How do you know?

As I’ve mentioned in past posts, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about belief paradigms and epistemology (kind of the same thing). To someone who hasn’t spent years questioning things, it probably seems like a silly thing to think about.  However, how we know what we think we know, and what we think we can know, is essential to a number of issues, including such apparently diverse topics as faith, science and even romance.

Think for a moment, those of you who are lucky enough to have someone love them. How do you know that you are loved? What is your criteria? Do you even need criteria? Is it just a feeling, or is your belief based on some rational analysis? What do you mean when you say that you love someone?

For at least 200 years we in the Western world have lived within a modern worldview. Modernism is essentially the result of the Enlightenment, when men suddenly realized that reason and logic were, well, reasonable and logical, and surpassed any other basis for knowledge. The ultimate reliance upon reason, combined with the questionable belief in progress (that is, the belief that change is ultimately for the better, and what is new is better than that which is old), is modernism in a nutshell. Modernists believe that science and technology improve the quality of life. Every problem is addressed in a reasonable fashion, and they take Aristotelian logic for granted.

Now, I love logic as much as the next guy, and sometimes even more. It’s a great tool. However, as I’ve studied a bit of history here and there, I’ve realized that not all cultures have thought the way that we do. For example, our concept of cause and effect, that doing this will always result in that, is a modern concept. Moderns see time as progressive – that is, like a time-line, moving from the past into the future. Ancient cultures tended to see time in a circular fashion, which is why the seasons took on the importance that they did.

Being modern, we presume that those illogical ancient cultures were wrong. After all, we know so much more now, and we have medicine and indoor plumbing.  We don’t worship the sun (well, some of us still do), and we don’t chant and wave dead chickens around. Instead, we do things like play the lottery or go to casinos even though we know (there’s that word again) that the odds are against us. And, we have indoor plumbing.

I’ve heard stories about modern missionaries encountering so-called primitive cultures, and being laughed at when they try to explain things in modern terms. To non-modern cultures, our cause-and-effect thinking is laughable, because they believe – and according to them, know – that things aren’t always what they seem. Quantum theories have also challenged some of that cause and effect thinking, especially when they do experiments that seem to show that the effect sometimes occurs before the cause, or that different effects exist simultaneously, up until the point they are observed.

So here’s the question: how do we know that modern logic is the best way – or even a good way – to think? The catch here is, of course, that we can’t use modern logic to comment on itself. How, then, do we know what we know?

Isn’t this fun?

Clashing Culture

My friend Mike has become involved in a new co-op blog entitled Clashing Culture. It is an interesting concept, as the authors consist of 2 people who identify themselves as atheists, and 2 people who identify as Christians. Their logo is especially catchy, featuring both the new Atheist scarlet “A” in Clashing and a cross for the “t” in Culture.

However, as I read through some of the posts and the authors’ bios, it seems that they may have more culture in common – and therefore less “clash” – than they think. Certainly the question of God is a big issue; however, in this case it may simply be a disagreement within a culture than the clash of different cultures. Before I explain what I mean, let me say that there are some very interesting posts so far, and I don’t in any way mean to speak negatively about any of the authors or the blog. If you’ll notice, I’ve even added it to my blogroll and (possibly to their dismay) will likely be a regular reader and commenter. It will indeed be interesting to see where this blog goes, and I wish them well as it is a very clever concept.

So, here’s what I mean by “culture in common:” Two of the authors, my friend Mike and Anastasia (whose own blog is Genetic Maize) are by their own admission atheists (not that they need to be ashamed of this, it’s just that I want to clarify that I’m not putting words in their mouths); both were raised Catholic, and down the road decided that there was no empirical evidence of God and the supernatural. I presume they would both be okay with the descriptor “philosophical materialist,” meaning someone who has a worldview where all that exists is the material world, which can be seen, tested, prodded, and so on. Both are rationalists and committed to the scientific approach to knowledge. Both of them are also modernists, the predominant worldview of the 20th Century Western world.

The other 2 individuals are perhaps harder to categorize (and I do apologize, I am being very modernist in my analysis, but it’s just a tool, albeit a flawed one). Thomas Robey is a well-known blogger at Hope For Pandora and a MD/PhD student at the U of Washington. He is a professing Christian of the Presbyterian persuasion, who says he believes in the “basics of Christianity” but admits having trouble with the concepts of eternal life and miracles. He is an evolutionist, not believing in either young Earth creationism or intelligent design. He states, “When it comes to interpreting the Bible, I see scientific understanding as trumping metaphorical stories – particularly in the Old Testament.”

Steve Matheson is a developmental cell biologist who blogs at Quintessence of Dust. He teaches at Calvin College, attends a Reformed church, which I presume makes him a Calvinist. From his own blog, I gather that he is an evolutionist who believes in common descent. I haven’t read enough of him to know where he stands with regard to Intelligent Design except that he’s critical of some aspects of at least some aspects of it. (I have to say that I have a hard time seeing how a Calvinist could not believe in ID!) In any event, his states that the main theme of his blog is scientific explanation.

My intent is not to misrepresent or even criticize anyone, and if I have misunderstood anyone’s position, I apologize. My point here is this: While the 4 authors are split 50/50 on belief in God, they are all modernists. That’s not such a big surprise, as most Americans are, including most evangelical Christians. In looking at the blogs of Matheson and Robey, it appears that in keeping with modernist philosophy they are rationalists, approaching things – even religion – from a scientific culture and viewpoint (if anyone, Matheson would seem the most likely to clash with the others). This now places all four authors within a smaller subculture (which at least borders on scientism), as a large percentage of Western Christians – especially among evangelicals, Pentecostals and fundamentalists – would part ways in holding science to that level of authority (which tends to result in fractured worldviews on both sides of that fence). So, it would seem that at best, what we have is a clash between sub-cultures, if not sub-sub-cultures.

Again (and I want to make this abundantly clear), it is not my intention to be critical of the Clashing Culture site or its intent. As I mentioned recently I’ve been thinking lately about epistemology and worldview so this site just prompted more thinking. Congratulations to the CC crew on a great-looking blog. I have high hopes for you, so don’t disappoint me!

The silent warrant

Sounds ominous, doesn’t it?

Every day, both at work and off, I read truth claims. Positions stated, propositions advanced, and conclusions asserted. Whether it’s a legal analysis, a theological discussion or the evolution-ID debate, there are truth claims being made. It’s one thing to express a hunch, another to lay claim to truth.

In the art of persuasion, which is what much of writing is all about, the key is in the warrant, which connects evidence with the claim being made. In Stephen Toulmin’s argument model, the warrant answers the question ‘Why does this mean that your claim is true?’

This about this for a moment; how often have you read a blog post or news article and thought, “why should I believe this?” It’s probably not that often, even though I’d be willing to bet that many such truth claims are warrant-deficient. For example, there’s one blog that I read occasionally (which shall remain nameless) where the very well-known blogger makes assertion after assertion, sometimes based on information and sometimes not, with nary a warrant to be found. There’s ridicule, there’s hyperbole, there’s hot air, and sometimes there are tons of supposedly relevant facts … but an actual justification for his position? Why should he? He’s famous! and he’s right! You should just believe him!

A point that I’ve tried to make on a few occasions is that we all are to some extent presuppositional. That is, we operate within various worldviews (aka paradigms or meta-narratives) and see things through our own set of filters and lenses and from our own perspectives. For example, most of us reading this would be considered modernists. We can’t help it; we were raised in a culture permeated with modernism, so that we don’t even recognize it. We think of logic as your basic “if a and b, then c” syllogism, even without thinking about it. We think the automobile is better than a horse & buggy, and that a new car is better than an old one (unless it’s a classic). We don’t even consider that there are people from other times and other places who would think we were nuts for thinking this way. We’re modernists.

Now, within the modernist worldview there are American conservatives and American Liberals, both of which are conservative by some European standards. Then there are liberals who are atheists, and liberals who are Christians. There are liberal atheists who like spicy Mexican food and watching I Love Lucy reruns because that’s what they were raised with, and liberal atheists who don’t like spicy food and prefer Leave it to Beaver. Get it? Worldviews and heritage and just plain preference affects how we look at things – even old TV shows.

In Elements of Argument, Annette Rottenberg & Donna Winchell have a slightly different take on the warrant:

Certain assumptions underlie all the claims we make. In argument, the term warrant is used for such an assumption, a belief or principle that is taken for granted. It may be stated or unstated. If the arguer believes that the audience shares his assumption, he may feel it unnecessary to express it. But if he thinks that the audience is doubtful or hostile, he may decide to state the assumption to emphasize its importance or argue for its validity. The warrant, stated or not, allows the reader to make the same connection between the support and the claim that the author does.

In explaining further how the warrant works, they explain that the one being persuaded may accept the evidence, but unless he or she also accepts the warrant, the claim is not believed. Now, even an unwritten warrant for an argument may be fairly specific to the claim being made (such as “you can trust Pew Research polls”) or perhaps more commonly, they can be a very broad assumption or belief that we take for granted that can apply to many claims.

So, the warrant is usually there, even when you don’t see it. I have a hunch that often, the warrants are kept silent on purpose; and various methods – including the use of emotion-charged words or ideas – are used to get people to jump to conclusions without realizing that the silent warrants or presuppositions are flawed (or at least so contrary to the anticipated reader’s position that the writer knows the warrant just wouldn’t fly).

It is important, then, that we are aware of a writer’s presuppositions, as it will have much to say about the idea being argued. If I stumble across a theological article challenging some established position, I first check out the author: What’s his background? Is he from a tradition that would color his thinking or even impact the meanings of the words being used? Does he have a personal history with the issue that would impact his thinking? Realizing these things will at least provide a clue to his presuppositions, while it may not invalidate his argument.

I try to be as overt as possible with my warrants or presuppositions, especially if they are not universally accepted. I am a Theist. Furthermore, I am a Theist who has subjective knowledge of God, not just objective. I believe in ways of knowing that fall outside of the scientific method. Now, I can’t say whether I believe in God because of experience, or if I believe that knowledge of God is possible because I have knowledge of God. Here, I can’t tell my a priori from my a posteriori, but it’s not important. What is important is that, for example, claims based on presuppositions of philosophical materialism don’t hold water for me, because of my presuppositions (which are in turn based on subjective knowledge which is not accepted by materialists).

See the problem?

So, beware the silent warrants. Find them, analyze them, and challenge them. They may be actually of more importance than the particular point being argued.