Monday, December 24, 2007

Developing My Epistemology

Read the prior message in this series: "By What Standard?"

Two years ago I set out to write this next article in the series, and it turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. As a Jesus follower, I'd already mentally jumped to the conclusion that the answer to the question "By What Standard?" was the Bible. That was the religious bias I had from birth until I left home. We all have a birth bias in our worldview based on our experiences in our formative years.

Each time I sat down and tried to write a reasonable argument for the Bible being the standard bearer of truth, the argument was circular. I could not adequately defend my conclusion without appealing to that which I already believed. I was stuck because I didn't understand my own epistemology, and couldn't get past my own birth bias. In fact, I didn't even know what epistemology was two years ago!

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity,
and scope. It is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

Over the last couple years I discovered the Bible is no longer a sufficient answer to the question "By What Standard?" This is particularly true in a discussion with anyone who has a post-modern worldview, and most people under thirty (the Millennial generation) have a post-modern worldview. It is their birth bias.

Most Christians accept the Bible as inerrant and infallible on faith, but the skeptic will insist on evidence which is admirable. For the skeptic, inerrancy and infallibility can only be used as a working hypothesis, and then only if the skeptic is brave, honest, and transparent about the reasons for their skepticism. Additionally, the Bible must be interpreted which is no small matter. As I thought about these two problems, I had to develop my own epistemology. I owe a debt of gratitude to an atheist friend of mine who runs the IT department (actually he is the IT department) at the start-up company where we work. Justin and I have nearly perfect agreement on political issues, but we totally disagree on the question of whether or not God exists. It surprised me that someone with whom I shared nearly identical political beliefs could simultaneously hold to a completely opposite theological (dis)belief system.

Justin helped me realize I needed a governing system of checks and balances to keep my truth seeking on track while overcoming my birth bias. While thinking about "a governing set of checks and balances" I remembered my high school civics class and a document famous for this very thing.

The US Constitution is an amazing document. It defines what has become the most successful government experiment in all of human history. The secret to the success of the US Constitution is the delicate set of checks and balances in the distribution of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. So, I developed a loosely analogous set of checks and balances for my own epistemological framework. I call them the court of reason, congress of experience, and executive process of tradition.  I believe truth is knowable using the tools of reason, experience, and tradition within a community of truth seekers.

Why is this important? As discussed in the previous blog in this series, religion can be extremely dangerous. Millions of people have died in the name of religious ideologies. Religions and their sacred texts can be used as pretexts for all sorts of evil behavior like flying airplanes full of people into tall buildings or bombing abortion clinics. Devout Bible believers have fallen into fundamentalist folk religions and deadly cults as a result of uncritical acceptance of ill informed biblical interpretations. This is why I think it is important to understand religion as a set of beliefs that inform us about how we should live.

If the role of religion is to help us know the truth and guide our moral behavior, wouldn't it make sense to examine the truth claims of the major religions that have withstood the test of time? Shouldn't these major religions (not the radical fringe groups) and their ancient wisdom literature be examined on their own merits in the court of reason, the congress of experience, and under the executive process of tradition? In order to do that I had to develop my epistemology.

Aside: I've tested the Book of Mormon, and it failed my epistemological truth tests. This video pretty much summarizes what I wrote in the paper at this link.

Read the next entry in this series: Reasonable Truth

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