Tag Archives: epistemology

#6 Post of 2013 – Can We Know Moral Values Without Knowing God?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Clearly the answer must be “yes.”  In fact, the apostle Paul teaches this very truth in the book of Romans. There are some moral truths that can be known without a person ever acknowledging God’s existence. In fact, the world would be a complete disaster if everyone had to agree on the existence and attributes of God before anyone could know moral truths.

But it seems that atheists often think that Christians are making this claim. They think that Christians are saying a person cannot be moral or know right from wrong without believing in God. No Christian thinker of any stature has ever said this, though.

When Christians present moral arguments for God’s existence, or when they argue that moral values cannot exist unless God exists, they are making a very different point. David Baggett and Jerry Walls explain what is going on in their book Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality:

[I]t might seem inconsistent to argue that moral truth is dependent on God if we can know it without even thinking of God. This alleged inconsistency can be dispelled if we recognize, as numerous classical thinkers have pointed out, that the order of being is different from the order of knowing. That is, the order in which we come to know things might be different from the order in which things exist, or have come to exist.

The order of being has to do with metaphysics and the order of knowing has to do with epistemology. Christian arguments about God and morality are almost always about metaphysics (the order of being) and not about epistemology (the order of knowing). Baggett and Walls add:

Certain moral truths might be as evident to us as anything can be, but may still leave unanswered the question of where morality came from. Likewise, the foundations of morality might be at a greater distance from us in terms of immediate knowledge than morality itself. This is a fundamental distinction, but one that is often missed, resulting in needless confusion.

Baggett and Walls point out that many atheists just seem to completely miss this distinction:

Recent books defending atheism have perpetuated this confusion, unfortunately, but not surprisingly. For instance, Richard Dawkins seems to ignore this distinction when he asks, “if we have independent criteria for choosing among religious moralities, why not cut out the middle man and go straight for the moral choice without the religion?”

Nobody disagrees that we can gather a bunch of people from different worldviews together in a room and agree on a basic set of moral values.  This simply is not in dispute. What is in dispute is the question of where these moral values come from. Answering this question is what atheists need to work on.

Are Moral Facts Independent of God?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Many people know that it is wrong to rape, but know nothing about the goodness of the Christian God. How we come to know moral facts is often different from how we come to know theological facts. Based on this truth, many skeptics claim moral facts must be independent of God. This conclusion, however, is simply mistaken.

An illustration may help to explain. The following is adapted from philosopher John Milliken.

Imagine a language called Twing someone makes up and sets down in an official manuscript. Suppose, years later, a person named Tim learns Twing indirectly from some friends who speak it. Suppose further that one day he stumbles upon the official manuscript, reads it, and exclaims about the official manuscript, “This thing is written in perfect Twing!”

Tim is here making a substantive statement. Tim learned Twing from his friends, without ever knowing anything about the official manuscript. But then, when he came across the official manuscript, he recognized that the manuscript was “written in perfect Twing!” His discovery of the manuscript was completely independent of his discovery of Twing through his friends.

Even though Tim came to know Twing separately from how he came to discover the manuscript, it would be ridiculous to say that perfect Twing is independent of the official manuscript. For without the official manuscript, it would be impossible for perfect Twing to exist. The official manuscript is the source of Twing.

Christians claim we can discover moral facts without knowing about God, but when we do discover who God is, we can identify moral goodness with God. This is not some slight-of-hand move by Christian theologians. John Milliken explains how this works:

It is clear that, in order to make a substantive ascription of goodness to God, our conception of it need only be epistemically independent and not ontologically so. In other words, it is only necessary that we learn what is good from instances other than God. It would be a real and important discovery for us that what we antecedently understood as the good is exemplified in God, even if He is ultimately its source.

God is the Good, and so moral facts are not ontologically independent of God, even though we may come to know God independently of moral facts.

How Do We Know Reality?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I know this seems like a ridiculous question to normal people, but this is actually a very live and contentious debate among the professors teaching your children at the university. So you need to pay attention to these debates, lest your college expenditures be flushed down the drain!

The classical Christian answer to this question comes from Thomas Aquinas, the brilliant thirteenth century theologian and philosopher. His answer to this question is conveniently summarized for us by another brilliant Christian philosopher, Norm Geisler, in his book about Thomas Aquinas, called, strangely enough, Thomas Aquinas. So how do we come by knowledge?

Aquinas believes that knowledge comes either by supernatural revelation (in Scripture) or by natural means. All natural knowledge begins in experience. We are born, however, with an a priori, natural, innate capacity to know. Everything that is in our mind was first in the senses, except the mind itself.

How do we know something for certain?

Knowing something for certain is possible by means of first principles. First principles are known by way of inclination before they are known by cognition. These include: (1) the principle of identity (being is being); (2) the principle of noncontradiction (being is not nonbeing); (3) the principle of excluded middle (either being or nonbeing); (4) the principle of causality (nonbeing cannot cause being); and (5) the principle of finality (every being acts for an end).

By these first principles the mind can attain knowledge of reality—even some certain knowledge. Once the terms are properly understood, these first principles are self-evident, that is, they are undeniable.

Aquinas believed that all certain knowledge can be reduced to these first principles. Without these first principles in place, no knowledge is possible. In fact, the world becomes completely irrational and incoherent.

So how is reality to be studied? According to Geisler,

Like Aristotle, Aquinas believes it is the function of the wise person to know order. The order [that] reason produces in its own ideas is called logic. The order [that] reason produces through acts of the will is known as ethics. The order [that] reason produces in external things is art. The order [that] reason contemplates (but does not produce) is nature.

Nature contemplated insofar as it is sensible is physical science. Nature studied insofar as it is quantifiable is mathematics. Nature or reality studied insofar as it is real is metaphysics. Metaphysics, then, is the study of the real as real or being insofar as it is being.

It should be incredibly clear from Aquinas’s thoughts (and Aristotle’s) that the modern idea that physical science is the only discipline that produces knowledge is utterly false. Physical science is only applicable to the study of nature “insofar as it is sensible.”

Logic, ethics, art, mathematics, and metaphysics are all separate disciplines from the physical sciences. To subsume these areas under physical science is an error that has profoundly negative consequences for mankind. If physical science is king, then men will be obsessed with technology (what physical science produces). Ethics, logic, art, metaphysics, and even mathematics will all serve technology.

Is that the world we want to live in?

What Comes First? Epistemology or Metaphysics?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Actually the answer is neither, but we’ll get to that soon enough.  Why ask this question in the first place?  Because philosophy is a discipline that builds one layer upon another (just like many other disciplines), and since philosophy provides a foundation for all of the sciences, it is extremely important to understand where to start.

To examine this issue of the order of philosophical disciplines, we will refer to Tom Howe’s helpful notes on the subject (some of which are captured in his book Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation).  So what comes first?  Howe’s answer may surprise you, but the answer is . . . reality.  What is reality?

Simply put, reality is that which is. Notice that the characterization of reality is not, “what is.” To characterize reality as “what” implies that reality is basically some identity, or essence. When one asks, “What is it?” one is inquiring about the identity or essence of the entity in question. But, there are many identities in reality. That is to say, reality consists of many essences, or “whats.” But all essences have at least one thing in common, namely, that they exist. Therefore, reality at its most basic level is not a particular essence, or a group of essences. Reality is that which exists, or, as we have phrased it, “That which is.”

So the first thing we look at is that which exists, or reality.  Any philosophy that skips this step will go off the rails quickly.  The next question that must be answered after we’ve looked at that which exists is, “What is that which is?”  This is the discipline of metaphysics.  According to Howe, in metaphysics we are “inquiring into the nature of reality.”

After we examine the nature of that which exists, we may then move on to the next question in philosophy: “How do we know that which is?”  Howe writes, “Epistemology is the discipline that addresses [that] question . . .”  He continues:

Epistemology does not begin with itself and attempt to justify the existence of the extra-mental. Rather, epistemology must begin with the assumption that knowledge is a fact. If knowledge is not a fact of existence, then no one would be able to investigate its possibility, because any investigation necessarily assumes the fact of knowledge. Knowledge is a fact to be investigated, not a mere possibility to be actualized. If knowledge was not a fact to be investigated, then there would be no possibility of knowing this.

So there is our answer.  The order of disciplines in philosophy is 1) reality (that which is), 2) metaphysics (what is that which is?), and 3) epistemology (how do we know that which is?).  Virtually all of the confusion in modern philosophy is due to the fact that it has started with epistemology instead of reality and metaphysics.

Descartes got the ball rolling when he started his philosophical investigations by asking how he could know anything instead of first looking at that which exists.  Modern philosophy, following Descartes, never has answered the question of what the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge are, and they never will.  Why?  Because knowledge depends on reality, not vice versa.  A philosophy that starts with epistemology and that skips reality and metaphysics is doomed to ask questions that can never be answered.

Is Testimony Really That Unreliable? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Recall that in part 2, we looked at a couple skeptics’ views on testimony.  The first skeptic’s view appeared to be self-defeating, but the second skeptic singled out testimony about supernatural events, thus avoiding the self-defeating approach of the first skeptic.  However, the second skeptic has a different sort of problem, which I flesh out below.

I (Bill) trust people who tell me that some supernatural claims are legitimate; he (the skeptic) trusts people who tell him that no supernatural claims are legitimate.  How do we decide whose testimony to trust without begging the question?  For if the skeptic starts out by knowing that all supernatural claims are false (which he seems to have done in this case), then he clearly has begged the question of whether a specific supernatural event occurred.

This is where worldview presuppositions come in.  Skeptical atheists will generally claim that their worldview has nothing to do with their skepticism.  They claim that they are able to remain neutral when assessing any evidential claim (it is religious folks who are hopelessly biased).  But this is clearly false.  Because I believe that a theistic God who can perform miracles exists, I am very open to the possibility that some miracle reports from history are true.  Because the atheist denies that such a God exists, then he is closed to these miracle reports.

So when the Christian asks atheist skeptics to look at the historical testimony supporting a miracle claim, most of these skeptics, though not all, will argue that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, that people make mistakes all the time, that magicians can fool us, that ancient people were gullible, that witnesses in trials are sometimes wrong, that UFO sightings are bogus, that hypnotists can trick us, and on and on and on.

My response to all of these points is this: I know about all of these things, but we trust eyewitness testimony to tell us about much of what we know about the world.  Therefore, when I hear testimony about a seemingly unusual event that I personally have not ever experienced, instead of ruling it out immediately, I should apply criteria developed by experts on testimony of the kind I want to investigate to determine if the testimony is credible.  That way, I can hopefully detect false testimony.

Some skeptics have retorted: “You disbelieve miracle claims from other religions, and you don’t apply the same criteria to them as you do to the miracle claims of Christianity.  Therefore, you are inconsistent and biased, just like you accuse us of being.”

My response is this: I do not categorically deny all miracle claims from other religions, so the accusation is false.  I believe that God is able to perform whatever miracles he wants whenever he wants.  In addition, I believe in the existence of angelic beings who are also able to perform feats that are supernatural in nature, and they may be involved in alleged miracle claims of other religions.  Bottom line, I don’t take a hard position on any miracle claim until I have really looked into the testimony evidence for it.

Where does this leave us?  First, testimony is a fundamental way we learn about the world.  To cast serious doubt on testimony is ultimately self-defeating because you have to rely on testimony to doubt testimony.  The more rational and reasonable way to approach testimony is to apply criteria that have been developed by experts who have studied testimony in a particular discipline (e.g., law, history).

For my Christian friends, when you are dialoguing with a skeptic who starts denigrating the reliability of testimony, ask them to list their criteria for establishing  when testimony is credible or not.  That will move the conversation on to something more profitable.

For my skeptical friends, please understand that telling us all the ways that testimony can be wrong is just not a fruitful approach.  We know about all that.  Move on to giving us your non-question-begging criteria for determining whether particular testimony is credible or not.  If you cannot do that, then our suspicion that your worldview is driving your skepticism starts to become confirmed.

Is Testimony Really That Unreliable? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the previous post, we talked about the role of testimony in our everyday lives.  There are some, however, who cast serious doubts on the reliability of testimony.  Here is a typical quote from a skeptic who commented on this blog:

As we all should know, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. There are numerous examples of situations in which large numbers of people have individually presented eyewitness testimony which has later turned out to be false (UFO sightings are a case in point). Numerous trial convictions hinging on eyewitness testimony have been shown to be wrong when the evidence is analyzed more fully.

Here is what is interesting to me.  First, note that the skeptic fails to give a balanced account of testimony, in general.  Why, for example, doesn’t the skeptic note that there are also numerous examples of large numbers of people who reported testimony that turned out to be true?  With regard to trial convictions, the skeptic does not remind us that the vast majority are never overturned because the eyewitnesses got it right.  We only hear about the overturned convictions because they are so rare.

The second thing to note, and this is really important, is that the only way the skeptic knows about most of the cases where large numbers of people got something wrong, or that trial convictions have been overturned due to false testimony, is through other testimony!  The skeptic did not personally experience most of these cases himself.  He had to hear about these cases from other people (through books, blogs, magazines, etc.) who did, supposedly, experience these cases.  So, in tearing down the reliability of testimony, the skeptic must rely on testimony.  This approach is clearly self-defeating.

Here is another typical quote:

In thinking about the past, we can only reason about unknowns using knowns. Among the knowns are the laws of science and the propensity of eyewitnesses to make mistakes. Among the knowns when it comes to tales of supernatural events are human foibles such as prevarication, gullibility, superstition, wishful thinking and ignorance.

Notice the skeptic’s negative outlook on eyewitness testimony.  He says that we know when people report supernatural “tales” that they prove to be gullible, superstitious, ignorant, and engage in wishful thinking.

How does the skeptic know these things?  You guessed it: through testimony.  The skeptic relies on the testimony of people he trusts to tell him that most people who report supernatural events are gullible, superstitious, and ignorant.  Here again, the skeptic tears down the reliability of testimony by relying on testimony.

At this point, the second skeptic may cry foul and say the following: “I was specifically writing of testimony about supernatural events, not testimony in general.  So there is nothing wrong with me using testimony from people I trust to back up my claims.”  And he has a point; it seems he may have escaped the self-defeating approach of the first skeptic.  However, it leads to another difficulty.

In the next post, we will discuss this difficulty and wrap up this series on the reliability of testimony.

Is Testimony Really That Unreliable? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

There are 3 ways that a person can gain knowledge: experience, reason, and testimony.  Experience simply means that we observe something directly with one of our five senses for ourselves (e.g., “There is a computer screen in front of me”).  Reason means that we make rational and logical inferences from knowledge we already have to new knowledge (e.g., syllogisms).  Testimony means that we gain knowledge by hearing it from another person (e.g., “Napoleon was a short man”).

For the average person, it would seem that much of what we know about the world comes from testimony, from facts we hear from other people.  Think about it.  If you just start listing in your mind all the things you know about every sort of subject, a tremendous amount of it you read in books, were taught by teachers and professors in school, read on a blog, and heard from your friends and family.

We rely very heavily on testimony because as a person who is limited in space and time, we cannot possibly experience everything directly that we want to know.  Any knowledge you have about places in the world you’ve never been is because of testimony.  Any knowledge of people whom you have never met is because of testimony.  Any knowledge of human activity from before you were born is known from testimony.

Let’s take two special cases of where testimony is used: law courts and human history.  Every day, criminals are convicted of serious crimes based on evidence from testimony.  Attorneys and judges always want to know who saw what.  There are other kinds of evidence used in courts, to be sure, but there is no doubt that our legal system would completely fall apart if testimony was disallowed.

Are there sometimes mistakes made by witnesses in recalling what they saw?  Sure there are.  But often the way we know a  mistake was made is because of someone else’s testimony!  In other words, we trust one person’s testimony about the facts over another person’s testimony.  We don’t just throw out all testimony and call it all unreliable.  We work to determine whose testimony is credible by using standard criteria.

What about human history?  The truth is that just about everything we know from human history is based on testimony.  We read written accounts left behind by people who directly experienced the events of history.  Are there testimonies from history that we think are false?  Absolutely.  How do we know they are false?  Often because they contradict other testimony that we trust more.  Without testimony, however, we would know precious little about anything that happened before we were born.  Historians, like jurists, employ criteria to discern which testimony from history is credible and which is not.

If testimony is so important to our everyday lives, to our legal system, and to our knowledge of history, then why do skeptics of Christianity seem to downplay its reliability so much?  We tackle that in the next post in this series.

Must We See to Believe?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, is famous for the following statement: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

There have always been people like Thomas who demand that they directly experience something before they believe it exists.  During the Enlightenment in Europe, the philosophical theory of empiricism came to embody this principle for the modern world.

According to Garrett DeWeese, “the Enlightenment doctrine of empiricism holds that all knowledge of the world is empirical,” or all knowledge comes from our sensory experience.  The philosopher David Hume took this notion so far that he denied that we could know that our selves exist.

DeWeese continues:

Today the spectacular successes of the natural sciences have enshrined empirical investigation as by far the best – and for most people, the only – way to know.  But what about things we can’t sense?  Is nonempirical knowledge possible?  The question is crucial, for a great many important things can’t be known through our senses – things such as whether we have a soul and whether God exists.

If empiricism is true, then our knowledge becomes incredibly limited, and, in fact, the Romantics and German idealists that came after Hume and Kant were repelled by empiricism and rejected it as far too limiting of human knowledge.  Is empiricism true?

No.  Notice first that the claim “All knowledge of the world is empirical” is itself not an empirical statement.  How could we know that [claim] through our senses?  The claim is self-refuting.  But beyond that, there are good reasons to think that at least some knowledge of the world is nonempirical . . . .  Beliefs that certain things exist may be inferred from empirical observations.  This is how we justify belief in such things as electrons, gravitational fields, beauty, or love.  And similarly for belief in God.

DeWeese further explains:

We can know some things without using our senses at all.  For example, we can know much about ourselves through introspection (a nonempirical process).  We can know that we have minds that think, believe, hope, fear, and so on, and that we are not identical to our bodies.  Many ethicists claim that moral knowledge is accessible through intuition or conscience or pure reason.

Here is the bottom line.  Our senses serve us well, but they are limited.  We are more than our senses, and we can know more than what we directly experience with our senses.  Our lives would, in fact, be unlivable if we could only know what our senses directly bring to us. 

Unlivable?  Look at the words of David Hume, one of the most famous empiricists of modern history, speaking of his empiricist theories:

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium. . . . I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three of four hours of amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Where are the Kantian Agnostics?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I’ve been reading the famous eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant lately.  Kant’s theory of knowledge only allowed for human knowledge to extend to those things we can directly experience through our senses.  Kant argued that we could not have direct experience of our self, the cosmos, or God.

Kant’s empiricism ruled out rational knowledge of these three things, so he argued that we must remain agnostic about their existence.  He also argued that for practical reasons, most of us believe that the self exists, that the whole universe (cosmos) exists, and that God exists, but these are positions of faith, not rational knowledge.

Kant’s agnosticism was a turning point in the history of epistemology (the study of knowledge).  What I find interesting is that his brand of agnosticism seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Why do I say this?  Kant argued that since the self, God, and the cosmos cannot be experienced by our senses, we cannot, in principle, make any rational statements about their existence or non-existence.  We just don’t know one way or another.  Kant believed that people who argued that God does not exist are just as foolish as people who argue that God does exist.  Both positions are rationally unprovable.

Most people who call themselves agnostic today don’t seem to hold Kant’s views any longer.  When I meet someone who says they are agnostic, they generally mean something like the following: “I haven’t seen enough evidence to know if God exists.”

The modern agnostic implicitly believes that one can have evidence of God’s existence, and thus rational knowledge of God’s existence, whereas Kant denies that there is ever any chance of there being evidence one way or another.

What is going on?  It seems to me that there are generally two kinds of agnostics today.  The first kind really is undecided on God’s existence and is waiting to hear evidence.  Given that evidence, they may come to decide that God exists.

The second kind of agnostic really believes that all the available evidence is stacked against God’s existence, but they don’t want to call themselves an atheist; maybe the “atheist” label seems too dogmatic.  In everything but name, however, they are an atheist – they know God does not exist.

Kant would think both of these kinds of agnostics are equally wrongheaded.  But where are the Kantian agnostics today?  Are there any left?  Are there any agnostics who truly believe that knowledge of God is impossible and that we must remain forever on the fence about it?  Do these same agnostics believe the same thing about the self and the cosmos?

Just wondering . . .

Does the Scientific Method Preclude the Existence of Miracles?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

This is a familiar theme for long-time readers of the blog.  I am deeply interested in where the scientific method can shed light and where its light begins to fade.  For mankind, to know everything is to know all that really exists.  If you think of everything that exists as falling inside a giant circle, the question that fascinates me is, “How much of the area of that circle can the scientific method enlighten?”  Is it the whole circle?  Is it half?  Is it a tiny fraction of the circle?

The question asks us to take a position on the supernatural and spiritual.  If you believe that there is a vast supernatural world out there, a world where God, angels, and demons exist, then you will probably say that the scientific method can only illuminate a small fraction of the circle of all things that exist.  The scientific method can only tell us about things or events that occur inside the four dimensions of space-time.

If, however, you believe that the four dimensions of space-time are all that exists and that the supernatural is imaginary, then the entire circle of all that exists can eventually be filled out by the scientific method.  In my discussions with skeptics over the years, there are those who fall in this latter group, but there are also those who remain open to the existence of the supernatural.

Those who maintain that the scientific method will eventually fill in the entire circle sometimes go on to make the following claim: “The scientific method forces us to conclude that miracles cannot occur.”  To me, this is a deeply confused statement.  It is true that miracles, in their totality, entail a supernatural element.  It is true that science cannot directly observe that which is supernatural, as the supernatural does not exist in space-time where science can operate.  But to say that the scientific method absolutely precludes miracles from existing is false.

The scientific method is one tool we have to fill in the giant circle of all that exists, but there are other tools (e.g., philosophy, logic, mathematics, spiritual disciplines).  Think of the scientific method as analogous to a screwdriver.  The screwdriver is a truly useful tool that we use all the time in construction.  In fact, any time we need to attach two objects with a screw, we use a screwdriver.  But we would find it very odd if screwdriver enthusiasts one day started running an ad campaign with the following slogan: “If you don’t use a screwdriver, you’re not constructing anything!”

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has another way to answer those who say that science precludes miracles.

[This] argument…is like the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys only under the streetlight on the grounds that the light was better there. In fact, it would go the drunk one better: it would insist that because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light.

Science is tremendously useful and the benefits of modern technology are hard to overstate, but let us never forget the limits.  There may very well be a supernatural world out there (in fact, most of us believe that).  Those who flatly say there is not are making a statement of faith that is not based on the scientific method, but based on their metaphysical worldview.