Anti-Prescriptivist Pedantry: The Word “Knowledge”

Language Prescriptivism is the idea that words have inherent meanings. This leads to very unproductive conversations and other problems. As a descriptivist, I thought I’d start a regular series talking about the various usages of different words that come up here and there that cause regular problems in theological and other debates. While I will always have a preference for certain word usages over others, the label we apply to ideas is not as interesting as the ideas themselves, so I will do my best to present multiple usages behind words in the most charitable way while still defending my preference.

 

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Jeremiah Traeger

“You don’t know that there is no god!”

 

Yes, yes, this is a tired argument, and anyone who has seen this already understands the problem: it’s a shifting of the burden of proof. If you want to see good responses to this there are plenty of resources out there, here’s a favorite of mine. But the standard response that atheists usually give is that they don’t actually hold the position that they know a god doesn’t exist. That actually depends largely on two things:

 

  • What someone means by “god”
  • What someone means by “know”

 

This post is all about the second bullet point. How do we come to “know” something? What counts as “knowledge”? Can we really “know” anything?

 

There is certainly a lot of value in acknowledging our uncertainty in life. It’s useful when we are discussing our perspectives that we assign things as being more or less likely to be true. But does that require throwing “knowledge” out the window? Just because we are uncertain about something does that mean we don’t “know” it?

 

One way that people define “knowledge” is by making it absolute. This is certainly a favorite of presuppositionalist apologists. All you have to do is watch the mind-numbing and baldness-inducing debate between Matt Dillahunty and Sye Ten Bruggencate. Whenever Sye would ask Matt if he could know anything, Matt had to clarify whether Sye meant if this was “absolute knowledge” or some form of knowledge with lower certainty. This certainly frustrated Sye, who didn’t have the tools to deal with someone who wasn’t willing to play his game. Sye repeatedly tried to insist that without his god that we can’t know anything. Unfortunately for him, this is all a bunch of word games. It’s true that in a naturalist universe we have no guarantee of absolute certainty (this is also not true in a theistic universe). Of course, this doesn’t eliminate knowledge.

 

There are also plenty of apologists who would state we have absolute certainty of things such as gravity and the beginning of the universe, something which I disagree with in the other direction, since I think absolute certainty in gravity goes too far. Regardless of how you define knowledge, though, you would probably define absolute certainty as at least a part of knowledge. In that instance you could certainly state that we have at least some knowledge of the universe.

 

This even drifts into atheist circles. A surprisingly large amount of atheists describe themselves as “agnostic atheists”, meaning that they don’t think that a god exists, but that they also don’t know whether or not a god exists or not. Seeing as the root word in Greek, “gnosis”, means knowledge, the term agnostic seems to describe that someone is “without knowledge”*. This has thrown a wrench into a lot of discussions with the general public who describe themselves as “agnostic” in an entirely different sense, that they aren’t sure either way about a god so they throw the question out altogether. This causes a lot of confusion, as people who would call themselves agnostic but not atheist describe themselves in a way that implies that atheists are “certain” that there isn’t a god. Meanwhile, many if not most atheists wouldn’t describe themselves as certain that there isn’t a god anyway.

 

Seeing as “agnosticism” is based on what “knowledge” is, does that mean that everybody is really agnostic? Theists claim absolute certainty about their beliefs sometimes, does that mean that they’re the only people who aren’t agnostic?

 

I’d argue that this form of the word “knowledge” is useless. If knowledge requires absolute certainty, then there are very few things I can know. The only thing I can know is something Renee Descartes demonstrated almost four centuries, stating, “I think, therefore I am”. About the only thing that I’m 100% certain of is that I am experiencing life and creating thoughts, therefore I exist. I could possibly be in a simulation, or I could be experiencing life as I currently understand it: laying on a couch typing into a computer and eating far too many chips. But either way, I am experiencing something, so I know I exist, which is true whether I exist as a simulation or a dream or as a fleshy bag of meat in a very real natural universe. In that sense, I can only pretty know one thing. That is fucking useless.

 

Have you ever asked your coworker if they knew whether or not that the coffeemaker had been refilled, and they stated that they couldn’t know because they could just be a brain in a vat? Unless your coworkers are a bunch of snarky philosophers, this probably hasn’t happened. And if you do have a lot of snarky philosopher coworkers, where do you work, the existentialism factory?

 

No, we have much better usages of knowledge. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines knowledge as justified true belief. This means that we have knowledge when we think something is true (belief), when as far as we can tell it aligns with reality (true), and we have plenty of good evidence to show that it’s true (justified). There are a few problems with this definition that philosophers have with this definition. At what point do we have enough evidence in our belief for it to be justified? Furthermore, we could be supporting our belief with evidence that happens to be bad, as illustrated in the above link with “The Gettier Problem”.

 

Still, this seems to work well enough as a definition. At some point, we have enough evidence to state that we are pretty certain about something. If I asked my coworker if the coffeemaker is full and he just saw our buddy Steve refill it, he could reasonably say that he knows that it’s full. Any number of situations could still make that untrue while Steve can reasonably say that he knows it’s full. In the time since he saw it a horde of caffeine deprived workers could have shown up all at once and filled their cups, emptying the machine. The coffeemaker could have also broken and spilled coffee all over the floor. Or there is no coffee machine and we are living in the Matrix. All of these have varying degrees of plausibility, but all are at least somewhat out of the ordinary for someone who just saw Steve fill the coffeemaker, so our coworker can still be pretty certain that it is full and that he knows so.

 

This seems far more useful as a usage of “knowledge”. It is a type of belief that is more certain than other types of belief. While the line between belief that is justified and not justified might be a bit fuzzy, we know that when someone says that they know something they have a higher degree of certainty than normal about that belief.

 

 

knowledge venn diagram

[Image: A venn diagram. The negative space is labeled “Stuff I don’t believe”. There is a circle labeled “Stuff I believe” and a circle within that circle labeled “stuff I know”, and the more certainty in the belief indicates that the belief is more justified as “knowledge”]

Of course, under this model a lot of theists may be able to claim knowledge of the existence of their god. According to them, they have a lot of evidence, whether through scripture or personal revelation. Their indoctrination has led them to a high degree of certainty that their god is real. This usage of the term knowledge does not always mean that stuff you know is necessarily true. At this point you may accept their use of the word knowledge, but you may also want to question whether or not they are justified. Certainly the evidence they have is fairly poor, so that would be a good point to attack whether they actually know that to be true or not.

 

Conversely, you could also use this definition to actually say that you know that certain gods don’t exist. The quote at the beginning of the piece questioned whether we actually know that gods exist, which is often something said to dismiss someone’s atheism. While many will retreat into a weak atheist or “agnostic” position stating that they don’t know that gods exist, it may be actually a better idea to actually push back and say that you do know that there isn’t a god, at least not in the sense they are proposing. Assuming that this person’s god is a Christian one, there are a lot of contradictory behaviors that he engages in in the Bible. Furthermore, thhe dogma and tenets that people hold about this god lack consistency. The evidence that we have discovered in the real world has only ever supported natural physical causes for the universe’s existence and behavior. Again, we can’t be absolutely certain, but there is a lot of evidence to not only show that the Bible is unreliable, but that it is demonstrably false. This is why I am personally comfortable in stating that I know that there isn’t a Christian god. As AronRa has stated about the Bible, it is, “not evidently true, or evidently not true”. I’m less willing to say that I know there is no god whatsoever. A vague or Deistic god could potentially exist and I don’t have evidence against it, but I certainly have no reason to start believing it in the first place. But for certain gods that have been proposed I’m certainly not an “agnostic atheist”, I am certain of their nonexistence.

 

Hopefully this was a thorough investigation on two different usages of the term “knowledge”. There are certainly more ways people use the word, but these two seem the most common within theological debates, and seem to have the most to discuss. I find the latter usage far more useful. I’d like to think that I’ve made the case enough for you here, but I don’t know that for sure.

 

*The opposite term gnostic could hypothetically be used to describe that someone has knowledge. That being said, Gnosticism is a type of religious sect whose tenets go far beyond merely “knowing that a god exists”. While most people probably don’t know the term “gnostic” anyway, just be careful with your terms should you ever discuss your theistic dissents against a theology professor.

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One thought on “Anti-Prescriptivist Pedantry: The Word “Knowledge”

  1. Brian Hinkley July 23, 2016 at 11:22 AM Reply

    Bravo! Bravo! This is a pet issue of mine. I could go on about this, but I would be repetitive. One of my favourites among many words is the use of “theory”.

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