christianity philosophy science theology

a trinity of ‘knowledge-lights’…

Epistemology is the most foundational of topics in philosophy.  How trustworthy is human knowledge?  Or worded another way: How much ‘faith’ (Greek ‘pistis’ for ‘trust’) can we put in what we think we know?  At one end of the spectrum, you have narrow, ‘verificationist’ epistemologies (such as: logical positivism & naive realism) that only trust knowledge that can be ‘verified’ by empirical methods.  At the other, you have skeptical ‘post modern’ epistemologies (such as the phenomenalism of Maurice Merleau-Ponty – The Phenomenology of Perception) which hold that all we can truly ‘know’ is the ‘sense data’ of our perceptions.In his book, The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright follows the thought of renowned Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan (particularly his Generalised Empirical Method) discussing a kind of middle-way between positivism and phenomenalism: ‘critical realism’.  Elsewhere, he has described an ‘epistemology of love’, where love is that which a) respects the ‘otherness’ of the other, while at the same time b) remaining in rich subjective relationship to it.  Critical realism is first critical in that it is aware of its potential for self-deception and the distortion of perception, but it is not so critical that it does not take the second post-critical step of then daring to describe the reality it believes it actually ‘knows’.

I’ve been recently intrigued, however, by a talk on Epistemology by Mark Strom (audio here) where he claims that all human knowledge involves not only acts of love, but also faith and hope.  I find this really compelling.  Our knowledge of any activity, person, principle or thing involves faith, hope and love – in some form, and at some level.

Scientific knowledge, for an interesting example, involves all three.  The natural scientist must first have faith (Greek pistis, meaning ‘trust’) that his object of study, the natural world, will, under the exact same conditions, always behave exactly the same way in the present and future as we’ve observed it to in the past.  She also hopes that the hunch followed will be fruitful, that the experiment designed will be sufficient, and that the knowledge gained will be helpful and worthwhile. And finally, there is also love – the relational dynamism between a subject and object; in the case of science, between the observer and the observed, the cosmologist and the cosmos, the neurologist and the neurons.

Faith, hope and love (I thought for a few minutes today), then can be thought of as the ‘vehicles’ by which knowledge comes to us.  However, this, I decided, is too anthropocentric a metaphor.  Better to see them as ‘lights’ by which we are enabled to ‘see’ Truth.  But of course, this vision remains imperfect, blurry and ‘dim’…

Love never ends. Prophecies? They will be set aside. Tongues? They will cease. Knowledge? It will be set aside. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” – Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 13:8-13