From the days of Plato, here’s what philosophers have said knowledge is:
“Justified True Belief”
Interesting that such a jumble of ideas connect to create a fairly solid place to stand. (Since the 60’s, Plato’s formulation has apparently come under fire, but let’s just stick with that one idea for a moment.) Simply stated, knowledge as “justified true belief” means that someone that “knows” something has a belief that something is true, and he has a good, verifiable reason to believe it. If I say I know that 2+2=4, what I’m saying is that I believe that 2+2=4 is true, and it is justifiable in the real world in that if I add two cups of coffee to a second pair of cups of coffee, I can easily count there there are now four cups of coffee.
But just for the fun of it, I hopped on Google and asked, “When is 2+2 not 4?” Here’s a fun example: if you add two puddles of water to two puddles of water, you still have two puddles of water. (I think the guy changed the game on me there…that it should say “if you combine two puddles of water with two puddles of water.” But then that would give you just one big puddle.) And then there are all manner of physics and math possibilities wherein 2+2 might equal something else, but those are realms I will never grasp, so I have very little hope of “knowing” anything other than the usual rendering of 2+2.
How do you know?
Well, I suppose we know by testing the beliefs we hold to be true, insofar as it is possible. There are tests of experience, tests of reason and logic and tests of faith. Can any of these tests give us certainty about our knowledge? Our knowledge of the brain’s activity clearly shows us that often we are certain of things that simply are not true. Our essential -ness of story-telling means what we know of facts and what we know of what facts mean are different “knowledges”, the latter far more open to debate than the former. And in On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, Robert Burton, M.D., asserts that the feeling of “knowing that we know” or of “being certain” is a sensation deep in our psyche, a tool by which we survive, and no guarantee of anything.
I confess that the question of “how we know what we know” is one of my primary conundrums as it relates to Christian faith. Moral knowledge, ontological knowledge (the nature of being), knowledge of history, culture, and God–religious knowledge–these are battlefields on which we must hold our ground every day. But to hold ground isn’t really the goal, is it? Isn’t the goal to discover truth, to discover as best we can what of reality we can know? But the Apostle John tells us that Christ’s prayer revealed his perspective on life itself. “Eternal life,” Christ said, “is to know God and Christ Jesus whom he has sent.”
Clearly, to know God and Christ is something different than Plato had in mind. Language is so slippery, and frankly, I am butchering this pseudo-philosophical discussion of knowledge. I mean, who thinks about this stuff anyway. But still, in our post-postmodern climate, with so much at stage as we act and “be” on the basis of what we know and what we have faith in, the question of how we know what we know must be part of almost every discussion.
Again, what’s the take away from all this? How about:
- Study: To test our beliefs about what is true is going to take some work. And it doesn’t stop.
- Humility: In the end, I’m not sure there’s a ton of stuff we can know with certainty, and what we do know comes to us as grace.
- Courage: As in, “the courage of your convictions.” And be courageous enough to seriously think about what you’re learning.
- Listening: This is harder work than most of us want to bother with, but necessary if we are to firmly test our footing.
- A Willing Heart: A willingness to allow our “knowledge” and beliefs to be tested, and a willingness (if not a demand) that all ideas wishing to gain access to my knower must be thoroughly vetted.