Philosophical Approaches to the Knowledge of God

‘The sense of the world must lie outside the world,’ said Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). The human problem is seeking sense of the world within the world or within one’s own self. But can man go beyond himself by himself? Can someone lift himself up by pulling up his bootstraps? The epistemic predicament of man has been just that in several cases: when he started from himself or nature he returned to himself or nature, to the extent that ‘man is the measure of all things’ was reflected in all his cogitations on man, God, and the world. A glance at monism, polytheism, materialism, and pantheism will demonstrate all that man can do to limit ultimate meaning to this-worldly-reality.

This has also been true of Christian theology several times. The rational entanglements of scholastic theology in attempts to rationalize revelation, and the empirical obsessions of liberal, process, existential, and charismatic theologies reflect the segregated pursuits of two different epistemic streams in order to understand divine reality. There are claims to truth in each philosophical school of theology. However, from want of any epistemic theory that could synthesize the rational and the empirical and a resolute adherence to the segregated epistemic lines, the conflict between reason and experience surfaces more often; the consequence, rationalists try to invalidate experience to maintain reason’s standing while empiricists try the same against reason.

The conflict between reason and experience, however, is not restricted to propositional theology; it affects the personal, emotional, and aesthetic dimensions of man as well. The problem with epistemically deficient theologies is not only their one-sided approach towards revelation, but also their failure to synthetically encounter revelation in pursuit of a holistic theology. One seems to find some respite from philosophical vexation in transcendental theologies such as neo-orthodoxy, which proposes encounter with revelation as the basis for theology. Though wrapped in possibilities of self-deception and blind belief, this epistemic proposal at least permits some theologizing in contrast to empirical traditions such as Zen Buddhism that are aversive to reason; consequently, to any form of theologizing.

Despite the advance of empirical science in the past two centuries and the waning of rational theologies, the power of religion has not suffered decrease. In fact, one may not be surprised to find a great percentage of the scientific community to be religious in some sort or the other. In parallel is the ever increasing spate of fideism in the field of science, to the extent that evolutionism is now regarded by many as not just a philosophical hypothesis but a powerful religion that authoritatively draws believers in the name of science. Much of this influence owes to the psychological mechanics of imitative learning: one simply believes what others believe and assert to be true. One adopts the popular world-view, the weltanschauung, by submission to the spirit of the age, the zeitgeist. This is also true of religious believers in general who hold on to their particular religious beliefs by reliance on societal authority. However, the phenomena of religious conversions reveal that believers when countered by crises are often willing to change their beliefs. Whatever be the strength of any religious conviction, there has been a marked disposition of believers in general to seek scientific or empirical recognition of faith in recent times. Especially, in a more secularly oriented world, the pursuit for secular recognition escalates seeing that isolationism will not strengthen the religious appeal for adherents. It is, however, important to understand that the empirical sciences can neither produce nor authenticate propositions of ultimate value. It is not surprising then that Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, called the knower of universals (ideas, principles, theories) wiser than the knower of particulars (things).
Experience does play an important role in the acquisition of knowledge. However, when experience is just sensual, brutish, and intensely immanent, one soon encounters the spiritual turbulences of emptiness, boredom, vexation, anxiety, and loneliness: ‘the sense of the world must lie outside the world.’ That is why Jesus told the Samaritan woman that the world could not quench her thirst; only God could do that.
But then, one may argue that spiritual experiences are also one form of experience and religious experiences have been often used as basis for faith in God. For instance, Alvin Plantinga’s theory of foundationalism categorizes belief in God as basic to the noetic structure of the believer having appositive religious experiences. However, the qualification of such experience as religious is subjective and therefore immune to empirical or objective verification or falsification; thus, unqualifying as scientific. John Wisdom’s parable of the invisible gardener is a classic illustration of this problem. It shows how an explanatory hypothesis, such as the existence of God, may initially appear to be experimental but end up as a non-empirical, unscientific hypothesis. In John Wisdom’s own words, the story is as follows:

Two people return to their long neglected garden and find among the weeds a few of the old plants surprisingly vigorous. One says to the other “It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something about these plants.” Upon inquiry they find that no neighbour has ever seen anyone at work in their garden. The first man says to the other “He must have worked while people slept.” The other says “No, someone would have heard him and besides, anybody who cared about the plants would have kept down these weeds.” The first man says “Look at the way these are arranged. There is purpose and a feeling for beauty here. I believe that someone comes, someone invisible to mortal eyes. I believe that the more carefully we look the more we shall find confirmation of this.” They examine the garden ever so carefully and sometimes they come on new things suggesting that a gardener comes and sometimes they come on new things suggesting the contrary and even that a malicious person has been at work. Besides examining the garden carefully they also study what happens to gardens left without attention. Each learns all the other learns about this and about the garden. Consequently, when after all this, one says “I still believe a gardener comes” while the other says “I don’t,” their different words now reflect no difference as to what they have found in the garden, no difference as to what they would find in the garden if they looked further and no difference about how fast untended gardens fall into disorder. At this stage, in this context, the gardener hypothesis has ceased to be experimental….


Obviously, attempts to give an objective basis to subjective religious beliefs are not always very successful. This doesn’t mean that all faith is groundless or lacks reason. It only means that the reasons are not always sought in the right place. For instance, to declare that the only proof for God’s existence would be his visible manifestation is to assume that God is spatio-temporally limited and is physical in nature. But to decide the nature of God before having the proof of his existence is to argue from existence and not towards existence. The empirical mind, however, can think of reality in terms of sense-experience alone and so demands of any claim to truth an empirical validation. It is not surprising, therefore, to see that empiricists and logical positivists call all metaphysics a nonsensical and futile enterprise, in doing which, they nullify the validity of all metaphysical claims, including the belief in a rational God.

One important question haunting psychologists of religion is why people believe in God. Another question, asked by philosophers, is whether belief in God is similar to belief in people or things. Are religious beliefs essentially same as or different from secular beliefs? Some philosophers, like Platinga, have argued for the basicality of belief in God. In other words, belief in God is seen as basic to the human noetic structure as the belief in the existence of the external world. This axiomatic status of theistic belief nullifies the need of evidences. One problem with this approach is that belief in God is always theological, belief about God as well. In the modern pluralistic world, belief in God is always belief in some kind of a God, and when such belief is questioned one either recourses to reason or to experience or to revelation; and, obviously, each of the sources of knowledge lends differing perspectives on the same enquiry.

BEYOND OURSELVES

“All men by nature desire to know,” said Aristotle in his Metaphysics. Curiosity is instinctive to man. Anxiety, boredom, frustration, and bewilderment often accompany one’s failure to know what one wants to know. If there are shocks that upset the mind, then there are also shocks that excite the mind. Unexpected pleasures are as shocking as unexpected pains, though with opposite results. Therefore, when the intuition senses flashes of insight amidst the confusion and obstruction of the mind, the pleasure is sublime. That is why religion is so personal to believers while absurdity and vexation torture the skeptics.
But belief cannot be recklessly entertained, for beliefs match their consequences; and if beliefs are false, the consequences can be disastrous. However, one can’t avoid belief, since it is the ground of all knowledge. For instance, in order to reason logically one needs to first believe in reason and logic; similarly, in order to know something about the world, one must at least believe there is something out there. There are certain situations, however, where one has nothing but belief as one’s source of knowledge. For instance, anyone who travels a lot knows times when one has to simply believe others for directions and guidance to the desired destination. Yet, when it comes to beliefs about ultimate issues like the origin and destiny of the universe, God, freedom, values, etc, one cannot just quote exclusive instances as explanations for an unexamined life of belief. One needs to look at reality intently, intensely, intentionally; one must be serious. The “laughing philosopher” is a philosophical mistake unless the philosopher is either mad or “enlightened”. The laughing philosopher must suffer the toothache to stop laughing, for it is not pleasure but pain that awakens the philosopher within – Buddha stopped laughing when he saw the four scenes of suffering; Plato stopped laughing when Socrates drank the hemlock. Truth is more important to the rational human than water to the thirsty, or else David’s heroes wouldn’t have risked their lives to get their king water from the well of Bethlehem, nor would have David, seeing its value, poured it out unto God without drinking of it (2 Samuel 23: 14-17).

The Inner Conflict

“What is truth?” asked Plato to Jesus without awaiting an answer, for though political philosophers fill pages with arguments for political ideals, the practical politician understands that in his world the value of truth is volatile. Experience, evidently, demolishes reason unless handled, or countered, rationally. Yet, can rationality subsist with experience?

The contrast between the world of reason and the world of experience is stark. The table below delineates it tersely. One must see the contra-characteristics as adumbration of the split within a human’s noetic structure. The paradoxical disharmony is not easy to reconcile and, as will be seen later, ensues in existential tensions that neither reason nor experience can independently resolve.

Table 1. Characteristics of Reason and Experience

Characteristics of Reason
Characteristics of Experience

Unity
Plurality

Necessity
Contingency

Infinity (Strict Universality)
Finitude

Immutability
Mutability

Transcendence
Immanence


Each of the characteristics of reason and experience needs explanation; first, the characteristics of reason:
1. It is the unifying characteristic of reason that enables the rational self to recognize the various sensations of a phenomenon, say for instance, a burning candle, to be that of a single entity. This extends to truths that may be rightly recognized as being rational.
With reference to rational truths, unity refers to the identity, exclusivity, and non-ambiguity of truth. Truth is one. A rational truth is singular and exclusive. Thus, 2+2=4 means that 2+2=4 and not 2+2=5. In the same manner, ‘All bodies are extended’ expresses the predicate as contained in the subject; thus, identical and one. To say that truth is a unity also means that it is subject to the law of non-contradiction. The law of non-contradiction states that it cannot be true both that a proposition is true and also that it is false; not both p and not-p (e.g., ‘A rose cannot be not a rose’). This excludes all possibility of relativizing truth. Though truth is subjective (as it is subjective knowledge of objective reality) it is not arbitrarily decided. It is subjectively discovered not determined. Thus, if one holds something to be true (say, it is raining) which someone else doesn’t hold to be true (say, it is not raining), then a contradiction is obvious and both of them cannot be true at the same time. Either of the two only can be true or both false, but not both true at the same time. The law of non-contradiction itself is a self-validating truth. It cannot be falsified. Thus truth must be singular and exclusive in nature.
2. Necessity refers to reason’s boundedness to certain undeniable categories of knowledge that characterize themselves as being rational. Thus, when one says that a particular conclusion is rational, one means that the premises of the argument necessarily entail it. For instance,
i. All men are mortal. (Major Premise)
ii. Socrates is a man (Minor Premise)
iii. Therefore, Socrates is mortal (Conclusion necessarily follows)

Such necessary logical relations reflect the characteristic of necessity that reason has and demands of anything that is rational. This also extends to all rational concepts of perception and inference. For instance, ‘All bodies occupy space’ is discovered through experience, of course, but there can never conceive of a body apart from space. One can imagine empty space, but never a body, e.g. a jar, that doesn’t occupy space. Thus, ‘body’ and ‘space’ are rationally connected and the concept of space becomes necessary for the concept of body. In the same manner, it does of necessity follow that 2+2 = 4. Likewise, the laws of reason are necessary rational truths. They are necessary for any reasoning to occur. Without them no reasoning is possible.
3. Reason extends infinitely and disallows any restrictions on it. For instance, one cannot conceive of the edge of space – space as a rational concept is infinite; similarly, one can not conceive of a point where space is no longer rationally divisible. Thus, rationally speaking, space is infinite both macroscopically and microscopically. This characteristic of infinity also extends to rational truths in form of strict universality. By strict universality is meant that rational truths are not conditioned by space or time. Thus, 2+2 = 4 is true anywhere, anytime. Reason can’t conceive otherwise.
4. The laws of reasoning are immutable or unchanging in nature. In fact, one must transcend oneself to see reason as not just personal but also objectively valid. Thus, when someone claims that an inference is logically valid, he or she means that it holds objective validity and not just relative and subjective validity. Thus, rationality is not affected by the plurality of rational beings: it doesn’t differ from person to person. Thus, in its absolute sense, reason is immutable and unchanging. This also extends to truth that reason perceives to be rational. For instance, 2+2=4 is a truth that remains constant regardless to space and time; in fact, reason’s infinite characteristic disallows any breach of uniformity and constancy.
5. For rational truths to be immutable they must be beyond the fluctuating effects of time and matter. This is what is meant by the transcendence of truth. Rationalists do agree that rational truths are above and over empirical truths. Plato’s world of ideas is one example of such transcendent conception of rational truths.
Thus, rational truth is basically understood as possessing the qualities of unity, necessity, eternity, infinity or universality, immutability, and transcendence.

Now, to experience:
1. The concept of ‘experience’ immediately involves the inescapability of plurality; for it is obvious that there can be no experience unless there was a subject who perceived an object through some medium of perception. Thus, plurality becomes the first inevitable foundation of empirical knowledge.
2. Secondly, contingency is inherent to experience. Even if one had investigated that every book in a particular shelf of the library were a science book, he could not necessarily infer from it that that particular shelf was a science shelf, unless, of course, he already had a general knowledge that books in a library are arranged according to subjects, and based on such general knowledge, he finds the science books in the shelf and deduces that the shelf is a science shelf. But once it is already known that the library shelves are subject-wise arranged, one only needs to pick up one book to know whether the shelf is a science shelf or not; since, the general knowledge necessitates particular knowledge. However, in the case of induction, this is not so. If the person did not know that the library shelves were subject-wise arranged, he would not be able to absolutely conclude that the shelf is a science shelf. The person would still be left with other possibilities like the science books being kept in that particular shelf unintentionally or the library having more science books then any other books. Thus, the relation between the instances and the conclusion is not one of necessity but of probability; therefore, empirical inferences are contingent. Further, the existence of none of the elements of nature is perceived as necessary. All things appear to be contingent on something else. Therefore, reality itself, apparently, cannot be considered to be necessary but contingent. Thus, contingency is at the foundation of empirical knowledge.
3. Thirdly, the essentiality of plurality prevents the possibility of infinity. Thus, nothing in reality can be infinite, for an infinite destroys the possibility of any other existence, at least in empirical imagination. By way of illustration, if suppose one were asked to imagine an infinite ocean, how many other oceans would there be. None; for that infinite ocean would fill all space infinitely leaving space for none. But since, the world as known evinces pluralism and not monism, the existence of an infinite is impossible. Thus, the very fact of plurality destroys infinity and thus all reality is plural in nature. Empirical knowledge, thus, is always of the finite and never of the infinite. The only infinite known to experience is the negation of something, namely, nothing. Consequently, finitude lies at the foundation of empirical knowledge.
4. Fourthly, since all experience is not uniform, changeability lies at the foundation of empirical knowledge. The passing of time and the continuous elapsing of the present into memory evinces the mutable nature of experience. The experience of the moment becomes a memory of the past as soon as it is had. Thus, lack of uniformity indicates the mutable nature of experience. Further, experience is always dynamic in character. A static, frozen, experience is equal to no experience. Thus, dynamics is part of experience.
5. Finally, since all experience, though internal (of the subject) and external (of the universe), is limited to the world of senses (five or six as the intuitionists would contend), knowledge is immanent and not transcendent. One cannot go beyond one’s own empirical faculties to apprehend reality. As A. J. Ayer (1910-1989) saw it, the conception of transcendent reality can never be derived from evidence of the senses (sense-experience); therefore, metaphysical concepts involving transcendence are nonsensical to empirical epistemics. Empirically speaking, reality has to be immanent.
Thus, plurality, contingency, finitude, changeability, and immanence or spatio-temporality, are chief characteristics of empirical knowledge. This is so inferred because experience occurs and can only be conceived to occur in the framework of a plural, contingent, finite, changeable, and spatio-temporal universe. If reality were not plural then there would be no subject-object distinction making experience impossible. Apparently, reality is contingent and experience itself is contingent on several factors, including the sense organs functioning properly. Plurality and finitude go together, and, finally, all objects of senses are perceived as spatio-temporal. Thus, even if it were contended that there was something beyond the grasp of the human senses, it would not be possible to know it; for, nothing as such would be empirically verifiable and, therefore, acceptable. All knowledge is, therefore, immanent or spatio-temporal.
Empiricism, or the view that all knowledge is based on experience, ultimately leads to skepticism. One doesn’t need proofs to know that several times our senses deceive us. Even reasoning based on experiences cannot be termed absolute and final, for they still stand the chance of being falsified; in fact, all attempts by philosophers of science to give empirical knowledge a rational basis has only strengthened skepticism. For instance, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) proposed a phenomenal view of knowledge according to which all empirical knowledge is conditioned by pre-existent mental categories. In doing that he had to classify reality into two: the noumenal or reality-as-it-is unknown to us and the phenomenal or reality-as-it-appears to us through the interpretations of the pre-programmed mind. Thus, concepts like space, time, causality, quantity, etc cannot be taken as reflective of reality-as-it-is; in other words, though they rationally validate the search for causal relations and mathematical predictions, they do not ultimately constitute knowledge of the world-as-it-is. The world-as-it-is is unknowable in this theory of agnosticism.

This skeptical or agnostic perspective is indicative of the inner conflict between experience and reason.

© Domenic Marbaniang, 2007
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