Monday, July 25, 2011

Belief and knowledge

I've touched on this subject before, but I'm back at it from a different point of view. What can we claim to have 'knowledge' about and what is only 'belief'?

The distinction I'm making is that I think knowledge is the subset of beliefs which can be validated by experience or logical deduction, whereas non-knowledge beliefs are those which is is not (currently) possible to validate or verify.

Unfortunately, for the Christian, I think that the balance is something kind of like this:

That is, the stuff we can know about God by experience is heavily dominated by the stuff that is belief by deduction (and our logic may be wrong, of course) and belief by doctrine (i.e. what comes directly from the Bible or what we're taught in Church, but which is impossible to test).

For example, I think that it is possible to know that:

Prayers are sometimes answered.

And from that, with some piled up experience we can deduce that:

God (sometimes) answers prayer.

But to go beyond that and say that the God who answered your prayer is the same God who created the world, is to go into the unverifiable realm of doctrine.

As I see it, only things that relate to the present can be experienced and hence verified, anything relating to the past (creation, events in biblical times, etc.) is mere belief, as is anything relating to the future, in particular anything relating to the 'age to come' (heaven, hell, eternal life, etc.).

Importantly, I don't see any way in which experiences in the present can validate beliefs about the past or the future, although Christianity (and presumably other faiths) more or less relies upon the assumption that the one can validate the other. The common reasoning seems to go like this: Christianity asserts N things, you can have experiences that validate M of them (where M << N), but because M are validated, then we can assume that the remaining N-M assertions are also validated. Sorry, I just can't accept that anymore.

Often we insert false correlations into our deductions. Such as we make the logical jump from:

God speaks to me through the bible


The bible must be the Word of God.

But I'm not sure that logically follows. Maybe God speaks to you through the bible simply because that's the book through which you expect him to talk. Maybe he could speak through the morning newspaper, but you're not looking for guidance there, so its easier to speak through the place you're looking in.

I just read through the 'statement of faith' of the church that I attend. Well over 90% of the statements in it fall into the (unverifiable) belief category, and the few remaining statements are all deductions (relating to the Holy Spirit) which may be partially tested based on experience.

As you can no doubt tell, I'm having a big problem at the moment justifying (to myself) making life choices that are based entirely on unjustified and untestable doctrine. Especially when some of the doctrinal assertions appear to be flawed or simply false. If some are false, my confidence in the others is greatly diminished.

I'd like to have a reasonable, rational faith. But it seems to me that in order to get there I need to jettison over 90% of my beliefs and put them into the 'I simply don't know' category.

Did God create the world: I simply don't know...
Is there only one God: I simply don't know...
Was Jesus born of a virgin: I simply don't know...
Was Jesus fully man and fully God: I simply don't know...
Did he have a bodily resurrection: I simply don't know...
Is there life after death: I simply don't know...
Is Christianity the only path to God: I simply don't know...
and so on.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think there's a middle ground between certainty and unknown which you are omitting here. I'm in a similar boat in that all I would say I'm sure about is that there is some sort of supernatural dimension that we cannot (yet) explain with science and through this prayers are sometimes answered and miracles sometimes happen (including to me).

The difference perhaps between you and I is that where you say "I simply don't know" I say "I'm not sure but I think it's true with 90% certainty" or whatever probability I have.

I think the whole point of faith is meant to be that not everything can be deduced by logic and facts alone. At the end of the day there are some things we will never know either way (such as exactly what Jesus did or didn't say). Fundamentalism and atheism provide easy solutions here, everything is true or nothing is true. It's always going to be problematic somewhere in between but I think that tension is what can cause us to strive to seek out truth and the best possible understanding rather than blindly accept what others tell us to be the case.