Ways of Knowing

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.

– Holly

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Ways of Knowing

  1. Joseph

    Excellent post!

    The question that always comes to my mind, when debating whether or not there is “something else,” is “why would there be?”

    The most common apologetical argument I have seen never really touches the answer. It takes on the consequences instead: “If there wasn’t anything else, why would anything matter at all?” This does not answer the question of why, though – it dances around it clumsily and appeals to emotion rather than to logic. Maybe nothing does matter. Or maybe everything matters. Isn’t that up to the individual deciding?

    After all, don’t we Minnesotans decide on a regular basis that this mosquito matters less than the blood she is about to suck out of us? People make hundreds of these daily decisions on their own whim, almost entirely with an incomplete knowledge of all the circumstances surrounding them. It is typically only when something painful happens that we stop to question how we got here in the first place. But the beauty of a comfortable place in life, out on the lake fishing, can be more easily appreciated when we stop taking for granted all of the little decisions and coincidences that had to happen to get us there in the first place.

    This brings me to the wonderful idea that you put out: that there is something controlling the universe that cannot be stopped and will never stop. The ancient Chinese called this “the way.” They did not separate the way from the rest of the world – the world follows the indescribable way and the world is the way. Even the most enlightened, articulate person can understand it but can never fully express it in words. Its expression is in the way water flows down a hill, or the way rocks erode in a predictably unpredictable way over time. In “the way,” there is no end and no beginning. The is no original point where nothing existed, and there will never be a point where nothing exists. In Zen Buddhism (largely derivative of Chinese philosophy), they say there is no “first cause.”

  2. Holly

    Joseph,

    Those are some interesting thoughts. In my post, I was explaining (but not advocating) logical positivism, and the unstoppable, eternal energetic/material force is actually something that I don’t believe in; rather, I believe in an unstoppable, eternal *spiritual* force, a.k.a. God.

    A few years ago, the oscillating universe theory was popular — i.e., that our reality was caused by all the matter in the universe being contained in a space about the size of a period at the end of a sentence. That dense ball of matter exploded (the Big Bang), spread out, and recollected as planets, stars, comets, etc. The thought is that one day, the matter will again close in on itself (pulled together by the attraction of gravity) until it gets so dense that it explodes, and so on and so forth. However, last I heard, there’s quite a bit of evidence that this is never going to happen; instead, the matter of the universe is continuing to spread out, and this spreading out is actually accelerating, which will make it impossible for all of matter to collapse in on itself again. In other words, the Big Bang was a one time thing.

    I think that even the most atheistic cosmologist, based on this evidence, believes that the universe had a beginning. Therefore how is it possible, based on current scientific knowledge, to say that there’s no first cause and ascribe to Taoism and/or Zen Buddhism?

  3. Joseph

    This is what I used to think, too, as an official 6-year old geek (my rank in the Young Astronauts) – the big bang started everything and nothing existed before that. But then at some point I wondered – where did that little ball of dense matter come from? Isn’t it more likely that this matter was in its place due to a set of specific physical conditions and causes? If that is true, then it follows that the bang was not the beginning but merely one significant event – not the first cause by any means.

    That being said, whether or not this means atheist scientists ascribe to Taosim or Zen is an altogether different matter 🙂

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