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The Common Framework of Human Knowledge

August 5, AD2013 4 Comments


Chana Messinger posted a lucid essay challenging the contention that science and theology, as forms of human knowledge, address different subject matter and therefore cannot be in conflict. As examples of the overlap of subject matter she cites: “Did Jesus really live? Did he really die and resurrect 3 days later?” In her judgment there is overlap and incompatibility. Thus, a choice must be made between science and theology. She rejects the contention that science and theology have different, but valid modes of human knowledge (epistemologies). Allegedly the epistemology of science is founded on empirical evidence, while the epistemology of theology is based on faith. Because there is a conflict in overlapping subject matter, one or the other epistemology must be rejected. She notes that another resolution of this conflict is for “religious people and atheists and agnostics . . . to agree on standards of truth so that they can engage within the same framework.”

Given solely the content of her essay, I would have to agree with Messinger’s rejection of theology and its epistemology of faith. However, what is key to her call for standards of truth and key to a critique of her essay is the word \”framework\”. Messinger’s essay presents two snapshots and omits the singular framework which is the singular and valid epistemology of human knowledge. Her essay merely assumes that the two snapshots must be supported by different epistemological frameworks, namely empirical evidence and faith.

Before going any further on the theme of my essay, I can’t resist pointing out that Aristotle had no faith. His conclusion that there is a being whose nature is pure act (the Greek philosophical equivalent of the Jewish theological ‘I am, who am’, Ex 3:14) cannot be lumped into theology supported by faith. Aristotle could be in error, but it is not because he depended upon faith. The existence of God is not per se a matter of faith. Aristotle’s arguments depend upon ordinary everyday human experience. That is the beauty of philosophy in contrast to science.

What Messinger left out of the picture was the individual human everyday experience of material reality which forms the basis of all human knowledge. Science is based on the instrumental measurement of the measureable properties of material things. Science ignores materials things, as material things, in favor of quantifying their measurable properties. Although we all have firsthand experience of material reality in our everyday experience, very few of us have any experience of scientific empirical evidence. Our knowledge of science is based on our acceptance of the testimony of others. This includes the foremost scientists of today. No one has the opportunity or resources to do any science from scratch. Any new datum of scientific empirical evidence depends for its meaning upon the accumulated scientific knowledge over the centuries as well as the accumulated engineering knowledge needed for the construction of the instrumentation necessary for the performance of empirical scientific measurements.

If we expect scientific discovery today to throw out as false yesterday’s scientific truth, we hold experimental science in extremely low esteem. Scientists still testify to the validity of Archimedes’ Principle and still testify to the validity of Newtonian physics within its region of applicability. We should not expect scientific truth to change. We should expect it to be cumulative and to be refined.

What are the pillars of epistemology of all human knowledge? They are the two self-evident principles. A self-evident principle is one, if denied, denies the possibility of all human knowledge and communication. The first is: Things exist. The second may be expressed in a variety of ways. Its general name is the principle of sufficient reason. I prefer such expressions as \’Everything makes sense\’ and \’Everything has an explanation.\’ In corollary, this second principle requires that truth is unique; that there cannot be conflicting truths. If there appear to be conflicting truths, we know at least one isn’t true. Importantly, we never expect what we most basically know through our everyday experience of material reality ever to change. If we did, we would be giving up the very possibility of knowing anything at all.

What we most basically know is essentially our everyday, individual experience of material reality. Anything we accept as true not based on our own experience, we accept as true based on the testimony of others. This includes science and engineering, but it does not include the fruit of these intellectual disciplines, namely technology. Technology, or if you prefer the fruit of science and engineering, is within our personal experience. It is awesome. That is why we all, to some extent, worship technology (and remotely, science). Just let the electricity go out for three hours and I am helpless. I feel totally isolated in the absence of TV, internet and phone. I may not starve, but my next meal is not a purchased frozen dinner because the microwave and stove don’t work.

In spite of my utter dependence on modern technology, my everyday experience of material reality upon which all of my knowledge depends, is not really any different from that of those ancients lacking faith such as Aristotle and those ancients possessing faith such as the Jewish prophets, who claimed to have knowledge revealed to them directly from God. In other words there is a standard of truth, a framework of human knowledge upon which all can agree, whether agnostic, atheist, pagan or believer in revelation. That standard hasn’t changed in the past 2500 years, indeed throughout human history. To recognize that standard, to recognize that all of our knowledge is based on our individual sensory awareness of material reality, it is necessary to get over the prejudice that our knowledge of the natural sciences is based on our personal experience. Our knowledge of the natural sciences is in fact based on human testimony, no matter how appropriate it is for us to accept the validity of that human testimony.

A summary of the common standard of human knowledge based on personal experience is that material things are inherently intelligible, being composed of a principle of particularity and a principle of intelligibility. The human mind has the ability intellectually to perceive the intelligible principle in its apprehension of the image presented to it by the senses. This knowledge of things is primarily in their ontological unity, i.e. in their very being. In contrast, science has for its objective the discovery of intelligible patterns in the measurements of the properties of material things. Science essentially ignores the unity of material things. Also, it is not theology or science, which requires the uniqueness of truth, but the universal epistemology based on the commonality of direct, personal experience of material reality.

The inherent intelligibility of material things is secondarily manifest in the mathematical relationships discoverable in the measurement of their quantitative properties. The universality of intelligibility also requires an explanation of the existence of material things, which are by nature indifferent to existence.

What is really strange is that often those, who prefer to ignore the fact that science is accepted as true based on human testimony and who emphasize instead its foundation on empirical evidence as recorded in journals, are those who readily anticipate abandoning today’s ‘scientific truth founded on empirical evidence’ in favor of tomorrow’s ‘scientific truth founded on empirical evidence’.

The fundamental discernment of truth is the act of an individual based upon his direct experience of material reality, not upon the experience of others. That is not to deny that the bulk of an individual’s knowledge may be based upon the coherent testimony of others.

© 2013. Bob Drury. All Rights Reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

Filed in: Faith & Science

About the Author:

Bob Drury is retired. He has been fascinated with the reasonableness of the Faith since his junior year in high school in the mid-20th century for which the religion text was entitled, "Faith and Reason". That fascination has continued throughout his education in philosophy, math and science. In his essays he hopes to share that fascination with others. Read more at his website, They Have No Wine.

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