Epistemology diagram

Our “Christian philosophy in diagrams” series began with an ontology: things in relation over time. After ontology (what there is), philosophy typically looks at epistemology (how we know). This week I want to share a proposal based on the following diagram:

The oval represents what goes on in my mind, and it’s tightly bound to the green surrounding, which represents my experience. We’re looking at a common-sense, realist view of mental content here – and not just beliefs: the purple area on the right represents tacit knowledge, which was formally introduced to epistemology by Michael Polanyi. His phrase “we know more than we can tell” nicely evokes this sector of mental content. I know how to communicate, how to recognise certain faces, how to ride a bicycle, and so on – without necessarily being able to explain this knowledge.

We’ll leave tacit knowledge aside now to consider propositional knowledge (although Polanyi showed that tacit knowledge plays a central role in scientific research). So the central column indicates how knowledge that I might express by saying “I know/believe that…” can be arranged from what I find self-evident to what I hold most tentatively.  This is where things get interesting. I owe much of the following to Roy Clouser, whose book “Knowing with the Heart” takes its title from a quote of Blaise Pascale: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”.

Knowing God is Real

Does the Bible tell us to have faith that God exists? Biblical writers never even seem to countenance that big question of our humanist age. Instead, we’re supposed to find it obvious that the creator God is real, and put our faith in Him. (Indeed, says Clouser, the authoritative texts of other religions make similar claims.) And I hope that is our experience – once we’ve encountered God’s self-revelation in Scripture, in daily life and perhaps through visions or other special experiences. So that bottom layer of the blue column is for all basic beliefs that are obvious to me – about the reality of my friends, the accuracy of my vivid memories, etc – and also that God is real and loves me. The arrow from “Special Revelation” indicates one of the important influences – along with many other forms of testimony – on what I may come to see as self-evident.

Common Knowledge

Then we have the blue arrow labelled “Proof; discourse”, leading from self-evident knowledge to what I’ve called “common knowledge”. The claim here is that we tend to be less certain of things that have to be proven or explained to us. Much confusion is generated when beliefs that are easily shared and agreed upon get passed off as the only real knowledge – leaving everything else as mere belief or opinion. If we buy into the widespread “objective vs. subjective” dualism, we’ll be urged to refer to “knowledge” only when reiterating beliefs shared by lots of boffins! But this notion is completely unworkable, as Clouser shows. The history of ideas (not least science) readily shows that “objective knowledge” routinely changes. Moreover, it only takes a little post-modern awareness for us to suspect that, in many discourses, the use of words like “objective”, “proof” and “fact” owes more to their effectiveness in silencing dissenting points of view (“subjective” “beliefs” and “opinions”!) than to any real infallibility. More needs to be said about analysing how reliable a belief is, as distinct from how firmly I currently hold it.

So we’re left with the term “faith”. There’s a popular view that this is about believing in things without evidence. But biblical faith is more like extrapolating beyond evidence. “I do believe: help me overcome my unbelief!” Lots of teachings come in this category for me, like the belief that God will heal a loved one, or that Jesus will return. So I’ve put “faith” part-way up the column of uncertainty – having already parked my basic Christian convictions along with my most certain knowledge.

Try reading John 9 for a fascinating insight into the convictions of someone gradually coming to faith in Jesus. Then perhaps compare it with the way Jesus became real to you. Or pray and ask Jesus for that reality, if you’re not sure about it!

Richard Gunton
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Richard Gunton

Richard is the Director of Faith-in-Scholarship at Thinking Faith Network. He also teaches statistics at the University of Winchester. His current passions include Reformational philosophy, history of sciences, ordination (the statistical sort), and wildlife gardening. He worships, and occasionally preaches, at St Mary's Church in Portchester. [Views expressed here are his own.]