Jason Petersen’s “Epistemology”
I think it would be instructive to take a look at what he describes and probe it for the virtues he claims on its behalf.
Petersen states (3:37 – 4:29):
I guess let me just explain my epistemology, if you don’t mind. I start with the revelation of Scripture. I view Scripture as sufficient. I view um God as self-sufficient, as a self-sufficient authority that is explanatory within his own nature. And from the Bible I can deduce that there is truth and there is correspondence in the world. Uh, the Bible clearly teaches the uniformity of nature, it teaches that there are binding duties or moral values. It teaches um that you can know some things for certain. And it also, uh, when you look at God, you know, you appealed to consciousness earlier, when you look in Exodus chapter nine when God introduced himself to Moses, God said “I am.” Uh it introduced him… it introduced me as “I am” to the Pharaoh. And “I am” means consciousness, identity and existence, all, oh and God is self-sufficient.
What Petersen presents here can be taken as a model by Harry Potter fans. They “start with” the first novel in the Harry Potter series; they “view” (i.e., believe, hope, wish, imagine, etc.) the Harry Potter series as “sufficient”; they view Harry Potter as “self-sufficient” and “as a self-sufficient authority that is explanatory within his own nature.” And from the Harry Potter series they “can deduce that there is truth and there is correspondence in the world.” They point out that the Harry Potter series “clearly teaches the uniformity of nature, it teaches that there are binding duties or moral values.” Potter fans can also point to numerous instances in the series in which Harry Potter says “I am,” which, they claim, “means consciousness, identity and existence.”
Would any of these beliefs fare any better? No, both Petersen’s “epistemology” and that affirmed by the Harry Potter fans are equally arbitrary. Sorry Harry Potter fans, there’s just no getting around it. Indeed, the Harry Potter fans share something else in common with Petersen, namely the need to grow up - specifically, that is, to stop pretending that their fantasies are actually true.
Also notice that Petersen’s “epistemology” has specifically to do with the beliefs he affirms. His list of beliefs have no bearing on coping with the world we find when we look outward. For example, nothing here explains how Petersen can know when he looks at a shoe, that it is a shoe that he’s seeing. In essence, Petersen’s list of faith-beliefs gives no indication of how he identifies any object in his awareness. His entire description is conspicuously advanced without any reference to the how of his “knowledge.” It just plays right into John Frame’s famous admission, “We know without knowing how we know.”
If one has no authentic epistemology, one could still carry on with the pretense that his worldview supplies him with an epistemology, but only so long as he confines its distinctives to the realm of the arbitrary, which is precisely what Petersen does here. An epistemology that deals with the world of objects that we perceive around us when we look outward, can be put to a variety of tests (such as a blind sample, where the correct answer is already known to those administering the test, but not known to the one taking the test) to determine whether or not that epistemology’s methods can enable us to identify and cope with reality objectively. But clearly there’s nothing in what Petersen describes here that is testable to begin with. Believing that claim that “God is self-sufficient,” for example, does not identify any kind of method by which one could know that he’s drinking a Diet Coke when he is in fact drinking a Diet Coke. Moreover, such a belief makes no statement about the world we see when we look outward; it is certainly not informed by anything we find in the world when we look outward, and falls exclusively under the purview of the imagination: we have no alternative but our imagination when it comes to entertaining such claims.
In short, since Petersen’s “epistemology” is entirely belief-centric and has no applicable value to the human mind. Some of Petersen’s religious beliefs may make him feel warm and cozy inside, but they can only have relevance when he’s looking inward into the contents of his religious-inspired imagination, his wishing, and the subjective “hope” that he claims to have “answers for.”
Also notice how Petersen borrows expressly from Objectivism when he insinuates that “I am” when spoken by the biblical god supposedly “means consciousness, identity and existence.” These are Objectivism’s axiomatic concepts, and here they’re being put into the mouth of an imaginary being by an apologist whose epistemology he describes has no relevance to the real world. If the authors of the bible meant to affirm the axioms of existence, identity and consciousness, why not simply come out and state them explicitly, as Objectivism does, rather than waiting for apologists thousands of years later to claim that the statement “I am” – which anyone can make – should somehow be taken as making such an affirmation?
While it is true that the statement “I am” presupposes the truth of the Objectivist axioms, it is not equivalent to either their meaning or their position in the knowledge hierarchy. That this statement presupposes the truth of the axioms tells us right off that the axioms are indeed more fundamental than the statement “I am.” Moreover, the concepts ‘existence’, ‘identity’ and ‘consciousness’ are open-ended classes denoting everything in our knowledge in the most general manner possible, thus making references that are universal in scope (since they include and pertain to everything in our knowledge). But the statement “I am” is not universal in the scope of its reference; rather, the statement “I am” denotes a specific unit – namely the single individual saying it – as opposed to the open-ended classes denoted by the axiomatic concepts of existence, identity and consciousness.
These distinctions, which are crucial to a fuller understanding of the axioms and their role in human thought, are completely lost on Petersen. Perhaps we should be flattered that he finds it expedient to borrow from Objectivism, but in the context of his religious beliefs they simply become stolen concepts, for he does in fact affirm them, but the context of his religion’s subjective and anti-conceptual underpinnings denies them at their very root. So the attempt to borrow from Objectivism simply backfires on Petersen.
Now the key to formulating an authentic epistemology that actually has relevance to man’s existence is in understanding the relationship between the conceptual level of cognition and perception. Any “epistemology” which fails to address this matter will only suffer fatal disadvantages when confronted with an epistemology which does address this matter. And that’s what we have here: Christianity has no theory of concepts whatsoever, and thus leaves its believers essentially clueless as to how their minds can have any knowledge whatsoever, while Objectivism does in fact have a theory of concepts, namely the objective theory of concepts – ‘objective’ because it is explains how the mind conceptually processes percepts while keeping the fundamental distinction between consciousness and existence – and therefore emotions, wishing, imagination, etc., on the one hand, and facts on the other – clearly and consistently in focus throughout its functional process, from cognition and measurement to measurement-omission, from abstraction from abstractions to definitions.
Don’t believe me? I do no expect anyone to take my word for it. Go, check for yourself. Look in the bible. There are searchable versions online available for free. Go here, for example. Search for the word ‘concept’ in any bible. Let me know what you find (and no, I’m not interested in hits containing the word “conception” where sperm-meets-egg is the concern). What I’m interested in seeing at that point is how the bible defines what concepts are, how it explains the process by which they are formed, the proper way to integrate concepts that have already been formed with other concepts that have been formed, the relationship between a concept and the units it subsumes, the parameters justifying including new units into a concept’s range of reference, the proper way to define concepts, an analysis of how to reduce a concept to its genetic roots, etc., etc., etc.
My prediction is that no one will be able to point to any passage anywhere in the bible that addresses even one of these concerns, let alone anything approaching a developed thesis about the nature and formation of concepts.
So here’s my challenge to presuppositionalists and apologists of every stripe: PROVE MY PREDICTION WRONG.
Good luck. You’ll need it.
by Dawson Bethrick