Thursday, October 12, 2006

How Do We Know What We Know? Part One

“Do you really believe all that Bible stuff?” my colleague asked me.
“Yes I do” I quickly replied.
“But how do you know it’s true?”

My friend had a curious mind. I don’t know how much he had thought about that question. I’m not sure if he was asking the first question that came to mind or if he had thought about that question before. It’s the GREAT question. How do we know anything is true? How do we know what we know?

I asked my friend,
“What color shirt are you wearing?” He looked down and answered with great confidence, “Orange.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I can see it.”
“Do you always believe what your eyes are telling you? Is sight the determiner of truth? Have you ever watched an illusionist perform his tricks, have you ever been fooled by special effects in the movies?
What if I am color blind, can I trust my eyes to tell me what color anything is. No, I hope you are not depending on your eyes and even any of your senses as a good source of knowledge.”

My friend stared at me with a worried smile and so I continued.
“What is color? What is orange? Light reflects off of your shirt and we measure the waves of light at a certain frequency within the visible spectrum. We get a large convention of people together and by majority vote we decide that the hue that falls within this frequency is ‘orange’. We have discovered nothing about it’s essence, we have revealed nothing about it’s nature, we have only named it and the name is an arbitrary label created through common convention.”

I had seen the look in my friend’s eyes before. It’s the look of one’s world starting to shift and teeter. His mind was racing down familiar avenues but everything was beginning to blur. Names were falling off of once familiar items - the deck of cards was slipping toward collapse and he was finding no means to stop it.
He looked back down at his shirt and then at me and asked, “Then what color IS my shirt and how do we know anything?”

What a wonderful question! It’s a question that strips away all of our self-delusions about perception and searches for a solid foundation for truth.

Our Worldview and The First Principle
Everyone, whether or not they have taken the time to mentally organize it, has a worldview. One’s worldview is a frame work, a skeleton on which we hang and support our thoughts and conclusions, our system of morality, our motivations and purpose. Your worldview guides your decisions and the way you live. The entire world is presented with the very same evidence and data, how we process that evidence depends upon our worldview. The evolutionist, the creationist and the proponent of intelligent design are not looking at different bodies of evidence. They see the same things but their means of collecting and forming conclusions is directed by their worldview. You have been forming your worldview since the day you were born and began collecting information. Your worldview is a complex web like processor but it sits upon one first and foundational principle. This first principle is the one statement that you assume to be true and you believe has enough integrity to support your entire worldview. A first principle, like an axiom in geometry, is unprovable. It is unprovable because it is the first principle and there is no principle before or above it that we may measure it by. What are some typical first principles?

“Life is short so grab for all the ‘gusto’ you can.”
“Let us seek the greatest pleasure in all things.”
“Do unto others as you would have then do unto you.”
“Look for the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”
“Science will answer all our questions and give us a greater future.”
“It’s a dog eat dog world and I’m going to watch out for me.”
“There is no God, we are here by random accidents so ‘whatever’.”

Here is a great way to redeem the time. Spend some time thinking about what your first principle is. Examine the way that you make decisions about how you spend your time and your resources. Look at those things you consider important and find the life principles that lie behind your considerations. Try to work back to a first principle. It will be a conviction that is unprovable and yet you have committed everything you believe to it, it IS your foundation.

The ultimate challenge for your first principle is this: though you cannot prove it, you can demonstrate that your first principle (axiom) leads to a more consistent structure of beliefs (worldview) than any other first principle.

When I began to ponder as to what my first principle ought to be I first settled on “There is a God”. This fell short in a hurry for this axiom didn’t explain which God. I eventually arrived at this slightly lengthier first principle.
“There is a God and He has revealed himself in His Word, the Bible.”

I have found that this principle has demonstrated itself to be a durable foundation for my beliefs. First it presupposes that there is a God. Second, that God reveals himself. Third, that God reveals himself in the Bible and fourth, that the Bible IS God’s word. The Christian’s axiom may be longer than my own but it MUST include these elements at the least in order to justify knowledge.

(Go To Part Two)


PJ said...

I took your challenge just now and, before I could begin to think about what my first principle was, I thought instead, "The entrance of Thy Word giveth light." (I was brought up on the KJV. I heard that recently (sermon?) and it stuck, even though it wasn't new to me. Yes! Nothing can come before that. But I didn't leapfrog over your first thought, showing myself to be smarter than you. I've been reading "The God-Breathed Scripture" by E. J. Young. Wonderful little book! In the past, when I've read things like, "The Bible attests to itself," I've thought to myself: "That'll sure hold up under unbelievers' scrutiny! I wouldn't be heard above his laughter, even if I did have something to say!" But I don't actually know that b/c I've never had the nerve to try it. [sigh] Dr. Richard B. Gaffin (whom I greatly respect! He once asked me--ME!--my opinion of something! Well, OK, so it wasn't about theology.) Ahem. Dr. Gaffin, in his foreword to the book cites the oh-so-familiar Proverbs 3:5-6 to back up this "nervy" idea: (1) "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and" (2) "do not lean on your own understanding." (1) "In all your way acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths" (ESV). The #1's begin with the divinity of Scripture. Number 2 begins with man and his (puny! [by comparison]) mind. Click! [light turning on] So simple, so profound. I can choose a God's-eye view of things or can try to nail down, for two seconds, a man-sized and -constructed veiw (that is, after I pick one). The first begins with the Bible's self-attestation, the other with human wisdom-de-jour (about as solid and dependable as desert sand in a Sanata Ana).

razzendahcuben said...

Technically, proof is true premises and valid form. Clarkians can't seem to come to grips with that, hence their insistence that our ultimate presupposition is "unprovable."