By Brian Johnson
[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.
It’s difficult to “know” how much blood has been spilt on the epistemological battlefield – the age-old attempt to “know” how we “know” – if you “know” what I mean.
This posting is my meager attempt to address the issues at hand from an evangelical point of view, and is in part in a reflection upon Vincent Cooke’s article “The New Calvinist Epistemology.”
Epistemology is defined as “the study of knowledge and justified belief” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/). Two elements of this (brief) definition stand out in my mind: What is real knowledge? and What is justified belief?
In most of our epistemological discussions, knowledge is treated as propositional statements. Things like: Tom is 6’4” tall. It could be argued that this is but one kind of knowing. Alongside propositional knowledge, we could add experiential knowledge (playing basketball with Tom), and transformational knowledge (where knowledge of my wife has changed me – I’m a better man now that I’m married).
Additionally, it’s important to distinguish knowledge from reality. While I may know that “Tom is tall”, that knowledge is neither “Tom” nor is it “tallness”. It is just information – a mere subset, and in fact, just one small feature of the reality of Tom.
Thus, I believe we error by making knowledge a kind of shorthand for comprehensive, exhaustive knowledge. Often we find imperfect knowledge sufficient for the task at hand. (Perhaps it’s a matter of precision…)
With regard to justified belief, Cooke brings out an excellent point (via Plantinga): that beliefs can be rational without the support of philosophical justification. That is, there are beliefs that we accept (dare I say must accept) that do not lend themselves to ‘justification’ in the technical philosophical sense.
He goes on to argue that classical foundationalism (the demand that all beliefs be accepted only if they are self-evident, un-doubtable, or evident to the senses) does not meet it’s own demands for justification – i.e. that it itself is not self-evident, nor un-doubtable, nor evident to the senses.
Classical foundationalism has put a wedge between theology and philosophy by demanding ‘justification’ for theological propositions – a kind of ‘justification’ that foundationalism fails to provide for itself. Post-foundational epistemology allows theological propositions (like ‘God exists”) to be accepted as we accept other ideas, which are difficult to justify. (Cooke cites Plantinga’s example of this kind of proposition: “that other minds exist.” This test concept cannot be supported via rigorous justification, but is practically accepted as a ‘basic’ belief.) This opens the door for renewed interaction and dialogue between theology and philosophy – allowing us evaluate theological ideas that previous philosophers simply dismissed.
Personally I’m encouraged by the school of criteriologists (those who believe that in certain circumstances we are justified in accepting beliefs without formal ‘justification’) that Cooke describes, and envision fruitful developments between theology and philosophy in the years to come.
What do you think? Am I justified in seeing the crumbling of classical foundationalism as a positive step for the integration of theology and philosophy?