Thursday, August 19, 2021

Relativism: Facts, Foolishness and Faith

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ ”

In my last post, I talked about relativism. I pointed out that there are two kinds — epistemic relativism and moral relativism — and that they need separate treatment, because they deal with very different issues. Then I started with epistemic relativism, the doubting of the existence of any facts, and showed how it is completely irrational.

A Final Question

But I left a final question open. and it goes something like this:

“Okay, maybe there is something called ‘the truth’ and maybe we concede that it’s irrational to believe otherwise; but what gives you, Immanuel Can, the right to tell anyone else what it is? Just because there is such a thing as truth does not mean that you know that truth. It might exist, but you might be just as confused as the rest of us. In fact, we’d be awfully surprised if you weren’t, since we’re all a pretty bright bunch of people and we don’t know the truth in any final or ultimate way. What makes you so special?”

The answer is “Nothing.” I’m not special, and my knowledge is not of a kind yours is not. But if I’m going to answer your question, I’m going to have to clear up some misconceptions you may have about the nature of knowing truth. Can I give it a try?


Many people think that truth is of two simple kinds. Firstly, there is scientific truth, which is certain, final and factual; and then secondly, there is religious truth, which is based on faith, and thus is wobbly, uncertain and superstitious, hardly deserving of the name truth.

In fact, many people would go even further. Critics like Richard Dawkins say that faith is directly opposed to truth. It is something people insist upon in the face of and contrary to all evidence. And if you have any evidence at all, then whatever you’re believing is not faith. So religious faith has to be nothing but superstitious willfulness; a refusal to face facts. And so we’re best to get rid of religious so-called “truth” as soon as possible, and get on with facing facts.

Two Types of Knowledge

If that were right, Dawkins would have a point. But in fact, his view is both theologically ignorant and philosophically naïve. He understands neither the way religions work nor the way science itself works when it comes to the acquisition of certainty. If he were better informed, he would know that there are two types of knowledge:

  1. Deductive Knowledge — the type we get when we have absolute certainty because some conclusion at which we have arrived fits perfectly within a perfect, closed system of knowledge. This type only happens in mathematics and formal logic.
  2. Inductive Knowledge — this is the type we get when we have probabilistic certainty. That means that we are not absolutely certain, but rather certain to a degree of probability. This can range from, say, 50/50 certainty to 99.999/100 certainty, but it is never 100% certainty.

If Dawkins were better informed, he would know that science itself only ever has Type 2 knowledge, inductive knowledge. This is because it is not the product of formally-perfect data derived from a closed mathematical system, but rather it is the product of experiments conducted in the real world. And when you conduct experiments in the real world, you’re never absolutely sure that the very next experiment, the one you didn’t do yet, won’t overturn your previous findings. That is why philosophers refer to scientific knowledge as ceteris paribus knowledge — knowledge that is true “only if all things are equal”, and if nothing new comes along.

What Science “Knows”

Science can never say anything for 100% certain. This will come as a surprise to many people, since we are often told that scientific knowledge is absolutely true, whereas other types of knowledge, and particularly religious types, are uncertain. But uncertainty is a feature of all inductive knowing. A tiny bit of uncertainty is always there, even in the most rigorous scientific studies.

Now, here it may sound like I’m denigrating science. I’m not. Science is a great thing. It produces high-percentage confidence about truth, and high-percentage confidence is way better than low-percentage confidence. But science is not the only road to high-percentage confidence. I have high percentage confidence my wife loves me; and yet I cannot prove it beyond all possible doubt. I have plenty of evidence, but not absolute certainty. Would anybody then think I’d be better off to doubt her than to believe in her? Surely not.

In fact, most things in life are like that. Great confidence is better than low confidence. 99% certainty is better than 1% certainty. Since we all live in the real world, and since all our personal knowledge comes to us as inductive, not deductive, we all think that is the right way to think about truth.

Think about your decision this morning to take an elevator or a taxi: there are elevators that crash to the ground floor, killing their occupants, and taxis that are driven by homicidal maniacs; but both are few and far between, and you were quite happy to take your chances. Life’s like that. We aren’t usually troubled that we don’t know the truth about whether our elevator will take us safely or our cab driver won’t kill us; we feel pretty good about trusting cabs and elevators, but not because we have a perfect certainty of their reliability.

Christian Knowledge

This brings us to Dawkins’ second clumsy supposition: that religious people don’t have evidence, and that faith is believing things you know aren’t true. This is utter nonsense. Of course, I can’t speak for the religions of the world, but Christianity is clearly not of that type. We have abundant good evidence for the truth of our beliefs, and while there is a little we always have to take on pure “faith”, it is never without a strong launch pad of facts. True, we may not ever have 100% certainty; there is always a tiny window, no matter how narrow, of doubt that we struggle with in affirming our faith; but that is also true of science, a thing which Dawkins always insists is the basis of truth for him.

Inductive knowing, whether scientific or Christian, has always to be judged on the strength of the evidence in its favor. To “know” rationally is to go with the high-percentage judgment over and against the low-percentage judgment.

But is Christianity a high-percentage favorite?

Come and See

My answer is the same as Philip’s: “Come and see”. Take a good, hard look at Jesus Christ himself. Is he the Messiah of Israel, the Son of God, the Way, the Truth and the Life? You will only know if you come face-to-face with him. This is something you will only do if you read his word carefully, looking intently at who he is, evaluating his words and actions carefully, praying that God will reveal him to you. If you do that, you will know — as surely and as certainly as anyone ever can, whether or not he is telling the truth about himself. And you will be forced to make your own judgment of certainty. That is the starting point.

Yet there is a deeper knowledge still: it is relational knowing. That is when you know something not just inductively, but by being in contact with a real person.

Think of my example of my wife: I know her not merely by experiment or by percentages, but by virtue of a whole life spent in her presence interacting with her. I know her more deeply and in more complex ways than I can ever know a scientific experiment. No one would be surprised at that.

“You Shall Know the Truth …”

That is precisely the type of knowing of the truth that Christianity aims at creating; and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you could. But you’d have to be willing to enter into that kind of relationship with God. It would begin by entering into the knowledge of his embodied Truth, his Son, Jesus Christ. And it would proceed throughout your lifetime.

How do we estimate the percentages of a relationship like that? That is why I feel quite certain of the truth. You could too. But it would take something more than your skepticism could offer you. You would have to pursue God personally — open-mindedly, but not empty-headedly — willing to be convinced if evidence warrants, but ready to doubt if it does not.

And doesn’t that seem fair?

No comments :

Post a Comment