knowledge from and to faith

The advance of knowledge makes it less and less possible for the whole of what is known to be known by any one person, making each person more and more dependent on the trust he puts in the testimony of another whom he sees as in a position to know what they are talking about. Such trust is basic sense of faith even as Christianity uses it.

Knowledge does not have to advance very far before it becomes simply impossible for even the very intelligent to know the whole of the field he is talking about, or even a sub-field of a sub-field. This occurs even though the sub-field can only exist on the basis of the very knowledge that is impossible for the individual to have. At best, one might know a sub-field but have to take its basis on trust; or know the most general field and have to take its further subdevelopments on trust. Furthermore, the dependence of the general and sub-field runs both ways: for the sub-field not only has its basis in the general but the very concrete meaning of the general can only be made clear in the sub-field.

Thus, in its concrete existence science is not the name of something anyone knows but a network of testimony held together by relationships of trust and confidence in those deemed in a position to know. The purpose of this network of trust is to make possible what small subset of knowledge we can actually have, along with what benefits we might draw from it. And so we have a sense in which all knowledge is both based on and tends to faith, since it both requires trust in testimony and tends toward requiring such trust.

This account of knowledge contradicts most accounts of science from the Greeks to the Enlightenment. For all their many differences, the dream of all science in a single human mind was a shared ideal from Plato to Thomas to Descartes to the 19th Century Cursus and Systema manual writers. The dream only died very recently – though not all of us have recognized it, and fewer of us have come to terms with what it means. I certainly haven’t.



  1. semioticanimal said,

    May 26, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    What does it mean and why is it difficult to come to terms with?

    • May 26, 2015 at 2:07 pm

      In general, because the death of any dream that lasted almost two millennia and which was central and formative to so many different traditions is difficult to come to terms with. More particularly, though:

      1.) It’s become hard to see what it would mean to be liberally educated, or to be a philosopher in the classical sense. We’ve always known it was hard to accomplish this (see book VI of Republic) but it’s now not even clear what the final result would look like. liberal education would clearly include physics, logic, and math, but a level of education sufficing to make one adept at these fields would probably take eight or nine years of formal schooling.

      2.) We don’t know what the whole of a science would look like. There is no whole account of physics, mathematics, logic, metaphysics, etc. that starts from some set of axioms and then rolls out all the rest from there. What we have is not a single argument but a set of arguments whose connections are something between unclear and unknowable in principle.

      3.) It’s not clear what it means to have an ideal of human knowledge that is nevertheless unattainable to any human. If this were knowledge as such we were talking about, we could speak of it being fulfilled in some transcendent mind, but we have a different problem.

      4.) The ideal of education has been for quite some time the educated individual. What else could it be? But it seems like we need to make more room for the ideal being a network of testimony and trust relationships. This introduces an inescapable moral dimension into education that was not there before. We can’t just fantasize that we’ll one day be able to just “see it all for ourselves”, we have to see ourselves in an essentially human network even in order to have science (which is, of all things, most of all seen as impersonal).

  2. Dylan said,

    May 26, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    Great post.

    This reminded me of Fides et Ratio:

    “[T]here are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification. Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief.”

    – JPII, Fides et Ratio, 31,

    I found this to be one of the most memorable and profound points in that encyclical. I especially like how he relates this to the martyrs as witnesses to a truth that we believe, so to speak, on the weight of their expertise, not (yet) having obtained it ourselves.

    There may also be something here of the collective epistemology explored by some late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russians. The concept of sobornost especially comes to mind, though that has—or at least originally had—an ecclesiological dimension.

    Unrelated, I’m also reminded of this:

  3. thenyssan said,

    May 26, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    Perhaps the way we have tended to use “faith” and “reason” to carve up reality has things exactly backwards? Now we see in a mirror something something.

    • May 26, 2015 at 6:33 pm

      Right. What we called “science” from Plato to c. 1950 was an impossible idealization, which requires a very robust eschatology if it is going to be in any way realized. Science and faith are both just testimony networks, the only difference being whether or not God is included among those giving testimony.

  4. May 26, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    I don’t think it has ever been possible for the whole of what is known to be known by one person; and I’m not convinced anyone prior to Descartes actually held such a view.

    • May 27, 2015 at 10:43 am

      I’ve gone through about ten different drafts and thoughts of how to respond to your claim, and over the various redactions it’s become clear that I’m speaking from the standpoint of someone who is charged with designing and implementing curricula. When I was speaking of the one who would have all sciences I was thinking of the liberally educated person. When we try to sit down and figure out what an educated person should look like, we don’t have a blueprint of how we will incorporate the various fields of knowledge even in a very general sense, or even how we will understand the various parts of the sciences themselves. I’m starting to think that the problem is simply unable to be solved due to the magnitude of the parts we would have to synthesize and the confusion in synthesizing any of the parts themselves.

      I’ve studied at schools that think that Aristotle and the Greeks still provide this skeletal structure of thought and the liberally educated person, but this strikes me now as either wrong or as describing a curriculum that no one has yet come up with. I’ve been debating and looking for a synthesis of ancient and contemporary math for almost twenty years now, or even a blueprint of what one would look like, and I’ve come up with nothing. Ditto for the physical sciences. As far as I can tell, even a relatively straightforward task like giving algebra a systematic structure that is definite enough to work with has not yet happened. Almost all the subjects in math and science appear to be introduced more or less at random. At even the most general level, the basic distinction between sciences and humanities seems more like sloganeering than real insight into education since it leads to either a third of the curriculum being shoehorned into the distinction (what is math? language? Social Studies? Sex ed? Is Theology a humanity, really?) or else being completely occluded by it for no clear reason (why don’t we study law or music?) For whatever reason, no one asks why we should study science and no one knows why we study humanities – and either way, nobody quite knows why they are doing what their doing. Some of this is just a confusion that might be worked out in time, but I think there is a deeper problem with the sheer magnitude of any of the parts we would need to incorporate into the final product.

      True, even Socrates complained that there was no agreed curriculum in Athens, but for whatever reason the Greek Academy, Medieval University, renaissance Humanist and 19th Century German/English universities had at least the blueprint of what the curriculum of an educated person would look like, and how the parts of that curriculum would hang together of themselves (I think of the Triv-quadriv; the humanist stress on Latin and Greek poets and politicians and the training of pastors, etc.) I know this simplifies real disputes in each of these eras, but I think the basic point stands.

      • May 27, 2015 at 10:25 pm

        That makes sense. I worry, though, that subalternation of sciences is essential to any curriculum, already. The real problem that you seem to identifying here seems to me to go the opposite direction of what you suggest in the post: we don’t actually have a sense of how subalternations work in our current state, and thus we don’t have a sense of how our networks of trust should work at all. The medieval schoolman, on the other hand, would have known exactly how his networks of trust should work. We don’t, despite the fact that we find ourselves constantly having to engage in this kind of trust. (Although, again, this does not seem to me due to the advance of knowledge but to the breakdown of a sense of how to subalternate sciences.) The result is, unsurprisingly, a cacophony, an Age of Ten Myriad Schools of Thought.

  5. John Lamont said,

    May 27, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    I wrote a book that discusses this (Divine Faith, Ashgate, 2004) – but since it is a book I can’t summarise its claims in a comment.

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