The Nature of Knowing

As a part of a reading assignment for my Theological Confessions class I have been going through Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel In A Pluralist Society. There are a number of reflections that have been pertinent thus far:

  • Everyone has presuppositions that are accepted a-critically. Newbigin critiques modernism’s claim that science reveals “facts” while religions are aimed at communicating “beliefs.” This dichotomy between “facts” and “beliefs” is false. Facts are facts based on the theory that one brings to the table. All knowledge begins with an act of faith.
  • This begs the question “What are the assumptions of modern science?” Two things are taken for granted in the modern scientific worldview: 1) The universe is rational and 2) The universe is contingent. In other words, “the scientist starts with the conviction that the world is rational and that events at different times and places in the natural world can be related to one another in a coherent way. Without this conviction, which is a matter of faith, he could not begin his work” (94).
  • If reality is essentially what you make of it based on your specific tradition of rational discourse then does complete relativism not inevitably follow? Newbigin’s response to this question is heavily dependent on the work of Alisdair MacIntyre in his Whose Justice, Which Rationality? First, despite the fact that reality can only be understood within a particular tradition, the tradition itself is not ultimate. It is not uncommon for someone to leave a tradition for a rival tradition in light of new experiences. Traditions can be compared, then, in respect of their adequacy to enable human beings to know and cope with their experience of reality. Secondly, if the relativist claims that truth cannot be known since all reasoning is embodied in a particular social context, one must ask for the basis on which this claim is made. The claim that reality is unknowable is itself a statement about reality.

The most troubling thing about Newbigin’s reflections on the nature of knowing is that they have caused me to realize how much of a sucker I am for the modern scientific worldview. For too long have I bought the lie that we have access to a pure, objective reality by means of the scientific method. For too long have I allowed the presuppositions of modernism to be left unchallenged. For too long have I taken an a-critical approach to the assumptions of the modernist agenda.

Woe is me.

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4 responses to “The Nature of Knowing

  1. ‘The claim that reality is unknowable is itself a statement about reality’ – so true!! :-/ It’s a refreshing post by the way! 🙂 should be an interesting book to read!

  2. Woe is me as well!

    An immediate reflection this generates for me is our educational system. Currently, we have a very modern and even pre-modern academic institution. So likewise the institution loves things which are akin to itself, (Science, Systematic Theology, etc.)

    What modernity loves is reproducible effects. More than truth, it seems like one of the largest criteria is to be able to reproduce it in other atmospheres. If one can reproduce an effect, it can be systematized.

    The question becomes: Why do we value the reproducible? Why are things which can be commonly experienced seen as “true”?

    What I would suggest is that it is in our human nature to be communal. We don’t actually value the thing which is reproducible, but rather the idea of “sameness” or mutual experience.

  3. @ Justin: The interesting thing about the ability to reproduce phenomena is that it’s not as easy to do as previously thought or imagined. No matter how much we control the environment of an atomic particle there is still no way to predict its behavior with 100% certainty. The seamless cause-effect nature of things is actually not-so-seamless.

    Also, I’m curious what you mean when you say that our educational system is “pre-modern.”

  4. Pingback: The Mind of God: POB pt. 2 | garret menges blog

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