our only source of knowledge. Theologians have pointed this out for centuries, distinguishing special revelation (which tells us things about God and God’s redemptive plans that we wouldn’t be able to know otherwise) from general revelation (which concerns all other forms of knowledge). Anyone who can drive a car, or who knows who the sixteenth president was, or, for that matter, anyone who knows how to read in the first place must agree that general revelation includes much that cannot be learned from Scripture. This is not a criticism of the Bible; it’s just a fact about the situation in which we find ourselves.

 

Philosophically speaking, this situation is a difficult and interesting one. Questions about the nature and sources of knowledge deserve careful attention and clear thinking. Unfortunately, we do not live in an age where such things are very highly valued. Many people yield to the temptation of sliding into a lazy skepticism. They respond to questions like the above with a shrug and a rhetorical “who knows?” As a philosophy professor, I find this attitude disappointing. As a Christian, I find it deeply troubling. If knowledge is impossible, then no one knows whether God exists, no one knows whether Jesus rose from the dead, and no one knows whether the gospel message is true.

 

There are a lot of things to be said about these topics, and a lot of things to be said about whether that chair on my teacher’s desk really existed—far too many to attempt to summarize here. I’ll settle for closing with one brief comment. Many philosophers have suggested that the key to having real knowledge (as distinguished from mere opinion) is that knowledge is based on good reasons and sound evidence. This philosophical tradition fits well with the thinking of New Testament authors. Peter tells us to “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). God has supplied us with good reasons and sound evidence. Real knowledge of the Christian worldview is possible. Instead of shrugging our shoulders for lack of knowledge, we Christians can—and should!—present the gospel message as something that can truly be known.

 

 

 

 

Last modified on Saturday, 03 January 2015 13:02
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