The foundations of knowledge
Philosophers have been debating the foundations of knowledge for centuries. And we shouldn’t be surprised that they don’t all agree on just what it means when we say we “know” something! One thing they do agree upon, however, is that our process of knowing things must have a foundation – a starting point, if you will.
Let me illustrate.
I could make the claim that there is a UFO hovering overhead at this very moment. Some of you would probably question my sanity if I said this. But let’s say I claimed to know this – say I became very adamant about this. What is it that you and everyone would do in order to verify my claim?
If you had any interest in finding out whether my claim was true, you would no doubt walk directly outside and look up in the sky yourself, right? And why is that? Well, it is because the primary way we verify what someone is saying is by trying to “see it” for ourselves. Of course we can’t always see what it is someone is claiming, sometimes we smell it, hear it, touch it, etc.
The point is this – we humans rely greatly upon our senses in order to determine whether a claim is true or not, right? In other words, the assumption that our senses are reliable is foundational to process of knowing. Just stop for a moment and think about all the things you claim to know that are ultimately dependent upon an assumption that your senses are reliable.
Now this approach seems to serve us quite well. But when it comes right down to it, is it really sufficient for us to claim we know something just because of what our senses tell us? Our senses aren’t always accurate are they? It doesn’t take too much to fool someone into thinking they see something that isn’t really there. In fact, all of our senses can be fooled. We can make a recording of someone’s voice and play it back with such fidelity that we would swear that person is actually in the next room.
Now, my point is not to get you to start doubting everything you see or hear! My point is simply to demonstrate that our senses are not 100% accurate every single time, meaning we could be wrong about something we claim to know at any given point in time.
And so what does that mean from the standpoint of knowledge? It means that our claims to know something begin with a great big assumption! Basically, we have faith in the reliability of our senses. In that regard, one part of our foundation of knowing things is faith. Let me state this now, because this is another one of those catch phrases that is so crucial.
Knowledge begins with faith.
Augustine said it this way:
I believe so that I may know
Our ability to know is ultimately grounded in one or more faith commitments that we make. Probably one of the strongest faith commitments is our belief that our senses are accurately telling us what is happening around us.
So why is it I say that relying upon our senses as the basis for knowledge is a “faith commitment”? It is the fallible nature of our senses. Although reliable, our senses are not perfect, meaning that they can be wrong at any given time. Relying upon our senses therefore takes a certain measure of faith – a faith that they are accurate.
Look at it from the opposite standpoint – if the nature of our senses was that they were infallible then they would be the perfect starting point, right? Infallible senses would be a most excellent foundation for knowing things just because we would be assured that every time we saw something we would know with 100% certainty that it was really there.
So what does this faith in our senses do to our ability to know things? We’ll tackle that next time.