Thursday, June 15, 2017

Knowledge and ignorance of God

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Rom 1:19-21).

1. I'm going to use this passage as a launchpad to discuss a number of related issues. Some presuppositionalists appeal to Rom 1 to justify the claim that apologetics is superfluous. You don't need to prove God's existence, because sinners already know that he exists. There are, however, several problems with that appeal. 

2. According to traditional Reformed theology, 

The knowledge of God is innate or naturally implanted in the human mind…It is best construed as an innate disposition, present from birth, to form belief in God in a spontaneous manner upon mental maturation and experience of the world. It is contrasted with knowledge acquired by testimony or teaching, lengthy investigation, or reflective thinking and logical analysis. Belief in God, then, originates from the natural constitution of the human person as a rational moral agent. Michael Sudduth, The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Routledge, 2009), 57. 

But for several reasons, that doesn't ipso facto moot the need for apologetics:

3. Counterbalancing the aforesaid statement, Reformed theology also accentuates the noetic effects of sin. Does Rom 1 indicate that the knowledge of God is an occurrent belief? Or has "suppressing the truth," becoming "futile" and "darkened" in reason, succeeded in either eradicating the natural knowledge of God or at least rendering that inaccessible? Is there a residual subconscious knowledge of God? I think Rom 1 lacks the specificity to answer that question. 

It's possible that the reprobate or unregenerate are ignorant of God's existence. That, however, wouldn't be innocent ignorance but culpable ignorance. Assuming they're ignorant of God's existence, that's the result of hardening themselves to God. 

In that event, apologetics is useful in compensating for the loss of natural knowledge of God. In addition, even if they are in a state of denial, apologetics is a pressure point which makes it harder for them to evade their subliminally repressed knowledge of God. 

4. In addition, Christian theism is much more specific than Rom 1:20. So even if the reprobate or unregenerate retain natural knowledge of God's "eternal power" and "divine nature", that falls well short of Christian theism, which depends on historical knowledge of Bible history, the life of Christ, and theological interpretation, provided by the Bible. So it may still be necessary to provide arguments for Scripture. 

5. For that matter, much of the NT is devoted to defending the Gospel by refuting heresy and false teachers. But that's a department of apologetics. 

6. Let's consider an illustration to model the traditional Reformed view. Suppose I have a clock by my bed. An analogue clock with an illuminated dial. 

Let's say I wake up at night and glance at the clock. It displays 3AM. 

Looking at the readout causes me to believe that it's 3AM. I don't consciously infer that it's 3AM. My belief that it's 3AM is automatically formed by seeing the readout. 

That's an example of tacit knowledge, in the sense that I have evidence for what I believe, but my belief is a spontaneous, prereflective belief. Although I have evidence for my belief that it's 3AM, I don't have to provide evidence to have that belief. I simply find myself in that doxastic state. When exposed to certain kinds of evidence, we are psychologically designed to respond to that evidence by forming a corresponding belief. The evidence, in conjunction with our psychological makeup, automatically produces a corresponding belief. By analogy, Christians can be justified in their faith even if they can't provide a formal justification. 

7. The fact that my belief is not the result of reflection or logical analysis doesn't mean I can't defend my belief, if challenged. I can go back a step and say I believe the readout is true because clocks are designed to keep track of time. Moreover, I set the clock by consulting an international standardized timekeeper via the Internet. So that's analogous to apologetics.

8. Of course, that's not a failsafe. What if there was a power outage while I was asleep? Power was restored an hour later. So the readout is wrong. 

If, moreover, I have other electric clocks in the house, they will be synchronized, because they share a common power source, so I can't recognize and correct my error by looking at another clock.

In response to that challenge, I could go back another step. There are various ways to recognize and correct for error in that eventuality. It might cause me to be late for my appointment. I'd find out the hard way. Or I might check my wristwatch. Because it's battery operated, it has a separate power supply, so that provides an independent standard of comparison. Same thing with my computer clock. 

And the same principle holds true for apologetics. In philosophy, to prove one thing, you take another things for granted. But if challenged, you can take a step back to defend your operating assumptions. 

9. Another objection is that I might misread the clock or misremember the readout. So even if the clock is accurate, I could still be mistaken. 

That's true, but as with (8), I have multiple opportunities to correct my mistake. Is it plausible that I will consistently misread or misremember every clock? My belief isn't confined to a single impression or a single source of evidence. I have redundant evidence. Even if a particular instance could be mistaken or misleading, it's hardly plausible to suppose that every instance is mistaken or misleading. 

10. This goes to a larger issue. Some people think that unless you can rule out the hypothetical possibility of error, that you really don't know what you believe. But that's a dubious principle. If the clock is accurate, and my memory is accurate, then I'm not mistaken. How does that not count as knowledge? If, in any particular case, my source of information is reliable, and my interpretation is correct, how does the fact that I'm mistaken in other cases nullify cases in which I'm not mistaken? 

This goes to a failure to distinguish between first-order knowledge (knowing X) and second-order knowledge (knowing how you know X). A distinction between knowledge and proof. But even if I can't eliminate the hypothetical possibility of error, how does that imply that I don't know something in all the cases where I'm not in error? In cases where I have good reason for what I believe?

11. Suppose a skeptic said, how do you know someone didn't sneak into your bedroom while you were asleep and reset your wristwatch? The same person monkeyed with your fuse box to cause a temporary power outage. Now your electric clock and wristwatch are synchronized so that both give the wrong time!

Suppose I can't disprove that baroque hypothetical. So what? Why should I fret over skeptical thought-experiments that are beyond my control? What's the point of positing a hypothetical dilemma in which I can't distinguish truth from error? What purpose does it serve to show me that I can't do anything about it? My predicament would be exactly the same if you didn't point that out to me.

If atheism is true, you have nothing to gain and everything to lose by believing it. If Christianity is true, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by believing it. So these are not symmetrical options. 

1 comment:

  1. "So even if the reprobate or unregenerate retain natural knowledge of God's "eternal power" and "divine nature", that falls well short of Christian theism ... "

    Indeed, but Paul seems to imply that more than merely the existence of God is evident from His creation, that nature itself speaks to how one is to honor God through one's actions.

    That's what I don't see. Nature is wondrous, to be sure, but it's also cruel. Gravity can break our bones. The skies are filled with warmth but also with storms and destructive winds. Animals devour each other (and sometimes us).

    What is one "naturally" supposed to infer from Creation about the Creator absent some additional divine revelation?