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Friday, February 3, 2017

Week 3: Pirouette, Day 16: Know, Know, Know

Week 3: Pirouette
Day 16: Know, Know, Know
Word for Mind Day: "Epistemology"
n. The study of knowledge, or a particular theory of knowledge.



"I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief."
- Ecclesiastes 1:12-18
This is the third time I've sat down to type this post. Towards the end of my second draft the internet hung and would not save my entry. Reboot back to 1st draft. Meaningless. A chasing after the wind. I guess it's fitting though. I am writing about the way in which our grasp of truth is fleeting in the Information Age. We get Truth, version 2.0, and just as we get comfortable with it, there is a radical upgrade with multiple essential bug fixes and Truth 1.0 becomes obsolete. The information age has thrown these conceptual revolutions at us with such speed and frequency that if you are paying attention at all, you are bound to be skeptical of almost any new content. We have a sense that the news we get is being mediated by market forces, selling us some agenda, elevating some hidden sponsor's bottom line. My generation might be more comfortable with the label "misinformation age." Truth and authenticity are the rare exception. Sales is the norm.
The style in which we get our "truth" is also different these days. Cars and home goods are sold with Jungian archetypes and identity marketing rather than schematics or descriptions of product features. Advertisements will tell you more about how you will feel or who you will be after a purchase than what the merchandise actually does. Votes for public office correlate to media airtime, or are cast for aesthetic preferences of communication style rather than for viable political platforms or a clearly communicated social vision. Our dietary decisions are marketed as consumable lifestyle identities. We are packaged and branded by the marketers just as the products they hawk to us. They box us by flavor of our demographic, useful to them only as a consumable promise of transaction. If everything is a commodity, then truth is a commodity. Discernment is dead. We bow to our appetites and find our direction by following our erections. If the crassness of that assessment offends you, mission accomplished. We need a wake up call. Maybe that's why zombies are so popular in our media these days. We know we are thoughtless consumers hungry for something more genuinely human, and we are on the roam for some brains. When we find them, we chew them up and move on.
It's not just desire and commerce that blind us or, conversely, make us skeptical of truth claims. Truth has been struggling for a while. Philosophically there are at many factors that have crippled our sense of confidence in our capacity for knowledge. One is the way in which contextualization, recorded history, and globalization have made us aware of patterns of power in steering paradigms of knowledge. We can look back on history and see that the predominant beliefs of any given period were primarily shaped by the agenda of those with the greatest power and influence. In a culture in which the most educated tend to hold positions of greatest power, the philosophies that are taught at the highest level of the academy trickle down into public life. So while you may not have read, or even heard of Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, or Lyotard, somebody with influence in your life, whether the owner of your company, or the minds behind the media you consume, most certainly have. You are getting a postmodern worldview through the water. These philosophers were influenced by Heidegger, Husserl, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein... whom you are more likely to have heard of because they wrote over a century ago. The point is that philosophy trickles down and shapes our culture, and taken together, the culture of thinking that postmodern philosophy has created is generally skeptical, and primarily skeptical towards truth-claims that are made from a position of power.
When the Church held the power, its traditions and scriptures dictated the quest for truth. As its power was destabilized internally by the reformation, serious critiques of authority persisted, raising important questions about who gets to speak for God, the role of Scripture and tradition, and the place of hierarchies of leadership in deciding what is acceptable to believe. At the same historical moment, political and economic developments teamed with Rationalist philosophy, Empiricism, and Enlightenment ideas of scientific discovery to compete to fill the power vacuum with new paradigms for knowledge. The Protestant reformers' challenge to the power structures was distinctly more democratic than preceding alternatives, with its affirmation of direct access to truth for both the poor and the uninitiated. This cultural shift away from philosopher kings and priests as a kind of gatekeeper to ultimate truth to the rational individual as the locus of inquiry played a significant role in shaping the way in which knowledge was considered from that point forward.
Once knowledge was separated from a central authoritarian voice, new questions of epistemology had to be asked. After all, if knowledge is not something handed down by power, if it can only first be found in rational individuals, how can we know if they really know what they claim to know? Is sense perception reliable? Can we trust our experiments? Are the traditional rules of logic airtight? The epistemologies that have resulted have made us more aware of the limits of our knowledge.
The first of these theories of how we know has a long history, and often is attributed to Rene Descartes. It is called "Foundationalism". Have you ever heard the story of Descartes sitting by a stove questioning everything he believed until he could arrive at some unquestionable basic knowledge of truth on which he could rebuild? This is apparently what people did before Netflix. Descartes whittled away at his knowledge until he arrived at what he considered the foundational, self-evident thought, "Cogito Ergo Sum." "I think, therefore I am." Foundationalism seeks to build knowledge off of a referential point that does not need to be justified; a kind of raw knowledge. Critics have shown that these assumptions can also be challenged, and that they ignore the real possibility of deception and illusion in our fundamental perceptions of who we are and how our minds work.
A second popular epistemology is called "Coherentism", and it, like Foundationalism, is dependent on the discernment of a rational chain of beliefs which support each other. Where Foundationalism would seek to build from base "self-evident" justified beliefs upwards, Coherentism focuses on a web of relationships within knowledge. Within this theory, If our beliefs hang together without unresolved conflict or cognitive dissonance, they are more likely to be true. Coherentism assumes that a unified true reality exists with shared laws, and that thus, untrue beliefs within such a reality will not fit well with true beliefs. Justification of our beliefs then, is dependent upon their relationship to other true beliefs. Critics of Coherentism have pointed out that authors and filmmakers can create very coherent imaginary realities that in no way coincide with the world we actually live in. Coherentism doesn't have a way to prove that a harmonious network of beliefs necessarily attaches to true truth or real reality. You can have a coherent system that isn't true outside of its own self reference, so Coherentism can amount to circular reasoning.
Reliabilism is different from Foundationalism and Coherentism in that it does not base its method of justification on a chain of related beliefs deduced from each other, but focuses on the means by which a belief is received. Justification for belief is based on whether a method of inquiry reliably yields true beliefs. So if perception is reliable, beliefs based on perception are true. If reason is reliable, beliefs based on good use of reason are true, and so on. The problem is, all means of arriving at belief can be questioned, and Reliabilism tends to end up being a new form of foundationalism, just looking for some method to replace our former conceptions of "self-evident" beliefs.
"Infinitism" is a theory of knowledge that steps away a bit from the belief in a kind of hard and fast certitude that Foundationalism, Coherentism, and Reliabilism hoped for. Infinitism asserts that total certitude would require infinite knowledge, and thus our justification of beliefs must always be a matter of degree, and never a conclusive, total knowledge. That said, to whichever degree we can approach this infinite degree of knowledge by justifying our stages of justification, to that degree we can consider our knowledge justified. Confused yet? Let me say that another way: If you can offer a proof for the reliability of your method of proof, then you can have more confidence that your beliefs are justified. But Infinitism gives up hope for total confidence from the get go.
That's pretty much it. These are the primary epistemologies that get their day in court in the academy these days. This is an oversimplification of course, but generally I could say that nobody is totally confident that their knowledge is certain. Think of what this implies for the rest of our studies and sciences. We aren't sure that we know what we know. Now, clearly, there are theories that yield tangible results in the real world... our best science has yielded real, working technological advances, for example. But there was a time when this "progress" was more trusted as a viable way into a bright bold future. We have seen amazing medical advances and the ways in which our communications and transportation and food production and distribution have benefitted from scientific momentum are nothing short of astounding. But instead of peace and general flourishing of humanity that we naively expected from the age of technology and progress, we have effectively endangered the planet, isolated from each other, and killed more people in war than in the previous centuries combined. 60 million of those casualties in one war alone. This is part of the reason that science, Modernity, and Enlightenment era reason have joined the pile of grand narratives which prompt the skepticism of the philosophers. Add to this the market-driven nature of most contemporary scientific enterprise, and our current sense of "Knowledge" becomes just another power-driven story told by our Masters.
So why is any of this relevant for a devotional? Well, first because questions of knowledge and questions of faith are inextricable, and secondly because our overconfidence and imposition of our beliefs as Christians has just not won us any friends or even given us a way in which to dialogue with the social world we actually occupy. I'm not saying to replace your certainty with doubt, to throw off your assurance of salvation or to slip into agnostic oblivion. But I would suggest that we may have to begin to separate out what is genuinely Christian from what is actually just the straggling cultural leftovers of the values of the Enlightenment. Strict confidence has already proved false for the rest of the world, all the way down to something as straight forward as our observation of subatomic particles. We know that we can't even observe quantum particles without impacting their charge. (See the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle). We are newly aware of our own limitations as observers, and the ways in which the very act of observation will necessarily change what it is that we perceive.
So what are the values of the Enlightenment that we have imposed upon our life with God? First, we have believed that our beliefs are the most essential aspect of our spiritual experience. We emphasize the conversion of the mind over all other dimensions of our relationship to God and others. We are comfortable saying "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved," but uncomfortable with "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes or Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven," or "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." We refer to each other as "believers" or "unbelievers" as if these are the central aspects of Christian identity, while we greatly neglect teachings that were far more essential for Jesus: love of enemy, service to the poor and powerless, We spend our energies on apologetics and proofs, and assume that when Peter said, "Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that that is in you," he was talking about the Kalam Cosmological Argument or the Ontological Argument or some such apologetic manœuvre. I don't know anybody whose hope rests on those mental gymnastics. Our hope is far more experiential than that, and Jesus calls us into a lived out kingdom, not one of lip service. The kingdom of God is about power, not about words. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father," says Jesus. We have emphasized knowing about God with a kind of intellectual assent, but not knowing God in such a way that we can respond to His desires. Because of this, we are busy trying to prove to people the kinds of things that they would see and feel and know more authentically if we would just give our attention to doing the Christian life rather than marketing it and trying to change minds with arguments.
Ultimately, the philosophers are showing us, there really isn't anybody with that sure of a grip on truth anyway. We find ourselves not being God after all, and I don't think that should really surprise us. We can more humbly work together with those around us to bring what is good, and beautiful, and yes, what is true, but we don't have to control it. We can live with open hearts and open hands and even open minds and still be true to Jesus.

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