In this installment of our study of Christianity’s truth we continue clarifying the basic vocabulary, framework, and rules for the discussion. Many discussions about God’s existence and Christianity’s truth suffer from confusion. We get in a hurry, talk past one another, and express our feelings rather than take the time to communicate clearly and understand each other. So, I believe it is necessary to give some time to these introductory matters.
In recent posts I’ve addressed the issues of truth and reality and the issue of who bears the burden of truth. Today, I will focus on knowledge. What does it mean to know something? In transitioning from truth to knowledge, we shift from the issue of the properties of a proposition to the issue of how a proposition is held by a knower. In addressing the question “Is Christianity True?” how would it profit us to clarify what it means to claim that Christianity is true, if we have no idea what it would mean to know that Christianity is true? And, of course, in due time we need to secure that knowledge.
What is Knowledge?
What does it mean to know something? To say that we know something speaks about the way a truth is held by the knower. First, knowledge concerns truth. Belief in a falsehood is not knowledge, no matter how certain you are of its truth and no matter how diligently you work to discover and test its truth. There is no such thing as mistaken knowledge. Second, believing a truth is not sufficient for knowledge. You may guess correctly how many fingers I am extending behind my back; that is not knowledge. Guessing, tossing the dice, accidents, wishful thinking, and prejudices of all kinds, even if they hit on the truth do not count as knowledge. You need something else. The “something else” concerns the way you hold that truth to be true.
Contemporary philosophers differ on the exact thing needed to transform a true belief into knowledge. I am not going to take sides in this debate. We need either “justification” or “warrant” in addition to true belief. The justification criterion demands that we make a good faith effort to examine a belief and that we are able to give good reasons for accepting it as true. The warrant criterion focuses on the proper functioning of our belief-forming mechanisms. If our belief is true and it is formed under the right conditions and our belief-forming mechanisms are functioning properly, we possess knowledge.
Does knowledge come in different quantities and qualities? The answer is yes. There is a qualitative scale of knowledge, with perfect or absolute knowledge at the top and complete ignorance and falsehood at the bottom. And our vocabulary of knowledge reflects this scale. We speak of knowledge, faith, opinion, supposition, educated guesses, probability, certainty, likelihood, etc. Absolute or perfect knowledge is held by God alone. Everything that is, is either God or the effect of God’s action. And God knows his own being and action perfectly. God knows everything about everything. Human beings do not and cannot possess such knowledge. Does this mean that anything less than absolute knowledge is not knowledge at all, that human beings know nothing? This skeptical conclusion would imply that in relation to knowledge there is no qualitative difference between guesses, wishful thinking, prejudices, etc., and true, justified or warranted belief, no difference between science and superstition. I reject this view. I believe our efforts to discover truth are worth the struggle.
What is Faith?
What is Faith, and where does it fall on the scale of knowledge? A common misunderstand opposes faith to knowledge. It assumes that to hold a belief by faith rules out its status as knowledge, and that to know something rules out its being held by faith. This opposition would be correct only if knowledge had to be defined as absolute knowledge. To say a belief is held on faith specifies that the believer has only indirect access to the reality to which the belief refers. The act of faith holds a belief to be true on the word of a trusted person or authority that has direct access to the reality in question. For example, to possess faith in the resurrection of Christ is to hold this belief to be true on the word of Paul, Peter, the Twelve and other witnesses to the resurrection appearances. Can such a belief be justified or warranted. Sure, it can. And, if it is true and justified or warranted, it counts as knowledge. There is no opposition between faith and knowledge. However there is a difference. One can believe a falsehood to be true, but one cannot know a falsehood to be true or a truth to be false. Knowledge concerns how a true belief is held and faith concerns merely how a belief is held whether it is true or not.
The true counterpart to faith is intellectual or empirical intuition, not knowledge. Intuition has direct access to the reality it knows whereas faith has indirect access. We intuit logical and mathematical truths, and our senses make direct contact with the physical/empirical world. These intuitions produce beliefs. Logical deduction is slightly removed from intuition, and so its relation to reality is also indirect. It grasps the truth of a proposition through its logical relationships to other propositions that we hold to be true.
What is Opinion?
Like faith, the word opinion refers to an act of the knower and does not require the thing held as probably true to be really true. One forms an opinion by assessing the evidence for the truth of a proposition as weighty enough to make the proposition more likely true than not. In contrast, faith trusts the word of someone it believes really knows. In this sense, faith stands higher in the order of knowledge than opinion.
What is Certainty?
Certainty is a measure of the subjective purity with which a belief is held. A belief held with certainty by someone is beyond doubt to this person. They hold it with untroubled passion. However, certainty is not a measure of truth or knowledge. One can be certain that a falsehood is true and that a truth is false.
Are Christian Beliefs Knowledge, Opinion, Certainties, Or Faith?
As we proceed in our study, we will see that many of the central Christian beliefs are held by faith. However, as I argued above, their being held by faith does not rule out their also being knowledge, that is, true, justified or warranted belief. Some Christian beliefs are supported by intellectual and empirical intuition. Some require a chain of logical reasoning. Other beliefs fall into the category of opinion. And Christians experience different levels of certainty in their faith at different times.