Posted by: dacalu | 14 June 2011


I’ve been thinking a great deal about knowledge lately. I find that classical treatments leave me a bit perplexed and unsatisfied.  So here’s my basic attempt to deal with the rather tricky problem of knowing things.

1) An external reality exists.  I am a realist; I believe in a universal external to myself and existing independent of my observation.  Neither logic nor science forces this conclusion, nonetheless, it’s pragmatically necessary to get by in the world.  When the refrigerator door closes, the light does go off, but more than that, the contents continue to exist.  Mold even occurs.

2) A model of reality exists in my mind.  Slightly trickier: I, having a concept of I, imagine a thing “mind” which holds ideas.  Neuroscience and Buddhism both make compelling arguments that such a discrete entity does not in fact occur.  It’s only interactions and the illusion of separateness.  Nonetheless, pragmatically, I can’t think of thinking any other way.  I recognize that “I” possess some ideas about reality that other people do not possess.  I think of those ideas as residing in my mind – or more accurately I think of “my” “mind” as that collection of ideas that define the way I see the world.  In either case, we have a localized center of ideas about the external world.

3) The world and the model of the world need not agree.  Indeed, I find that they frequently don’t agree.  One of the things I love most about (good) science and (good) theology is that they force me to bring the model closer to reality.  As Max Weber has said, “The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient’ facts”  Good theology and good science should be useful teachers.

We have come to think of “facts” as true propositions about the world.  Inconvenient facts are those realities that don’t fit our current model.  All fine and good.  I like the system.

Alas, it has a fatal flaw.  No third party observer exists to tell us whether or not our private (or even corporate) model corresponds to reality.  (Or, if there is, He’s annoyingly tight-lipped.)  What we have is rather a series of models in our heads that we hope come closer and closer to reality as we learn more.  We can compare our models against experience and other people’s models, but don’t have any way of objectively verifying whether our thoughts represent a true correspondence with reality.

But wait, doesn’t science do this for us?  Isn’t science a way of giving us certainty that our model matches reality.  Sadly no.  Science is really useful.  I like it as a way – often the fullest and best way – of matching model to reality; if, however, science is a way of matching model to reality, it cannot be an independent way of verifying facts.  Science is one particular epistemology.  That means that science, in producing knowledge (the correspondence of model to reality) cannot judge scientific knowledge as a better quality of knowledge than any other (say theological knowledge or intuitive knowledge).  [Note, I am not saying such judgements cannot be made, only that science qua science, science in so far as it is science, cannot do that work.]

I cannot recall how many scientists have told me that knowledge is the goal of science.  I cannot recall how many non-scientists, being less careful in their terminology, have told me that truth is the goal of science.  This is fine and good, but all ways of knowing, all means of linking model and world, have true knowledge as a goal.  That would be the point of knowledge.  The question becomes, how does science link model and world? What criteria does it use for swapping out one model and replacing it with another?  We cannot say that it is truth or reality because those are precisely what is at stake.

Scientists, in creating and replacing models value consistency, elegance, and simplicity in their models, but the gold standard, at least for the last few hundred years, has been power.  Science favors explanations that lead to the ability to predict and control events.  Whenever consistency, elegance, and simplicity try to compete with power, power wins.  Newtonian mechanics is far more elegant and simple than Einsteinian and quantum mechanics, but those do better work.  Admittedly, we entertained them before we’d proven their efficacy, but victory could not be declared until we were able to do work with them.  Likewise, many astronomers were sympathetic to Copernicus’ model of the universe (with the Sun in the middle), but it took Galileo’s observations to show that the Copernican system better predicted observations than the Ptolemaic model (with Earth in the middle).

One of the most common and most convincing arguments for science has been it’s consistent ability to provide models that allow us to control our environment – bridges, vaccines, space travel, flush toilets.  I genuinely believe that the philosophy of science rests on a foundation of pragmatism – what works.  This is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is something to be aware of, particularly when we start using science to explain ethics (as some evolutionists, neurologists, and biochemists are starting to do).  Science has a built in ethic of pragmatism that may, perhaps must, color any ethical conclusions one might wish to draw – such as “people are inherently selfish,” “people naturally seek power and control,” and “morals are a means to an end.”

That’s probably enough for one post, but I want to draw out an additional conclusion.  If the mind holds a model of the universe, then there must be a mind.  A number of physical (material, genetic, or neurological) reductionists have sought to convince us that there is no such thing as mind, or at the very least that the mind is simply an epiphenomenon (by-product) of physical processes.  They make very convincing arguments.  As modern biology progresses, we see more and more how closely tied thoughts and emotions are to the physical state of our brains.  And yet.

If we collapse the real world into the physical world and collapse the mind into the physical world, we no longer have two things.  The model of the universe has no independent existence.  Not only is there no privileged perspective from which to judge our model against reality, there is no individual perspective separate from reality. “Knowledge” goes away, leaving only partial pragmatic parallels between the larger system and the sub-system.  No “mind” exists whose properties may be distinguished from physical states.  To “know” I am alive or dead differs in no substantial way from to have my arm up or down.  Two states can be described, but one cannot prefer one to the other.  “True” knowledge cannot be separated from “false” because both simply represent a correspondence between system and subsystem.

Some may object that the subsystem should accurately reflect the system.  My response: why?  What does accurate mean?  Should the model facilitate action such that goals match up with outcomes?  A very practical approach, but one that still begs the question, why?  Not only does it not solve the initial problem, it sneaks in a pragmatic value judgement while pretending to avoid that very thing.  Physical reductionism does not solve the problem of knowledge; it makes it incomprehensible.  We’re going to need some separate place from which to assess the physical universe, if we wish to do assessment.  I know nothing, unless there is an “I” to know.


Christians can avoid this problem by positing a privileged knower – God.  We still need to be extremely careful in our concepts about “true belief.”  Are we justified in believing something because the Bible says we should?  Let’s take that apart.  We have a model in our head which can be influenced by the Bible.  The question remains, how?  To presume perfect transmission of model from book to mind seems excessive.  Entropy alone should convince us that perfect transmission is impossible.  Beyond that, we know that the Biblical model does not hit our minds like a blank canvas.  We must incorporate Biblical knowledge into an existing worldview, an existing model.  This holds equally for dogma passed on by word of mouth and charismatic authority.

Each of us holds a model in our head.  Religious authorities are responsible for helping us construct that model, but they cannot do it for us.  Thus Christians need be just as skeptical of Christian knowledge as scientists are of scientific knowledge, and authorities in both realms must practice caution.  The model people set up in response to your comments will not be the model you have.  Only with great care, diligence, and hope, can we hope to bring others to share our perspective.



  1. and I am curious why do we want to bring others to share our perspective. Is that a bid for power? Another schism in a fragmented otherworldly view. And how do they share it or even know if they share it? just a perverse thought, Thanks Lucas, Hiram

  2. I really like this post on knowledge, Lucas. As you may recall, I appreciate Charles Sanders Peirce’s approach to these questions, which is very similar to yours regarding a realist and pragmatic engagement with the world. I wonder what you think about Peirce’s emphasis on the practical consequences of ideas as a way to test whether our model “matches” the world. While that doesn’t solve the problem of having no objective third party to adjudicate conflicting models, at least it gives us a method for spotting big fat errors (I can refuse to believe in gravity all I want in my model but stepping off a cliff would tend to call my model into question — that’s an easy example and I know it gets much harder for more subtle issues). Also: Does God have a model in God’s head, as it were? And does that provide any link to our modeling of reality given the whole imago dei claim? I don’t know (!).

    • Thank you so much for the great comments, Jay. It’s been a while since I looked at Pierce, but it sounds as though I should look again. I am a pragmatist toward the end of right relationships with God, neighbor, and self. Often, that will mean that different theologies are recommended for different people.

  3. […] from claiming that they are fully scientific in their reasoning (See my post from 2011 called Knowledge).  I cannot support any definition of science as the pursuit of truth or knowledge.  I’m […]

  4. […] what knowledge means.  I’ve spoken elsewhere about the intricacies of a formal definition (here and here). None of that is necessary for my current argument, however.  For now it is sufficient […]

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