What Do You Know?
In a recent piece at the Big Think website, Peter Cave, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, author of How to Think Like a Philosopher, encourages readers to ditch all their beliefs and start over. This highlights the moral dilemma of belief, which can be framed by the question of whether or not it is more virtuous to hold as many true beliefs as possible or to hold as few false beliefs as humanly feasible.
To believe the maximum true things, the most surefire method would be to believe everything. To hold the least false beliefs, the best bet would be to believe nothing. Which is better? Which is more noble? Which is the optimal quest for truth?
The reality is, we can’t change our beliefs like a we change our clothes. It’s not that simple. If someone threatened you with death if you refused to adopt the belief that you’re a seven-foot, yellow rabbit covered with purple polka dots, you wouldn’t be able to do it no matter how hard you tried. You could hop around crying aloud, “I’m a beautiful bunny” all you wanted, but you wouldn’t actually believe it. Belief doesn’t work that way.
One theory of what constitutes true knowledge is described as Justified True Belief. True knowledge is something you (1) actually believe, (2) is true, and (3) you believe it for valid reasons, or on grounds that are well justified. You could believe you have a winning lottery ticket, for example, and tonight, to everyone’s shock and awe, you could be proven right. But the truth is, your confidence was wishful thinking that turned out, to your financial benefit, to indeed be the winning lottery ticket. But apart from some serious hacking and manipulation of the system, there is no way you could truly know that in advance.
So, when it comes to knowing stuff, or believing things, it seems author Peter Cave might be right. Dump everything and start over. He points to the philosopher René Descartes who famous said, “cogito ergo sum,” which he said in Latin because that’s how smart dead guys spoke and how condescending living guys like to operate as well. It means “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes was on a mission to reduce it all down to something he couldn’t question any further, like the fact that he was thinking.
Such a deconstructive process might give Descartes an absolute starting point. Maybe. Probably not. Descartes seemed to take the “don’t believe anything” route with truth, except for the fact he was thinking about what he didn’t believe. Is that really the best way? The article at Big Think answers in the affirmative. If we were all born as blank slates with zero beliefs, that could be ideal. But what if we’re not?
Jesus’s teaching on the Holy Spirit kind of turns all this on its head. He teaches the Spirit can lead us into all truth (John 16:13). The Apostle Paul cuts through this fog by telling us all people know God exists simply by being human and living in God’s created world (Romans 1:19). King David tells us just looking out at a sunrise or up at the stars tells us of God’s glory (Psalm 19, 8). His son Solomon explains God has placed eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). The Apostle John tells followers of Jesus they can know they have eternal life through their belief in Jesus as the Son of God (1 John 5:13).
For the Christian, we can have certainty of God’s existence and his glory. Deep in our hearts, we know it’s true because God placed that belief right there between our rib cage. We can’t get away from it. To deny it, requires us to suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). To ignore it is the epitome of foolishness (Psalm 14:1). To begin with this world-forming reality, is the very way of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7).
Living in the American church surely means we’ve picked up a whole of extra stuff thrown in with our Christian beliefs that has more to do with culture than the Bible. But let me encourage you, as you pick out the things you’ve been handed over the years that don’t line up with Scripture like you’d pick bones out of a poorly prepared fish entrée, don’t think you need to ditch it all and start over. There are some things we can know for certain. These rock solid truths expressed in Scripture, confirmed by the Spirit, are a foundation for life and godliness. Run to them, not away.