What We Know and How We Know

A modern way of stating this objection to our position is found in the words of Dr. Edgar A. Singer’s, Notes on Experience and Reflection. Dr. Singer tells us it is the business of philosophy to ask, How do we know? In other words, according to Singer the epistemological question can and must be asked without asking anything with respect to the ontological question.

Is this position of Dr. Singer tenable? Suppose it is true, for argument’s sake, that such a being as we have described God to be does actually exist. Would not such a God have the right to speak to us with authority? Are we not, by saying that the question of knowledge is independent of the question of being, excluding one possible answer to the question of knowledge itself? If the Being of God is what on the basis of Scripture testimony we have found it to be, it follows that our knowledge will be true knowledge only to the extent that it corresponds to his knowledge. To say that we do not need to ask about the nature of reality when we ask about the nature of knowledge is not to be neutral but is in effect to exclude the Christian answer to the question of knowledge.

That Singer has in effect excluded from the outset the Christian answer to the question of knowledge appears from the fact that in his search for an answer to this question he affirms that we must go to as many as possible of those reputed to have knowledge (p. 5). The notion of going to One whose opinion may be more valuable than the opinion of others even to the extent of being authoritative over the opinion of others is not even considered. In paradise, Eve went to as many as possible of those who were reputed to have knowledge. God and Satan both had a reputation for knowledge. Apparently God did not think well of Satan’s knowledge and Satan did not think well of God’s knowledge but each thought well of his own knowledge. So Eve had to weigh these reputations. It was for her a question as to, How do we know?

The problem that Eve faced was a difficult one. God told her that she would surely die if she ate of the forbidden tree. Numerically there was only one in favor of one and only one in favor of the opposite point of view. Thus she could not settle the matter of reputation by numbers. She herself had to decide this matter of reputation by a motion and a vote. God claimed that he was the Creator. He claimed that his Being was ultimate while Satan’s being was created and therefore dependent upon God’s being. Satan said in effect that she should pay no attention to this problem of Being. He told her she should decide the question, How do we know? without asking the question, What do we know? He said she should be neutral with respect to his interpretation and God’s interpretation of what would take place if she ate of the forbidden tree. Eve did ignore the question of being in answering the question of knowledge. She said she would gather the opinions of as many as she could find with a reputation for having knowledge and then give the various views presented a fair hearing.

We should observe particularly that in doing what she did Eve did not really avoid the question of What do we know? She gave by implication a very definite answer to that question. She made a negation with respect to God’s Being. She denied God’s being as ultimate being. She affirmed therewith in effect that all being is essentially on one level.

At the same time she also gave a definite answer to the question How do we know? She said we know independently of God. She said that God’s authority was to  be tested by herself. Thus she came to take the place of ultimate authority. She was no doubt going to test God’s authority by experience and reflection upon experience. Yet it would be she, herself, who should be the final authority.

It would appear then that the theory of being that we know presented fits in with the notion of the Bible as an authoritative revelation of God. Such a being as the Bible speaks of could not speak otherwise than with absolute authority. In the last analysis we shall have to choose between two theories of knowledge. According to one theory God is the final court of appeal; according to the other theory man is the final court of appeal.

To what we have said we must now add this further point. Sin has been most ruinous in the heart and mind of man. Man is “dead in trespasses and sins.” If there is to be on man’s part a recognition of God in his rightful place man must be regenerated. Without regeneration it is not possible for him to see the “kingdom of heaven.”

Sin will reveal itself in the field of knowledge in the fact that man makes himself the ultimate court of appeal in the matter of all interpretation. He will refuse to recognize God’s authority. We have already illustrated the sinful person’s attitude by the narrative of Adam and Eve. Man has declared his autonomy as over against God.

This means that in the totality picture that man must seek for himself, he must go to Scripture as the final court of appeal. He learns from nature still, but what nature teaches him must be brought into relationship with what the Scriptures reach in order that it may be properly understood.

(Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 33-35)

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