Wednesday, May 17, 2006

What we know, why we know

Most people think first of all about what they know, not how and why they know it.

It is a characteristic of most traditionally religious people that apologetics (justifying what we know) comes before epistemology (thinking about how and why we know).

In science, epistemology takes precedence.

First we ask, "What are reliable grounds for belief? What is the role of logic? Empiricism? Skepticism? Peer review? How do we guard against cultural or innate prejudices? Which version of the truth can amass the most universal consensus among people of all geographical and cultural backgrounds?"

The motto of the first modern scientific organization, The Royal Society of 17th-century London, was "Don't take anyone's word."

Only when we have established a satisfying epistemology do we commit ourselves to belief, and then only tentatively.

People who hold religious beliefs without first having studied epistemology seldom consider, for example, that the factor that correlates most closely with their beliefs is the circumstance of their birth. The vast majority of Christians were born Christians; the vast majority of Muslims were born Muslims; and so on. Epistemology would ask, "Are the circumstances of one's birth a reliable guide to truth?"

When apologetics comes first, one can always amass a body of lore to justify any system of belief. When I was in college at the University of Notre Dame, a required course in apologetics was part of the curriculum. Our text was Frank Sheed's Theology and Sanity, the theme of which was: If you don't recognize the truths of Catholic theology, you are insane. Which meant, of course, that most of the world was insane. Fortunately, that excellent institution also provided me with a good course in epistemology and -- bless 'em -- a sound scientific education.