Sources of Truth: How do we know what we know?
Updated: Feb 25
You've seen optical illusions- they're everywhere. In times past, decorators and artists would produce paintings called trompe l'oeil from the French term for "trick the eye." Our faculty of sight can be fooled by someone controlling and manipulating the way light, line, color and shape are decoded by our brains. Magicians are expert at visually distracting us to make objects seem to disappear. Fragrances can be crafted to fool us into associating pleasure with a person. The same goes for sound, taste and touch.
And yet, we move through the world every day as if we can trust our senses completely. We rely on them to engage with the world as we expect it to be, and most of the time we find enough agreement on what's actually real to function just fine.
From the earliest forms of life on down, accurate interpretation of sensory data by ever more complex brains has been the golden ticket for success on our planet. One species- ours- finds itself with the most robust of brains, and along with it a side effect called consciousness.
Incredibly, we are able to imagine things that have no physically sensible counterpart. In other words, we can brew up predictions, conclusions, assumptions, explanations, and even think about thinking itself. The jury is still out one whether or not our level of consciousness will survive the blind justice of nature due to the ingenious destructive power that showed up along with this level of self awareness. For that reason alone, it is well to take a step back and evaluate how we know what we know and whether our justifications for knowing certain things are valid or not. Other reasons to examine our certainties are pertinent to people who believe in an unseen spiritual realm. Communities are healthier when certainties are not used as weapons.
In philosophy, this field of study is called Epistemology. Don't panic at the length and opacity of the word, it's merely a shortcut that labels a question that is too long to write out every time you want to talk about it. Epistemology means examining what knowledge is, what we assume about it, what its based on, its limitations and its validity. Here's the definition in question form:
What is knowledge? How does knowledge operate in both individual minds and in groups of persons? What does knowledge do, exactly?
How does a person or group get knowledge? What happens in memories and language when knowledge is being used?
Does our interior knowledge actually correspond to objective reality outside of us? How close is our "map" of reality to the real thing? And how can anyone know anything about the real thing?
Is there a way to evaluate the realness of the ideas and feelings we experience? What makes us certain about the truth of one thing and the falsity of another?
Answering all those questions goes way beyond the scope of this article, but there are plenty of philosophy textbooks that will happily take you down some admirable rabbit holes. Our focus here is to equip the reader to think critically about our connections to reality and "truth." We want to add a bus stop for all that data flooding into our brains, a pause that allows for reflection on the validity, quality and believability of the information that comes our way and to consider the effects of believing or disbelieving the data.
When we were children, we assimilated information uncritically, that is, without any particular filters that might determine what's true or not true. Kids are gullible. Hopefully that eases over time as we mature and undergo a steady increase in autonomy and intellectual ability. Teenagers commonly question everything that restricts the urge to separate from our parents and from a teen's point of view, a parent's formerly vast knowledge about the world evaporates into irrelevance.
While this childhood gullibility is great for absorbing all the instincts we need for later adult life: attitudes, skills, behaviors, social aptitudes and so on, we can't help but internalize some beliefs that would do well with some critique and adjustment later in life. Some of us choose not to adjust beliefs because of the perceived high cost involved. Sometimes we simply decide to trust someone else's interpretation of the world because it's much easier than evaluating or critiquing a worldview that has proven to be adequate most of the time. When we think the benefits of adequate and unexamined assumptions outweigh the costs of asking serious questions, we prioritize keeping the boat steady and safe. And we avoid the fear of losing things we like.
Until the enlightenment opened the way to a more methodical and democratic approach to gaining consensus about reality, the story about reality as told by faith traditions was the accepted standard. Cultural institutions in western Europe- mainly the church and the state- maintained a narrative based on varieties of inputs, chief of which was a set of interpretations of the Bible. until the 1500's, there was very little critique or examination of the story or how it was determined to encompass the truth about the world.
What Happens when Epistemology Interferes
Imagine being a member of a church that operates by a set of certain facts they get from the Bible (OK, that's most churches). One of those facts is that women should never be given any kind of authority over a man. No preaching, no teaching, no leadership roles of any kind where a female might make a decision that impacts any male's conduct or direction. Enter some real creativity to make sure the rule is kept!
As a member of this church, you have heard this fact voiced and demonstrated since childhood. You have assimilated it as truth partly because of social reinforcement and partly because you have assented to some claims about the Bible, namely, that one can align one's life and behavior with the truest version of reality there is: the one God affirms in the pages of the Bible. You've been instructed by the well-meaning people in that community that the Bible can be read in a mostly literal way, taken at face value and applied to any and all contemporary situations. The writings in the Bible are transcultural, transtemporal and accessible to anyone who reads or hears it in their language.
All is well until two little storm clouds appear on the horizon. The first is the realization that your culture has developed an impressive track record of successful leaders in both the public and private sectors that happen to be women. You might even know some of the them personally, and they don't seem to attract any terrible judgement from God. You begin to notice blind spots in church decision making that seem to violate a basic human right to equality and autonomy without regard to gender.
The second storm cloud is the nagging thought that there might be a contradiction in the Word of God. You read in Galatians that "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Then in Romans 16 you meet Phoebe, a deacon (Διάκονον- Diakonon), meaning one who is assigned a place of service or administration, in the church in Cenchreae. These seem to contradict what was so plain in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. You also notice that though the material is sparse, references to women in Jesus's entourage somehow survived in the pages of the gospels.
As you begin to look for answers, you find new information:
That 1 Timothy probably wasn't written by Paul.
That there might by specific cultural reasons for Paul's instructions, like the fact that men and women did not sit together in a public assembly.
Paul was a Pharisee, and naturally retained some of the conservative, traditional social customs he grew up with.
Translating Biblical manuscripts isn't a straightforward task. Going from Koine Greek to modern English requires a great deal of interpretation, and that interpretation was done almost exclusively by men. The doings of men were overwhelmingly prevalent in writings from the first century.
The Bible originated in highly patriarchal societies leading one to suspect that references to women in leadership should have been excised early on, but miraculously some survive.
Now you are beginning a process that draws on epistemology. Step one is to look at what you think you know. Then ask how you came by that knowledge. It definitely requires looking beyond what you always took for granted as "facts."
Major Theories of Knowledge
Let us return to understanding what epistemology is. Many very intelligent people have thought about this process and come up with theories that answer questions about how we know things. Here are a few of the more prominent ones:
Empiricism: This theory holds that all knowledge must be acquired through sense experience, and that all knowledge is ultimately based on observation and experimentation. Now, I can choose to believe what another empiricist tells me, but I must be able to directly experience the data myself. If you think this sounds a bit like what scientists do, you're right! It's a very effective way to get agreement on what's real. A fact or truth is proposed, and experiments are created that can prove or falsify the claim. This "scientific method" can bring us much closer to reality than merely accepting unprovable claims. This theory doesn't work well on subjects like history or answering questions about abstract ideas like good and evil.
Rationalism: This theory holds that knowledge can be acquired through reason and intuition, independent of sense experience. Our brains alone are able to synthesize conclusions that go beyond a seed concept called an "innate idea," a self-evident first principle that lives in our minds without needing to be directly experienced. For example, are numbers real? Can you prove that "five" exists in our universe- is it a concept that we made up, like a language or is it an actual building block of reality that would exist whether or not we were here to know about it? Descartes said it best: when we pare existence down to the minimum, the first of the first principles is probably thought. "How do I know I exist?" He wondered. The answer was "I have thoughts."
Foundationalism: Very similar to rationalism, this view likens knowledge to a building with an unassailable foundation of facts that are validated through direct empirical experience. Once you have those few facts in place, you can build beliefs and further knowledge on them, in a rationalist style. Imagine a brain in a vat with no sensory data coming in. A rationalist would predict that the isolated mind would still be able to experience thought, however limited, while a foundationalist would disagree. Without some kind of experiential data to start things off, there could be no thinking about anything.
Infinitism: How does one justify a belief? Once we encounter some new information, what's the process of assimilating or rejecting it? Infinitism proposes that when we supply evidence and reasons for a belief, it follows that each bit of evidence and each reason in supporting belief must also have its own rationale. Once you determine that rationale, you must also support it with further evidence and reason. It's like a two year old asking "why?" over and over again, "Why does the cat purr?" "Because it's happy." "Why is it happy?" "Because you are petting it." "Why does petting it make it happy?" and so on for infinity. It might sound silly, but the infinitist brings quality control to the act of knowing, compelling the thinker to support only those propositions that are as error-free as possible.
Skepticism: After reading all this, you might be ready to become a Skeptic. This theory states that all knowledge is uncertain or even impossible because of the limitations of our sensory apparatus and our consciousness. There is always the possibility of deception or error and even empirical, falsifiable data should be held loosely and subject to revision. A radical skeptic distrusts all knowledge and has lost faith in every aspect of what the majority of us have agreed is real. A more moderate and functional position holds that some knowledge is can be considered correct but should be scrutinized continually. Skeptics take seriously the idea that our senses can be fooled and reasoned truths arising from our brain activity can be erroneous, and therefore our grip on truth must always be tentative. This position is very useful to the scientific community when it attempts to draw conclusions about the physical world, but it can be exhausting to second guess everything from the temperature of your coffee to the existence of God.
Social constructivism: Go back far enough in our history and you'll encounter some very different ideas about reality. 10,000-year-old explanations of disease, weather, fertility and astronomy would sound absolutely batty to us and so would our modern ones to a late ice age cave-dweller. So who "knows" reality the way it actually is? A Social Constructionist would say both. The beliefs, values, norms and expectations of the world are so completely shaped by cultural context that you'd have a difficult time of explaining the reality of viruses to a person from an ancient society who believes that illness is related to evil forces. While there may be an external and permanent "true reality" out there, untethered to our comprehension of it, true reality might as well be the world created in the collective conscious minds of any given culture. Whether we are aware of it or not, we're trapped in a bubble of our own interpretations of the world around us. Some things we think we have figured out at the level of raw existence, but after us comes a generation that finds out we had it all wrong!
Naturalized Epistemology: Instead of starting with the abstract world of ideas and introspection, let's begin with empirically acquired information about the actual brains of humans who do the thinking. A Naturalized Epistemologist (NE) concludes that the best way to study knowledge is to find out as much as possible about the organ that processes and stores it. Using scientific method- observation, hypothesis, experimentation, analysis of data, revision, and drawing conclusions- an NE aims to understand human knowledge based on the architecture of the brain itself. How does perception, memory, data processing, retrieval and chemical signaling work when getting and using knowledge? How has nature produced a mechanism that uses knowledge to win the game of adaptation and survival? In contrast to the other approaches, NE proposes that finding out how the hardware works should come before analyzing the software.
Back to interrogating our knowledge of facts...
How did most of us acquire information about the religion we call Christianity? For some it was as children in a church community where Bible stories and Sunday School were mandatory and sometimes fun. Others found it later in life as a need for meaning and belonging was met by the traditions and relationships centered on the tenets of a particular style of faith practice. It could have been the music, the preaching, the ambiance of the worship space- any number of elements drew us in.
Sooner or later we learned that the primary sources of data about what it meant to be rightly related to God were these:
The ratios of these three elements are quite different in various and multifaceted Christian congregations, from Catholic to Charismatic. All three are sources of information that our brains and hearts have taken in, processed as knowledge, assimilated into that complex imagined map of our world and accepted as real. We're fully convinced about some of the data, but not all of it. We like to think we process new information through a grid of all three elements, for example, when we hear someone interpret a verse of scripture in a certain way, we wonder if it fits the tradition we think is best and if it resonates with what we have experienced in our spiritual lives so far.
Some of our acceptance criteria rest on our attitude toward the source. If we don't like or trust the person or institution purveying any given truths, we might reject them out of hand, even if they prove to actually be accurate. If a tradition, embodied in a denomination or particular church has done us wrong, it's much harder to buy what they are selling, even if it might be true.
And so we find ourselves in possession of a set of "facts" or "truths" about the world that originated as data we acquired from communities that taught us these facts and truths as they were handed down to them. Many faith traditions like to point to the Bible as the ultimate source of objective truth, and western Evangelicals turn it up to eleven, positioning it as an unassailable and error-free source of truth. They propose that this collection of ancient documents is mystically pure, a super-accurate reflection of the thoughts and intentions of the very God who created the reality described in His book.
Unfortunately for that view, there are evidence-based facts and truths that have emerged from long years of textual and archaeological study that ought to be included in our pursuit of epistemological honesty. How do we know for certain (an epistemological question) that a supernatural process produced an inerrant Bible in English, understandable by anyone in any time or culture?
When we drill down into what we suppose to be certain knowledge and ask these kinds of questions, it can feel like a battle between faith-based truths and empirical data. As scientific propositions about the physical universe become more precise over time, such as the huge timescales required to explain what we now observe in astronomy or geology, they may radically conflict with the story of reality told by a literal approach to Genesis. Now the seeker is put in a position of trying to find a way to reconcile or separate different "truths." Is there a set of theological realities and another set of physical ones? Do they overlap at all or should they?
In any community that is interested in living by the truth, there are some who incline toward being primarily "Experiencers." Others find their home among the "Experimenters." There are always interesting mixes and spectra in groups; no one is completely one or the other. In epistemological terms, some resonate with the Rationalists (knowledge can be acquired through reason and intuition, independent of sense experience) while others tend toward Empiricism (all knowledge must be acquired through sense experience, and that all knowledge is ultimately based on observation and experimentation).
This divide shows up in the western church when you compare the academic side of biblical studies with the pastoral side. Weekly worship, counseling, serving, marrying and burying requires a facility with the experiential. Pastors, who have usually had some exposure to empirical questions in seminary, are called to be intensely practical. There isn't time to analyze tradition or scripture regarding the quality of their truth. And there's the concern that one's community isn't interested in questions of truth, rather they think and feel in more personal and immediate terms that are best met by pastoral action. If it is "true enough to work," there's no need to go any deeper.
An example of an assumption that is "true enough" is our belief that there is in fact a ground of non-subjective reality that can be known by conscious creatures. It's possible that quantum theory in its description of the foundations of matter and energy might ultimately prove existence is illusory, but its hard to imagine living differently every day because of it.
Still, it's worth asking ourselves what would happen if we encountered new information that impacts our assumptions about what's true. Specifically, what would change in our approach to the reality story told to us by our religion? What would it look like to change a belief in light of that new information? How do we decide if a new belief is justified or not?
Assuming we all are members of a conscious, self aware species who are able to critique our assumptions about reality, it makes sense that we would develop a desire for meaning in a vast, unpredictable natural environment, and in relationship to others with the same abilities. We possess a need to evaluate good behavior and bad as it relates to safety and security in our tribes. Some of that evaluation is directed toward an imagined supernatural reality where the gods are in control, and some is pointed at the people around us. We call the former religion and the latter ethics.
What Happens When you Epistemologize?
There is also the consideration of what happens when you engage in an epistemological journey and your community doesn't. Is there room at the table for disagreement about what's true and believable?
And what does the empiricist offer the rationalist, and vice versa? The rationalist has no trouble with subjective inputs of information, but is limited in her ability to convince the empiricist of its validity. The empiricist might close off any possibility of a metaphysical reality and miss valuable insights that aren't tied to repeatable experiment.
Here's an example of what can happen when we apply the questions of epistemology to our experience of the ancient accounts of Jesus's words and deeds.
When we read or hear the phrase, "and Jesus said," we immediately imagine a reality in our minds. We bring in all that we have assumed about the person called Jesus: He's God incarnate (in a human body), he's Jewish, he lived a long time ago, he lives in heaven, but also can do things like speak to me in my heart, etc. We anticipate a message from this real, historical person who did and still does miraculous things… We ask, "What truth will Jesus personally reveal to me in Matthew 9?" We read in verses 10-13:
"Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and began dining with Jesus and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. Now go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, rather than sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Reading this verse while unaware of your cultural biases and blind spots, the point seems fairly simple. There are healthy people and sick people. "Healthy" stands for righteous folks who are in good standing with God. "Sick" stands for sinners- people who willfully reject God and should be under God's curse. Jesus wants to be with the "sick" ones so that they have an opportunity to encounter God's mercy, and to drive the point home, Jesus quotes from the Old Testament book of Hosea, I desire mercy, not sacrifice, proving that God prefers welcoming behavior toward those outside the community of faith to proper religious acts of devotion like animal sacrifice. The setup is a confrontation between Jesus and some Pharisees who we have been told are self-righteous, legalistic enemies of Jesus who do nothing but argue and eventually have a hand in sentencing Jesus to death.
Moving to a practical application, we might think about considering who we are in the story. Are we Pharisees? Are we "the sick?" What is Jesus doing for me as an unrighteous person? He is showing mercy, therefore, I should a) be grateful for God's mercy and b) show that same mercy to the sinful people in my world. If I want to model my life after Jesus, I should consider what "going to the sick" might mean for me. Maybe share my faith with sinners? Hand out tracts in a depressed area of town?
We may also remember that in the culture of that time and place, eating with someone (see verses 10 and 11) was highly significant of a willingness to fully include that person in your close circle of friends. It meant trust and vulnerability so that one would never, ever invite an enemy, a liar, a foreigner or even the enemy of a friend to dinner. And here is Jesus, the popular rabbi, including tax collectors (contractors with the Roman government) and ritually unclean people. Jesus was then unclean by association. This information intensifies the point of the story.
More Information Might Help
But is that really the point of the story? Let's add in some more information that isn't normally included in the explanations we accepted as true.
We were taught that Matthew is one of four eyewitness accounts written by the actual disciple named in the story above. This little episode was remembered by Matthew and included to both inform our impression of the character of Jesus and provide a model for our behavior, i.e., to refuse to abide by unjust social boundaries between the "good" people and the "bad" people.
But there is justifiable evidence that the book was written much later, around the end of the first century by a Jew composing in a "Semitic Greek" style. Matthew, then would not be an eyewitness account, but a collection of stories, written and oral, compiled and edited to serve a specific rhetorical purpose. Part of the book's persuasive impact was the imprimatur of an actual apostle. The episode is what's known as a Chreia*, indicating that the text was carefully planned and composed for maximum persuasive effect on its readers.
So did Jesus really say this? Or did a later Jewish-Christian community create a fictional setting and put these words in his mouth for their own purposes? How close to reality is it? If our hope is to know Jesus as he really is, can we lean on Matthew's gospel as an epistemologically sound source?
If majority scholarship is right about the books of the New Testament, particularly the Gospels, we might have to admit that we rely more on tradition than a miraculous divine word as the basis of our faith. If they were written much later than the events they record, and if they underwent some modifications as they adapted to changing situations, and if they were composed and shared by communities with agendas other than precision and unbiased reporting, then we need to accommodate that in our model of reality.
This chreia might also be the author's way of building a perception of Jesus in his audience; that he was able to deflect challenges to his honor using scripture, a common practice in first century Jewish culture.** We automatically bring ourselves into the text, thinking there's a moral lesson for individuals, when it's entirely likely that the author of Matthew never dreamed his audience would think of that. It does say something about the character and beliefs of the hero, Jesus, in contrast to the off-target tradition-followers.
Applying this data to the passage, one is better prepared to hear what early Jewish-Christians heard when Matthew was read in their gathering (if they were lucky enough to have a copy). What was the gospel trying to say? Some possibilities that differ from the standard modern homiletic approach:
Jesus was honorable and did not hesitate to defend his honor at the expense of the Pharisees
People (especially Jews) who find themselves outside the usual boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable to the community are in fact able to be "healed" or brought back into a normalized place in the community, and by extension, found righteous by God.
The story is embedded in a series of vignettes around the themes of deviance and restoration. Jesus is depicted as one who ignores custom and crosses social boundaries to extend the ideal behavior of an Abrahamic ethic*** to those outside, considered sinners by their behavior or physical infirmity.
What did this mean to the early communities of Jesus followers? Did it function like classic folkloric hero-making? Was the author grappling with a post-Temple reality in which the ritual and ceremonial purity rules didn't apply in the same way?
Was "Matthew" defending an early church practice of welcoming people from social strata that weren't usually included in a synagogue or Greco-Roman association?
It's not illegitimate to find an ethical model here. What if Christians were people who shockingly crossed dehumanizing social norms, becoming vulnerable friends with people that are generally seen as irredeemable? Questions could arise based on the entire chapter of Matthew: What are we doing gathering in large auditoriums with security to keep undesirables out? What if our white, middle-class believing community made a habit of making friends with the homeless, the mentally ill and ethnic minorities? Even if this is not an eyewitness account of an actual conversation between Jesus and his skeptics, there remains a challenging and radical principle that was on the table for early believers.
Justifying belief is an epistemological action. The problem is how much information is enough to satisfy a reasonable belief? How many voices are needed to make an informed decision about what to believe?
The rationalist might depend on their experience-based knowledge of God, however, transferring that knowledge to someone else is problematic. He might say, "God told me…" but without a confirming interior experience of the same thing, the empiricist has no way to confirm or deny the reality of what the rationalist experiences. The empiricist thinks, "You're asking me to trust you, a fallible human being whose senses we all agree can be deceived. We just can't know for certain."
Well, It's Complicated.
As you've now realized if you've made it this far in the article, this is quite complicated.
And that's where the myth of certainty finally comes into view. It's a fatal flaw in the church and other organizations like nation-states- the destructive idea that one's own community has a lock on truth, that ours is the best view of reality compared to any other group. Remove our innate competitiveness and xenophobia and this is might be OK until it comes time to cooperate or negotiate. Our direct experience tells us otherwise. The human condition is deeply marked by a vestigial instinct for security through antagonism.
It's becoming more common to ask epistemological questions about matters of faith. If you are less comfortable with simply trusting the story you are told by others, including the ancient communities who produced our Bibles, welcome to the adventure. Remember, though, that reality is a tricky animal and we humans keep uncovering more mysteries as we go. And you're never wrong to work on mining living wisdom from ancient sources.
*Chreia- see Wikipedia "Chreia"
**"A quote from Hos. 6:6, only in Matthew, likewise serves as a rebutting proverb. Using proverbial resources as comebacks was an especially honorable way to respond. "Mercy" means the willingness to pay back and the actual paying back of one's debts of interpersonal obligation to God and fellow humans." Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Kindle Location 1254). Kindle Edition.
See also David DaSilva's Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture
***Reflecting the idea that "All nations will find themselves blessed" by their attraction to the ethics of God's model nation- Israel. See James Tabor, Restoring Abrahamic Faith