Knowledge and Truth
Would you die for truth? Of course you would. Multitudes do everyday. Or more precisely, they die because they don’t have truth.
People don’t believe their doctor’s warnings. They die for the truth of cancer. People underestimate the impact of a couple of drinks. They die for the truth of drunk driving. A pedestrian doesn’t look both ways before crossing the street. He dies for the truth of inertia, mass, and Mack trucks.
People die for truth all the time. They die as a result of false beliefs about important things. They get it wrong. They’re dead.
Truth, then, is often a life and death matter. Whether or not you live or die depends on getting some things right every single day.
This is just as applicable to eternal matters as to temporal ones. Jesus made specific claims about the world. These claims are either true or false. If Jesus was wrong, He—and those who follow Him—can be safely ignored. If He was right, though, that changes everything.
Given the gravity of this matter, it seems odd that so many—both outside the church and inside—are convinced there either is no such thing as truth, or that our understandings of truth have to be so radically altered they’re unrecognizable.
In light of this trend, we have a challenge: How do Christian ambassadors talk effectively about the One who said He was the truth when much of our culture considers distinctions like true and false completely superfluous? How do we reach people with what we think is truth when many deny truth even exists?
The apostle Paul, the most successful missionary in the early church, had some insight on this. He gave a general guideline, then a warning of danger, and finally an antidote to the danger.
First the guideline: Contextualize the Gospel. Adapt it to culture in every way you can that does not compromise the message. Paul called this becoming “all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:19-22). As much as possible, be like those you’re trying to reach. Blend in. Be one of them. Incarnate. If something gets in the way, get rid of it.
Paul warned of a danger, however:
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
Beware the deadly ideas. When trying to adapt the Gospel, take care you do not adopt the culture’s deceptive ideas and thus destroy the very foundation of our message.
The antidote? Go on the offensive against the false ideas. Paul said, “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
We must aggressively challenge current ideas that, in J. Gresham Machen’s words, “prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.”[i]
Here is my concern for the church in a postmodern era. In seeking to be “missional,” adapting our message to an emerging culture, we are in danger instead of adopting the culture’s dangerous ideas.
This is precisely what I think happens in segments of what has come to be known as the “emerging church.” Instead of adjusting their method, some have been, in my opinion, “taken captive through philosophy and empty deception,” sacrificing the message in the process.
This concern is so critical for ambassadors for Christ I am devoting three issues of Solid Ground to exploring the ideas of the emerging culture and its influence on the emerging church.
At the heart of this debate are questions about the nature of truth and knowledge. I will address these first. So here is my first question: What is knowledge?
When you think about it, there seem to be three types of knowledge. The first is knowledge of facts. We can know about things. This is also called propositional knowledge, or simply “knowing that.” The second kind of knowledge is knowledge by acquaintance. This is an experiential knowledge based on personal encounter. This is how we know our friends and loved ones, or how we’re acquainted with places we’ve been to, a “knowing who” or “knowing of.” Knowing how to drive a car or write a sentence is yet a different kind of knowledge. This might be called skill knowledge, or know how.
It may have occurred to you that Christianity involves all three. There are certain facts or truths (know that) that when believed properly lead us into a personal relationship with God (know who), after which we grow in personal skill at living called “sanctification” (know how).
Here is something else you may have noticed. The first kind of knowledge is very important to Christianity—indeed vital. Yet it is inadequate to any deep spiritual purpose when it stands alone.
Consider the kinds of things that Christianity (or any religion, for that matter) deals with: who God is, what the world is like, what’s the best way for man to live, and how to fix it when we don’t live the way we should. Isn’t it obvious that the particulars here are important? Do you see that if you don’t get your basic information right, then your relationship with God and your skill at spiritual living is going to be off to a bad start?[ii]
It should also be clear, however, that propositional knowledge on its own is not enough. Christianity is much more than statements of fact. Facts alone, even if you believe them, will not help you (more on this later).
For now I want to focus on the first type of knowledge, propositional knowledge, for two reasons. The first reason is that propositional knowledge is the foundation that the other two kinds of knowledge are built upon. The second reason is that this is the kind of knowledge being questioned in this postmodern era.[iii]
Think for a moment, about what you mean when you say you “know” something (in the first sense of knowledge).
The first element that propositional knowledge involves, it seems, is belief. When you say you know something you mean at least that you believe it. It would be odd to say, for example, that you knew your car was red, but you didn’t believe it was red. Knowledge involves belief. All the facts you think you know are facts you also believe.
So, what is a belief? Well, minimally a belief is a kind of thought. Since all thoughts are about something (philosophers call this “intentionality”), it’s always appropriate to ask of any belief, “What is this belief about?” What is it you are thinking about when you say you believe something?
The answer is easy when you consider what you mean when you say you believe. A belief is a kind of thought in which you hold that something (the thing you are thinking about) is a certain way. If you believe grass is green, your belief is about grass, and the content of your belief is that grass is a certain color, green, in this case. Simple enough, you say, and you’d be right. But there is actually something quite profound in this simple observation.
Here it is: Whenever you say you believe something, you mean that you think that what you believe is actually so (grass really is green). Put another way, when you say you believe something, you are also saying that what you believe is true. When people say, “That’s unbelievable,” they mean that it’s hard to imagine it could be true.
Why is this so profound? Because there is a tendency today, especially on religious or moral issues, for people to say, “I have a belief, but I’m not saying it’s true.” This is very odd because you cannot have a belief and at the same to deny that what you believe is true. You may not know it to be true. You could be mistaken even, but your belief is that it is true, nevertheless. Indeed, if you didn’t believe your belief was true, you wouldn’t believe what you believe in the first place. You’d believe something else.
Wouldn’t it be odd to hear, “I believe that Washington D.C. is the capitol of the United States, but I’m not saying you’re wrong for believing New York city is the capital”? But that’s the kind of thing people say all the time when it comes to spiritual matters.
Here is the thought I want you to keep in mind when it comes to belief: Everyone thinks he’s right in what he believes, otherwise he wouldn’t believe it. Nobody’s neutral.
Here’s another question: Can we be wrong in our beliefs? Of course we can. Simply believing something can’t make it true? Another way of putting it is belief is not a truth-maker. If belief alone could make something true, there would be no difference between believe and make-believe, fantasy and reality. If belief is not the truth-maker, what is? That depends on the definition of our next word: truth.
What is truth? This term has been the source of a massive amount of confusion lately. But the confusion is unnecessary because there is nothing mysterious about the meaning of this word. When my philosopher friend Frank Beckwith is asked “What is truth,” he simply responds, “Do you want the true answer or the false one?”
Frank’s response is clever because it shows that no degree in philosophy is necessary to answer the question. We already know the answer: Truth is when things are the way we think they are. When our thinking matches up accurately to what we’re thinking about—when our beliefs are correct—we say they are true.[iv]
Aristotle put it this way: If you say that it is and it is, or you say that it isn’t and it isn’t, that’s true. If you say that it isn’t and it is, or you say that it is and it isn’t, that’s false.
But you already knew this because you use the word “truth” (or one of its derivatives) all the time, and this is exactly what you mean. This is the garden variety definition of truth. It’s what most people mean when we use the word.
We all know what a lie is. We also know that truth is just the opposite. The Bible uses the word “truth” in this way all the time. Paul said, “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying” (Romans 9:1). John writes, “No lie is of the truth” 1 John 2:21. Sometimes the contrast is between truth and error (e.g., 1 John 4:6), which is basically the same thing.
This brings us back to our earlier question: If belief is not the truth-maker, what is? Answering this question is now quite a bit easier because we have our definition of truth in clear focus. If truth is when things are the way we think they are, then “things”—objects in the world—are what make our beliefs true. Facts of the world are truth-makers.
A true proposition describes a fact. If this is the case, then if there is no truth, there are no facts. When people say there is no truth, this is actually what they’re implying, even if they don’t realize it. Doesn’t this seem strange?
We have already established that whenever we say we believe something, we are also saying that what we believe is true. But what gives us the confidence we’re right? This question introduces our next concept: justification.
People believe things for reasons. Reasons are our “justification,” our evidence or proof. Usually we believe things because we think our reasons for them are good. If we don’t have good reasons for our beliefs, it doesn’t make sense to say we know them. Without justification our beliefs may be right, but only because we got lucky. That’s why if we have no evidence for our view people say, “You don’t know that. You’re just guessing.” Guessing is not knowledge.
Justification comes in degrees. Sometimes our commitment to a belief is not very strong because we know our evidence (our justification) is not strong. The better our reasons, the stronger our confidence. As our evidence grows, the way we describe our level of confidence changes from probable (over 50%), to likely, to beyond a reasonable doubt, to obvious. The final level, the highest level of psychological confidence, is certainty.
Here’s our next question: Since justification comes in degrees, when does it seem right to say we have enough justification for knowledge? When is enough enough? Is mere probability, 51%, enough for knowledge? No, this does not seem to be sufficient. Does knowledge require absolute certainty? That’s nice when we have it, but it does not seem to be necessary for knowledge. Certainty is too demanding a standard for knowledge.
In criminal law the level of confidence adequate to deprive an offender of his liberty or, in some cases, even his life is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This seems right. The threshold for justification adequate for knowledge is somewhere between mere probability and absolute certainty. When the evidence gives us confidence beyond a reasonable doubt, it seems fair to say we have knowledge.
Of course, there’s always the skeptic who will say, “But if you don’t have absolute certainty, then it’s always possible you could be mistaken.” That’s correct, but just because it’s possible to be mistaken doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to think I am mistaken.
This is the skeptic’s error. Wisdom, careful thinking, common sense always sides with the odds-on favorite. When the weight of evidence is significantly in our favor, it’s fair to say we have knowledge, even though it’s possible we may be mistaken. Knowledge does not require certainty that is incorrigible, infallible, indubitable, invincible, or absolute. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to know very much
So far we’ve established that to have a belief is to hold that something is true—that it fits the world as it really is—and when our belief does fit, our belief actually is true.
Our justification—our reasons or evidence—give us confidence that we’re right. When our justification rises to a certain level—not necessarily certainty, but more than mere probability—we can claim to have knowledge. That threshold seems to be when we have evidence that gives us confidence beyond a reasonable doubt.
When talking about knowledge, then, we have both truth and belief joined together, and the glue that holds them together is evidence, our justification.[v]
With this foundation in place I want to show you why each of these is absolutely vital to our message and, therefore, crucial for every one of Jesus’ ambassadors.
This I will do in the next issue of Solid Ground.
[i] J. Gresham Machen, What Is Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 162, as quoted in William Dembski and James Kushiner, Signs of Intelligence (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001), 59.
[ii] This isn’t true in everything (you can make great toast even if you know nothing about how toasters work), but when it comes to religion, facts are essential.
[iii] Note: When I say that propositional knowledge is the foundation, I am not referring to foundationalism, which is a theory of epistemic justification. At this point I am not saying anything about how beliefs are justified. I’m simply using the word “foundation” in the sense of “logically prior.”
[iv] Put another way, “truth” is when a statement, idea, or point of view actually fits—corresponds to—the way the world is. This is why philosophers call this the “correspondence” view of truth.
[v] If you’re a philosophy student, you might recognize the standard K = JTB formula: Knowledge = Justified True Belief.