[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with humanity’s inability to know. At least, this is my sarcastic conclusion after a brief educational survey of epistemology covered in Stanford’s encyclopedia of philosophy. Actually epistemology covers a few different ways of knowing: knowing how to do something, knowing a person, knowing a place, or knowing propositions. The Stanford article deals only with the knowledge of propositions.
I’ll summarize in brief starting with Foundationalism, the idea that our justified beliefs (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected) rest upon basic beliefs. Basic beliefs don’t need justification from other beliefs. Coherentism disagrees, stating that every belief receives its evidence from other beliefs. For instance, “I think therefore I am,” presupposes a belief that I think and a belief that I could exist. Or, “I perceived the chair is yellow,” presupposes a belief in the existence of a chair, the belief in a personal ability to perceived, and the belief in the concept of yellow. Coherentism is critiqued because one can never arrive at a belief; there is an infinite series of beliefs before that belief. Skeptics jump all the way in and claim something fantastic like, “You can’t know that you have feet.” They base this on the possibility of radical deception; someone could be in the matrix, or in a dream world, or similarly disembodied and at the same time being in the situation of radical deception would have no way of knowing they were in such a state. Since you can’t know you’re not in that situation, you can’t know whether or not you have feet. In order to defeat the skeptics, the definition of knowing underwent changes. Contextual knowing and fallible knowing are put forth as potential skeptic killers. Find the full discussion here. If you have trouble following all the terms and positions visit, Wikipedia has a nearly identical summary with accessible resources.
Simply put, I’m a skeptic. I found all the other positions too vulnerable to devastating critique. Foundationalism’s strongest thought, “I think therefore I exist,” is perceptual knowledge based on existence can only be understood by appealing to someone’s perception of their own existence. If we all believe that we exist, but we could all be wrong. If no one existed, no one would know. If we base our knowledge of existing on our perceived existence all we are left with is perceived existence not justifiable belief (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected).
Coherentism finds the truth but can’t accept it. I believe Coherentism discovers the true reason why justifiable belief doesn’t exist, because belief is based upon belief to an infinite or at least unknowable/undiscoverable degree. Coherentism wants to build justifiable belief on a web of interconnected ideas, only they missed the web and fell into a bottomless chasm.
Contextual knowing, in my mind, changes the whole topic of discussion. We take the problem of the existence of justifiable belief (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected) as a universal human question dealing with propositional knowledge and instead ask, “Can we have justifiable belief in a smaller group of humans controlled by selective ignorance?” In a group of similarly ignorant and mentally disabled patients there might be a belief that can’t be proven false or doubted within the same group. However, that same belief has the possibility of being corrected. Either way, we are no longer talking about universal human knowing; we are discussing group knowledge. This group knowledge is only justifiable belief in propositional knowledge if it isn’t challenged. I find this view ignores the fact that we live in the age of world-wide communication and information. An argument starting with ignorance and ending with a positive result is a poor argument indeed.
Fallible knowledge is also not a response to the same question. Fallible agrees with the skeptics, in so far as they agree infallible knowledge is impossible. This is just another way of saying justifiable belief does not exist, but belief does exist. They seek to have justified beliefs based on knowledge’s inability to be justified. To believe in fallible knowledge is to believe in nothing more than the usefulness of belief itself.
All of the positions agree (even the skeptics) that propositional knowledge exists. Since they are in agreement on this point, their arguments (in my mind) are centered on the existence of justifiable belief, not belief itself. Can humans have justifiable belief? I say no. I say no with a caveat. Humans cannot have justifiable belief about themselves or the existent world. Galaxies, stars, planets, plants, animals and all physical elements can also have no justifiable beliefs about humans or the existent world. If these things were all that existed, humans would have no possibility of justifiable belief. I however, do not believe the above things mentioned are all that exist. (I’m leaving myself an opening for later.) Is your belief justifiable?