What Happens to Us When We Gain New Knowledge?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

OK, I admit we’re in deep waters with this question, but I’ve been studying epistemology, the investigation of human knowledge, for the last few months and I have run across a short section in a book I’m reading that struck me as particularly profound.

Before I discuss that section, I want to share a common question that people ask me.  The question is this: “Why do you read and study so much?  What’s the point of it all?  Is there no end to your search for knowledge?”  Generally these are people who don’t know what to think of all the books I read, of the blog posts I write, of the seminary courses I take.  To them, it might all be a colossal waste of time.

The only way I can answer this question is that once I started studying the teachings of Christianity, my mind literally awakened to an immense world that I never knew existed.  Since that time, I have felt an incredible drive, almost a primal need, to learn as much as I can about God, humans, and the world we live in – in that order of importance.  I can’t get enough of it and I don’t think I ever will.

Is something wrong with me and people like me?  Sometimes I wonder, but then I ran across a passage in a book that explains why I do what I do – why I want to know things.  The book is An Elementary Christian Metaphysics by Joseph Owens and is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read.  It is as abstract as you can possibly get, because the book is mostly about the concept of existence, of what it means for something to exist.  There is no more basic subject than that, and thus it makes for abstract reading.

So what does the book have to say?

Through sense cognition a man is able to become [in his mind] one by one the . . . things he encounters in his daily life.  He enriches himself with their forms as he perceives each of them [as they really are], and conserves the forms in his imagination.

Think about this.  We actually become the things we perceive as we bring them into our mind.  We are enriched by the things we come to know and we are able to preserve these things in our mind even after we stop seeing them.

Through intellection [man] is able to transcend the confines of the here and now, and become objects whose extent is unlimited.

How does this work?  We are able to identify common natures in things, and once we identify a common nature, we are able to know all things that possess that common nature.  For example, when we understand the concept of humanity as a nature, we now understand what all humans are like in their common humanity.  We can know what humans were like in the past, in the present, and in the future without ever seeing all instances of human beings.  That’s amazing when you think about it.

Though remaining an individual he is brought into a life that bursts away from the ghetto of his immediate surroundings and extends as far as do the natures of the things with which he comes in contact. . . . Through science he can enrich himself with myriad forms that could never impinge themselves on his immediate cognition.

The intellect and the ability to know things expands the universe far beyond what a man can directly see or hear.  How far can man go?

In grasping the [existence] of sensible things . . . he has the starting point from which he can reach [God].  By intellective reflection [man] becomes himself . . . and is himself in a way that enables him to dominate his own activity.  Knowing his own actions through reflection he has starting points for the investigation of spiritual nature.

Thus we are the only animals that can reach God by reflecting on ourselves.  We see that we have a spiritual nature, that we have a mind, that we think, feel, and will.  As Owens reminds us, this reflection provides the starting point for us to know that God exists.

Owens concludes:

The kinds of things that a man can know through his intellect are consequently unlimited. . . . Intellection, therefore, is able to enrich the knower cognitionally with the form of anything whatsoever.  Those forms remain with the knower permanently as [intellectual likenesses] in which the thing may again be actually known at any time.  There need be little wonder, then, that Aristotle saw in intellection the supreme happiness and destiny of man, and that according to the Christian the Beatific Vision is the ultimate goal of human living.

I believe that God has placed the desire to know in all humans, and that He has given some of us extra doses of that desire.  That is why I want to know.  Why has God given man the desire to know?  Because the pursuit of knowledge, for the Christian, eventually culminates in the ultimate human experience, seeing God in the Beatific Vision.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

  • Jo Lewis

    Dear Bill,
    I love it, thanks so much…
    Jo

  • Bill:

    Until a few months ago, I took faith in God through Jesus Christ as just that, a blind meandering faith without concrete justification. Then I read D’Souza and that opened a door to a world I’d not known has existed since Jesus Christ. So I know of what you speak here.

    Here’s something interesting: the fact of how *clearly* Owens writes about such complex issues. If you have, as I’m sure you have indeed, read some of the literature written (especially those by atheists) it is a confusing miasma of words.

    I’ll be checking out the book, thanks for the recommendation.

  • Bill, if you haven’t seen it, I would recommend C. Fitzsimons Allison’s book “The Cruelty of Heresy”. He does an excellent job of explaining why doctrine is important. Among other things, he points out the idea you reference from Owens that we tend to become like that which we worship. If anyone doubts that, let him watch a teen icon being copied by her adoring preteen fans. If this is true, it becomes very important that we worship God as He is, not as it is pleasant to think He is. If I am the arbiter, then I am worshiping not God, but my idea of God, and ultimately, I am being “conformed” more solidly into my own error, into me, or even assuming my ideas are not sinful, only wrong, I am being transformed into the image of “that which is not.”

    Also, he explores the catalogue of Christological heresies, describing how they all fall short of delivering the comfort of the authentic Gospel, thus his assertion in the title, that the propagation of heresy is ultimately cruel, and must be countered.

    But he frequently makes deeper point; that any point of orthodoxy will make a perfectly serviceable idol in that an intellectual concept about God, no matter how valid, is not itself God. The expression is, at bottom, the work of my hand (or mind) as, perhaps, an excellent representation of God. I can be tempted to worship that idea, rather than God “as You know Yourself to be”

    When I first fell in love with my wife, I wanted, among other things, to know everything I could about her; what she thought, where those thoughts and feelings came from, what were her hopes and dreams, what was her history, etc. That body of knowledge and study could be analogous to theology. On the other hand, there were indeed “other things I wanted to know,” all the rest of intimacy which goes with the old marriage service, “with my body, I thee worship.” If I had wanted that “worship” without wanting to know anything at all about her, I would have rightly been thought a cad, and worse.

    Theology is not different – it is not the point of worship, relationship is. But without theology and sound doctrine, that worship drifts into worship that does not challenge me in the way a relationship with a real person does, but it becomes an exercise in enjoying the feelings of worship directed towards an image created in my own mind.

    But just as with marriage, the theology, or even ministry, is not the point. Relationship is. The priorities must be kept in proper order.

  • Just had a discussion this morning with my brother which I ended up posting on my blog about blind faith. He had some questions about the resurrection which we were to discuss. He decided he didn’t have the time for the discussion and would just accept it on blind faith. Problem is that I don’t know what he is accepting and I don’t think he does either. Jesus said we will worship in Spirit and in Truth. Truth is known through knowledge, which more than anything comes from testimony and reason; and love, peace, joy, etc. is known through the Spirit.

    We all have to keep Eric’s counsel about priorities at the forefront of our worship. The God of our worship is most important and cannot be usurped by worship of what we know about God. Yet, what we know helps us know we have the right God and to adore Him all the more. The marriage analogy is a great one!

    I am taking an epistemology class right now myself. We are reading “Warranted Christian Belief” by Alvin Plantinga. Unless I’m reading him wrong, he doesn’t seem to value rational and historical apologetics in lieu of the testimony of the Spirit. I’m wrestling with how he thinks that suffices give the subjectiveness of the Spirit and that many religions and cults look for the subjective experiences as proof of truth. Clearly, they can’t all be true, so it sure seems to me the Holy Spirit is a guide, but there must be study of the evidence and its validity. Otherwise, what is the point of testimony of history in the first place (Jn 20:31)?

    Love the blog!

  • Belva Moore

    Billy,
    Good post, as usual. As I was reading through it, I was struck, once again, by Solomon’s declaration that there is nothing new under the sun. When I read the first quote from An Elementary Christian Metaphysics, my mind went immediately to Phillipians 4:8-9 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me, put it into practice and the God of peace will be with you.” The other quotes from Owens’ book fall right in line. What we dwell upon impacts our actions, and our actions make impressions on others, and so on.

    Since there is nothing good but God, no truth but God’s truth, no one or nothing praiseworthy but God, and so on, when one seeks to gain more spiritual knowledge, that is knowledge of the Holy Spirit, we are seeking to know God more clearly. That is why you and others like you “desire to know”. You simply want to deepen your relationship with God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and Jesus Christ, our Lord.

    So, is it good to want to know more? I say a resounding yes. It is right to want to know the Truth and to share it.

    As always, your blog is thought provoking. Thank you.

    Belva

  • Todd

    Bill,

    The point of the writing imho, was tying to relate that man can understand more than just what the senses can detect. In this, I am in agreement. When we perceive space as an empty vacuum there is an unseen torrent of quantum energy in a rolling boil all around us, completely undetectable by our natural senses. However, whenever a christian talks about how we can ‘know god’ I always look for the moment when they attempt to transcend reality and delve into the supernatural. In your post, I think it is here:

    “In grasping sensible things…he has the starting point from which he can reach [God].”

    What does he mean by “sensible things”? If he means sensible in the context of understanding what is beyond the natural senses, I think he overreaches. When someone asserts we can understand things beyond the natural senses, it does not mean that we do not require proof. In fact, when extending to something that is not naturally detected, even more proof is necessary before it is accepted. Take the electron for example. It is imperceptible to the senses and even science has never looked upon it, but there is no doubt it is there because we can perform experiments to prove it is a reality. It is not enough to say that one ‘feels’ that it is true. there must be some empirical evidence of the ‘truth’ before it becomes reality.

  • Bill Pratt

    Belva,
    Thanks for your kind words. It was good hearing from you!

  • Bill Pratt

    Todd,
    Sensible things are the things we sense with our sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. His point is that even though we start with perceiving things with our senses, we can then move from there to things that we do not directly perceive with our senses, such as God.

  • Todd Pratt

    Bill,
    If not through the senses, then through what mechanism would one perceive god?

  • Bill Pratt

    Even though knowledge starts with the senses, it does not end there. Humans are able to extend knowledge to things that are not immediately perceived through the senses. We are able to reason and reflect on what we have sensed, so we are able to go beyond what our senses directly tell us.

  • Karla Marie

    This is excellent. Thank you.

  • We are able to reason and reflect on what we have sensed, so we are able to go beyond what our senses directly tell us.

    However….if you reason and reflect on things which you have directly sensed, that would still imply a need for evidence nonetheless, would it not?

  • Bill Pratt

    Karla,
    You’re welcome. Thanks very much for stopping by the blog!

  • faithfulapologist

    Wow, you expressed my thoughts exactly in your intro. When I was convicted of the infallible truth of God’s word, I was then led to the field of Apologetics, then to the law of non-contradiction. Ever since then I was alllll in! I can’t get enough. Sometimes i feel like I am making no process because I don’t know what to absorb first, completely, so I jump around alot. lol. I desire to share the Christian faith. Any suggestions on books to spot logical fallacies. Or how about great books on epistemology? Forgive me for not reading the entire article, I just had to comment after the intro to capture the feeling. God bless you.