Is Jason Lisle Epistemologically Self-Conscious?
Let us take a look at what he says there and see just how “epistemologically self-conscious” Jason Lisle himself is.
In his post, Lisle states:
epistemology is very important if we want our beliefs to correspond to reality.
Most people have not consciously reflected on their own epistemology. They haven’t stopped to ask themselves, “How do I ultimately know anything? What are the standards by which truth is determined? And are these standards reasonable?”
If our epistemology is wrong, then we could be wrong about everything we think we know.
Do we discover the content of our knowledge by looking outward and identifying the facts of reality, or by looking inward and consulting our emotions, our wishes, our imaginations?
Lisle raises another issue:
The reason for a belief must itself be believed for a good reason – and so on.
I will say at this point, since Lisle seems concerned about “beliefs” (as opposed to knowledge) throughout much of his post, that beliefs as such are not conceptually irreducible. This is one of the fundamental reasons why I reject the view that knowledge is properly defined as “justified true belief.” Belief is essentially some degree of confidence that some position or statement is true falling short of certainty. Notice that in order to believe a statement, you must first be aware of the statement.
Lisle provides a good example to help me illustrate this:
Suppose Jenny says, “I understand they are building a new apartment complex down the street.” We might ask, “How do you know this?” Jenny responds, “Bill told me. He said he talked with the construction crew.” Is this a reasonable answer? It depends. The reason for Jenny’s belief is Bill’s statement. But is Bill’s statement reliable? If it is, then Jenny’s belief is reasonable. If not, then Jenny’s belief is irrational. So we must know something about Bill in order to know if Jenny is being rational.
It is because concepts themselves are formed in a hierarchical fashion that knowledge as such has a hierarchical structure and that Lisle can speak of one belief needing to be supported by a prior belief “and so on.”
Lisle makes an additional point about the importance of securing the reliability of a belief:
Jenny’s belief also depends upon the reliability of her own mind and senses. Perhaps Jenny hallucinates on occasion and only thought that she talked with Bill. Perhaps Bill does not actually exist, being only a projection of Jenny’s delusion. How can Jenny know that her own mind and senses are reliable, such that she can know that she really talked with Bill? Most people just assume that their senses are reliable without thinking about whether or not this belief is reasonable; they are not epistemologically self-conscious. But these questions must be answered if we are to be confident that we have knowledge of anything at all. If we are to be considered rational, then we must not continue to act on unsupported assumptions.
So when someone tells me that he and five hundred other people saw a resurrected man nearly 2,000 years ago, how can we determine whether or not that person was hallucinating or deceived or suffering from some mental disorder that blurs the distinction between reality and imagination? Perhaps those five hundred persons did not actually exist, but were in fact just a projection of the speaker’s delusions. How can we know that the speaker’s senses were reliable? The speaker did over 1900 years ago, so he’s long gone – we’ll never be able to examine his mental faculties.
Of course, I have in mind the passage found in I Corinthians 15 where the apostle Paul provides the earliest listing of the risen Jesus’ alleged post-resurrection appearances found in the New Testament (i.e., before the gospel narratives were written). Paul states there that the post-resurrection Jesus appeared to “above five hundred brethren.” But no details are provided: Paul does not indicate when this happened, where it happened, the circumstances in which it happened, etc. Paul does not even identify one of these “above five hundred brethren,” so we don’t know who any of these people might have been. Paul does not explain what exactly they saw or how they came to identify what they saw as a man who had been executed by means of crucifixion and later resurrected. Yes, Lisle is right: we should be epistemologically self-conscious and reject such threadbare accounts as the lunacy that it is.
But I gather that Lisle would disagree with me on this. As a Christian, he would likely insist that we accept what we read in I Corinthians – and everything else in the New Testament – as wholly and absolutely true, even though we are in no position to secure the reliability of what is written there given the issues that he himself has raised. For example, he titles a section of his post with the claim “Christian epistemology makes knowledge possible.” But my examination of “Christian epistemology” which I referenced above does not bear this out.
But let’s see if Lisle’s case can bear scrutiny.
Lisle opens his case with the following claim:
The Christian worldview alone makes it possible for us to answer these questions and have genuine knowledge.
Unfortunately, instead of providing a definition of ‘knowledge’ (“Most people just assume that” they know what knowledge is when in fact “they are not epistemologically self-conscious”), Lisle follows up his above claim with yet another:
This is because knowledge stems from the nature of God (Proverbs 1:7, Colossians 2:3).
What Lisle does not begin with is an analysis of knowledge and an examination of the knowing process. He does not begin by providing a definition of ‘knowledge’ and discussing the fundamental characteristics of man’s nature which provide the metaphysical preconditions for knowledge – such as the possession of consciousness, perception of objects distinct from ourselves, the ability to differentiate objects one perceives, the ability to isolate an object from its surroundings and focus on its attributes, the ability to recognize similarities between the objects one perceives, the ability to treat similar objects as belonging to a group, the ability to treat that group as a unit and subsequently integrate it into a more abstract group, etc. Lisle does not even raise an “epistemologically self-conscious” consideration of whether man acquires his knowledge by looking outward at the facts of reality, or by looking inward at the contents of one’s own wishes, emotions or imaginings. Nothing about man’s nature enters the equation here, and yet Lisle is presumably outlining an epistemology fit for human consumption.
Instead, Lisle cites “Scripture.” At this point he has two verses in mind, namely Proverbs 1:7 and Colossians 2:3. Let us examine each one.
Proverbs 1:7 states:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
As for “fools” who “despise wisdom and instruction,” perhaps a good test for Lisle here is to see how open he is to the objective alternative to his emotion-based epistemology.
The next verse that Lisle cites is Colossians 2:3, which states:
In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
The view expressed here can only suggest that all talk of epistemology is absurd. According to this view, knowledge is “hid” in an imaginary being whom we are supposed to fear. Epistemology would be a systematic process by which a human mind can independently discover and validate knowledge in a firsthand fashion. But this only makes sense on the view that knowledge can be discovered in the first place, namely by looking outward at the facts of reality and mentally processing them according to an objective standard. But if knowledge is “hid” in a being which we have no alternative but to imagine and which we are to fear with guttural intensity, there can be no objective standard available to us (for we have turned inward into the depths of our subjective experience, giving primacy to imagination over facts) and there can be no firsthand discovery of knowledge (for knowledge has been stored out of our reach and must be dispensed to us by means of “revelations”).
And Lisle thinks this is the path to epistemological self-consciousness?
God has revealed some of His knowledge to us. Some of this knowledge is hardwired directly into us, and other knowledge is revealed by God through tools that He has given us – like logic and reliable sensory organs. The Christian worldview gives us rational justification for all the things that we rely upon in order to have knowledge.
And so far Lisle has confirmed what I suspected above, namely that since knowledge on the Christian view is “hid” in a being which we can only imagine and which we must fear, he appeals to “revelations.” Of course, this is deeply problematic – see my blog The Futility of the Apologetic Appeal to “Revelation”.
He also makes the claim that “some of this knowledge is hardwired directly into us,” but he provides no argument for this; it’s just a bare assertion, and he provides no examples of what he considers to be knowledge that is “hardwired directly into us.” How would one as epistemologically unself-conscious as Lisle reliably know that some knowledge has been “hardwired” directly into anyone’s mind? This claim automatically rules out the possibility that the items of knowledge in question were not learned through some active process, such as early in one’s life, the steps of which he did not explicitly understand or take note of.
Now Lisle does allow for “other knowledge” that he says “is revealed by God through tools that He has given us – like logic and reliable sensory organs.” This would seem to be a reference to the looking outward model of epistemology, but it is fatally contaminated with Lisle’s mysticism. Of course, Lisle cannot deny the fact that we discover knowledge by looking outward. But this only means that knowledge obtained in this manner is not “hid” in some invisible magic being before which we must grovel in fear in our imaginations. So far from being “epistemologically self-conscious,” Lisle is describing a completely fractured, discoordinated and unintegrated view of knowledge. Here is an overview of what constitutes “Christian epistemology” so far:
- the starting point of knowledge is the emotion of intense dread in reaction to something we can only imagine;
- knowledge is “hid” in something we can only imagine;
- we cannot discover this knowledge by looking outward - we must look inward into the contents of our subjective experience – e.g., our emotions and imagination;
- some "knowledge" is “revealed” to us by an invisible magic being (again, which we can only imagine);
- some "knowledge" is “hardwired” into us;
- some knowledge we do get by looking outward (yet the cautions here are prohibitive: we could be under the influence of delusions, hallucinations, mental disorders, unreliable senses, etc.);
- consequently the "knowledge" we have is a blurry mishmash of revelation, hardwired content and questionable discoveries whose reliability can never be established with certainty.
For example, consider the rationality of the mind. If we had no reason to believe that our mind is rational, then we would have no reason to trust any of our own thoughts.
In that case, we couldn’t know anything!
In the Christian worldview, we can have some degree of confidence in our mind’s ability to be rational since human beings are made in the image of God.
God’s mind is perfect by His nature.
And God has given us the ability to pattern our thoughts after His.
In fact, for our benefit, God has commanded us to pattern our thoughts after His, so that our thoughts will be truthful (Isaiah 55:7-8, John 14:6)
As another example, we can trust that our senses are basically reliable because God has created them (Proverbs 20:12).
Indeed, if we suppose in our imaginations that our senses were “created” by an invisible magic being which has the ability to alter whatever it has created, why suppose automatically that they are therefore reliable? How does this follow? Lisle suppresses a key premise here, but why? Also, if this same invisible magic being can deceive people – such as when it is said to have sent out a “lying spirit” in I Kings 22:22-23 – any trust one puts in this god would be premature and without warrant. Apologetic efforts to answer this objection do no good. For example, Matt Slick of CARM.org has this to say about the “lying spirit” in I Kings 22 (from his Why did God send a lying spirit if God cannot lie?):
No, God sending a deceiving spirit does not mean that he is a deceiver. He was merely sending a demonic force, allowing it to perform what was natural to it, to do something that was part of the greater plan of God. If I send my wife to the store to get something, I am not the one doing it -- she is. If I know that in the process she is going to speed and break the law, am I the one guilty for her speeding? Of course not, since she is exercising her free choice.
I get the impression from his comments that Slick is so averse to moral responsibility that if he sent his wife to the grocery store and she were killed in a traffic accident as a result of fulfilling his desire, that he would feel no responsibility in this. Indeed, even if none of this were his fault, don’t you think he would be kicking himself for the rest of his life, asking “Why didn’t I go instead?” No, Slick probably wouldn’t. “It’s all in the hands of the Lord,” as Christians like to say, which is all the excuse any habitual evader could ever want.
But none of this addresses the broader epistemological implications which Lisle does not even mention, let alone address, namely that since Christianity affirms the existence of supernatural beings other than just its god – e.g., demons, devils, “lying spirits,” etc. – which can deceive human beings, we have all the less reason to suppose that any of our cognitive functions are reliable. After all, if we were deceived, we’d be none the wiser. And yet, Christianity – regardless of what Lisle and other apologists want to say about its “epistemology” – insists that its adherents believe that these are real beings and that they pose a real threat to human beings. Thus on Lisle’s Christian premises, he could be utterly deceived and not know it. Even if he insists that he is not deceived, such insistence is what we might expect from someone who is deceived and doesn’t know it. Since he’s been deceived by an invisible magic being, and since he’s deceived about things that we cannot discover and validate by looking outward at reality, he would have no way of discovering if he’s been deceived.
What our eyes see and what our ears hear do correspond to reality.
Of course, on occasion our senses fail us because we are finite and also because of the curse.
But Lisle does throw the category of knowledge which we acquire by means of the senses under the bus, just as Christianity proper does, when he makes reference to “the curse” – i.e., “Adam’s fall” – as the impetus for allegedly faulty sensory activity. If the senses can fail us, how would we know when they have failed us? Would we have to use further sensory activity to discover this? But given the premise that the senses can fail us, this would not allow us to escape “the curse.” On Lisle’s “epistemologically self-conscious” view, any knowledge one acquires by through sensory activity is cognitively suspicious.
An optical illusion is an example of this, and so is a mirage.
But God has given us several different senses and the rationality to compare data from different senses so that we can discern these rare instances. So we can be confident that our senses are basically reliable.
As a third example, consider the laws of logic. We use these laws instinctively to rightly judge certain kinds of truth claims. We know that the statement, “My car is in the garage and it is not in the garage (at the same time and in the same way)” is false because it violates a law of logic. But how do we know that laws of logic are reliable? Even if they work sometimes, can we have any confidence that they work all the time, or in future situations that we have never experienced? In the Christian worldview laws of logic are a reflection of the way God thinks. Hence they will necessarily be right because God’s mind defines truth. Laws of logic will be true everywhere in the universe and at all times because God is omnipresent and does not change. We can know laws of logic because we are made in God’s image, and can think in a way that is consistent with His nature.
As a fourth example, we can have knowledge of morality – “right” and “wrong.” God has revealed to us how we should behave according to His will. And God will hold us accountable for our actions. Hence, all people have an objective reason to behave according to the standards laid down in God’s Word. We are morally obligated to our Creator.
Lisle continues his blog entry with a section on the alleged “failure of secular epistemologies.” But in it he does not interact with Objectivist epistemology. Instead, he makes a series of blanket assertions based (to the extent that he provides any basis for them) on standard cliché’s which Christian apologists love to recycle and statements that are clearly not “epistemologically self-conscious.” For example, consider his own example:
For example, “I know Saturn has rings because I have observed them with my eyes through a telescope.” But this assumes that our eyes are reliable – a Christian concept.
I could spend more time parsing through Lisle’s tired and outworn stereotyping on these matters, but these things have all been addressed before; if he were truly interested in answers to questions like “Why in the secular worldview should we suppose that our mind has the capacity to be rational?” he could find them. But what cannot be missed in all this is that, far from what Lisle apparently wants his readers to believe, he does not at all seem, even to a remote degree, “epistemologically self-conscious.”
by Dawson Bethrick