What Can We Know? Epistemology 101 and Religious Belief

By Eric Chabot: Director, Ratio Christi, The Ohio State University

Here is a basic outline on religious epistemology. There is much more to be said. But I just wanted to point out some of the terms here. Hope it helps.

 I. Epistemology:  Is the branch of philosophy concerned with questions about knowledge and belief and related issues such as justification, truth, types of certainty.

a. Justification: a belief is said to be justified when a person fulfills his or her duties in acquiring  and maintaining a belief. A belief is said to be justified when it is based on a good reason/reasons or has the right grounds or foundation.

b. Knowledge: Knowledge is a belief that is true and warranted or properly accounted for. In other words, knowledge excludes beliefs that are just true accidentally.

Example: It is 12:30 pm and through an antique shop window I happen to look at a non-working clock, which happens to indicate 12:30. I would not be warranted in concluding that it’s 12:30 P.M. I may have belief that is true- the first components of knowledge—but I happened to get lucky. That does not qualify as knowledge; it’s not properly warranted (which completes the definition of knowledge). NOTE: This example was taken from Paul Copan’s True for you, but not for me: Deflating the Slogans that Leave Christians Speechless.

II. Common Sense Beliefs: Beliefs we take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them:

a.Testimony: We rightly accept what others tell us without having first established that they are worthy of trust. Without testimony, we could never be able to learn a language or accept something we learned before checking out for ourselves.

b.We trust our senses on a daily basis/we trust our cognitive faculties. We rely on introspection, intuition, and perception on a daily basis.

c. Memory: Memory is a pervasive, bedrock of our intellectual existence.

III. Answering self-defeating claims:

a.  “We can’t know” is one of genuine knowledge: “I know that we can’t know.” This argument already assumes knowledge of the truth to be able to detect mistakes and deception.

b.  “There is no truth”: ” Is that true?”

c.   “There is no objective truth”: “Is that objectively true?”

IV. Skepticism and God’s Existence: 

 Strengths of Skepticism: 

a. Skepticism can be healthy and constructive. After all, we shouldn’t be gullible and naïve, believing everything we hear or read.

b. Religious/Revelatory Claims are contradictory: We are required to provide reasons and evidence for what we believe.

Weaknesses of Skepticism: (NOTE: Points a-e are adapted from How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? A Response to Skepticism  by Paul Copan).

a. Skeptics are more skeptical about religious beliefs that anything else!

b. Skeptics aren’t truly skeptical about two fundamental things they take for granted: (a) the inescapable logical laws that they’re constantly using to disprove the claims of those who say they have knowledge or (b) that their minds are properly functioning so that they can draw their skeptical conclusions!

c. Being less than 100% certain doesn’t mean we can’t truly know. We can have highly plausible or probable knowledge, even if it’s not 100% certain.

d. The skeptic does not realize we don’t have to have absolute certainty to know something; we know many things that we aren’t absolutely certain about, and this is legitimately called “knowledge.”

e. The hyper-skeptic is in a position that ends up eliminating any kind of personal responsibility or accountability.

f. Skeptics need to be clear about what kind of approach they are taking to the existence of God (i.e., religious experience, induction, deduction, a historical approach, empirical approach, inference to the best explanation, etc).

V. Explanation, Argumentation, and Probability

a. Explanations try to show how something happened. That is, what is the cause for something that has happened, The truth of the event is already assumed.

b. Arguments try to show something is true given the truth if the premises.

c. Probability tries to show something might be true given the truth of the premises.

Deductive Arguments: In a deductive argument, the premises are intended to provide support for the conclusion that is so strong that, if the premises are true, it would beimpossible for the conclusion to be false.

(Premise 1)…….All the books on that shelf are science books.

(Premise 2)…….This book is from that shelf.

(Conclusion)……This book is therefore a science book.

Inductive Arguments: In an inductive argument, the premises are intended only to be so strong that, if they are true, then it is unlikely that the conclusion is false.

(Premise 1)…….This book is from that shelf.

(Premise 2)…….This book is a science book.

(Conclusion)……All the books on that shelf are science books.

In this argument, even if the premises are true, you could not conclude, with certainty, that all of the books on the shelf are science books just from the two pieces of information given in the premises.

VI. Probability comes in degrees: Degrees of Probability

a. Virtual Certainty: Where the evidence is overwhelmingly in its  favor( the law of gravity)

b. Highly probable: Very good evidence in its favor (There was a man named Jesus who lived 2,000 years ago and was crucified)

c.  Probable: Means there is sufficient evidence in its favor (Paul wrote Galatians and 1 Corinthians)

d. Possible: Seems to have evidence both for and against (The Shroud of Turin is the cloth that covered Jesus when he was in the tomb)

e.  Improbable: Insufficient Evidence in its favor (Life can come from non-life)

f.  Highly Improbable: Very little evidence in its favor (The events in the Book of Mormon took place)

g. Virtually Impossible: Almost no evidence in its favor (George Bush is a Martian)

VII. Kinds of Certainty

a.  Mathematical Certainty: ( 7+5+12)

b. Logical Certainty:  (There are no square circles)

c. Existentially Undeniable: ‘I exist’

d. Spiritual (Supernatural) Certainty: ‘I experience the Holy Spirit in my life

e.  Historical Certainty: Since history is inductive, we can only arrive at probabilities

f. Pragmatic certainty: If something works or has beneficial consequences. This is challenging since someone could believe something works that does not correspond to reality.

VII.  What is Certitude, Doubt, and Beyond A Reasonable Doubt?

Certitude

In order for a judgment to belong in the realm of certitude, it must meet the following criteria:

(1)  It cannot be challenged by the consideration of new evidence that results from improved observation

(2) It can’t be criticized by improved reasoning or the detection of inadequacies or errors in the reasoning we have done. Beyond such challenge or criticism, such judgments are indubitable, or beyond doubt.

 Doubt

A judgment is subject to doubt if there is any possibility at all (1) of its being challenged in the light of additional or more acute observations or (2) of its being criticized on the basis of more cogent or more comprehensive reasoning.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

A courtroom analogy is helpful here: a jury is asked to bring in the verdict that they have no reason to doubt- no rational basis for doubting- in light of all the evidence offered and the arguments presented by the opposing counsel. Of course, it is always possible that new evidence may be forthcoming and, if that occurs, the case may be reopened and a new trial may result in a different verdict. The original verdict may have been beyond a reasonable doubt at the time it was made, but it is not indubitable-not beyond all doubt or beyond a shadow of a doubt–precisely because it can be challenged by new evidence or set aside by an appeal that called attention to procedural errors that may have invalidated the jury’s deliberations- the reasoning they did weighing and interpreting the evidence presented. NOTE: This was adpated from Mortimer Adler’s Six Great Ideas.

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