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Toward an Humbler Epistemology

26 August 2009

In our men’s Bible study this morning, we (n=3) were dealing with the textual differences between Mark 10 and Matthew 5 with respect to the “unchastity” exception, and I spent the rest of the day, off and on, pondering the very question I posed to the guys: how do you know (cf. the SBL-NRSV’s footnotes on the matter) which one is actually Jesus’ own position, how did you reach that conclusion, and how much pastoral weight are you willing to put on it when your friend, the battered wife, asks you for counsel?

It wasn’t a question of divorce per se, it was a matter of how we reach our doctrinal “truths” and how “absolute” they are. If a truth is absolute in the starkest, most unyielding sense, shouldn’t I be unwaveringly certain that I can and should place all my weight on it?

Does it not seem probable that if a truth is absolute, and if it is accessible to all humans, then it must also be self-evident, which is to say, it need not be pieced together by human reasoning? Here’s why:

The very act of reasoning with Scripture – the hardliners call it “necessary inference” – renders the conclusion contingent. That is, to get to a conclusion, we begin with premises; so the conclusion is only true (other than by sheer luck) if the premises are true (and coherent, and independent) and if the logic is sound. Put another way, truths we discover by reason are *derivative* truths. How a derivative truth can also be absolute is quite a mystery, to say the least…or perhaps it’s better to say, how we can be sure that a derivative truth is also absolute is a mystery.

No less than Aristotle has weighed in on this idea:

Some hold that, owing to the necessity of knowing the primary premises, there is no scientific knowledge. Others think there is, but that all truths are demonstrable. Neither doctrine is either true or a necessary deduction from the premises. The first school, assuming that there is no way of knowing other than by demonstration, maintain that an infinite regress is involved, on the ground that if behind the prior stands no primary, we could not know the posterior through the prior (wherein they are right, for one cannot traverse an infinite series): if on the other hand – they say – the series terminates and there are primary premises, yet these are unknowable because incapable of demonstration, which according to them is the only form of knowledge. And since thus one cannot know the primary premises, knowledge of the conclusions which follow from them is not pure scientific knowledge nor properly knowing at all, but rests on the mere supposition that the premises are true. The other party agree with them as regards knowing, holding that it is only possible by demonstration, but they see no difficulty in holding that all truths are demonstrated, on the ground that demonstration may be circular and reciprocal.

Our own doctrine is that not all knowledge is demonstrative: on the contrary, knowledge of the immediate premises is independent of demonstration. (The necessity of this is obvious; for since we must know the prior premises from which the demonstration is drawn, and since the regress must end in immediate truths, those truths must be indemonstrable.) Such, then, is our doctrine, and in addition we maintain that besides scientific knowledge there is its originative source which enables us to recognize the definitions.

— AristotlePosterior Analytics (Book 1, Part 3)

That suggests strongly to qb that the range of humanly-accessible truths that can plausibly be called “absolute” is pretty small. In the aggregate they form the only set from which we can draw non-contingent premises to support our moral, ethical, and other forms of reasoning.

In a related vein, at the Renovare conference in San Antonio this past June, that insufferable heretic Dr. Dallas Willard put it this way: “what is [fundamental] reality? God and his kingdom.” Beyond that, and absent divine revelation that is equally accessible to all of us, we seem to be inevitably wandering in the land of the contingent.

And if that is true, we would do well to use our terms a bit more modestly, starting with terms like “absolute.”


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