Have you ever asked yourself how you come to know things? How do we know that what we think is true is actually true? This is a question which has interested philosophers for as long as they have been philosophizing. The modern technical word for this philosophical study is epistemology. In this article we will compare two broad epistemological theories espoused within Western philosophy, and held to, albeit on a less sophisticated level, by the Western public at large. One theory is born out of Christianity, and the other is generally considered Atheistic, as it is explained in terms of evolutionary processes.
Foundational Introduction and Definitions
Evolutionary Process Epistemology (EPE) – EPE will be defined as our cognitive process as it is, which is developed by some standard evolutionary process. This means that our cognitive process is developed through some series of random mutations which help us survive in the environment in which we find ourselves. This series of random mutations was brought about by environmental factors, and, importantly, there was no intelligent agent guiding it. The specific model of evolution is not important; all that matters here is that our cognitive faculties were formed by the combination of A) mutations, B) survivability, and C) an unguided process.
Christian Epistemology (CE) – CE will be defined as our cognitive process as it is, which is developed by the God outlined in Scripture.
With these basic definitions in mind, what’s left is to assess which of these theories is best capable of providing a coherent epistemic account which lends itself to grounding true and reliable knowledge. To see the hurdle which both of these epistemologies must overcome, we only need look at the conclusion of one of the greatest philosophers in history: Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). After formulating his epistemological approach, Kant came to an astonishing conclusion which is summarized well by the philosopher T.Z. Lavine:
The price we must pay for the certainty that the categories provide [a major component in Kant’s epistemology] is that we are able to know only appearances (phenomena), only things as they appear to us by means of the pure concepts. Things-in-themselves, things as they are independent of our concepts, we can never know.
Kant concluded that while we can know things as they appear to us, we can never be sure that we know things as they actually are. We live our lives experiencing various phenomena, but how can we know that what we experience is things as they actually are? Even if every human experiences the exact same thing, say a rock falling to the ground, this does not prove that we are not all experiencing the same illusion. To revamp Gotthold Lessing’s (1729-1781) famous phrase, the problem presented by Kant constitutes epistemology’s dirty great ditch. Can EPE or CE hope to create the necessary bridge to span this dirty great ditch, or are we stuck on one side of the ditch unable to cross?
The Analysis: EPE
With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has always been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy… Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?
In the above passage, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) reveals that he saw that the evolutionary concept he developed and defended had serious implications for human knowledge. It seems that he realized that evolution does not account for the reliability of our mental faculties. If evolution is the driving force behind our cognitive facilities, and if what drives evolution is mutations and survivability due to environmental factors, how do we know that our cognitive faculties lead us to true propositions about the world?
By way of analogy, let us imagine intelligent life forming on another planet. Let us also imagine that the environment on this other planet is very different from that of Earth. Due to a very different mutation series (the environmental factors require different mutations for survivability), it’s easy to imagine that such a life form would have radically different cognitive faculties from ours. Now, if both this life form and a human were to end up on another planet, would they understand the world around them in the same way? It is very possible that they would not. Thus, our cognitive faculties being the result of evolutionary processes does not guarantee that we are able to understand the world around us accurately; it may be that our experiences of the world do not correspond to the underlying reality, and a being who has evolved under different conditions may have completely different experiences.
Even if it is conceded that we need to understand our environment correctly to increase our survivability, should we trust our minds at this stage of evolution? If we understand the universe better than the ape, the next evolutionary step (Nietzsche’s “superman”, perhaps) will presumably understand the universe even better. Will they be able to trust their cognitive facilities at that point, or must we wait until these “supermen” evolve to the next stage of evolution, at which point they will be vastly superior to the mere “supermen”? There seems to be no end to this chain until evolution reaches omniscience. However, it seems clear that we cannot know if we can trust our human cognitive faculties at present because we have not yet reached omniscience.
EPE does not get us over the dirty great ditch and we are still stuck with the world as it appears to us. It gives us no way of knowing if these cognitive phenomena reflect the world as it actually is.
The Analysis: CE
There are a few basic presuppositions which Christians believe that have a direct impact on any Christian epistemological system.
God is omnipresent, omniscience, omnipotent, and never lies.
God created everything, including man.
God created man in His Image with the desire to communicate truth propositions to His creation; thus, He endowed man with the ability to analyze and comprehend these propositions. This includes the ability to think logically as this is a reflection of the mind of God.
God made Himself known in history.
God recorded this revealed knowledge without error.
God transforms our minds to recognize and accept the true propositions from Him.
God continues to deepen our understanding.
These seven points represent the core of CE. But do these presuppositions get us over the dirty great ditch?
One problem which has always plagued any other epistemological system is that human knowledge is always limited. Unless we know everything, we can never know if something we think is true today will be proven false by a new discovery tomorrow. Thus, human based epistemologies will always suffer from this deficiency. With CE, the problem is solved because knowledge is not based on our limited nature but on a being who is omniscient.
Another problem with other human based epistemologies is that we regularly make mental errors and of various kinds. If our cognitive faculties sometimes let us down, how can we know that they don’t always do so? CE answers this problem as well. Since our mental and sensory faculties are from God, and He wants us to know true propositions about the world, we can at least trust that what we understand can correlate to the world as it actually is.
Unfortunately, even if we can put some level of trust in our own faculties, it can easily be shown that with our faculties alone we come up with contradictions and errors. Thankfully, God has provided a record of propositions which are free from error: the Bible. With this propositional base, we can construct our knowledge because its propositions are completely dependent upon God. This record is free from all the trappings of man and finds it source in God, and as such can be the only valid foundation for knowledge available to humans.
There is one last issue to be addressed: how do we know that the Christian Bible is this record from God and not some other book with similar claims? It is up to God again to transform our minds to recognize the truth of the Bible’s propositions over another. While God works with our minds to help us understand true propositions, God is also the source of both our minds and the transformation. The logical conclusion is that when this transformation from God occurs, we can steadfastly trust in the Bible as the foundation of our knowledge.
While EPE is incapable of crossing the ditch from the world as it appears to us to the world as it actually is, Christianity provides a cogent bridge between these two worlds.
It must be noted that this article does not demonstrate whether EPE or CE is true; it merely explores the ramifications of each one if it is true. Much more work is needed analyzing different epistemological systems to see if knowledge is indeed possible; however, I hope to have shown that any epistemological system which is dependent upon naturalistic evolution cannot account for knowledge. Yet people who believe that evolution formed our cognitive faculties live life as if they do in fact know things. They make decisions every day thinking they know something of the truth. It’s almost as if they know intuitively that they can possess knowledge, but where does this intuition come from? Does it come from an evolutionary process because it somehow helps us survive, or does it come from God who created us to know and love Him? However we answer this question, it has major ramifications for whether or not we can know anything at all.
A much more robust definition will be given later in this article.
T.Z. Lavine, From Socrates to Sartre: the Philosophic Quest, Bantam Books, 1984, pg. 196.
Lessing was referring to knowledge of history, but for the purposes of this article we will be using the phrase to indicate knowledge itself.
Joe Carter, Should You Trust the Monkey Mind?, (http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/09/should-you-trust-the-monkey-mind) (accessed 24/09/2013)
This is a premise that I reject. How can we know this? It could be that we increase our survivability by understanding things incorrectly.