Thursday, June 16, 2011

On Epistemology and Religion

Epistemology is a fancy college word for “the study of knowledge.” To any who feel intimidated by the word, I assure you it’s very simple. Perhaps the most important concept in the study of epistemology is a simple question:

How do we know anything?

Some people simplify this and claim we cannot know anything. Socrates and post-modernism proclaim this to be the case. However, epistemology wouldn’t be a field of study if our ideas on knowledge had stopped there.

Personally, I am an empiricist, which means I believe that I can know things by interpreting my senses and verifying the results with others. If I see something so crazy I question my sanity, I can ask someone else if they see it too, thereby confirming my mind is sound (or that at least my vision functions properly).

While vision is the primary mode of taking in data, it is a blatant fallacy to suggest I have to physically see something in front of me in order to “believe” in it. In fact, I believe in nothing; I simply go about my day with a basic, simple understanding of my surroundings.

I know that when I flick a light switch, a light will come on, and if it doesn’t, I may have to change the bulb or check the fuse. I don’t need a degree in electrical engineering in order to turn on a light or fix a simple problem. I don’t question the electricity, because it clearly functions.

Religion has a strange epistemology. The overwhelming majority of religions rely upon a form of epistemology described as “revelation.” There is nothing wrong with revelation, actually. Every school across the country engages in this form of epistemology. If I tell you “I was born in 1983,” you acquired that knowledge through revelation. Whenever someone tells you something, that piece of information is “revealed” until confirmed. Unless you observed and witnessed it yourself, someone telling you about something will always be revelation.

To be quite honest, my view on electricity might be considered revelation, especially if I had not taken physics lab courses where we worked with electricity so much. But labs aside, I believe the bulk of my scientific understanding comes from revelation. I did not study the raw data myself in most cases, so most of my education has been undemonstrated theory rattled off to me in classrooms (though it is important to note it can be, and has been, demonstrated by others).

However, there is a fundamental difference between most religious revelation and the kind taught in schools. Sure, both have the possibility of being true or false, but each is coming from a different source. If someone reveals to me an empirically verified idea, and another reveals to me a story someone else told them which has no proof one way or the other, I am more inclined to consider the former before the latter.

Judgment comes into play, of course. If the claims of the empirically supported idea go against everything I know now, while the second-hand tale is mundane, I would clearly be more likely to put stock in the retold story. There may even be a factor of who is speaking to me influencing my opinion. If the person making the empirically backed claim has a tinfoil hat on, while the other person is an old friend I trust, the choice is clear.

Religion as a whole is too broad, so I will rely upon the lazy decision of selecting the Bible and Christianity as the example to be used. In the Bible, stories are told through all kinds of perspectives, and the mere construction of some make them impossible to believe.

For example, the first four books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are held in Jewish tradition to be written by Moses. This is very odd… because Moses dies in Exodus. Whoever wrote these should have taken a creative writing class, because one of the first things they’ll tell you is you can’t kill off the storyteller until the end. The narrator can die, but if it’s supposed to be non-fiction, it should just sort of cut off like “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Job is written from an omniscient perspective, attesting actual dialogue between God and Satan, as well as between many different people. It is supposedly written by Job himself, Elihiu (one of the story’s characters), Moses, or someone alive around the time of Judges. It is not explained how the author attains the necessary information for writing all the different conversational exchanges.

It is implied, then, that the missing information (like Moses’ knowledge of the beginning of the universe) is “revealed” by God, an angel, or through some other supernatural means. In fact, during this time, we know the Greeks even conceived of art as being “inspired” by Muses and gods. The very word “inspire” derives from the same root as “spirit” (both are of Latin, not Greek, origin) and it implies that one is filled or possessed with the spirit of some other being (a process commonly referred to in ancient religion as “ecstasy”).

This is a problem, then, because we cannot really verify information of this nature. The basic premise behind empiricism is that all knowledge can be attained through repeatable observation. Unless you can get a god, angel, or some other spirit to return for verification (and not just once, but any time you call them), revelation is ultimately a one-time deal.

This is the basic flaw in revealed knowledge, and it leads to several other problems. Have you ever taken notes in class, studied them, took the test, and gotten a question wrong… even though you put the same answer that was in your notes? Either the teacher made an error during the lesson, you made an error in listening, or you made an error in copying it down. The bottom line: revelation is a method of data transfer that is likely to be wrought with error.

Revelation is not only a low-fidelity method of data transfer, it relies on the speaker. Besides losing information in the exchange itself, there is also the small matter of deception. If you believe revealed information, you are at the mercy of the revealer’s honesty. And even if the one conveying an idea is completely honest, you must be careful to consider how knowledgeable the speaker is. The speaker just might be wrong.

Revelation relies heavily upon the speaker and the listener. If the listener fails to process the message properly, or if the speaker is incorrect for some reason, then the resulting information is not knowledge, but error.

I don’t verify everything that I hold to be true, but I only hold those things to be true which can be verified. Ultimately, the claims of religion cannot be checked. There is no method of proving –or disproving– religion. It is this characteristic, that of being unverifiable, that makes religion so utterly unbelievable.

1 comment:

  1. I like this. It's very well laid out. Timely, too, since I've had one or two would-be evangelists ask me how I can claim to know anything. This is probably better than just refusing to discuss the matter unless they could explain how it was relevant to what we *were* discussing.


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