IBRI Research Report #30 (1986)
EPISTEMIC BAD FAITH
AND MERE KNOWLEDGE
David P. Hoover
Department of Philosophy
Lookout Mountain, Tennessee
Copyright © 1986 by David P. Hoover. All rights
|A major preoccupation in the history of western philosophy has been the theory of knowledge. The epistemologist, during this lengthy and desultory enterprise, has posed several important questions: How does one know? If one cannot prove what one claims to know, does one really know? Does knowing imply knowing that one knows? In this paper the thesis advanced is that man has been epistemically suited to the environment in which God has placed him. Man has been given a finite but reliable noetic endowment. Three possible hindrances to knowing are discussed: (i) the noetic effects of sin, (ii) a necessarily finite perspective, and (iii) the impossibility of logically guaranteeing an interpretation. Finally, the author stresses that man possesses the ability to know the world through sentience and reasoning in the absence of possessing proofs that such abilities are actual or reliable.|
|Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written.|
Epistemic Bad Faith and Mere Knowledge
C. S. Lewis once wrote a volume entitled Mere Christianity. More recently, Lewis B. Smedes has written Mere Morality. In both of these works the authors attempted a nearly outrageous simplicity amidst a mind-boggling, mind-numbing theoretical literature on their respective topics. Both write what they consider to be the plain, solid, and (perhaps most importantly) uncluttered truth in their areas of concern. C. S. Lewis, with apologetic intent, takes up the identification and defense of a Christianity that any Christian would assent to. Smedes, on the other hand, takes up the plain truth about morality which, he supposes, conspicuously and unavoidably holds among men and women. In a similar vein, the 1984 speeches at the Democratic National Convention largely went to define and motivate the mere democrat. The Republican National Convention countered, in effect, with why it is infinitely preferable to be and vote as a mere republican. The idea in all these efforts is to pare away factional, partisan, or denominational complication to get to the mere essence of the thing in question.
To the intellectually sophisticated, however, any claim to have achieved definitive “mereness” is bound to come across as oversimplification if not outright distortion. Many have doubtless found Lewis’s account of mere Christianity (and hence the mere Christian) superficial, while there will be those who find Smedes’ work theoretically naive. But the notion of a mere X or a mere Y is intriguing. There surely must be mere Christianity and mere morality or else there is neither Christianity nor morality. (I have less confidence about the existence of mere democrats and mere republicans.)
But what of mere knowledge? Is it possible, in the wake of centuries of a somewhat desultory epistemological literature, to tell the plain, solid truth about man as a knower? Initially, at any rate, such an ambition would seem naive, for aside from being desultory, the philosophical tradition I have in mind exhibits a chronic anxiety concerning the prospect of anyone really knowing a thing—an anxiety which is not only exhibited in the literature of skepticism, but in the more positive epistemological literature as well.
In what follows, I would like to identify a set of conditions which
may be said to afflict the human percipient-knower which goes far to
for the anxiety just mentioned. I will identify these conditions in
of three principles—noxious principles, we may call them—which seem, at
first glance, not only to account for epistemic anxiety, but which take
us a fair piece down the road to skepticism. I hope to show, however,
epistemic anxiety is not warranted, nor is skepticism implied, by these
principles. Secondly, I would like to put a concept of mere knowledge
use in a series of examples which will put into relief an inherent informality
which characterizes a great deal of our perceivings, believings, and
The stress here will be on our know-ability, or cognitive abilities
as such, rather than the pencil-and-paper provability which has so
and misshapened the western epistemological tradition (including much
the apologetic theorizing of the past fifty years). Rather than a
which assumes that knowing and discursive proving are co-extensive, the
thesis here considered assumes that God sustains the causal conditions
of noetic interaction which make mere knowing a commonplace. And
I would like to take up the issue of the character of epistemic access
to see how my notion of mere knowledge fares in the case of mere factual
knowledge—i.e., the character of humanly acquired truth about
the creation, and God. This last issue has special importance because
takes up the problems which concern how noetic interaction can go
either in terms of contaminated and defective access or in terms of the
relative bluntness or precision which is normal for the sort of noetic
endowment we have been gifted.
I. THREE NOXIOUS PRINCIPLES
Inescapably, I believe, there are three problems or constraints which concern the human acquisition of knowledge. The first I consider to be primarily moral while the latter two have to do with human finitude:
(1) The noetic effects of sin, in a morally qualified way, affect all man’s perceivings, believings, opinings, trowings, hunchings, etc., the primary effect of which is a moral opposition to the authority of God and a proclivity to self-deception. Call thisWhat are we to make of these principles? I suggest that we take them at face value, that we meet them head-on. But if we (Christians) are to truly acknowledge them, it strongly appears that we are in big doxastic trouble.1 We might reply, of course, “Who gives a flip for logical guarantees?” and cast our lot with that passionate leaping Dane (Kierkegaard). But I, for one, do care about staying within the bounds of coherence, modeled one way or another. Maybe, then, one or more of the principles can be shown to be false. Perhaps doxastic trouble can be staved off if say, PHF can be weakened or refuted. But I can see no way to do either. And this certainly seems to imply that any statement of fact is rendered problematic. Take my present situation for example—typing this piece on the prospect of mere knowledge. There are, it is obvious to me, many objects in my surroundings as I type out this page. I see (I deliberately avoid “seem to see”) my typewriter before me. I hear my usually quiet neighbor Heddendorf knocking around in his office to my right. And so on. Now while it might be that Heddendorf’s office has no Heddendorf within (his office is being burglarized, let’s say), surely my seeing my typewriter before me is an indubitable fact known by me if anything is to count as such. But I’m admitting that PHF is sound. Am I not then possibly mistaken as to the whereabouts of my typewriter? Indeed, my claim is assailed not only by PHF, but by PNS and PPP as well! I must be in big doxastic trouble.
THE PRINCIPLE OF THE NOETIC EFFECTS OF SIN (PNS)
(2) The human being is incapable of logically guaranteeing, for any putative truth-claim, that future or heretofore undetected data will not seriously affect the veracity status of currently held belief. Call this
THE PRINCIPLE OF PARTIAL PERSPECTIVE (PPP)
(3) The human being is incapable of logically guaranteeing, for any putative data in his possession, that he has correctly interpreted or construed that data. Call this
THE PRINCIPLE OF HERMENEUTIC FINITUDE (PHF)
I think, however, that there is something fishy about “being possibly mistaken” in this case (and in any case relevantly like this case). For wherein could a mistake reside? There appear to be only two possibilities: (i) The force of principles PPP and PHF is that a premise-complete, deductively valid argument is unavailable to a finite mind with a finite perspective. And this certainly rules out a pencil-and-paper demonstration of the whereabouts of my typewriter. If a skeptic were to sulk against my knowledge-claim, he could produce a never-ending series of challenges: How do you know you’re not dreaming? How do you know that I’m not dreaming? How do you know you’re not hallucinating? How do you know you didn’t eat a strange mushroom this morning which, among its side effects, produces in you the fancy that you’re sitting before your typewriter? The sulk is pernicious for it is obvious that it cannot be terminated logically. Even if some of the questions could be empirically settled with the use of argument, many could not, and if the skeptic were to be utterly pernicious, he would disallow all empirical premises as hopelessly problematic. This, however, amounts to a refusal to recognize sensory discrimination as a basic noetic ability. Since I recognize such an ability, I needn’t be impressed with a style of objection which merely presupposes the absence of such ability. Need I then concede that I am possibly mistaken because of PPP and PHF? Not at all. The truth of these principles only indicates that guarantees of a certain sort are ruled out. PNS can be safely disregarded as well because to advance it as a reason to hold my truth-claim suspect is tantamount to making the claim that the fall jeopardized sentient discrimination in general and Scripture patently does not indicate this as a consequence of Adam’s sin.
But (ii) it can still be objected that I am possibly mistaken
my noetic endowment may be malfunctioning in some way.
challenge, unlike the first, deserves some respect because it cannot be
launched from a position of total skepticism. Here there is the
tacit recognition that there are such things as noetic endowments with
normal functioning. So one's noetic endowment may indeed go wrong, but
this very fact is an empirically determined fact requiring the normal
of the noetic endowments of others. Moreover, it is just the business
psychology and related disciplines to determine the variety of ways,
under which conditions, misperception takes place. So let us return to
the question: am I then, because my noetic endowment can go
possibly mistaken? Do honesty and humility in the face of my fallible
endowment dictate that I answer yes? Emphatically not. First of all, I
have every reason to believe, and no reason not to believe, that my
is before me. But from a logical point of view the skeptic’s question
quite odd. It’s very difficult to know what to say. If I’m right as I
I am, then it’s not possible that I am mistaken, and if I’m wrong
I’m not), then it’s not possible that I am right. Obviously I am to
my response to the skeptic on what we both agree to—that a noetic
go wrong. But while it follows from this that a noetic endowment, on a
given percipient occasion, may possibly go wrong, it does not
from the mere fallibility of a noetic endowment that my particular
knowledge-claim is possibly mistaken. The skeptic’s premise is
general for the concession he wants from me. What he must do is give me
specifics which bear directly on my claim if he is to be entitled to
the concession. Should he refuse to address my actual perceptual
he implies that all percepts are suspect sheerly because a
endowment can go wrong. Thus, by a different route this time,
arrive at total skepticism and the breakdown of the concept of a noetic
endowment. But, of course, it is the skeptic who errs. If it is once
that man has certain cognitive abilities by virtue of a noetic
then categories of misperception (illusion, hallucination, dream,
after-image, etc.) are themselves empirically determined and, to use
expression, “sense is by sense corrected.”
II. THE INFORMALITY OF KNOWLEDGE AND THE CHRISTIAN BASIS FOR MERE KNOWING
But perhaps the skeptic has yet another inning. Rationalism, it seems to me, is part of the warp and woof of western thinking. Down through the centuries there has been a very strong rationalistic cast to western epistemologies. The model or paradigm of certitude we have been imbued with has been, roughly, geometric reasoning—at least implicitly. Whatever can be secured from self-evident axioms by means of self-evidently appropriate rules of inference is secure indeed! The confidence that is intuitively felt by layman and scholar alike is that whatever is known or knowable must be discursively provable. The idea that knowledge may be at root informal relative to our capacity to formally exhibit it is unsettling. To illustrate, Francis Schaeffer was fond of saying that on the Christian’s position alone, one could not only know, but one could know that one knows. There is a forebodingness, a felt incompleteness, about mere knowledge in Schaeffer’s writings as I think also in the writings of the presuppositionalists in general. What is needed is perfect certainty and this seems to call for a knowledge to undergird knowledge. In professional philosophy this sentiment receives refinement and great sophistication. Both Keith Lehrer2 and Jaakko Hintikka3 advance quite elaborate arguments that any case of knowledge entails knowing that one knows. I think the concern for knowing that one knows is understandable given our tradition, but to take it up—as for example in apologetics—is a serious mistake since it plays into the hands of “the skeptic.” Robert Reymond, for example, has shown clearly that the epistemologies of both Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til cannot escape skepticism.4 The deep lying reason (not diagnosed by Reymond) is Clark’s and Van Til’s preoccupation with the characterization of absolute knowledge.5
But does human knowing depend on, and so entail, knowing that one knows? That depends on the significance assigned to the two occurrences of “know” in ‘‘knowing that one knows.’’ Let me word this locution with subscripts to help make my point. Let us call the first occurrence of “know” a knowing2 and let us call the second occurrence of “know” a knowing1. I propose to entertain, then, two orders of knowing. And now the question is, Does knowing1—i.e., that full-fledged knowledge I have claimed with respect to the whereabouts of my typewriter—depend on, or logically require, that I know2 that I knowl the whereabouts of my typewriter? One easy answer is that knowledge2 construed formalistically (to construe it as ineffable could not serve its purpose) is impossible given that PPP and PHF are sound. That is, it is not possible to produce, with respect to possible but unavailable data and with respect to currently construed data, a premise-complete, deductively valid argument that secures one’s knowledge1. But given that PNS has primarily to do with morally qualified understanding and given that PNS is mitigated by common grace, I see nothing to prevent our knowing1. We are capable, then, of merely knowing. We can, of course, introspectively canvass our noetic holdings. To judge correctly that some of them count as knowings is not to be in a state of second order knowledge of first order knowledge. To be reflexively aware of one's holdings does not have the character so crucial for the rationalist—viz., a second order certification of first order certification.
I have contended so far that the optimum noetic state for the human being is mere knowledge, knowledge1 if you please. That, and that alone, is the noetic height. I also contend that mere knowledge is a commonplace. You have yours and I have mine. If this weren’t the case—that is, if mere knowing were in grave Cartesian doubt—all factual truth-claims (about oneself, the world, and God) would be hopelessly problematic. A set of examples may help to put the matter in its most cogent form. Consider the following couplets:
A. (1) I see my typewriter before me as I type out this pagebut,
(2) for all I know2 I may not be seeing my typewriter and I am not now doing any typing.but,
B. (1) I hear my wife calling me to dinner
(2) for all I know2 my wife is not calling me to dinner. It is just the wind, perhaps, so I will go on typing.but,
C. (1) I have a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ;
I know1 there is a God and that He sent His Son to die for me
(2) for all I know2 there never was a Jesus Christ and there is no God.The rationale for the assertion of the second member of each pair is that in each case the best argument which can be made for the first member is logically inconclusive—i.e., I maintain that it would be impossible to logically overcome a serious Cartesian sulk against the first member of each pair. In the case of A-(l), for example, I cannot generate a premise-complete, deductively valid argument that has A-(l) as its conclusion. Relative to any argument I might advance, because of PPP and PHF an “uncertainty” arises as measured in some form of a probability value. Where measurement is subjective weighting of evidence so that we can’t speak of a metric probability value, we can nevertheless speak of probability by indicating our level of confidence about the conclusion on the evidence given. It is important to add that the probablistic confidence-level I have in mind comes as a result of considering our (my) best argument for the truth of what, ex hypothesi, I already know (i.e., know1). In my case, A-(l), B-(l), and C-(l) were not acquired by inference, but this is of no consequence. What I wish to press is the formal indefensibility of the first member of each pair against the second member of each pair. If, therefore, second order knowledge is required in order to simply know, the (2)s might as well be true as the (l)s. And here emerges the fundamental point. The appropriateness of a probability assignment indicates the formal inconclusiveness of my (the!) best argument in behalf of any of the (l)s. This is important because it raises the question about the meaning of a probability so assigned. The question is this:
Does an appropriate probability value assigned to an argument’s conclusion necessarily indicate a measure of ignoranceor,
Need probability indicate a measure of ignorance and thus provide a legitimate ground for doubt?To answer either question we need to have in hand the notions of formal discernment vis-a-vis informal discernment.
(i) Formality, Informality, and IneffabilityWhen we considered the pairs of statements A, B, and C, my point was that in spite of the confident tone of the first member of each pair, the second, for the sake of our thought experiment, needed to be added because the first member (e.g., I see my typewriter before me as I type out this page.) could not be logically guaranteed. The best argument in behalf of each of the (1)s would leave the truth of the (l)s problematic—leaving, even, the prospect that the (2)s are true! Where does this leave us with respect to knowledge? Well, so far as formally guaranteeing an existential truth-claim (a claim that something is factually the case), it leaves us with a pretty impressive restriction. The human capacity to cinch a matter by logically ordering propositions is indeed limited. But not worrisome.
Consider my son Ryan, who would not be able, at the age of eight, to make heads or tails of my current line of argument. He plays YMCA soccer. In games I have frequently seen him track the ball (at fullback) as the opposing team got the ball down field and then boom the ball back to his teammates. That is, Ryan sees the ball, rushes for it, and booms it away, thus protecting his goal. In saying this I am making a cognitive claim, both for Ryan (athlete) and for myself (spectator). We are both using a bit of our noetic equipment—I for watching the game, and Ryan for defending his team’s goal. What I wish to say about this may sound trivial or minor when compared to the epistemic objectives that concern us most (e.g., the existence of God, the truth of Christianity, and most importantly, knowing God in fellowship), but if it should turn out utterly problematic whether Ryan cognizes the soccer ball speeding his way, it is certain that the major items will be problematic as well.
My claim is that Ryan sees, i.e., cognizes, i.e., knows1 that the ball is coming his way. And I see, i.e., cognize, i.e., know1 that Ryan is approaching the ball and booming it away. We are designed by our Creator to be noetically engaged in this way. Moreover, there is, relative to formally demonstrating that we are successfully engaged in this way, inherent limitation. The fact that Ryan cannot produce a premise-complete, deductively valid argument that he veridically sees the ball does not imply that his noetic engagement is suspect in some way. He sees in the absence of understanding the complex process that his seeing involves; he sees in the absence of being able to provide reasons that his visual cognition is veridical; and for what it is worth, he sees without seeing that he sees.6 We are able to see (as animals are able) without the capacity to prove (know2) that we see. And we have such cognitive ability even though we cannot know2 that this ability is reliable. Our knowings1 may be evidentially vindicated, but never known2. Moreover, to the extent that vindication is possible, the content of the premises of such vindication can at best be known1.
The above comments are primarily aimed at what can involve the exercise of linguistic competence—that is, insofar as specifying and vindicating truth-claims are concerned. But it seems clear that we also know ineffably—ineffably1. Our gestaltic apprehensions would be known in this way—inexpressible in words. Second order ineffable knowledge is surely impossible to even speculate about. But it seems clear that the grounding for aesthetic judgment, aspects of knowing one's spouse, and aspects of knowing God are known ineffably1, in which case the subject of logical proving cannot even arise. Mystical knowing would be such a knowing—the knowing involving the Spirit’s “testimony” that we are His.
With these thoughts behind us, let us turn to the distinction between formal and informal discernment once more. Let us call discernment formal when it is discursively focused, but especially when it involves inference from premises. Even here, however, there is a content that is formally discerned. Thus to formally discern something, one must informally appreciate the content or nuances involved. So if you are familiar with the facts which the premises state, involved in that familiarity will be a non-formalizable content. Concerning Ryan and the soccer ball, his seeing the ball, knowing1 where it is, is an objective though informal doing on his part. This is not to say that much of his cognition could not receive a crisp propositional focus, but that in his seeing we are not (necessarily) alluding to a propositional attitude on his part. Nor is there propositionality to the complex neurophysiological process which embodies his act of seeing. In this sense I wish to call his cognition informal. And it seems to me that a great deal of our perceivings, believings, and knowings are informal in this way.
What then of probability? How shall we answer the questions
Does an appropriate probability value assigned to an argument’s conclusion necessarily indicate a measure of ignorance?or,
Need probability indicate a measure of ignorance and thus provide legitimate ground for doubt?It all depends. In many cases a probability assignment does betoken ignorance (to whatever degree), but given what we have considered about the informality of veridical perception and the informality which belongs to weighing genuinely supportive premises in an inductive argument, there are cases in which probability is merely an argument-relative characteristic calling attention to a formal gap in our understanding. It might be (it often is the case) that informal discernment closes that gap or renders it inconsequential. Such is the case, I hold, with A-(1), B-(1), and C-(1). In my case, to go on to A-(2), B-(2), and C-(2) would not be a show of epistemic humility but an act of epistemic bad faith. It would be an instance of the latter because for all I can tell, the (1)s are true; and it would be an instance of the latter because it goes counter to my confessional stance regarding knowledge. And to this we now turn our attention.
(ii) The Necessity of the Christian Confessional StanceIn what is human knowledge rooted? I think the answer is quite simple but perhaps surprising given the conditioning of the rationalism within our apologetics literature and even our theological literature. Philosophers as divergent in viewpoint as Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gordon Clark share the paradigm of certitude that I have already identified as geometric reasoning. Each believed that knowledge is an axiomatic system and that the scope of human knowledge lay in the implicatory richness of the axioms or axiom with which one begins. Descartes will serve nicely to illustrate what seems to me a false and fatal start.
Using the method of systematic doubt, Descartes discovered that the only proposition which he could not rationally doubt was “I think, so I am.” Not even an all-powerful malevolent demon could deceive him about this proposition, for even if he doubted such a proposition, he had to exist in order to doubt. Descartes then found that he had in his mind the idea of God. Since a finite and imperfect mind cannot have originated the idea of the most perfect and infinite being, an agent fitting the idea must have caused the idea. Therefore, reasoned Descartes, God exists. From here Descartes thought it a short logical hop to the veracity of at least some sensory perceptions. Body or matter surely exists, for example, because God would not allow Descartes’ perceptions to be systematically deceptive.
While Descartes’ arguments are of quite dubious value, it is instructive that within Descartes’ thought God’s existence is a proposition accessed by sheer deduction. To Descartes’ mind, it is the truth of the proposition “God exists” which saves his position from solipsism. And for theistic rationalists in general, “God exists” is either the product of deductive technique or serves in the capacity of an axiom for the rest of knowledge.
Contrast the spirit and substance of this with Proverbs 1:7a: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge. There is, I believe, a difference and sharp contrast between believing that a proposition is true and believing a person (taking his word for it) that a proposition is true. I think that Scripture here indicates that the latter is the more fundamental and that the former is based on the latter. In notation, believing S that p is more fundamental than believing that p. It seems to me that the Cartesian would render Proverbs 1:7a something like this: The truth of the proposition “God exists,” taken with conviction, is the beginning of knowledge. But Proverbs clearly indicates that a personal relationship is the beginning of knowledge. I take it that “fearing God” entails taking His word for it that I am a creature of His, made to inhabit the world or environment that He has created. I believe Him that I have been suited to interact with and be a steward in His world. I have been gifted, then, a noetic endowment which, so far as I can tell, includes sapience and sentience—capacities to think and sensorily discriminate by. This endowment by its very nature, is finite (hence principles PPP and PHF); because of the fall, there is sin to contend with (hence principle PNS). This endowment by its very nature as a finite set of capacities both facilitates and limits my knowing. Because of its capacity for reflexive awareness, I am able to employ it for its own self-investigation. In so doing, however, I recognize that this endowment cannot exceed or transcend its epistemic potential for the sake of determining its own reliability. On the other hand, to the extent that an investigation of its epistemic potential can take place, reliability must be assumed—or better, believed.
There are others of my beliefs that are confessional (in the spirit
of Proverbs 1:7a) but which aim more nearly at the creation rather than
the noetic agent. One such belief is that inductive reasoning (as well
as sentient discrimination) can have a genuine “content-extending
for knowledge when care is taken and proven methods are employed. And
basis for the fruitfulness of inductive inquiry is God’s faithfulness
sustaining law-like regularity—in particular, God’s sustaining law-like
elements of noetic interaction within the environment.
III. SOME THOUGHTS ON THE CHARACTER OF EPISTEMIC ACCESS
At this point I wish to assume man’s created noetic endowment (as confessionally basic) as opposed, say, to beginning with consciousness or subjective awareness (as confessionally basic). The notorious difficulty with the latter is that one cannot get beyond the content of consciousness to a mind-independent world. There is no way to pass through the veil of perception to access the far side of sensation, so to speak. But the notion of a noetic endowment carries no such implication. As was stated earlier, this endowment both facilitates and limits knowing. And coupled with the environment with which it interacts, the character of humanly known truth is determined. I would like to dwell briefly on what I will call factual knowledge to help bring this out.
(i) A Causal FactorOne of the problems within western epistemology has been a strict separation observed (until recently) between psychological and physiological matters on the one hand, and logical and discursive matters on the other. Reasons and causes, accordingly, were thought to be incommensurable categories. Gordon H. Clark, for example, represents a tradition that finds psychological and physiological processes completely irrelevant to the act of cognition and completely out of connection with a datum cognized. For Clark, a sensation (a psychological entity) which is somehow produced (perhaps by a physiological process) is logically irrelevant to establishing the truth about anything. “Sensations,” he has told me, “are unintelligible.” And indeed it is difficult to put the “raw feels” of our sensory input into a coherent model of perceptual knowledge which also includes the categories of rationality. It does seem, if one sticks with Clark’s characterization of a sensation, that “raw feels” do not wear their interpretations upon their sleeves. But if not, where do they wear them? How is the conceptual chasm between “ raw feel” and intellectual interpretation to be bridged? Without answering Clark at this point, let me agree that the “raw feels” of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell do not logically entail their (correct or appropriate) interpretations.7
At the same time I’d like to stress that the physiological process involved, say, in seeing is so intimately connected with visual cognition that it would be correct to say that the neurophysiological correlates of seeing are a necessary condition for cognizing by sight. And this implies that causal interaction is a necessary condition for seeing what is the case. The same case can be made for the other senses and their involvement in the production of knowledge.
(ii) Relating the Causal Process to the PerceivingWhat I have to say here is inspired primarily by Joseph Margolis and Donald MacKay. Both writers have found a need to invoke a type of relation8 not much developed in western psychological and philosophical literature. The relation, as I understand it, is primitive—not reducible to the terms of other relations. The relation is at once both familiar and puzzling. It is called embodiment. It is perhaps best illustrated rather than explained. The preceding statement is embodied in a certain distribution of ink molecules. The ink distribution does not logically imply my meaning. Nor does the ink distribution cause my meaning. The embodiment relation cannot be understood in terms of logical relating or of causal relating.
Another example is inscripturation. God’s intended meanings for us are not to be identified with physical markings on the pages of a book. And yet there is an intimate connection between the particular distributions of markings and what God wants us to understand. His meanings are inscripturated—i.e., they are embodied in a physical medium with which we are endowed to interact (given that there is adequate lighting, that we know how to read, etc.). God has so created the world that human and divine thought can receive symbolic form, can be embodied in a variety of media.
Yet another example is that of the Christ. The second person of the Triune God became flesh, became embodied by virtue of enfleshment. The relation between that particular body and that which was embodied in it cannot be elucidated in terms of logic or causality (or juxta-position or embeddedness). Jesus’ body did not imply the Christ, nor did Jesus’ body cause the Christ. Jesus’ body embodied the Christ. And the point that stands out is that the exact connection between particulars that are embod-ied (e.g., thoughts, thought processes, propositions, meanings, persons) and the particulars that do the embody-ing (ink distributions on paper, word sequences, braille, sound frequencies, physical organisms, and physiological processes) cannot be propositionally formulated so as to exhibit a logical progression from statements about the embodying particular to statements about the embodied particular. The embodiment relation is irreducible—a primitive way one particular may genuinely relate to another particular.
And now for my point. How is the causal process, say, involving eye-brain and environmental interaction related to an act of visual cognition? The answer, I believe, is that the perceptual act, a mental phenomenon, is embodied in the neurophysiological process.
(iii) Knowing1 Relative to Descriptive FrameworksAn important aspect of mere knowing may now begin to emerge. Any viable theory of first order knowledge must accommodate the created states-of-affairs by virtue of which neurophysiological-environmental interaction takes place. The created states-of-affairs (world) which we inhabit is at least 4-dimensional, involving three dimensions of space and the dimension of time. Perhaps spirit is a fifth. But whatever the number of dimensions our created reality has, it is important to see that dimensionality has a crucial bearing on our capacity to know the truth with respect to ourselves and our environment. This is because corresponding to the dimensionalities we actually inhabit, there is a descriptive framework. The term “descriptive framework” comes from MacKay9 and what he intends by it can be illustrated by a simple example: Suppose a draftsman contracts to produce a set of blueprints for the construction of a girder bridge. The bridge to be constructed is in reality a 3-dimensional object (four, if we count time). But the descriptive framework available to the draftsman is limited to two dimensions since he must provide the relevant guidance material by using only pencil and paper. That is, he must render the bridge in two dimensions, or in 2-dimensional projections. He produces projections that include, for the various parts of the bridge, the top view, the side view, the bottom view, etc. He works, then, within a 2-dimensional descriptive framework.
We can make two observations about the draftsman’s finished work that will serve us by way of analogy: (i) He “tells” the truth about the bridge under consideration, but (ii) we cannot get an integrated 3-dimensional perception of the bridge by superimposing the several 2-dimensional drawings. MacKay suggests that this may provide a fruitful analogy for considering the way the Trinity is presented to us in Scripture.10 God, who we may suppose is dimensionally richer than ourselves, uses the descriptive framework corresponding to the dimensionalities of the spatio-temporal creation to “project” himself three ways—in three personae: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What the Scriptures teach about each is true, but, as with the 2-dimensional projections of the girder bridge, we cannot use this information to acquire an integrated comprehension of the one God thus described. So the truth about our God, as mediated discursively, is relativized to what can be projected within the constraints of a descriptive framework corresponding to the dimensionalities of the creation. We can expand MacKay’s notion to accommodate non-discursive cognition by substituting “intelligibility framework” for “descriptive framework.”
(iv) The Character of What Is Accessed1 About Self, the World, and God is FactualHere I impose a restriction concerning the kind of knowledge I wish to assess. Philosophers have distinguished several kinds of knowing: knowing that a proposition is true (or false), knowing how to perform certain actions (as exhibited in skills and talents), and knowing whom (knowing one another and God in an “I-thou” fashion). But it is not at all clear to me that these three uses of “know” occur in a univocal sense. My present concern, at any rate, is more nearly with the first sense: knowing about things or knowing that such and such is the case. Such knowing may be formal, informal, or ineffable. What is important or crucial to this sense of knowing is that it be of or about something. Such knowing, it seems to me, is factual. This sounds hardly earthshaking, but it bears scrutiny. My own thoughts on the matter have been heavily influenced by Alan R. White (although I have a substantial disagreement with him concerning the causal efficacy of facts).11 What, then, are some facts about facticity?
Let us begin with the obvious. Facts can be entertained by the mind and stated. By contrast, the typewriter before me, a physical object, cannot be entertained in my mind or stated. That my typewriter is before me now is a fact, and this fact can be stated; I just did state it. With this in mind, let us run four contrasts to isolate the nature of a fact:
(i) We commonly distinguish a fact from an interpretation—and with good reason. A fact cannot be an interpretation, for an interpretation can be true or false, adequate or inadequate, muddled or clear. But a fact, on the other hand, is not the sort of particular that can be false, adequate or inadequate, muddled or clear. It can, of course, be clear what the facts are relative to some matter and one can have a sufficient number of them to support a conclusion.What, then, are facts? In agreement with White, a fact, I believe, is the way something is in some respect. It is one specific way the world happens to be at a given time, what the world is really like in some specific (though not necessarily specifiable) respect. And the way the world is is not the same as the world itself. So, curiously perhaps, a fact is not the sort of particular that can be created or controlled (contra Van Til, Notaro, et. al.).12 Facticity has to do with a fundamentally subordinate dimension; facts are subordinate to the entities they are of or about. With regard to the creation, it is the spatio-temporal things with their law-like and rule-like orderings which God brings into being and sustains. And the way the creation is (its factuality) depends on its structures and their behaviors, not the other way around—that is, God does not create the world and its behaviors and then in addition create the way these things are. (It should be added that factuality pertains also to necessary truths as well as contingent truths—e.g., it is a fact that 2+2=4, that anything colored is extended, that bachelors are unmarried, etc.)
(ii) Facts cannot be events. Events take up time and befall objects. Facts neither take up time nor do they occur and befall objects.
(iii) Facts cannot be spatio-temporal objects, as has already been mentioned. Spatio-temporal objects have causal properties; not only do they persist through time and occupy space, they have dispositions, capacities, and liabilities to be affected in certain ways under certain conditions. Facts, by contrast, do not have causal properties nor can they be affected by physical objects.
(iv) Facts cannot be identified with propositions, for the latter (as with interpretations) can be true or false. A fact can be stated and be what is meant in a true proposition, but it is solecistic to speak of false facts.
To return to the issue of factual knowledge, my contention is that insofar as we have knowledge of or about some thing, we know some fact or facts with respect to that thing. I do not know whether God’s knowledge is factual in the way here described. He, sustaining all things by the word of his power, might know in such a way that his knowing is not separable from his sustaining power.
(v) Mere Factual KnowledgeAs has already been sketched, part of my confessional stance with respect to knowing is that man has been endowed by his Creator to noetically interact with his environment. A great deal of this interaction is productive of knowledge (knowledge1)—most of it factual. We have seen also that to admit that there is such an endowment is to simultaneously admit both limitation and facilitation of knowledge. On the side of limitation there is fallibility or liability to error. On the side of facilitation there is, given a subject-object duality and given the neurophysiological processing of information, a tacit acceptance of mediated knowledge. I think that it is over media and mediating processing that anxiety regarding epistemic risk arises for the most part. The more complex the medium or mediating process by or through which something is noetically accessed, the greater will be the anxiety, for with an increase in complexity come more ways of going wrong.
But if this anxiety translates into a generalized skepticism with
to our noetic competence to lead lives of Christian stewardship, we
again epistemic mauvaise foi. On the other hand, there
is a risk factor with regard to factual truth-claims. To such risk I
the following attitude: Let our noetic endowment be regarded as a tool
(albeit an exceedingly complex tool) which is quite adequate for a
many tasks. However, to the extent that the task at hand requires
and greater precision, our noetic tool—even when assisted by
sense-extending instrumentation—becomes increasingly blunt—less
The resolving power of our mental equipment is quite limited.
while acknowledging this, it needs to be stressed that the degree of
acuity and keenness of mind which most of us are blessed with is quite
adequate for the lives we lead.
1 The expression “big doxastic trouble” was used by a participant at the Spring ‘84 meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers at the University of Notre Dame. The Greek word “doxastic” means, roughly, pertaining to belief.
2 Keith Lehrer, Knowledge (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 228-232.
3 Jaakko Hintikka, Knowledge & Belief: An Introduction to the Logic of the Two Notions (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1962). See also R. M. Chisholm’s “The Logic of Knowing” in Knowing, ed. by Michael D. Roth and Leon Galis (New York: Random House, 1970), pp. 189-219 (esp. p. 204)
4 Robert L. Reymond, The Justification of Knowledge (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 1979). The skepticism resulting from Van Til’s epistemology is detailed in pages 100-105. Clark’s skepticism is discussed in pages 108-114
5 Clark maintains that empirically acquired knowledge is logically impossible. See my “Gordon Clark’s Extraordinary View of Men & Things,” IBRI Research Report No. 22, 1984. Van Til, it seems to me, more or less consistently throughout his career has made presuppositions function in a rationalistic fashion. Curiously, this results from his acceptance of Hume’s and Kant’s problematic on the causal relation. See my “For the Sake of Argument: A Critique of the Logical Structure of Van Til’s Presuppositionalism,” IBRI Research Report No. 11, 1982. I’ve also developed this point at much greater length in as yet unpublished ms. Persons, Proof, & Knowledge of God, pp. 255-269.
6 The notion of seeing that one sees—seeing2 that one sees1—is absurd, on a par with smelling2 that one smells1 or hearing2 that one hears1 etc.
7 Implicit in Clark’s assessment is first the reduction of a sensation to a marginal description. The task is then to see whether collections of marginally described sense-data (e.g., There is redness.) can imply the world of perceptual common sense.
8 MacKay has expressed this view in conversation with me. Margolis’ best developed account of the embodiment relation is, perhaps, in his essay “The Ontological Peculiarity of Works of Art” in Philosophy Looks at the Arts (Philadelphia: Temple U. Press, 1978), pp. 213-224.
9 MacKay’s Staley Lectures at Covenant College, Spring, 1980.
10 D. M. MacKay, Science, Chance & Providence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 48ff.
11 Alan R. White, Truth (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970), p. 83.
12 Cornelius Van Til, Christian-Theistic Evidences (Philadelphia: Unpublished Syllabus, 1951), p. 13. Thom Notaro, Van Til & the Use of Evidence (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 1980), pp. 58-9, passim. One difficulty within the apologetics tradition inspired by Van Til has been its treatment of the problem of “brute fact”— i.e., facts with no principle of connectedness with one another. The problem comes about, I believe, when the notion of fact is used interchangeably with the notions of event, spatio-temporal object, states-of-affairs, etc. In critiquing Butler, for example, we find Van Til stating:
“This position of Butler with respect to man’s original estate corresponds to his empiricism in general. The “Author of nature” finds certain facts with characteristics of their own when he creates the world. He cannot fashion a perfect man except in so far as he can manipulate these facts. These facts have from the outset an independent influence upon the course of history. In their own nature they constitute a source of danger to the moral principle in man. (C-TE, p. 13)”Keeping in mind that the usage of the concept of fact in this quotation is Van Til’s and not Butler’s, we find that, for the sake of exposing Butler’s bad theology and bad epistemology, Van Til conceptually allows facts to be the sort of entities that might pre-exist the creation of the world, then to be re-worked, so to speak, by the “Author of nature.” But whatever might be deplorable about Butler’s theology and epistemology, Van Til has not got hold of it by committing Butler (as he, Van Til, is committed) to the reification of facts. To speak of facts as one would speak of pre-existing materials or of manipulable objects or of causal agents on the course of history is a clear case, if ever there was one, of what A. N. Whitehead has dubbed the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”
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