After services today, I felt it necessary to remind the speaker of today’s sermon message that when one casually throws around words like epistemology and a priori and a posteriori knowledge that other people are going to think of one as an intellectual. As it happens, epistemology is my favorite discipline within philosophy , but the reasons for that are not particularly esoteric and complicated. I am fascinated by the question of how we know what we know, and how we then are able to define terms and explain truth to other people. Although the word may be a bit unfriendly for some, epistemology deals with very basic matters of how we understand things and define them and explain them and how we wrestle with the sources of knowledge. As far as philosophy is concerned, this is very basic and straightforward material that forces us to think seriously about questions of trust and authority.
When one deals with questions of knowledge, questions of trust and authority are never very far under the surface. How do we know what we know? As much as we may fancy ourselves to be people who check things out for ourselves, a great deal of what we know is simply taken upon the testimony or authority of others. We sit in class and a teacher tells us about what a given novel means, or the dates of the American Civil War, or the composition of the atmosphere of Pluto and we tend to believe them. We read the Washington Post or New York Times, and if we are not particularly wise and discerning readers, we believe what they have to say. If we do not, it is because we mistrust them and their agendas and we have information sources that tell us a different story which is more credible to us and that we consider more authoritative. The same is true when we read evolutionary just-so stories or young earth Creation writings that attempt to account for the apparent immense age of the physical universe through appeals to a spreading process that supposedly took place on the fourth day of Creation or books that try to make the laughable argument that the earth is flat. And so it goes in every area of life every day of our lives.
When we come up against the question of revealed truth, we are faced with some serious problems. For one, it is a common temptation for people to want to look at scripture in a way that places them as an authority over others. This can happen in one of at least two ways. Either we can view ourselves an authority about the text and thus fail to properly recognize the authority of the Word over us, or we can view ourselves as a God-given authority whose job it is to enforce the Word (however we understand it) on others without thinking so much about the authority the Word has over us. In either case, we view ourselves as being above the Word rather than subject to it. Nor do these exhaust the problems we have relating to divine revelation. For one, the fact that such knowledge is revealed means that it comes from beyond our ability to reach on our own, and yet in order to understand it and apply it and live by it we must have some means of understanding it. In all of these cases questions of authority are never far from the surface, however rarely we may go about bringing up these questions of authority explicitly.
But we think in vain if we view forms of knowledge that are not revealed as less problematic simply because they come from our own sphere of experience, for all knowledge is in many ways problematic. For knowledge that is a priori, that we possess simply by virtue of being human, it is highly problematic that we are not blank slates but that we have some sort of unearned knowledge that we possess simply by virtue of being human beings. So too birds may know how to create nests simply by being birds, even if they perfect their nest-building through experience. This is problematic because it relates to the question of how it is that organisms possess information in the first place. Where did these mental processes and the information generated by them come from? Nor is the knowledge that we have as a result of our experiences and learning less problematic. Can we trust our sense data? To what extent can we trust our interpretation of a given event or experience correctly when the same facts in evidence can be explained by a various interpretations? How reliable is our extrapolation from our experiences to the level of general truth?
These are not academic questions. Indeed, different extrapolations from personal experiences of a deeply traumatic nature were responsible for an argument between my father and I that lasted from my childhood to his death. My experience of sexual abuse at my father’s hand, lamentably, led me to have a deep distrust of authority and gave me a deep degree of anxiety at how authority could be abused by those who lacked character and restraint. My father’s experience of sexual abuse as a small child at the hand of his maternal grandmother led him to see in the absence of strong male authority a deep personal threat, which influenced him to support authoritarian and hierarchical authorities that I viewed with unmitigated horror. Looking back on matters, though, both of us were right. The abuse of authority and the absence of proper authority both lead to situations where the innocent can suffer exploitation at the hand of others. Both overly strong and overly permissive family structures can threaten the well-being of innocent children, the one at the hand of abusive parents and the other through those who manage to inveigle their way into positions where they can take advantage of others. Both tyranny and anarchy are threats to the well-being of others when it comes to structures of authority, and our fear of one of these extremes cannot blind us to the dangers that come from the other extreme, even if our own experiences will often lead us to react more strongly to one or another.
In addition to this, revealed knowledge (or any other sort of knowledge) rarely if ever comes at us openly. Instead, what we usually have is some sort of interpretive scheme that comes from those who view themselves as authorities that demand our trust and allegiance. If I read a book from a Jewish perspective, for example, there are appeals to trust the Talmud or midrashic interpretation as authoritative, and the writer will seldom read and interpret the scripture directly for what it says, but will rather read it based on the filters of received and not particularly reliable tradition. The same is true if one reads a book from a Catholic perspective that looks at the scripture through the light of the tradition of the magisterium along with the scaffolding of creedal statements and papal bulls and encyclopedials and the writings of the Ante- and Post-Nicene church fathers and so on and so forth. Whether we are children growing up, adults dealing with institutional authority at work or in churches or in dealing with political systems, or whether we are students in school or people who are reading and seeking some sort of truth about any subject, the question of authority is never distant. Can this source be trusted? What is its perspective/bias? What can be learned from this even if I disagree with the worldview and presuppositions of the author?
The same questions, moreover, apply to us when we turn things around and seek to explain things to others. How is it that we demonstrate ourselves to be trustworthy sources of information? How do we demonstrate ourselves as authorities, either directly or indirectly through our quotation or citation of other sources. Even if we do not see ourselves as direct authorities about something, any effort we have at speaking or writing implies that we are at least positioning ourselves as indirect authorities who can give others nourishing food for thought about subjects, or encouragement from a perspective or point of view that may be of benefit to others. If we cannot trust our senses, cannot trust revealed sources of information, cannot trust the testimony of others that is contained in books or in oral instruction, cannot trust our intuition and reasoning processes, we are in a pitiful state indeed, because we can neither teach nor be taught. If we cannot trust others, we cannot really learn from them because we will not see them as providing anything worth learning from, and if we cannot be trusted ourselves no one can learn anything from us. And all of our speaking and writing will be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, empty words that have no worth and no value, heard and regarded by no one, leading to no worthwhile improvement or change in our fallen and broken world. If we cannot reach out beyond our own brokenness and failure and no one can reach us from anywhere else, then there is no knowledge worth possessing and no knowledge that we can share about our own experiences or thought processes, and no worth in attempting to communicate anything through the gulf that separates us from God and other people. Is there anything more miserable and futile than such a fate?
 See, for example: