So Whadda Ya Know….

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” ( 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?

A prayer for Sunday…Francis of Assisi

Since October 3 marks the anniversary of the death of Francis of Assisi and October 4 is his feast day, it seemed appropriate for this Sunday’s prayer to come from him.

Almighty, eternal, just, and merciful God, grant us in our misery the grace to do for You alone
What we know You want us to do, and always to desire what pleases you.
Thus, inwardly cleansed, interiorly enlightened, and inflamed by the fire of the Holy Spirit,
May we be able to follow in the footsteps of Your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
And, by Your grace alone, may we make our way to You, Most High,
Who live and rule in perfect Trinity and simple Unity,
And are glorified God all-powerful forever and ever. Amen.

Does Justifiable Belief Exist? (Reloaded)

[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 seems my first post (Does Justifiable Belief Exist?) misfired. This is a reworking of the same tale to achieved more clarity.

This post is a Christian response to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article, “Epistemology.”  Epistemology is the study of human knowing.  Epistemology generally breaks down knowing into few different categories: knowing how to do something, knowing a person, knowing a place, and knowing propositions.  The Stanford article deals only with the knowledge of propositions.  All of the positions in the Stanford article agree (even the skeptics) that propositional knowledge exists.  Since they are in agreement on this point, their arguments are centered on the existence of justifiable belief, not belief itself.  This is my main concern for this post, do justifiable beliefs exist?  Traditionally justifiable beliefs are those ideas that cannot be false, cannot be doubted, and cannot be corrected.  Can humans have justifiable belief?

I’ll summarize the article in brief starting with Foundationalism, the idea that our justified beliefs (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected) rest upon basic beliefs.  Basic beliefs are justifiable beliefs that don’t need justification from other beliefs.  According to Foundationalism, “I think therefore I am,” is a basic belief.

Coherentism breaks down Foundationalism, fundamentally disagreeing with its premise.  According to Coherentism, all beliefs depend on other beliefs for justification; there are no self-justifying beliefs. To the Coherentist, justifiable beliefs are those beliefs that are held up by web of interconnected beliefs. Justifiable beliefs properly fit within the web, they must be included in a coherent system and cannot contradicts themselves or the web. (It is important to note the moderate [modern] versions of Foundationalism and Coherentism have moved away from a strict definition of justifiable beliefs and have since redefined themselves accordingly.  I’m sticking with the classical forms of these positions because they were concerned with a hard definition of justifiable belief – cannot be false, doubted, or corrected.)

Skeptics do not hold to justifiable belief. They attempt to prove justifiable belief doesn’t exist by claiming 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, etc. and at the same time 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.

The skeptics could not be beat on their own terms.   After the skeptics, the definition of knowing changed.  Contextual knowing and fallible (arbitrary) knowing do not hold to justifiable knowledge as defined in this article.   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.

Within the confines of this conversation, I am a skeptic.  I do not believe humans can obtain justifiable knowledge through their experience with the world or with themselves.  I’ll add my critiques to Foundationalism and Coherentism to explain my point.  On the one hand, Foundationalism’s strongest thought, “I think therefore I exist,” cannot be build upon without a myriad of presupposition beliefs about what it means to exist or to think. Foundationalism’s founder Descartes built upon this idea and somehow came up with Catholic Christianity. Anyone else who builds upon this idea will come up with something different based upon their prior beliefs.  In addition, the phrase adds nothing to the epistemological conversation.  The conversation starts with the belief in propositional knowledge which requires a belief in the ability to think and a belief in our existence.  Therefore, Foundationalism’s foundational belief does not lead us to even one justifiable belief.  Coherentism, on the other hand, creates a web of interconnected ideas that do not conflict, but there is nothing to say the entire web is right or wrong.  There is nothing to ground the web into justifiable belief.  Further, one cannot point to the boundary of the web.  The web itself would have to be infinite, stretching out in all directions forever.  If there are no boundaries to the web, how could we know the web is attached to reality?

Humans cannot have justifiable belief about themselves or the existent world – through their experience with themselves and the world.  To state the obvious: galaxies, stars, planets, plants, animals and all physical elements can also have no justifiable beliefs about humans or the existent world.  If the physical world is all that exists, humanity has no possibility of justifiable belief.  If we are just talking about the physical world, I am a skeptic.  I, however, do not believe in the physical world alone.

Flotsam and jetsam (10/1)

Just because….beware the drunk monkey

Since I’m hanging out in Santa Cruz today and you’re probably not having anywhere near as much fun as I am, here’s a video to brighten up your Thursday.


Things Christians just shouldn’t say…ever

I’m in Santa Cruz this week hanging out with senior leaders from several Christian conference centers around the country. They’ve all been involved in Christian camping for a long time, and they’re full of fascinating stories. I may poach one or two on occasion because they’re just too fun to pass up.

Probably the best (i.e. most disturbing) little tidbit of information, though, has to do with a piece of evangelical-ese I’d never run across before. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the famous “campfire experience” that closes many summer youth camps. Everyone gathers around, commits or recommits their lives to Christ, cries, hugs everyone within reach, and leaves feeling invincible and ready to take the Gospel to all nations. A common element in the campfires that I’ve been a part of is burning something as a token of releasing to God your sins, your past, or anything else holding you back from him. We usually wrote these things down on little pieces of paper and then took turns throwing them into the fire to demonstrate that we were really serious about our new commitment.

So far, so good.

Apparently, though, it used to be very common for Christian campers to throw pieces of wood into the fire as the token of what they were letting go. And, it also used to be fairly common to call such pieces of wood “fagots.”  You can probably see where this is going now. So, the person leading the campfire experience would often exhort the group with things like “Come down and burn your fagot” or “Throw your fagot in the fire.” How’s that for a rallying cry? Try it at church this Sunday; see how it goes.

Now, I realize that “fagot” (small stick or bundle of sticks) is different than “faggot” (derogatory term for a homosexual). But, since I can’t hear the extra “g”, there’s just no way to avoid the shock value of having someone say “Come, burn your fagot for God!”

So, this is now officially going on my list of things that Christians just shouldn’t ever say.

Flotsam and jetsam (9/29)

Conserve water, or this fish dies!


How’s your religious knowledge (aka Are you smarter than an atheist?)

By now you’ve probably heard about the survey that recently demonstrated that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most religious people do. (If not, you can read the full report here. NPR also discusses it here.) Now, you can take the quiz for yourself. Answer this brief 15-question survey and see how your religious knowledge compares to the population as a whole.

More Sufjan Stevens online

A while back I mentioned that you could stream Sufjan Stevens’ new album, All Delighted People, for free. Well, he’s at it again. His latest, The Age of Adz is out, and you can stream it for free at NPR. It’s quite a change from Stevens’ earlier efforts, but still worth a listen – especially at that price.

Driscoll and MacDonald vs. Dever on multi-site churches

Here’s an interesting discussion between Mark Driscoll, James MacDonald, and Mark Dever on multi-site churches. Driscoll and MacDonald, both multi-site pastors, obviously argue in favor of that strategy and try to convince Dever, not a multi-site guy, that this is a good way to go. And, Dever responds with some good questions of his own.