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Modern Knowledge

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 14, 2008

In these modern times, knowing things is paradoxically very difficult. Whether in the university, on the street or within families, we find ourselves divided between absolutists and relativists, conservatives and liberals, believers and atheists, creationists and evolutionists, poets and scientists. Indeed, the world is invariably divided into two kinds of people on every subject imaginable—all, more or less, depending upon what we think we “know”. Whenever we assert a particular proposition (say an interpretation of history, a political conclusion, or even a statement about the measurable material world, such as global warming), we find a hundred facts immediately adduced in favor of a contrary position. We can look up support for any idea at all on the Internet, in mere seconds. Just when we think it has never been easier to know the truth about anything, we become hopelessly embroiled in a sea of contradictions about everything.

This is frustrating, of course, and it is also potentially damaging in many ways, but there is both good and bad news to report. The good news is that it is not, in fact, any more difficult to know things now than in prior ages. The bad news is that this is so because it has never been easy to know anything. The modern world has certainly knocked enough settled claims on their proverbial ears to realize that what people thought they knew in the past may not have been true knowledge at all. But the increasing frustration and relativism characteristic of our own era also suggests that we are beginning to realize that being modern is not the key to being right. In fact, we humans find ourselves confused in every time and place, whether we know we are confused or not.

The Importance of Truth

As I have had occasion to say before, truth is the mind’s conformity with reality. But reality is hard to grasp simply and solely because it is so enormously simple that finite minds can focus only on small aspects of it at any one time, creating an astonishing complexity of partial understandings, each of which may be marred by this or that error, making the innumerable parts even more difficult to fit together into a coherent whole. Nonetheless truth is important. Not only is the understanding of reality a good in itself, but it is the sine qua non of other goods. If we understand reality rightly, we at least have a chance at success in anything. If we don’t, the only possibility is ultimate failure at everything. For this reason, the right attitude toward knowledge is, first, a great respect for truth and its importance and, second, a profound appreciation for how hard it is to come by, and how little of it we possess.

Because truth is important, we do well to understand the various means by which it can be known. There are three general possibilities: revelation, deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning. Unlike earlier periods in our own Western tradition, we moderns have experienced a sort of crisis of first principles. From the early modern period on, three factors—the division of Christianity, the discovery of new cultures based on very different world views, and the rapid expansion of material knowledge with its attendant advances in technology and prosperity—have combined to create a peculiarly modern prejudice in favor of inductive reasoning. The prejudice at work here holds that deductive reasoning, which proceeds from the general to the particular and so attempts to logically derive subsidiary truths and corollaries from first principles, is exceedingly unreliable because it is so easy to get the first principles wrong. In contrast, inductive reasoning, which proceeds from the particular to the general, attempting to discern a pattern of general laws from a multiplicity of individual facts, is safer and more productive because it is so easy to get the facts right.

My opening paragraph should be enough to disabuse anyone of the notion that it is easy to get even the simplest of facts right, but just as deductive reasoning must proceed very carefully, because of the risk of false initial assumptions and logical fallacies, so too must inductive reasoning proceed with great caution, because it takes an enormous number of undisputed facts to suggest a pattern that only one hypothesis can accurately fit. In fact, while deductive reasoning will always be as strong as the propositions involved and their logical relationship with one another—and so is at least theoretically capable of generating certainty—inductive reasoning can by its very nature lead only to provisional conclusions. For as more “facts” are uncovered, the suggestiveness of the factual pattern may change, and as fresh minds come into play, a new pattern that better fits the facts may be discerned.

Revelation, of course, provides the most certain knowledge of all. Learning from tradition or authority is based on the principle of revelation, where what is passed down is at least likely to be reliable because of the hard-earned wisdom of the tradition or the degree of expertise involved. But I am concerned here only with ultimate Revelation from God Himself, which we accept based on the authority of God revealing, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. Unfortunately, to make anything out of Revelation, one must first come to the conclusion that an authentic Revelation actually exists. This is in itself an inductive process, for how else are we to know that God has revealed something unless there are unmistakable attendant signs that this “something” could have come only from God? Moreover, once the fact of Revelation has been established, there remains the problem of interpretation, for God’s mind is so very much deeper than our own. Despite these drawbacks, it is important to emphasize again that an authentic Revelation, for what it covers, is necessarily the most certain means of knowing truth. In fact, given that all methods of inquiry are based on some initial supposition (in this case, the existence of the Revelation), strict adherence to Revelation is our sole means of acquiring absolute certainty, without any possibility of error.

Human Origins

The controversy over human origins is a case which nicely illustrates the problem of coming to know the truth. Some ancient philosophers addressed the question of origins deductively based on what they perceived as first principles. Also, Christians have sometimes attempted to reason deductively based on philosophical first principles and also based on Revelation. For example, proceeding deductively from the necessity of a First Cause and taking the Book of Genesis into account, Christians have often argued that God must have created each thing individually out of nothing. But neither the philosophical first principle nor a necessary interpretation of Genesis demands this conclusion. If we accept both sources of truth, we really know only that God’s involvement was necessary, without knowing exactly how He was involved.

At the same time, proceeding inductively from very careful observational study, and attempting to perceive similarities across the range of life as well as patterns of chronological development, many have concluded that an evolutionary process is responsible for what we call Creation and that, as this process can be explained materially, it is clear that God does not exist. But of course these are inductive leaps that can never be justified by the accumulation of any amount of material evidence. It is not at all clear that any material process provides its own entire self-explanation, nor that the absence of one kind of imagined divine causality proves the absence of every other possible kind—let alone proves that God does not exist.

Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed the need to properly integrate all sources of knowledge, avoiding logical errors and assertions beyond the evidence, in his recent address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which met in November to discuss the topic “Scientific Insight into the Evolution of the Universe and Life” (Universe Does Not Originate from Chaos: It Is a Cosmos). Among other things, the Pope said the following:

…there is no opposition between faith’s understanding of creation and the evidence of the empirical sciences. Philosophy in its early stages had proposed images to explain the origin of the cosmos on the basis of one or more elements of the material world. This genesis was not seen as a creation but rather a mutation or transformation. It involved a somewhat horizontal interpretation of the origin of the world. A decisive advance in understanding of the origins of the cosmos was the consideration of being qua being and the concern of metaphysics with the most basic question of the first or transcendent origin of participating being. In order to develop and evolve, the world must first be, and thus have come from nothing into being….

To state that the foundation of the cosmos and its developments is the provident wisdom of the Creator is not to say that creation has only to do with the beginning of the history of the world and of life. It implies, rather, that the Creator founds these developments and supports them, underpins them and sustains them continuously…. Thomas [Aquinas] observed that creation is neither a movement nor a mutation. It is instead the foundational and continuing relationship that links the creature to the Creator, for he is the cause of every being and all becoming….

To “evolve” literally means “to unroll a scroll”, that is, to read a book. The imagery of nature as a book has its roots in Christianity and has been held dear by many scientists. Galileo saw nature as a book whose author is God in the same way that Scripture has God as its author. It is a book whose history, whose evolution, whose “writing” and meaning, we “read” according to the different approaches of the sciences, while all the time presupposing the foundational presence of the author who has wished to reveal himself therein.

The Necessity of Frameworks

Because it is effectively impossible to gather data without some organizing principle with which to make sense of it, scientific research proceeds through the formulation of hypotheses. Thus, even for an inductive process, we start with a provisional assertion which describes how some aspect of nature functions. This hypothesis will be drawn from among many that could fit the data already known. Then, through observation and experiment, an attempt is made to verify or refute the hypothesis. Unfortunately, the mere failure to falsify the hypothesis does not ensure that it is true, for another hypothesis—perhaps one not yet imagined—might well pass the same tests. In exactly this vein, G. K. Chesterton used to delight in writing mystery stories which provided multiple explanations for the same set of clues. For this reason, among the best scientists, hypotheses are slow to become theories, and theories even slower to become laws. And even laws may ultimately be disproved, as happened with Newtonian physics (which “works” only for objects of a certain size, and may in fact be only a useful approximation even for them).

If frameworks are important to inductive reasoning, they are the very essence of deductive reasoning, which is used to build such frameworks in order to offer the general principles by which we may more easily understand specific instances. If one starts in the right place and is exceedingly careful, the principles deduced in philosophy actually have the potential to be more effectively proven than those induced from the scientific accumulation of data. For example, it is possible to assert as beyond doubt that spirit, such as the human soul, cannot evolve from matter, such as the human body. Instead, the creation of the soul requires a special intervention by God. Still, a philosophical recognition of a first principle, or a derivation from that principle, may later be shown to be incorrect, either through a better central argument or through conflict with conclusions drawn from first principles that are even more certain.

Revelation also provides a framework. Whatever is certainly revealed is, by its nature, absolutely certain. Yet the proper understanding of these certainties is seldom immediately obvious; moreover, while deductive reasoning based on these truths is capable of elucidating other subsidiary questions, such reasoning may not always be correct. Catholics solve these problem through the authority principle, by which Jesus Christ, with full authority over the Revelation He imparted, also established a similar authority in His Church to protect and elucidate that Revelation through time. This authority principle governs the development of authentic Catholic teaching, providing the world with absolute truth in everything so revealed or elucidated. But even the Church’s Magisterial authority operates only within very narrow limits. The result is that while we Catholics possess considerable knowledge about how to go to heaven, we know very little with certainty about how the heavens go.

Or indeed about almost anything else: What motivates this or that person? What will be the impact of various political, social or economic policies? Which sources of information should we trust? What will the weather be like next week? Select any area of knowledge outside the Catholic revelational framework, and even Catholics can lay claim to very little. My point is simply this: While the very exercise of reason demands frameworks for organizing our thoughts and our ideas and our data, nonetheless, as with physical frameworks, we must beware of building more upon them than they can bear.

Love for Truth

I am a firm believer in the reality of Revelation and the authority of the Catholic Church. I regard the careful assertions which officially flow from this source to be certain, and I do not wish to cause anyone to be less certain about these ultimate things. God Himself has blessed us with this knowledge. But precisely because this is so, we Catholics bear a special responsibility for understanding how paltry and provisional all human assertions are in comparison. And we ought to be doubly careful—even fearful—of asserting with the certainty reserved to Revelation any of the extraneous ideas that we have either picked up from others or worked out solely for ourselves. Above all others, we should have both a deep reverence for truth and a deep awareness of our own limitations in grasping it.

I wish I could give you a perfect example of this attitude, but first you would have to show me a columnist who has never pushed an idea farther than warranted, and has never answered a correspondent by asserting more than his certain knowledge could sustain. This is emphatically not possible in my own case, and it evokes a sadness which brings me to yet a deeper reason for this carefulness we all ought to have about truth. For us Catholics, truth is ultimately a Person, Jesus Christ, creator of heaven and earth, who contains and sustains all things in Himself. But every time we press our own private ideas too far; and every time we ignore, dismiss or ridicule the aspects and glimmers of truth we find in the ideas and arguments of others: Exactly so many times do we make Christ more difficult to know.

“I am the way and the truth and the life,” says Jesus Christ. “No one comes to the Father except by me” (Jn 14:6). How important are these words, and how they should guide us in our interactions with others regarding truth! In our mistakes and our contentiousness, and sometimes even in our zeal, I fear that even we who know better rather frequently abuse truth. I began by discussing modern knowledge, and we have now arrived where all discussion of modern knowledge must end. For every distortion exacts its price. We must be very careful lest we mar the visage of Christ with our own misplaced blows and buffets, and so make Our Lord not only more difficult to know, but more difficult to love.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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