Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Knowledge: Problems and Varieties

I am an agnostic. My dad is a Christian. A few months ago, we decided to read together New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright's magmun opus, a series of six books entitled "Christian Origins and the Question of God" and discuss each chapter of each book as we read them. The first book is entitled The New Testament and the People of God. As I read this difficult book, I am taking notes, and creating a book report on each chapter, which I will post on my blog. Here's my report on the second chapter of the first book.

You can read my report on Chapter 1 HERE.

Chapter 2: Knowledge: Problems and Varieties
 
In this chapter, Wright examines theories of knowledge, also called epistemology, which ask the question: How do we know what we know?  Before getting into the specifics of the literature, history, and theology of the New Testament, he must first discuss how we can even suggest that knowledge of such things is even possible, or as he puts it:  "It is therefore much the best thing to deal with the wider issues first before plunging into the specifics of particular questions."

He gives a brief overview of a few schools of epistemology, beginning with positivism"The positivist believes that there are some things at least about which we can have definite knowledge...Though this view has been largely abandoned by philosophers...one still meets some scientists (and many non-scientists who talk about science) who believe that what science does is simply to look objectively at things that are there."

He then discusses phenomenalism, which asserts that "the only thing of which I can really be sure when confronted by things in (what seems to be) the eternal world are my own sense-data."

He briefly mentions, then dismisses, what he calls "naive realism", "which does not admit of verification, and becomes belief, not knowledge."

Wright then proposes his own brand of epistemology, which he calls Critical Realism: "Over and against both of these positions, I propose a from of critical realism.  This is a way of describing the process of 'knowing' that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence realism), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence critical)...our assertions about 'reality' acknowledge their own provisionality."

[Discussion question: Posivitism and Phenomenalism have lengthy philosophical traditions, as do other forms of epistemology.  What kind of a history does "Critical Realism" have?  If Wright, not being a philosopher, merely invented it, we must (by his own criteria of knowledge) be skeptical.  As Wright himself admits: "Proposing a new epistemology is, in fact, intrinsically difficult."]

A "Critical Realist" acknowledges that, when it comes to knowing things, "there is no such thing as a god's eye view...that I see things 'though the lenses of my worldview...that some things which I see in a particular way I see thus because I belong to a particular human community....that there is no such thing as the 'neutral' or 'objective' observer; equally, there is no such thing as the detached observer."

A major component of "Critical realism are stories and worldviews, which "form the grid through which humans, both individually and social groupings, perceive all of reality...one of the key features of all worldviews is the element of story...Story, I shall argue, can help us in the first instance to articulate a critical-realist epistemology, and can then be put to wider uses in the study of literature history, and theology."  This view "sees knowledge of particulars as taking place within the larger framework of the story or worldview which forms the basis of the observer's way of being in relation to the world."

According to Wright, "Stories are one of the most basic modes of human life...[which] can be seen as grounded in and constituted by the implicit or explicit stories which humans tell themselves and one another...[stories are] one key element within the total construction of a worldview...Human beings tell stories because this is how we perceive, and indeed relate, to the world."

Stories embody worldviews and this is clearly seen in "the foundation myths told by the so-called primitive native peoples of the world to explain the origins of the world in general and their race in particular."  Story was key in the formation of the Jewish worldview, in the Hebrew Scriptures (What Christians call "The Old Testament").
 
Even in the modern age, stories continue to function as worldview-carriers, for instance in the use of narrative in political debate: "Stories of how things were in the Depression are used to fuel sympathy for the oppressed working class; stories of terrorism are used to justify present right-wing regimes."

"Stories can," according to Wright, "embody or reinforce, or perhaps modify, the worldviews to which they relate...Stories are actually peculiarly good at modifying or subverting other stories and their worldviews...Tell someone to do something, and you change their life--for a day; tell someone a story, and you change their life."

The early church told stories.  They were "a certain group of first-century Jews, who held, and wished to commend, one particular variant of the first-century Jewish worldview wished to say: the hope which characterizes our worldview has been fulfilled in these events.  And they chose to say this in the most natural (and obviously Jewish) way, by telling the story, in order thereby to subvert other ways of looking at the world...They told stories which embodied, exemplified, and so reinforced their worldview, and in so doing threw down a particularly subversive challenge to alternate worldviews."

For Wright, story is a key element of his epistemology.  As he explains, "there is no such thing as 'neutral' or 'objective' proof, only the claim that the story we are now telling about the world as a whole makes more sense, in its outline and detail, than other potential or actual stories that may be on offer...When, therefore, we perceive external reality, we do so within a prior framework."
 
Concluding thought:

"It is impossible to find solid ('objective') ground to stand on: such a thing does not exist.  All epistemologies have to be, themselves, argued as hypotheses: they are tested not by their coherence with a fixed point agreed in advance, but (like other hypotheses, in fact) by their simplicity and their ability to make sense of a wide scope of experiences and events.  I have told a story about how humans know things.  We must now exemplify and, I hope, appropriately verify this story, by seeing ways in which it can make sense of how humans know particular sorts of things, namely literature, history, and theology."
 
This is German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who formulated a theory of phenomenalism.
 

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