The Starting Point for Knowledge

In an article entitled Are You Epistemologically Self-Conscious?
(original source here) Dr. Jason Lisle writes:

Epistemology is the study of knowledge – how we know what we know. When a person has a belief, it is reasonable to ask the person “how do you know this?” The way in which a person responds to this kind of question will reveal his or her epistemology. All people have an epistemology because they have some beliefs, and they have reasons for their beliefs. But not all reasons are good reasons. And if the reason isn’t very good, then there is a good chance that the belief is wrong. So epistemology is very important if we want our beliefs to correspond to reality.

Most people have not consciously reflected on their own epistemology. They haven’t stopped to ask themselves, “How do I ultimately know anything? What are the standards by which truth is determined? And are these standards reasonable?” It is obvious that all people do have an epistemology because it would be impossible to know anything without some kind of system of knowledge – and people do know things. But most people are not aware of their own epistemology. They are not epistemologically self-conscious.

Some might say, “Who cares? I’m not a philosopher. So why should I be concerned with epistemology? It is enough that I do know things.” But in fact, our epistemology is crucially important because if it is wrong, then many of our beliefs derived from that faulty system will also likely be wrong. If our epistemology is wrong, then we could be wrong about everything we think we know.

The reason for a belief must itself be believed for a good reason – and so on. Suppose Jenny says, “I understand they are building a new apartment complex down the street.” We might ask, “How do you know this?” Jenny responds, “Bill told me. He said he talked with the construction crew.” Is this a reasonable answer? It depends. The reason for Jenny’s belief is Bill’s statement. But is Bill’s statement reliable? If it is, then Jenny’s belief is reasonable. If not, then Jenny’s belief is irrational. So we must know something about Bill in order to know if Jenny is being rational.

For example, it could be the case that Bill is a notorious liar. If Jenny knows this, then it would be irrational for her to believe his statement without additional reasons. But let’s suppose that Bill has shown himself to be trustworthy. Even in this case, Bill could still be mistaken. Maybe he has a mental disorder that causes him to hallucinate from time to time. Bill may honestly believe that he talked with a construction crew, when in fact it never happened. So Jenny’s belief is contingent upon both Bill’s honesty, and the reliability of Bill’s mind and sensory organs.

Jenny’s belief also depends upon the reliability of her own mind and senses. Perhaps Jenny hallucinates on occasion and only thought that she talked with Bill. Perhaps Bill does not actually exist, being only a projection of Jenny’s delusion. How can Jenny know that her own mind and senses are reliable, such that she can know that she really talked with Bill? Most people just assume that their senses are reliable without thinking about whether or not this belief is reasonable; they are not epistemologically self-conscious. But these questions must be answered if we are to be confident that we have knowledge of anything at all. If we are to be considered rational, then we must not continue to act on unsupported assumptions.

Christian epistemology makes knowledge possible.

The Christian worldview alone makes it possible for us to answer these questions and have genuine knowledge. This is because knowledge stems from the nature of God (Proverbs 1:7, Colossians 2:3). God has revealed some of His knowledge to us. Some of this knowledge is hardwired directly into us, and other knowledge is revealed by God through tools that He has given us – like logic and reliable sensory organs. The Christian worldview gives us rational justification for all the things that we rely upon in order to have knowledge. Continue reading