A Personed Epistemology

For the last few months, I have been working my way through Esther Meek’s book Loving to Know. It has articulated many things that I’ve been grasping at about the nature of knowing. As I have digested the work it has shaken loose and informed my own thoughts on the nature of knowing. Though I only mention her a few times in this post, concepts such as “personed knowledge” and the transformative nature of knowledge are hers, and the use I make of them falls short of the full meaning which she gives them in Loving to Know.

Discussions about truth frequently revolve around acceptance of a set of facts. For example, we might say that we believe the earth orbits the sun because we have accepted the “facts” on the matter. But when we dig into the matter, we find that this is not exactly what is happening. No human has ever traveled into outer-space and looked down on the solar system in order to observe the earth moving around the sun. Heliocentrism was accepted long before a single satellite had been launched into outer-space. Instead, astronomers made innumerable observations of the movement of planetary and stellar bodies and then sought a theory which best accounted for all these observation. Even the medieval belief that the sun revolved around the earth did not come from people then being backwards or superstitious. Rather there was a consensus stretching back to Aristotle that the geocentric model best explained what humans saw in the sky. Early Modern and Modern observers challenged this when they recognized that the old model was insufficient to account for all of their observations. The belief of modern astronomers that the earth orbits the sun is a matter of finding the best way to account for all the data.

However, most people are not astronomers. Neither do most people understand the concepts that would enable them to interpret the data correctly. How many people in developed countries can even identify the planets in the night sky? The reason most people believe the earth orbits the sun is because they chose to believe someone. A parent, teacher, or friend told them it was true and they accepted it. Their decision was likely reinforced by the input of multiple trusted people. It is not so much a matter of accepting facts as it is accepting someone’s facts. (Fact is an incredibly loose word in English. In ranges in meaning from the etymologically grounded, “that which was done” to a piece of information akin to factoid.)

This is even the case when someone says that they accept something as true because “science” has proved it. Science as an abstract concept can’t actually prove anything. What we mean when we say this is that the research of certain scientists has proved something. Though usually we are not even trusting the research, but the scientist her or himself. When was the last time you sat down to read a new study on climate change, disease prevention, or weight-loss (the actual journal article, not some journalist’s regurgitation) and then attempted to replicate the results. In lieu of this, we assume that the scientist is competent, that she avoided mistakes, and didn’t skew his results for the sake of acquiring a research grant. This is not intended to criticize scientists. Most are highly skilled and interested in achieving accurate results and interpreting them correctly. We are right to trust them in most cases. The danger comes when we deceive ourselves into believing we are rational people simply because we accept the latest science when what this really means is that we are very trusting.

Most belief then is not logical or rational in the narrow sense. Rather it depends on trust and relationship. This is part of the reason why parents and other caring adults are so important to the shape of early belief. We develop implicit trust because they provide us with basic things like food, shelter, and affection. We accept as true what they tell us. On the other hand, having a difficult relationship with one’s parents will make someone more likely to question their parent’s “facts.” (This is not to say that a troubled relationship with ones parents is the only route to acquiring your own beliefs.) Most humans in their teens and early adulthood will question the knowledge passed on by their parents, sometimes acquiring different beliefs, sometimes similar. More than likely the deep epistemological assumptions that they acquired go unnoticed, silently influencing interpretation.

We would like the certainty of 2+3=5 to apply to all of life. However, this kind of certainty is almost exclusively confined to mathematics. There are also very few areas of our life where we can formulate explanations based on personal observation. I would like to be able to explain why it is that astronomers believe the earth revolves around the sun and a thousand other things, but my life span and intellectual capacity are finite. If the consensus of scientists, over a few hundred years, who have looked at the matter, is that the heliocentric model is best, than I am content to accept it. Whether the earth is the center of the solar system or the sun makes very little difference to my behavior day. My trust in this and other instances of knowledge is reasonable.

In sum, knowledge involves trust, trust in persons, and this a perfectly acceptable, indeed almost the only, way of knowing. Such personed approach to knowing has many practical application.

Apologetics: Some Christians see apologetics as a matter of out arguing the other side. One only needs to present an overwhelming number of facts or arguments in order to force a non-Christian to change his or her mind. The problem with this is that is misses the personed nature of knowledge. All the facts in the world cannot convince someone without the presence of trust and relationship. In many cases, the kind of person you are is as important as what you have to say, perhaps more so.

Education: Personing knowledge in education means that teaching is more than imparting facts, like pouring beans into an empty jar. It means that the character of the teacher is as important as the information they are communicating. Academia tends to favors head knowledge over personality and character, but effective teachers need both. Students are more likely to learn from a teacher who they respect and who has a solid sense of him or her self.

Furthermore, the personed nature of knowledge means that knowledge is transformative. Persons imply relationship, and relationships results in the transformation of the persons in relationships. Thus personed knowledge is transformative.

Science: I am not a scientist, so I will say little about about how trust, relationship, and personed knowledge could play a role in research (Meek has more to say about this than I.) However, I do think it has a bearing on the common complaint of scientists that there is a gap between the views of scientists and the general public, e.g. vaccination or climate change. The problem, I think, is that scientists operate from the same mistaken assumptions as apologists. All the findings in the world cannot convince someone without the presence of trust and relationship.

I will add that gaps between the views of those in a given field of research and those outside are not limited to the sciences. As someone who studies the middle ages, I regularly complain about common misunderstandings about the medieval era. The major difference is that no one will die from the incorrect belief that medieval people believed the earth was flat; they may die from failing to get vaccinated.

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