Network Norwich and Norfolk > People > James Knight > Knowledge, experience and epistemology

Knowledge, experience and epistemology

JamesKnight300Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight looks at the rich and diverse subject of epistemology. 

When the disciples asked Jesus "Who can be saved?", His response evokes much curiosity. He doesn't say "Anyone who has enough faith" or most certainly not "Anyone who becomes a good person" - He responds in the following way, He says "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible". There are three well known reasons for this; one, we need to receive the Holy Spirit before we have knowledge of God; two, we cannot have salvation except under freely given grace, and finally, we need revelation from God in order to have a relationship with Him. 



I want to talk about this from an epistemological standpoint because we see here a truth about how we deal with metaphysical propositions and extraordinary claims about God or gods contained in the writings of the world's religions. The conclusion above is something that I find consistent with my views on epistemology - man's claims of revelation from God have no rational basis - they can be seen as neither rational nor irrational - they are arational because there is no easy criterion by which we measure the probability that those revelations are, or could be, something over and above human cognita. 


Consider this; I remember on one occasion feeling sure that God had told me to turn back from one direction I and some friends were walking, and go into a nightclub we had passed 10 minutes previous. On doing this I walked in to a find a troubled man I’d met on the social scene on several previous occasions – he was in a state, and said he had prayed for the first time because he was on the verge of killing himself. He told me that in his prayer he had asked God to make it so that I would see him that night. We had a good long conversation, and I helped him sort out his problems as best I could – something I wouldn’t have been able to do without the sudden ‘inner message’ alerting me to turn around and go to this particular nightclub. Was my turning back and going into that nightclub a direct revelation from God? Or was it simply compatible with the law of large numbers – a rule that says probabilistically these extraordinary things will happen from time to time, and that that was merely one of those times? We cannot say for sure. But what we can say is that the experiences one has and attributes to God are not parts of reality that can be separated from their internal proprietary context and be subjected to outside analytical scrutiny. The upshot is, personal feelings of revelation do not give us much by way of evidence of God. This is an important point in our considerations. 


Let’s look at this in relation to our knowledge and ideas of the world. When it comes to knowledge, Kant's analytic-synthetic distinction must be considered. Although it is not without fault, particularly with regard to definitions of meaning, it does serve well in clarifying two types of knowledge related to our experiences of the world – and it is ideally useful for what we are discussing. In the Kantian terms, analytic statements are statements in which the concept of the predicate is included in the concept of the subject - so for example 'All triangles have three sides' or 'All bachelors are unmarried' are analytic statements because the predicate is found in the subject (i.e. a triangle by definition must have three sides, and a bachelor must be unmarried).  Synthetic statements do not have the predicate found in the subject - so for example 'All life is carbon based' cannot be shown to be true by the subject and predicate alone, it must be constituted as knowledge by external evaluation and repeated experience of the world. 


Consider this; can we know anything a priori – that is, can we have any knowledge without attaining that knowledge through experience of the world?  The answer is no, although there is a secondary distinction regarding experience of the world that remains useful; for I take it for granted that a mind needs to experience reality to acquire all our knowledge and familiarity with reality, so the issue of whether something can be worked out without needing to consult external facts or ideas remains a pertinent philosophical question.  This is where Kant’s famous example of 7 + 5 = 12 is in one sense a synthetic a priori judgement - it is a priori in that we do not need to consult the world and experience 7 things and 5 things grouped together to know that they are 12 things, but it is synthetic in that there is nothing in the concept of 7 or in the concept of 5 that implies twelve; it is only when the two are combined (synthesised) that we can get twelve. I hope you see the distinction – in subjecting our mind to this we would have these ideas formed without experience of the world, but equally at a secondary level we need not consult external facts to know that 7 + 5 = 12, so this is why the analytic-synthetic model works on those two levels. 


The fact that there is nothing in the concept of 7 or in the concept of 5 that implies 12 has practical relevance for our ideas about God and synthetic justification – because when we have (or think we have) revelations from God it is difficult to justify any private human experiences as having concepts that imply God.  Also, is the thought of a particular truth, like an idea about God, experience of that knowledge, or is it something else?  What constitutes experience? It’s a bit tautological - we cannot have knowledge without experiential access to the world, but those experiences require an up and running interpretation-component in our minds.  So we can ask which is primary, experience or interpretation, but I think that that is to ask the wrong question, for they are rather like blades on a pair of scissors - to ask which is most important is incoherent. 


So, there are all sorts of ideas and formalised systems of thought - ideas about morality, religious beliefs, and aesthetic qualities - that began in one of two ways; either as a private experience (what Kant calls a phenomenal experience) and were shared with other people, or as already shared ideas that further interpreters have gone on to develop.  This has important relevance because it points to a new way to think about our knowledge and beliefs - showing that all these established modes of thinking (moralistic, religious, artistic) have their origin (their ultimate origin, that is) in private feelings and emotions of individuals.  How then can they have any absolute value? They cannot – but this causes us no concern for moral or aesthetics; after all, in previous messages we've already looked at their origin and found that all ethical and artistic value is subjective and constructed from private feelings which can then be shared and externally formalised. 


Spiral StairsBut religious views are something altogether different – you see, moral and ethical claims can have utility and value without our needing to make absolute claims regarding their nature and origin.  But the very point of most religious beliefs is that they are thought to be underpinned by absolutism.  That is to say, they are said to be Divine in origin, and it is claimed that they speak absolute truths about reality.  When a Muslim reads the Qur’an or a Mormon reads the Book of Mormon they are read with the view that these books speak supernatural truths about existence, and that God is the author or inspirational force behind those truths.  And that is why I must reject any absolute claims made about them – we can tangibly trace their origin back to private feelings and emotions of individuals – be it Mohammed in Arabia or Joseph Smith in America – we know in whose heads they began, and that is why they cannot qualify as verifiable knowledge.  I do not mean that this disproves their Divine origin; it is possible that Mohammed or Joseph Smith or any religious leader or founder had revelation from God (although I doubt it).  No, what I mean is, there are no justifiable grounds on which I can take them as anything more than proprietary contributions to the world from men to men, and I cannot see them as anything more than human inventions, unworthy of special consideration through any lens of Divine consideration. 


Remember again Kant’s analytic-synthetic distinction - let me reiterate something; I am only using this as a model for distinction – I do not think Kant’s ideas or definitions are strong enough to capture fully the relationship between definitions and their relations regarding predication, but our dealing with reality and our ideas about causal relations are very much grounded in both perception, experience and ideation, so they are not mutually contradictory, they are complementary, and can give a fairly accurate signpost towards sound epistemology.  It is because of this that we know claims about God lay outside of the sphere of human potentiality – they are claims that cannot be justified by the minds making those claims. 


I’ve said before that emotions are what form the basis for all our ideas and knowledge – whether it be ideas about God or ethics – they all begin as feelings that turn into thoughts, that then get shared through the medium of language, that then get formalised into facts or laws or systems of knowledge.  Ethics is moral judgements that are based ultimately upon "feeling" values, and subjecting those values to "evaluation". Once we have emotional *associations*, they simply trigger instinctive reactions (like seeing a child being tortured or a woman raped) and the development of feelings into thoughts and those thoughts into shared values creates systems of moral rectitude that can be used. In that sense it is direct experience of the world that engenders the perceptions that create the values that necessitate moral systems.


I tend to agree with Ryle that concept of mind theories do often, as regards X is Y, tend to assume their difficulty with the apparent clarity of the word ‘is’. Usually when we are apprehending concepts X is Y we know how X is supposed to be Y, but that depends on a conceptual and theoretical background and is not conveyed by the ‘is’ alone.  But with perception and experience of reality we have a convergence of referential paths.  The upshot is, the mind is subjected to an analytical limitation, whereby experience can only be filter through the internal subjectivity of its own capacity. Thus a man may feel he has a relationship with God or a higher power but in having it he doesn’t get beyond the proprietary threshold where he can separate the putative revelations from his own inner-experiences.  Unless there is a way to claim knowledge of God beyond ordinary human precipitations then putative revelations remain private experiences, and that is why the non-Christian belief systems have no appeal to rigid scrutiny or careful intellectual considerations. What the adherents are doing is giving us human ideas that never cross the phenomenal rubicon into objects that can be assessed outside of human subjective experience. In other words, the idea of Divine revelation may be partly found in Islam and Hinduism – after all, if Christianity is true that doesn’t make other religions 100% false on everything (that is impossible) – but as revelatory experiences of God they have no appeal to the intellect because they remain rooted in the proprietary subjectivism of human construct. 


If a revelation is from God it must at the very least purport to bring in something that does not depend solely on the definitions of the symbols it contains, and that is the twofold reason why I think Christianity makes the only claim that I can take to be a real revelation of God; firstly, in Jesus we are presented with an object of focus that claims to be beyond ordinary subjectivity; and secondly, if God chose any of the other religions through which to offer revelation of Himself, He did so in a way that conceals all His divinity under the layers of private human emotions. 


Epistemology is a rich and diverse subject – it is oceanic in its depth and breadth. And in the vast domains of experience my contention is that we cannot hope to have any chance of finding out which claims about God are true and which are artifice unless we believe what Jesus said; that with man’s own private experience, realisation and verification of those claims are impossible. I do not mean to suggest that the other belief systems are devoid of truth, wisdom and useful ideas about mankind and how the mind works. But I find they leave me searching for something beyond the immediacy of their private claims – because without a tangible focal point that offers something more than human ideas about a distant God, we might as well build philosophies based on man’s wisdom, and improve upon the old religious ideas with more up to date wisdom. The only claims made about being a focal point beyond ordinary human ideas are the ones found in Christ – He went beyond mere private and subjective ideas about God – He actually showed us God Himself. Perhaps the Incarnation is not just about God bringing Himself to us, to die for mankind’s salvation; perhaps it is also the response to a genuine epistemological problem that mankind cannot solve without some help – without God becoming the focal point in our earthly existence we would have no hope of knowing Him, and we would only be left with man’s wisdom.




The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. You can also contact the author direct at  

James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich.
You can access his current collections of columns here 

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