How can we know things? It’s an important question which isn’t as easy or obvious to answer as you might first think. In fact, it’s such a tough question that there’s an entire branch of philosophy dedicated to answering it called epistemology. But it’s not just a question for the specialists with their thought experiments and fancy terms; it should be a question that we all think about regularly. Why? Because the way we operate in this world, the choices we make, and much of our identity is wrapped up in what we believe, what we know or think we know, and why we think we can or should believe it.
The twentieth century British missionary and writer Lesslie Newbigin (1909 – 1998) wrote a good deal on this topic with clarity and accessibility. After serving for decades as a missionary immersed in Indian cultures, Newbigin returned to the U.K. with deep insight into the way people think and with an especially sharp eye toward the distinct and peculiar history of Western thought.
The general history of Western thought affects the way we think (as products of Western civilization) and Newbigin knew this. One of the hallmarks of late Western thought is the allure of absolute assurance in what we know. The causes of the desire to rest assured in absolute certainty are probably deeply human and have been in our species from time immemorial. But in early modern Western Europe, this desire seemed to swell inordinately, and became increasingly entangled with developments in humanism and religious fundamentalism, creating competing bulwarks of certainty, from analytical thought systems, to the Roman magisterium, to Sola Scriptura (the Bible and nothing else). The crisis in Europe for an authoritative certainty in knowledge was epitomized in René Descartes, who famously proposed that the only thing that he could truly know without doubt was that he existed because he could think: “Cogito, ergo sum.”
Dissatisfied with Descartes’ conclusion, the growing contingents in the West which were increasingly distancing themselves from Rome’s magisterial authority were putting their assurance either in the text of the Bible (Sola Scriptura) or back in the scholastic idea of a systematization of thought, now applied less to the theological science of knowing God, and more to the natural sciences of examining the physical world. Newbigin identified both of these approaches as thought crutches and symptoms of that swollen desire for unreasonable epistemological guarantees: “Must we not say that it is part of the deep sickness of our culture that ever since Descartes, we have been seduced by the idea of a kind of knowledge which could not be doubted, in which we would be absolutely secure from personal risk? And has not this seduction taken two forms which, even if they disclaim all relationship with each other, are really twin brothers? One is biblical fundamentalism which supposes that adherence to the text of the Bible frees me from the risk of error and therefore gives me a security which does not depend on my own discernment of the truth. The other is a type of scientism which supposes that science is simply a transcript of reality, of the ‘facts’ which simply have to be accepted and call for no personal decision on my part, a kind of knowledge which is ‘objective’ and free from all the bias of subjectivity.”
But all knowing does require a personal decision on our part, an interpretation, because to learn anything is to receive it into a psychological framework which we each subjectively call reality, made up of beliefs and assumptions, all of which can be questioned. For example, Newton had to believe that everything from apples on trees to comets in the sky –that the whole universe– operated by rational, discoverable laws of mathematics before he could write equations to predict their movements. And even when his observations “proved” his equations correct, he still had to believe that this was because math told him something true about the universe, and not simply because physical phenomena happened to do what his calculations predicted by coincidence. Says Newbigin, “All [theories] rest on fundamental assumptions which can be questioned. But the questioning, if it is to be rational, has to rely on other fundamental assumptions which can in turn be questioned. It follows … that there can be no knowing without personal commitment. We must believe in order to know.” Similarly, when St. Joseph discovered his virgin fiancée was pregnant, he came to believe the pregnancy was of divine origin not only because he believed the angel that told him so, but firstly because he already had an underlying framework of belief regarding human pregnancy: namely, that women don’t get pregnant unless they have sex with men. Without a belief about the ordinary nature of pregnancy (and indeed about the trustworthiness of angels), he would not have perceived this pregnancy as miraculous.
St. Joseph, in fact, initially doubted the fidelity of St. Mary based on his knowledge of human reproduction, and he was wise to do so. We too are wise to receive with healthy skepticism initial accounts of the miraculous. “The faculty of doubt is essential,” insists Newbigin, “But as I have argued, rational doubt always rests on faith …” St. Joseph’s doubt was rational because it was based on faith in natural laws. So was St. Thomas’ initial doubt about the Lord’s resurrection. Both of those men initially doubted particular miracles even though their metaphysics theoretically allowed for them. But doubt that any miracle could ever happen at all would be irrational unless it was based on faith in a totally Naturalistic reality, a reality that excludes any metaphysics. But Naturalism itself is open to doubt, because Naturalism is not self-evident, not provable, and not even probable, as there’s no metric by which to measure that kind of probability. (And, if Naturalism is true, we have to deal with the frankly unsettling thought that what we observe in nature is all that there is. “There is a very long history to remind us of what happens when nature is our ultimate point of reference. . . Nature knows no ethics. There is no right and wrong in nature; the controlling realities are power and fertility,” Newbigin reminds us. And not only is there no right and wrong in nature, there is no meaning to anything—including us—either.)
Both the religious fundamentalists and the naturalist fundamentalists are wrong about having knowledge from which they are free of any personal responsibility. The naturalist is just as responsible for rationalizing his faith in Naturalism by which he argues for blind, accidental laws of physics as the religious man is responsible for rationalizing the theistic position by which he argues for an intentional creation of the cosmos. And if they would criticize each others’ beliefs, Newbigin would have them remember, “You cannot criticize any belief except on the basis of beliefs, which, at that moment, you do not criticize.” So we should all step back periodically and assess our personal foundational beliefs for their merit. The task of honestly questioning your own foundational beliefs is both tricky and terrifying. You may emerge from the endeavor renewed and reaffirmed in your beliefs, but you may be forced to abandon them and start over—an action guaranteed to change your life. Many people who have given up faulty foundations enter into a desert of agnosticism, in which they acknowledge that they do not know what to believe. This is a healthy place to be, believe it or not—since it reflects sanity of thought and a reticence to espouse a new system of belief without thorough examination and reflection—as long as the agnosticism is still in the service of the search for truth.
But in the search for truth, you may be tempted to end your weary nomadic quest and pitch your tent in the desert of agnosticism. The failure of the modern project to find absolute certainty may make you decide not to plant your flag of trust anywhere, but simply to try to be content in saying, “I don’t know.” This impulse may at first be honest and noble, but eventually the habit of agnosticism transforms from a prudent caution into an intellectual laziness, a comfortable pattern of dissociating yourself from commitment to the harder edges of any intact system of thought, philosophy, or religion. You’ll have to justify your permanent residency here with the ironic certainty that we just can’t be certain. But this is just another way of being seduced by that same idea of a kind of knowledge that frees you from personal risk and insecurity: in this case, the assurance that we can never really have full assurance. In its most extreme and absurd form—delirious from its desert wanderings where reason is parched of the waters of veritas—the thinking actually becomes, “There is no absolute truth, only subjective truths.” This relativistic madness is the fatal condition that arises from too much time spent in the desert of agnosticism. Newbigin writes, “The relativism which is not willing to speak about truth but only about ‘what is true for me’ is an evasion of the serious business of living. It is the mark of a tragic loss of nerve in our contemporary culture. It is a preliminary symptom of death.”
So if religious fundamentalism, scientism, and committed agnosticism are all guilty of the same error, what is the solution? The solution is to recognize that knowing is more than mere cognition—the virtue of faith is involved. As I’ve already quoted above, “We must believe in order to know.” Or as G.K. Chesterton put it half a century earlier, “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” We must believe that truth is real. We must believe that truth is discoverable to reason. We must simultaneously recognize the limitations of both our available evidence and our reason, and yet search out and consider all the evidence we can and exercise our reason to the best of our ability. If evidence and reason points us in a certain direction, we must make our steps with a mixture of caution and boldness, humility and bravery. True knowing demands risks of us, but the mirage of risk-less certainty is a fool’s paradise. That’s why faith is listed among the virtues: it’s a type of courage.
How can we know things? Only by having the courage to know them by faith.
All the Lesslie Newbigin quotes are from these sources: