Quartz Hill School of Theology

Chapter Three: Epistemology


Epistemology is the study of knowledge; more precisely, it deals with a very basic question that most people never even stop to consider: how do we know what we know, and how do we know that what we think we know really is the way we think it is?

Nothing seems more certain than what we witness. In courtrooms, people are called to the stand to describe what they have heard or seen, and such testimony is accepted at face value. Yet, there have been interesting studies on the less than reliable nature of eye-witness testimony.

Daniel L. Schacter, author of Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past (Basic Books) writes:

     In Hawaii, a man awakes after an apparent mugging unable to identify himself, believing that it is 1988 and Ronald Reagan is president. The news reports describe how he gradually recalled his name, Social Security number, hometown and college alma mater. But routine checks revealed that none of the information was accurate.
     Halfway around the world, families grieve for victims of the TWA Flight 800 crash. Questions from reporters bring forth a flood of vignettes confirming the reality of the deceased through the lives they had lived.
     Viewed together, these two seemingly unrelated events contrast memory's strenths and weaknesses: at times highly elusive and occasionally dead wrong, but still our most useful tool for maintaing our most strongly held beliefs about and cherished ties to the past.
     To comprehend the fragile power of human memory, we need to go beyond the myth that memory operates like a movie camera, passively recording the details of our past experience for future viewing. Try to remember the last time you died in a restaurant or your first day of kindergarten. Do you see yourself in the scene?
     For most people, their memory of that first day of kindergarten will include an image of that most important character: ourselves. This is called an observer memory. But a recent visit to a restaurat will likely be remembered from the perespective that we originally viewed the scene.
     That we have observer memories at all shows that what we remember is not a literal record of a past event -- we cannot have seen ourselves in the event at the time the record was made. But even more telling, experiments have shown that -- counterintuitively -- when people are instructed to focus on how they felt during a past episode, they tend to recall it from a field perspective. When instructed to focus on the objective circumstances of an event, they tend to report it from the observer perspective. The way we reexperience our pasts depends on our purpose in remembering it. We don't replay memories; we construct them.
     Research in neuroscience has found that memories are not stored in any single location in the brain. Instead, the eleements we need to reconstruct the past are scattered in bits and pieces in different parts of the cortex, and we must retrieve and assemble them.
     The constructive nature of memory provides clues concerning its fragility. Mounting evidence has shown that we are often vulnerable to confusing the sources of our recollections: whether we heard about an incident on the radio, read about it or learned about it from a friend.
     In everyday life, source confusions can lead to disaster, as in the case of an Australian psychologist who was accused of rape when the victim provided police with a nearly exact description of him. Fortunately, the psychologist had an airtight alibi: At the precise moment of the rape he was in the midst of a television interview Iironically, about eyewitness memory). The victim had been watching the show and had confused the source of her memory, linking the psychologist's clearly recalled appearance with that of the rapist.
     Fortunately, in the absence of unusual conditions such as amnesia, source confusions tend to occur mainly at the level of individual incidents. Our recollections of the general contours of our lives -- how happy we were as children, the characteristics of parents, siblings, classmates and friends, while not entirely free of subjective biases, are basically accurate....[Daniel L. Schacter. “Memory Serves as a Link, Not an Instant Re-play.” Los Angeles Times. Wednesday, August 21, 1996, B11.]

William Poundstone, in his book, Labyrinths of Reason, relates the following story:

     Blue sky, sunshine, deja vu glazed with dread. Something horrible is going to happen about now. It is a perfect summer day in a meadow of tall grass. J.V. is following her brothers, lagging lazily behind. A shadow falls on the ground; something rustles the grass. J.V. turns -- she cannot help it, it is what happens next -- and sees a strange man. he has no face, like a minor character in a dream. The man holds something writhing and indistinct. He asks, "How would you like to get into this bag with the snakes?"
     J.V.'s encounter is an unlikely milestone in twentieth-century thought. J.V., a fourteen year old girl, was not in a summer field but on an operating table in the Montreal Neurological Institute. Her physician, Wilder Penfield, was attempting an experimental operation to relieve her violent epileptic seizures. The operating team had removed the side of J.V.'s skull to expose the temporal lobe of the brain. In order to located the site of the attacks, Penfield probed the brain with an electrode connected to an EEG machine. The surgery was a collaboration between physician and patient. J.V. had to remain conscious throughout and help locate the site of the seizures. When Penfield touched the probe to a certain spot on J.V.'s temporal lobe, she again found herself in the field of grass...
     J.V.'s experience with the strange man had occurred seven years earlier, in Canada, in what we call the real world. She reported seeing herself as she was then, a seven year old girl. J.V. had been frightened but not physically harmed, and ran crying home to her mother. These few moments of terror were to haunt her over and over. The man with the bag of snakes entered her dreams, made them nightmares. The trauma became interwoven with her epileptic seizures. Like a madeleine, a fleeting recollection would trigger the whole memory, then an attack.
     Under the EEG probe, J.V. not merely recalled, but relived the encounter. All the richness of detail, all the lucid horror of the original experience, came back. Penfield's probe caused the brain to replay past experiences like a movie. With bits of lettered or numbered paper, Penfield kept track of the sites on the cerebral cortex associated with the recollection. Touching nearby points produced different sensations. When the probe touched one point, J.V. produced only a phantasmagoria of colored stars. [William Poundstone. Labyrinths of Reason. New York: Doubleday. 1988, pp. 3-4]

How do we know that reality is really there? You think you're sitting in a chair reading this book, but how do you know that you're not actually a disembodied brain in a laboratory somewhere, soaking in a vat of nutrients? It could be that a mad scientist has attached electrodes to your brain, and he is feeding a stream of electrical impulses that exactly simulate the experience of sitting in a chair, reading a book. How in the world could you ever disprove such a theory?

After all, everything that you experience of the real world is mediated through your senses of smell, taste, touch, hearing and seeing -- and yet those senses come to your brain by way of electrical impulses, that your brain is able to translate into a perception of reality.

There is an ancient Chinese tale about one Chuang-tzu, sometime in the fourth century BC. It seems that one day he awoke, having dreamed he was a butterfly. After a moment's reflection, he wondered if he were instead a butterfly, dreaming that he was a man. How could he be certain?

Rene Descartes was a seventeenth century philosopher, best known for his statement, "I think, therefore I am." As we saw in the brains in vats scenario, all we experience is the consequence of a stream of nerve impulses. The texture of a rock, the odor of a locker room, the taste of liver, the sight of oneself in the mirror first thing in the morning -- all are mediated, rather than direct experiences. The conventional picture of a real, external world is not the only possible explanation for what our nervous system is reporting to us. Rene Descartes realized that it is possible that there is an evil mad scientist experimenting on our disembodied brains.

Scientists place great faith in the evidence of our senses. All human beings, do. Most people are skeptical about flying saucers, not because the notion of visitors from other worlds is inherently unreasonable, but simply because no one has yet to produce unquestionable sensory evidence for their existence. Fuzzy photographs and incredible tales by eyewitnesses simply are not enough, for most of us, because we can think of other, more pedestrian explanations for the photographs and they stories of the eyewitnesses. As was said regarding the possible discovery of fossil life on Mars, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".

However, the postulation of the brains in vats scenario turns such thoughts inside out. How can you know, by the evidence of your senses, that you are not a brain in a vat? You can't! There simply is no empirical evidence possible to disprove it.

This, of course, stands as a significant blow to the idea that everything can be known scientifically. And we're not just talking about what sort of noises a Veloceraptor might actually have made. If we cannot even know for certain whether the whole of reality as we think we perceive it exists -- that our conventional view of things might be outrageously wrong -- there must be rather profound limitations on knowledge.

So is anything certain? Descartes' thoughts on an evil mad scientist was his starting point in an investigation of how we know what we know. Descartes wrote:

Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last.

Descartes wanted to address the issue of knowledge much in the same way that Euclid had addressed geometry many years earlier. All of Euclid's geometry is derived from a set of five axioms. An axiom is a statement that is simply accepted as true as a starting point, with no proof or disproof readily available. For instance, one of the axioms is that "a straight line may be drawn between any two points." All the theorems -- statements that may be proven or disproven -- of traditional geometry, are derived from the five axioms.

Thus, Descartes set out to identify a set of facts that were known with utter certainty, that must be accepted as givens, with no proof or disproof of them possible. These facts, then, could become the axioms of his natural philosophy, and all else would be constructed upon that basic, firm foundation.

To Descartes dismay, he discovered that practically any statement one could utter about the real world must bear some measure of doubt. Descartes quickly found his ground floor of natural philosophy was little more than quicksand.

"Quicksand" very neatly describes ontology, the study of what is real, since one of the first things one is apt to notice is that the accepted, everyday "facts" of the external world are all disputable. One can almost always come up with a scenario in which unquestioned beliefs can in fact be wrong.

Is Paris the capital of France?


However, it could be that our government, for reasons of its own, does not want us to know the real capital of France. They've gotten all the history and geography books, and all the maps changed to indicate that Paris is the capital, rather than what the real capital is. Year by year, teachers (for the most part, employees of the government!) teach the Paris falsehood.

Someone might claim they went to Paris and saw government buildings that would reasonably be associated with that city being the capital. However, our government is sneaky: it created a theme park simulation of Paris many years ago and regularly shuttles citizens there to add credence to the Paris fiction. People only think they went to Paris, while in reality, they never went anywhere near it.

Of course, most reasonable people would find such an outrageous conspiracy theory laughable.


Perhaps because a less outlandish explanation, a less complicated solution, would seem more likely.

Is there anything of which we can be certain? Any fundamental truths?

Some might argue for mathematics. Even if one's first grade teacher were a dupe of the massive government Paris conspiracy, it seems impossible to doubt that two and two is four. One can, in fact, picture two objects joining with two other objects to form a group of four. This deduction seems clearly true, regardless if our traditional thoughts on reality are nonsense and we're really only brains in vats.

However, there are at least two problems with arguing for even this as a core axiom. First, even mathematics might be an illusion. Just because it seems impossible to imagine two and two ever being anything other than four doesn't prove it's so. It is obvious that your brain is in a certain state when you come up with your conclusion about the sum of two and two. But what's to stop that mad scientist who's playing with your brain from deluding you about arithmetic at the same time as he's fooling you about the physical world? Maybe two and two is really seven. But by stimulating your brain in just the right way, the mad scientist has tricked you into thinking it is obviously four. Perhaps the mad scientist has a whole row of brains in vats, each one immersed in a different reality, with a different answer to the question of "what is two plus two?"

A second problem with assuming mathematics as a ground is that it is difficult, if not impossible to move from there to ever justifying any beliefs about the physical world. Certainty about mathematics does nothing to tell us what the capital of France might be.

Theories of Knowledge

Epistemology, or the study of the theory of knowledge, comprises the systematic study of the nature, sourses and validity of knowledge. It asks the question, "Do we know an independent world or merely our experience?" The possible answers can be broken down into two broad categories with regard to their degree of emphasis on the subjectivity or objectivity of knowledge.

Subjectivistic theories of knowlege answer the epistemological question thus: "No, we don't know an independent world as the cause of our ideas. We cannot get beyond our experience or ideas, and we cannot speak of a knower experiencing them."

Objectivistic theories of knowledge answer the epistemological question thus: "Yes, we do know an independent world of material objects and/or transcendent ideas." In fact, most people from a western philosophical background will answer the epistemological question affirmatively.

In a book of this nature, we can barely scratch the surface of the epistemological issues, and we are necessarily simplifying matters considerably.

Some of the basic theories of knowledge are as follows:


Denies the possibility of a complete or genuine knowledge of an objective world, i.e., of a world apart from the knower or his experience. It may doubt the possibility of knowledge of the self as well and confine knowledge to sense data and their associations, as, e.g. did Hume, who confined knowledge and reality to the "stream of perceptions: as impressions and ideas.

Some forms of skepticism:

Solipsism: I alone exist, because I cannot know a world beyond myself and my ideas. This viewpoint leads to the egocentric predicament.

Sensory skepticism: sensations are relative and unreliable because they are modifications of the knower and no more a part of the world than is the pinprick a part of the pin.

Rational skepticism: the conclusions of reason are contradictory and paradoxical.

Methodological skepticism: a systematic but tentative doubt is a prelude to genuine knowledge.


Subjectivism argues that because knowledge is confined to ideas in the mind of the knower, it is impossible to get beyond these ideas to an objective or material reality separate from and independent of the knower. Perceptions and things known are one (epistemological monism) and can only be known as ideas in the mind of the knower (epistemological idealism). Hence, the world is in the knower or belongs to the knower. Even if ideas represented an independent reality, as realism contends, one could not possibly know it. "Even if physical objects do not exist when no one is observing them, we can have no reason to suppose that they do for no one can observe them existing unobserved."


Objectivism believes that objects are independent of mind and present their properties directly to the knower through sense data. Things known and sense data are one (epistemological realism as epistemological monism).

Critical or representative realism

Critical or representative realism (epistemological dualism) ascribes a critical role to mind in the formulation of knowledge. Unlike pure objectivism, it distinguishes between sense data and the objects they represent (epistemological dualism). But the objects or things known are independent of mind or the knower in the sense that thought refers to them -- not merely to sense data or to the ideas of the knower. Ideas represent objects.

Christian Apologetics and Epistemology

There are essentially two schools of thought regarding Christian apologetics -- that is, responces to charges and criticisms launched against Christian belief, doctrine, and concepts: evidentialist and pressupositionalist.

Josh McDowel serves as a good example of the evidentialist.

Corneilus Van Til serves as a good example of the presuppositionalist.

Van Til, and other presuppositionalists would not necessarily criticise the work that Josh McDowel does. In fact, they would likely arge that it is useful and necessary. However, it does not quite go far enough in that it fails to deal with the epistemological issues. Despite all that McDowel and others do, the bottom line is that acceptance of the existence of God, the validity of the Bible and Christian redemptive theology are not the consequence of evidence, but rather, they are the result of presuppositions. That is, the existence of God is an unprovable assumption. Demonstrating or falsifying it are essentially on the order of attempting to demonstrate or falsify one of Euclid's five axioms.

For Further Reading

Thomas Gilovich. How We Know What Isn't So. New York: The Free Press, 1991
William Poundstone. Labyrinths of Reason. New York: Doubleday. 1988
Daniel L. Schacter. Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. New York: Basic Books. 1996

From the theology book by R.P. Nettelhorst, Does God Have a Long Nose?

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Website: www.theology.edu

Quartz Hill School of Theology
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Quartz Hill, CA 93536

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