Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part II: “How do we Know?”

I. According to our present culture, doubt is somehow believed to be more honest than faith, but Newbigin thinks this is nonsense. Both faith and doubt have a role — both are necessary — but faith is primary. You cannot begin to know anything without an initial act of faith.

  • Doubt is only possible on the basis of something that we believe. Why do you doubt it? Because I believe this, that, or the other… Doubt depends on faith, in other words.
  • In every society, there is a plausibility structure, and a set of normal beliefs that nobody questions. If something is proposed that seems to contradict this, it is doubted.
  • We tend to accept what everybody else believes. Anything that is different, we doubt. Doubt is a profoundly conservative move, therefore, Newbigin argues.

II. In our culture, we have separated science out as an equivalent to knowledge, as that which gives us objective facts, and as if everything else is subjective. But Newbigin points out how the idea of a purely objective knowledge is an illusion.

  1. The idea that there is a kind of knowledge that is not dependent on our thinking is a powerful and dominant notion in our culture, but it is absurd. Everything is affected by our subjectivity. There is a subject shaped by the culture to which he or she belongs.
  2. Knowing is not something that happens to us. It is a skill that we have learn! It is an achievement.
  3. We only learn by apprenticeship to a tradition — a tradition of knowing. First of all, we learn through the tradition of our language. No knowing is possible without that This is just as true with science, which is profoundly traditional! No one is accepted who has not had years of apprenticeship.

III. People have always wanted to know how we can be certain that the things that we know are really so

  • The Quest for Certainty: The famous French philosopher Descartes led us astray! He lived in a time of skepticism. He was convinced that we could have certainty, not just belief. And this has guided science ever since.
    o He thought he could start with something that he could not doubt — i.e., his own existence. With the precision and certainty of mathematics, he built from there and developed the critical principle, namely, that all claims to knowledge must be tested by those two criteria (his existence and calculations), and anything that falls short of certainty in that sense is not knowledge but belief.
    o Locke says that belief is a persuasion that falls short of knowledge. So when we say we “believe,” we are saying “we don’t know.”
    o Descartes’ critical method was bound eventually to destroy itself. it has to subject to its own critical principle.
  • The Quest for Certainty Negated: Increasing skepticism followed Descartes, via Hume and Kant, and both concluded that we cannot know ultimate reality. But of course, Newbigin points out, how one knows this we cannot know!
  • The Whole Quest Itself Called into Question: Nietzsche saw then, finally, with terrible clarity, that this aforementioned sequence of thoughts must inevitably lead us to a place where we cannot speak of truth and falsehood or good and evil. Any claim to know the truth is the exercise of dominance, and the only thing that is certain is the will (to power).

IV. Certainty in Crisis: So we have the relapse into what is now called postmodernism — into the kind of belief where people say “it may be true for you, but it is not true for me.” And even though in the realm of science there is still a great deal of trust in objective truth, that too has been increasingly eroded.

  • We have now reached the point in the so-called deconstruction movement, in literary criticism, where the idea that any text has any meaning of itself, is demolished. The ultimately development of this is to say that words are purely cultural constructs, not corresponding themselves to any reality. We are merely expressing subjective feelings when we say things like “I believe in God.”
  • Newbigin Responds: Now, of course it is true, that all truth claims are cultural products. English is just one of the languages of the world! But if we ask, what is the relationship between words and a corresponding reality, it’s obvious that the relation cannot be a matter of words. It has to be something different. This is where the profound mistake of Descartes becomes clear.
    o Descartes conceived the human mind as a disembodied “I”, as though not part of the world, looking at the world from the outside — able to take an objective view, not shaped by any personal viewpoint/interests. But we know that any knowing we have of anything arises out of our bodily engagement with the actual world! And we test our beliefs about what is the case by acting on them. (e.g., the way babies learn about objects in the world, etc.)

We are part of this world which we seek to know. The vast delusion which we have suffered since Descartes, is that we have a kind of spectators privilege, in a kind of non-committed way. This would be a “God’s-eye view” of the world, which of course we do not have.

V. But now that the subjectivity of our knowing has been emphasized, how can we know that we have any reliable relationship to the truth, making contact with reality?

  1. the first token of reality will be a sense of meaning. When a scientist has been struggling to make sense of random data and suddenly sees a coherent, beautiful picture… this indicates meaning.
  2. then he or she publishes it to invite his peers to consider it.
  3. And then if it is true, it will lead on to further truth. Any true discovery leads the searcher/scientists onto further discoveries. There will of course be some searches lead nowhere.

This is a dynamic picture of knowledge that contrasts with Descartes view. Descartes had a view of truth without doubts or uncertainties — a static picture of truth. A working scientist gives you a different picture of truth though, because he knows that there is more to be discovered, leading on into further reaches of reality. This is epistemology (the study of how we know what we know) from “below,” not from “above.”

VI. We can know things, but we can also know persons. Some languages have a distinction between these kind of knowledges! not English, unfortunately. The kind of knowledge of things is one-way in which we are in control. Knowing a person, however, is the kind where the object is a subject!

  • I am not in full control of this kind of knowledge. I must be willing to be questioned myself, to put my trust in that person, to open myself up. Faith here is being used in a second sense — which is not the same thing as being used in a separate sense! Faith has an affective sense, of showing love, for example, and receiving it.

How are these two modes of knowing related to each other?

  • Not separate, but interdependent — still distinct though! They represent different logical levels. A machine, for example, depends on the correct mechanical structure and the quality of its material (physics, chemistry, and engineering design). But if we come across a new machine and examine all of this, we won’t necessarily be able to determine its purpose! The physical provides the conditions that enable the machine to work, but the function of it is a different kind of question and logic. It’s a distinction between the “how” and the “why.”
  • There is a hierarchy of logical levels in all our knowing. If we are looking at the whole world of persons, there is a level above the physical, chemical, biological and mechanical. “Reductionism” says no to this though. But Newbigin is calling for an alternative to reducing knowledge down to the level of the physical, chemical, etc.

Plato asked, what does it mean to seek/love for truth? Is truth something we know or don’t know? If we know it, why do we seek for it? If we don’t know, how would we recognize when we found it?

  • In the passion to find meaning in seemingly meaningless things. Is it not possible that this passion is a response to something that calls out that passion? We are drawn forward by the intuition by something that is to be found, a hidden meaning, beauty, coherence in things.

VII. Conclusion: This brings us to the limits of philosophy. Because if it is true, as the Christian faith affirms, that the ultimate logical level upon which things are to be understood, is none of these hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, mechanics, etc.), but the personal, and that our whole existence can only be understood if we take this person level into account — if that were true, then everything would depend upon whether the one who is the person whose purpose governs all things has revealed that purpose to us. And that is what the gospel affirms.

  • But the Gospel affirms this not in the way that the Muslims do — that God has simply dictated the truth to us — but through a person, an action in which truth and grace go together, truth and love are one. Christians affirm that God’s self-revelation of himself is exactly what this argument would suggestion, namely, something which draws us to himself. If that is true, then we have to say that this is the secret of our knowing and our being, such that one is not separate from the other!
  • That which draws forth the whole process of evolution is not mere chance, as Darwin though, but is a response to the one who calls all creation to its proper fulfillment. So our heuristic passion is a response to God’s calling to us who alone in creation are conscious of God’s calling to seek the truth and seek it in him. And that would mean, in the end of the day, contrary to Descartes, we are not dealing with disembodied ideas. The truth can only be known through incarnation, through the actual involvement and coming of God in history, to the presence of the one who is in history who calls us with the words “follow me.” When we accept this calling, we are not then people who know everything, but we know that we are on the way — that we have the clue that will lead us into the fullness of the truth.

There will be those who say this is irrational, a leap of faith, etc., but the illusion that underlies that criticism is this:

  • If everything in this world can be understood by the hard sciences, then the way to know would simply be by observation and reason. But if the ultimate reality is personal and is grounded in the eternal love of the Triune God, then the only way we can come to know the truth is by a personal response to a personal calling.
  • “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”: That means we have to remind our contemporaries that here is no spectator’s gallery. An objective standpoint is not available. We are called upon to a person commitment to understanding, to knowing — the limits of natural theology are at this point. It is only because we know God has revealed himself in the grace and flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ — his incarnation, life, death and resurrection — that we can recognize the illusion of the whole Cartesian project, accept our calling to the one incarnate Lord, and to know that that is the way to the truth.

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