“How do you know that?” This is one of the most common questions you will hear. And that makes sense because most of the time when we speak we claim to know something. But what does it mean to know? This problem is one of authority: By what authority do you say that?
If you’ve spent time studying philosophy, you will be familiar with the definition of “knowledge” as a true, justified belief. This definition means that there is a proposition such as “God is real.” And that you believe this proposition to be true. And that you can also show that it is true. In a proposition, we link two concepts or deny that they are linked together (God is real, God is not real). Claiming to know rather than just believe means that we can show this is indeed true.
Contemporary philosophers have objected to defining knowledge as a true, justified belief because this is not how ordinary language uses it. And it seems to some to be a difficult standard for the common person. When someone says, “I know I had eggs for breakfast,” we take them at their word and don’t require proof. Or if we hear our grandmother speak about how she knows God, we don’t ask for a rigorous theistic proof. This ambiguity is easily resolved by noting that the term knowledge used to mean different things. There are different meanings of “I know.”
Sometimes these other meanings are what can be called non-cognitive uses of the word “know.” These are uses like “familiar” or “aware.” These don’t involve a proposition. You might be familiar with a friend’s face or aware that it is daytime without forming beliefs about these. But as soon as someone asks you a question, you reply with a proposition and an attempt at proof (I see it is light outside, so it is daytime). Or, “I have a memory of eating eggs this morning, so I know I had eggs.” That is sufficient for our daily experience.
But what about understanding? Contemporary philosophers have focused less on this. And when someone claims to understand there are fewer ambiguities involved. If someone understands we expect them to be able to demonstrate this. And if we don’t understand what is important we recognize this as a shortcoming.
Consider the instance of the disciples with Jesus when he says “beware the yeast of the Pharisees.” They begin talking among themselves about how he must mean they didn’t bring enough bread. And he, aware of their discussion, says “oh you of little faith, do you still not understand.” He reminds them of the miracle of multiplying loaves. If what he meant was they hadn’t brought enough bread that isn’t a problem for Jesus. He was speaking of the teaching of the Pharisees. And this is a symbol that goes back far into Jewish thought. In the Exodus this same symbolism was used at the Passover to represent the false teaching of the Egyptians. Year after year, as the disciples celebrated this, they were reminded to beware the teaching of the worldly system. They were to hunt through their entire house and remove all of it. The disciples should have understood.
How does this help us? I am curious if we understand basic things. Do we understand that the world was created by the Word of God? (Hebrews 11:2)? This is to say that God alone is eternal and all else had a beginning. This is the first thing to know about God. If we know this we can demonstrate that it is true. We can show our understanding.
Perhaps the contemporary philosopher does not want to be held responsible to understand and so it is easier to weaken knowledge. The failure to know God has overlapped with denying the possibility of knowledge of this kind. Not understanding has become the norm. But it is time to change this by pointing out that not understanding is inexcusable. There are clear things revealed to all about God that should be understood. To the contemporary philosopher we can say: do you still not understand?
We are preparing for our March Saturday intensive on 3-12-22. We will meet for four hours (8-noon) at Arizona Christian University to study how we can understand God’s existence and the moral law.