Reasoning about Knowing



       We have noted that some knowledge might come through what we call human intuition, a non-rational function of the human psyche.  Knowledge can be handed down from one generation to the next (tradition).   Other knowledge can be transmitted to our minds through the physical senses (experiential or acquired).  Some knowledge can be innate--a "given" at birth in terms of a kind of moral instinct (categorical imperative). The knowledge based on rational reflection can  be seen in two different kinds of thinking: (1) observing and experimenting with the stuff that makes up the natural world, reflecting upon it, and drawing general conclusions (inductive reasoning); or (2) reasoning from common assumptions or generally accepted ideas, connecting thought with thought, and drawing particular conclusions which may apply to everyday life (deductive reasoning). 


Revealed Religion

    But having said that, have we exhausted the possibilities of acquiring knowledge? Is there another means for attaining knowledge that does not rely solely on man's natural senses and rational capabilities? If you answer that question with a "yes," you may be a Jew, a Christian, or a Moslem. What we are talking about is what philosophers sometimes call revealed religion. Theologians call it special grace to distinguish it from common grace, or special revelation, to distinguish it from general revelation that occurs in nature. Jews and Christians and Moslems speak of revelation, though Moslems may be reluctant to use the word grace, at least, to the degree and in the sense that Christians use it. These groups believe that the God who created the universe is not an absentee landlord but is very much involved in the world, and particularly that He has sovereignly chosen a people to be his own.

    In the case of Jews and Christians, they trace God's covenantal dealings with men through the pages of the divinely inspired record consisting of the Old Testament Scriptures and, for Christians, the New Testament, as well. Where Moslems are concerned, they see God's hand at work only in the first part of the book of Genesis and continue with their own Koran which traces their religious roots to Ishmael the outcast brother of Isaac.

    I do not mean to suggest that Jews and Christians believe that God just dropped the books of the Bible out of heaven, but that from among his chosen people he called certain ones, such as Moses and Isaiah and others, to announce to their own respective generations, and to record for future generations the knowledge of the living God. This knowledge concerns God's character and expectations for his people, i.e., his laws, his promises to them, the record of his miraculous and providential acts in saving them and guiding them, and the outline of his future plans for his people and for the world.

    At his point, let me make it clear that while we are saying these books of the Bible are considered written revelation, that does not necessarily suggest that God, in inspiring and directing the human authors, totally bypassed their rationality. No doubt, God's inspiring them implies a certain transcendence of their rational capabilities, but not necessarily a total by-pass. Further, to state that these documents represent God's written revelation does not mean that when men read these documents they must check their intellects at the door. It does stand to reason, however, inasmuch as these documents address spiritual and moral issues of man's innermost being, that a certain compliance of the heart toward the Creator would put one in a better frame or disposition so as to comprehend more than the bare, physical facts that are related in these documents.

    While this is a very sensitive subject, it cannot be avoided if we are to do philosophy, and do it well. What we are talking about here, if any of these documents are reliable, is a totally different category or means of knowing truth.  Revelation, in the Judaeo-Christian sense, refers to God's Self-Disclosure to men in history. In fact many Christians and Jews would argue that you cannot do accurate philosophy without the knowledge that comes from divine revelation. For if these documents are true, then we have to view the conclusions of many of the world philosophers as mere speculation and guesswork by comparison. For example, many philosophers, such as Spinoza, have confused God and nature--they do not distinguish between the two. Some like Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell and Comte do not even include God in their philosophical systems. Not only does this subject of divine revelation impact the study of ontology which has to do with the nature of ultimate reality or Being; it impacts cosmology, teleology, philosophy of history, politics, biology, geology, psychology, ethics, and much more.

    But it also raises the question of how we can properly distinguish between true and false claims to revelation. For there are other religious spokesmen beside Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles who claim to be the recipients of divine revelation. While there are no major religions other than Christianity whose founder claimed to be the eternal Son of God, there is a major religion whose founder claimed to be a greater prophet than Jesus.

    How do we evaluate these competing claims? We will be in a better position to address this question once we have explored the ideas of Aristotle. Does rational inquiry play a role in the evaluation of these competing claims to revelation? Most definitely! 

Experimental Religion

    There is another means of knowing, related to revealed religion, which philosophers call experimental religion. Experimental religion simply means experiential religion, or religion that is experienced, i.e., the religion of the heart. What philosophers designate experimental religion the Old and New Testament writers called faith. What is faith? It is something that God gives. It is not mysticism with the mind going into neutral, though there is certainly a mystical aspect to faith. America's first philosopher, applying the psychological metaphors of John Locke to the subject of religious experience, described faith as a sense of the heart. Jonathan Edwards regarded the object of focus and the foundation which faith rested, to be the message or Good News of God's grace revealed in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, Israel's Messiah. That message centered in the Messiah's death on a Roman cross--a death that served as God's remedy for the problem of human sin and rebellion against God (which began in the Garden of Eden), as well as a miraculous resurrection from the dead after three days in a tomb. Accordingly, the point of focus for Christian faith is both rational (based on an intelligible message) and revelational (based on the written revelation of God's Self-Disclosure). Since Jesus Christ himself is the central figure of the message, he is the personal focus and foundation of faith.

    One of the significant things about this faith as a special kind of knowing, is that, if it is valid, it brings clarity to a man's understanding regarding some of the metaphysical issues we have mentioned. This idea may be referenced by quoting one of the New Testament writers who said, "By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God so that what is seen was made from things which do not appear" (Heb. 11:3).  While Aristotle was an exceptional thinker, and he had some ideas which are in the general neighborhood, he never described the origin of the world with this kind of theological clarity. In fact, he regarded matter as eternal.  I bring this up because it is an epistemological issue. It has to do with the way in which we know things. That same New Testament writer said that "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1).  So faith, from the New Testament standpoint, is a kind of knowing that transcends the kind of knowing which many would ordinarily associate with the subject of epistemology.

    Some of the greatest philosophers, nevertheless, were men of faith, and to discount this vital influence upon their thinking would be to ignore what was foundational for them. Many philosophers are ignorant concerning this aspect and its significance; consequently, they omit this category of epistemology altogether. This is no more surpising than, if a visually handicapped man managing the set-up for a internet conference were to overlook the important matter of turning on the video, or if a man whose hearing was impaired should neglect to turn on the audio.


Illustrating the Epistemological Impact

    To illustrate the impact that revealed religion and experimental religion have as epistemological categories, imagine a diagram which consists of concentric circles with each space representing a particular subject of philosophical or academic study. In the very center is mathematics, since Plato and Aristotle considered math as the purest expression of philosophy. Whether a person is a man of faith or an atheist, his thinking about mathematical concepts should be basically the same.  And even though the man of faith might view mathematical law as an expression of divine perfection, his mathematical calculations would not vary from the calculations of the man who lacked faith.  The second space outside the center of the circle would likely be physics much of which is based upon mathematical formulas and laws which are constant. Further differences would begin to emerge in this subject area with respect to the way a person of faith and a person of non-faith would view the subject. For example, the man of faith would relate the matter of cause and effect to God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things. He would view all order in the universe as an expression of God's faithfulness and immutability, and any disorder (represented by the concept of entropy) as stemming from the original human rebellion and the consequent divine curse upon the earth.

    Moving outward to the third space, the subject could now be biology or geology. Here we are getting into academic areas where revelation as an epistemological category would be a bigger factor. Matters, such as the origin of life, the special creation of man, and eugenics might set the person of faith at odds with the non-faith person who scoffs at the idea of creation, not to mention ethical accountability for scientific research. The age and origin of the earth and the process of geological change would be matters of special concern to the person of faith. Because he takes seriously the Genesis record of a universal deluge, he regards such a catastrophe as a better means of interpreting the geological arrangement of the fossil data than the generally accepted theory of uniformitarianism which postulates a more gradual process involving billions of years.

    Continuing outward to the fourth space we might enter the academic arena of psychology where the person of faith who believes that man was created in the image of God suddenly finds himself at odds with the experimentalist who regards human beings much as Pavlov regarded his dog. Proceeding outward, we enter the fifth and final space where the subject is philosophy, and ontology in particular, the study of the nature of ultimate reality. Here the man of faith, a theist informed by biblical revelation, regards God as the Supreme Being, the sovereign Creator and Ruler of the universe wholly distinct from his creation and One to be honored above all other beings. On the other hand, the logical positivist sees only matter in the universe and refuses to recognize any truth or meaning except that which can be demonstrated by the scientific method in a controlled experiment.


Two Related Issues

    There are a couple of other issues involved as we examine the major theistic religions, as well as various permutations of these religions. First, there is the issue that Judaism, as set forth in the Old Testament is incomplete. The Old Testament speaks of a Messiah who will come to save Israel and to call a people from all ethic groups and nationalities. The question this poses is this: Is Jesus of Nazareth that person? He claimed to be and his title Christ means Messiah.  Are those claims verifiable?

    The other issue is this: If Jesus is the Messiah, is the New Testament complete, or should we expect further revelation and other prophetic books to be written? This question needs to be addressed because other religions or off-shoots of Christianity have introduced books, as if to say that the New Testament is insufficient or incomplete. Such would be the case with Islam, the Watchtower movement, Mormonism, Christian Science, Bahaiism, just to name a few. It might appear to be an overwhelming task, if not impossible, to sort it all out. Actually, it is relatively simple, as we shall see when we come to Aristotle.