How do we know what we know?
I’m writing a guest post because Grant had asked me to explain my reasons for belief in God and in everlasting hell. As someone who has struggled with both intellectual and emotional doubts from time to time, coming to the conclusion of the veracity of these two things is not something that has been untried in my life; in other words, I don’t just believe because “God said so.”
However, as I thought about this post, it became clear to me that I would have to start out by exploring ways of knowing – epistemology, or how we know what we know. Reason and logic are good ways of knowing to start out with because they are universally accessible to just about anyone. Scientific testing – which leads to empirical knowledge – can be used to establish theories and laws about how our universe works. Everyone can agree that the system of Newtonian physics is a good explanation of several kinds of natural phenomena that we experience on this earth. However, even this kind of scientific knowing is limited; if Einstein hadn’t discovered the theory of relativity, we may still be living with a Newtonian understanding of the world, and our knowledge would have been incomplete and therefore wrong. We are still in the midst of learning more about what the scientific method can tell us, and it’s feasible to believe that we will never fully arrive.
Reasonable, scientific knowing also rests on a set of assumptions that cannot be tested. Some of these assumptions are that the universe is knowable, that it follows predictable patterns, and that phenomena always have physical, materialistic explanations. The hard form of this belief, called logical positivism, imagines the universe as entirely material, with no spirit. Because all material interactions can be explained by physics (and what are chemistry and biology really, if not also explainable by physical laws?), it’s possible that one day we will arrive at a universal theory that can explain all of existence. However, because the universe is only material and physical, whatever it is that set the eternal matter/energy in motion is still guiding the universe; it cannot be stopped but rather determines how everything will turn out, and ultimately even we, as humans, do not have free will.
Therefore, anyone who believes that humans have agency (free will) or believes in God cannot also be a logical positivist. It therefore follows that such a person would agree that scientific knowing is limited, and not adequate for explaining the whole of reality.
So, science aside, what are other ways one can arrive at truth? I’m interested in knowing what you all think here. In the Methodist schematic, religious truth comes from scripture (revelation), tradition, experience, and reason. But if we start at a more basic level (but not quite to the point of Descartes, who doubted everything he could doubt until he arrived at his famous, “I think, therefore I am.”), I think we as humans can take in information about the truth of reality by one of four ways: our five senses in apprehending an experience, intuition (or “sixth sense”), personal revelation (from God, angel, or demon), or belief in the testimony of another who has gained information in one of these other three ways.
Alas, this post has already gotten long, and I haven’t even addressed how I know that there are a God and an afterlife. So I will end here with the thought of continuing my evidence of this in another discursion.