Epistemology Isn’t Just For Philosophers

In researching, reading, and thinking about writing a book about keeping my kids Christian, I was kind of surprised to discover how important questions of epistemology began to emerge. I even decided to write an entire chapter on epistemology—in a book on raising kids! I can understand why a lot of Christians would think that’s a bit nutty, in many cases because they wouldn’t even know what epistemology is. I’m hoping in some small way that my book might help change that. Every Christian in our postmodern, relativistic, secular age needs to know not only what epistemology is, but how important are the implications for their faith.

Simply, epistemology is the study of how we know what we know, and it has been vigorously debated among philosophers in Western civilization since at least Rene Descartes (1596-1650). The reason religious faith is so problematic in the modern West is because skepticism about metaphysical ideas and historical facts is the default epistemology of the culture. Which is why I was so surprised when I saw an article at the reliably liberal and secular NPR website titled, “Skepticism about Skepticism.” I instantly thought of a quote by C.S. Lewis in his book Christian Reflections (p. 164)

[A]gnosticism is, in a sense, what I am preaching. I do not wish to reduce the skeptical element in your minds. I am only suggesting that it need not be reserved exclusively for the New Testament and the Creeds. Try doubting something else.

It is funny how people of a skeptical bent are inclined to doubt everything but their own doubts! There is of course more going on here than a psychological disposition because as Christians we know there are spiritual issues raging in the human heart. And most people are selective when it comes to their skepticism, as Lewis’ quote implies. For instance, scientism is alive and well today, which means that scientific knowledge is rarely questioned because many people believe it is the only path to true knowledge. For everything else, especially religious and historical claims, skepticism is the default position. The author of the NPR piece, a psychology professor, gives some good advice:

[T]aken too far, skepticism misses its mark. It’s important to avoid the error of believing something we ought not to believe, but it’s also important to avoid the error of failing to believe that which we should. If the aim is to detect signal — and not merely to reject noise — then an educational win would require greater differentiation between warranted and unwarranted claims, not merely rejection of the unwarranted. This point is sometimes lost in praising skepticism and skeptical thinking, with its emphasis on what we reject rather than what we uphold.

Those who have a knee jerk rejection of Christianity and its historical claims often never even grant that those claims could possibly have some warrant. They’ve been indoctrinated by the secular culture, specifically media, entertainment, and education that any truth claims of Christianity fall under the rubric of “religion” and those require “faith.” In this perfect example of question begging, faith is defined as believing in something when there is no evidence and thus that thing is impossible to know. These are questions of epistemology.

Descartes introduced an idea into Western thought that plagues many if not most people in our post-modern relativistic age. According to R.C. Sproul, Descartes set up four rules that needed to be followed in the quest for truth. The first of which stated: “never accept as true anything that is not known to be true without absolute certainty.” The problem with this rule is that absolute certainty is impossible, so if Descartes is right we can never know that anything is true!

I spend an entire chapter arguing that this is balderdash, but everything turns on how we define faith. My definition comes from how we utilize faith every day: trust based on adequate evidence. Get in a car, or on an airplane, go to the doctor, or to the grocery store or a restaurant. We can’t have absolute certainty that we will not be harmed when we do these thing, but we exercise faith that we will not. This faith is no different than when we are confronted with the historical claims of the resurrections, the deity of Christ, or the inspiration of the Bible. Is there adequate evidence to believe those things. Yes, and far more than most can imagine.