Saturday, May 07, 2005

Toward A Post-Foundationalism and Epistemic Certainty- Part II

All right, here we go again. Following up Part I, I continue with my search for a post-foundationalist, epistemic structure that allows for certainty. My intent here in this post is to discuss the possiblity of certainty, not necessarily discuss the means by which one arrives at certainty. As noted in my previous post, all of this is driven by sotieriological concerns and my desire to emphasize the need for essential/ontological conversion. I won't get quite that far in this post.

Before proceeding, I want to quote at length Steve Bush (taken from here), whose comments regarding epistemology I find to be refreshing given the harsh, and I believe distracting, arguments being advanced in the theology wars between conservative and post-conservatives. Steve argues that both sides must agree (and in fact do agree, though they don't often admit it) with some basic epistemic conclusions. He writes,
Every postconservative [i.e., post-foundationalist] involved in this discussion about truth must give us an account of truth that accounts for the facts that (a) we make statements in our everyday and theological speech that can be evaluated as right or wrong, and (b) the truth or falsity of these statements is not a product of our individual or collective whim, fancy, desire or opinion. If anyone would deny either (a) or (b), they should not be taken seriously because they fail to account for how language works. . .no postconservative would deny (a) or (b). If that's the case, then what's all the fuss about?

Since the conservative evangelicals do not believe that we can know with certitude they have to admit that whatever truth-claims they advance as knowledge could possibly be mistaken. [Steve is not over reaching here-even Carson and other staunch conservatives acknowledge that it is impossible to absolutely and infallibly appropriate all truth. The possibility of being mistaken is not ruled out.] In other words, it may well turn out that what they take to be true really isn't true, since we can't rule out various skeptical hypotheses (maybe I'm mistaken, maybe I'm deceived, maybe I'm a brain in a vat). So any debate is not really over what is and isn't true, it's about whether or not I have good reasons for what I'm claiming. This is called justification: Can I justify my belief by providing good reasons to hold it and by countering the reasons my opponents offer against the belief?
So in other words, post-foundationalists acknowledge that propositional statements can be evaluated as right or wrong, and conservatives acknowledge the limitations inherent in accessing truth absolutely. Both sides seem to end up at the same place.

Following along these same lines, I would suggest that certainty exists on a sliding scale. I think that both foundationalist and post foundationalist would want to maintain this. Depending upon my own experience, exposure to the data contained within a given field, and the reliability of testimony given regarding that data, etc., I move toward or away from greater certainty. For instance, I am more certain about what happened at my own bachelor party than what happened at President Bush's, since I have no data regarding the latter event. Were I to gain data regarding the president's party, my level of certainty regarding the facts of that event would move up. If such a sliding scale does exist (and who would deny it?) then it would seem that the far end of the scale would allow for the possibility of full and meaningful certainty - a level of certainty that though acknowledging the theoretical possibility of being mistaken, views such possibility as so beyond the pale of reason or likelihood that it has no pragmatic bearing on how one lives his life or make decisions.

For instance, I have never entertained any real existential doubt regarding the existence of Chicago. Nor do I have any meaningful existential doubt regarding my own gender. In both cases, it is theoretically possible that I could living in my own Trueman Show or plugged into the Matrix, but such possibilities are so ridiculous that I don't even entertain them with any kind of seriousness. In these fields of knowledge (one's own gender and place of residence), even post-foundationalists live and move with existential (if not technical) absolute certainty.

In my mind then, the six million dollar question becomes "Is it possible to arrive at this full and meaningful certainty in relation to Christ's resurrection (the central point of the Christian faith)?" In other words, is it possible for me to be as certain that Christ rose from the dead, as I am of the fact that I am a 30 year old male living in the greater Chicago area? If I can speak of the "fact" that I am 30, is it legitimate for me to speak of the "fact" of Christ's resurrection?

I say "yes" to these questions, and would like to argue that such a certainty regarding the resurrection of Christ exists. It would seem to me that if the possibility for such a certainty could be maintained, it would be sufficient to satisfy the pragmatic concerns of the conservative. And if it could be achieved without depending upon a foundationalist epistemology it might move toward satisfying the legitimate philosophical concerns of the post-conservative. But as this is too long already, I will have to save my proposal for next time...


the forester said...

I've been meaning for several weeks to formulate a complete argument, but haven't yet. So in the meantime, here are some responses.

Steve Bush's points a) and b) don't dig deep enough. Deconstructionists do argue that these statements are evaluated right/wrong based on the social contract -- reevaluation of established truths is all the rage today. And because such statements are delivered through the medium of language, they can be, at best, only approximates of right/wrong.

Steve's point about justification of belief, rather than flat-out certainty, is a step in the right direction. I would flesh it out a bit more by emphasizing his last point: beliefs can either be supported or subverted by evidence. It's ultimately a question of the amount of support able to overcome the forces of subversion for a particular belief.

Here I have in mind what the resurrected Jesus told Thomas: "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (from John chap. 20). Also, Hebrews chap. 11 focuses on belief in the face of subversion: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."

Yes, certainty is a sliding scale, but I fear your definition of "full and meaningful certainty" can be questioned. Following your points earlier, being mistaken is always a possibility, so no matter how full or meaningful a person's certainty might be, some new piece of evidence could always arise to drag certainty back down the graded slope (if not dash it altogether). It sounds a bit too much like closing your mind to all possible alternatives, once your mind is made up.

Your examples of Chicago and your own gender are good ones, but it must be pointed out that, to some degree, both are social constructs. You can't put your hand on a city, nor clearly define where it begins or ends. Similarly, each gender reflects the other to a degree. Does "male" incorporate no aspect of "female"? It does -- which throws gender open to possible question.

One more point before I suggest a resolution. I mentioned that language is too limited a medium for right/wrong propositions, as it allows only for approximations of abstract truths. An even greater limiting medium is the human brain itself, which functions through neurons that can misfire, fail, or die. Everything we know, we know through the brain -- a physical system that codifies experiences into electrical pulses and chemicals. Surely no knowledge borne by such a system can be certain.

I'm not sounding much like the forester, am I? There's no use fighting a straw man. Better build up the opposition first before attempting to address it.

And this is where I would begin. Keep in mind that this question, as you've raised it, is asked between Christians. I'm not attempting to answer the question for nonbelievers.

All Christians have a degree of respect for the Bible which, interestingly enough, is chock-full of propositions. So the first question to ask is whether it is logically sound to build a nonpropositional faith around a propositional book. The attempt is insincere (at best). Any Christian arguing that little can be known with certainty needs first to deal with the fact that the Bible itself speaks in terms of certainty. Why not cut free of the Bible entirely, and create your own religion, rather than leeching off the successes of established Christendom?

Second, as presented in the Bible, God requires certainty of us. From the very beginning, He required Adam and Eve to be certain of His command (in Genesis chap. 3). When they questioned it and disobeyed, they were punished severely. The certainty He requires can very small ("faith of a mustard seed"): look at the thief on the cross, whose small faith saved him from eternal condemnation (in Luke chap. 23), and the blind man used to rebuke the Pharisees, even though he didn't even know the name of Jesus (in John chap. 9). Small though their certainty may be, both men are certain of Jesus, and are rewarded for it.

So regardless of all arguments against certainty (social contract, language, neural brain), God still requires certainty of us. Paul again and again refers back to Genesis chap. 15: "Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness."

Deconstructionism is a fancy philosophy, but it doesn't change who God is or how He operates. I'm reminded, in this, of I Corinthians chap. 1, which lays out God's wisdom as opposed to man's:

"For it is written: 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.' Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe."

We Christians can deconstruct propositional truths all we want, but that doesn't negate the fact that we will die and face the judgment of our Maker. Before that happens, we'd better be certain of something.

Gerald said...


Thanks for the thoughts. I think I followed you, but perhaps a few points of clarification are in order. First, I couldn’t tell if your critique of my idea of “full and meaningful certainty” is that you find it too certain or too uncertain. Secondly, I’m not quite sold on—or sure I followed—your critique of my “gender” and “place of residence” examples. What I’m going for with this post is to show that both conservatives and post-conservatives operate “functionally” (even if not theoretically) with a virtual absolute certainty regarding some realities. In fact, I would suggest that the level of certainty in these instances (such as one’s own gender and place of residence) is equivalent to the level of certainty that God requires of us in Hebrew 11:1. If the gender and place of residence illustrations don’t work for you, how about something like “the level of certainty you posses regarding the fact that your wife is not an alien android from mars.” It’s possible, but so ridiculous it has no existential meaning. We can say with meaning that you are certain such is not the case.

I do very much agree with your conclusion that God expects certainty of us. We had better figure out where to find it. As your comments suggest, fancy arguments against the possibility of certainty will likely find little favor with God in that day.

I look forward to your full response. Perhaps you may want to wait for my next post on this subject as I think we may be headed the same direction. But if you’re ready to go now—fire away.