Epistemology is the study of knowledge. It attempts to answer questions regarding the origin of human knowledge, and considers especially how we can know with certainty. Epistemological answers are basic and necessary building blocks of any philosophy, worldview, or belief system. In fact, of the four major components of philosophy and worldview (epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and socio-political thought), none can be adequately addressed until we answer the question of how we can know.
Regarding metaphysics, for example, we can’t make legitimate assertions about the character of God or the existence of the human soul until we first address how such assertions can be verified or falsified. Further, unless we have a means for validating ethical prescriptions as either worthy or unworthy, we have no warrant for choosing one prescription over another—especially when we encounter apparently competing or conflicting goods. And if we have no mechanism for authentication, then how can we even arrive at a definition of what is good in the first place? Finally, in socio-political thought, on what basis can we choose one system of government over another, or how can we determine whether a law is commendable? Without correct epistemological answers, there is no basis for our understanding or choosing one thing over another. In short, epistemology is really about authority, verifiability, truth, and certainty.
Imagine a person—we’ll call him Bob. Bob has just received the gift of consciousness. For the first time in Bob’s existence he is aware. Bob examines his surroundings and he finds himself standing in rolling sun-drenched fields of dandelions under a beautifully clear mid-day sky. Of course, Bob has no knowledge of what anything around him is or what any of it means, because this is the first time he has ever encountered any of these things. Bob begins to ponder. “Here I am, I suppose, now what?” Bob has to figure out how to answer that question before he takes his first step, lest he make the wrong assumptions and step in the wrong direction. He begins a quest to decipher the right understanding of who and what he is, and how he must proceed, but he isn’t certain of whether or not he has the right tools for the task. In fact, he isn’t certain of anything.
Rene Descartes engaged a similar exercise in his Meditations. He first describes things that we may doubt, acknowledging that the senses sometimes deceive us, and that “it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.”1 Descartes begins with the assumption that a benevolent God exists who allows people sometimes to fooled by their senses, and Descartes considers that if God allows for occasional deceptions, it is theoretically possible that God, Himself, is constantly deceptive (though Descartes ultimately concludes that God is not deceptive). Descartes wonders how we can come to certainty of truth if instead of a benevolent God there exists a malevolent demon that is constantly deceiving us. Descartes engages a process of elimination to discover the things that cannot be doubted, irrespective of the existence and nature of God. He concludes, “I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind.”2 Descartes suggests that his own thinking is verification of his existence, and cannot be doubted. This is the cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am)3 which undergirds his epistemology. Because Descartes considers reason as something that cannot be doubted, he values it above all else. With respect to the existence of God, for example, Descartes reasons to the existence of God, and the existence and nature of God is ultimately subject to the guided use of reason. In the end, Descartes’ epistemology undermines any authority claimed by special revelation, instead depending on reason guided by method as the ultimate arbiter of truth.
Hume’s Naturalistic Empiricism
Unlike Descartes, David Hume values experience over reason. Hume distinguishes between thoughts or ideas and impressions or perceptions, preferring the latter as more reliable for discovering truth. He explains:
All ideas, especially abstract ones, are naturally faint and obscure: the mind has but a slender hold on them; they are apt to be confounded with other resembling ideas…on the contrary, all impressions, that is, all sensations, either outward or inward, are strong and vivid; the limits between them are more exactly determined; nor is it easy to fall into any error or mistake with regard to them.4
Hume adds that this proposition, understood properly, “might render every dispute equally intelligible, and banish all that jargon, which has so long taken possession of metaphysical reasonings, and drawn disgrace upon them.”5 Hume suggests that in order to resolve metaphysical questions we must prioritize impressions over ideas. This leads Hume to conclude against the metaphysical, because he argues that there are no true impressions of the supernatural. For example, with respect to miracles, Hume asserts that,
no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous…When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened…6
Hume is pre-committed to the least miraculous outcome—that which is least likely to violate experiential norms. This illustrates his understandable but inadequately justified dependence on the senses for ascertaining reality. Hume’s epistemology can be correct insofar as his impressions and their interpretations are accurate, but wherever the senses are limited in scope there is much potential for error.
Friedrich Nietzsche seems driven by a pre-commitment to skepticism of absolute moral value. While he does not fully develop a theory of the mind,7 he does affirm some definitive epistemological principles. Phenomenal reality (or experiences) can be verified by the senses, but noumenal (or absolute) reality cannot be verified at all. Nietzsche does not necessarily deny that absolute meaning exists, but he argues we can’t interface directly with it if it does exist; consequently, absolute reality and meaning are irrelevant to us, therefore we must make our own realities.
Nietzsche’s agnostic assertion that we cannot know leads him to a curiously confident metaphysical interpretation and ethical prescription:
I entreat you, my brothers, remain true to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of superterrestrial hopes! They are poisoners, whether they know it or not. They are despisers of life, atrophying and self-poisoned men, of whom the earth is weary: so let them begone!8
As Nietzsche generally asserts that we cannot know, he does seem certain in his knowledge that we cannot know. In this inconsistency it is illustrated that his epistemology is less an attempt to coherently interpret knowledge than it is a mechanism to justify his amoral pre-commitment. In this Nietzsche shows that his first step is an assertion of will rather than an objective attempt to understand reality. In fact, Nietzsche’s ultimate prescription for humanity is the culmination of that assertion of will:
That is your entire will, you wisest men; it is a will to power; and that is so even when you talk of good and evil and of the assessment of values…Where I found a living creature, there I found will to power; and even in the will of the servant I found the will to be master.9
In Nietzsche’s thinking, especially, we see the intersection of the four major components of philosophy and worldview (epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and socio-political thought), and the impossibility of practical agnosticism applied in these areas. These components demand commitment, and Nietzsche exposes inconsistency in the assumptions and conclusions of the agnostic commitment.
The views of Descartes, Hume, and Nietzsche represent three prominent epistemological perspectives undergirding worldview. For Descartes, reason is the ultimate arbiter of truth, and we can know with certainty by the proper use of reason. For Hume, experience is the ultimate arbiter of truth, and we can know with certainty through sensory verification. For Nietzsche, we cannot know with certainty, therefore we must simply pursue what is valuable to us.
The Bible offers an alternative epistemological model. Remember Bob? Imagine Bob standing in the field taking in and considering the new sights, sounds, smells, and sensations he is experiencing. He looks down and sees a Bible at his feet. He bends down, and reaching out his hands he picks up the Bible. He opens it, and recognizing that the words on the pages are orderly and expressive representations of meaning—just like his own thoughts are—he begins to read in Genesis. He continues through the entire Bible, and then closes it, gazing around him one last time before taking his first step. His first thought after gaining consciousness was, “here I am, I suppose, now what?” The Bible answers the question for him, and encourages him to take his first step. But how?
1 Rene Descartes, Meditations, trans. John Veitch, 1901, 1:3.
2 Meditations, 2:3.
3 Found in Descartes’, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, Part IV.
4 Excerpt from David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, as quoted in Christopher Cone, Life Beyond the Sun: An Introduction to Worldview and Philosophy Through the Lens of Ecclesiastes (Fort Worth, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2009), 32-33.
5 Ibid., 32.
6 Ibid., 34.
7 Brian Leiter, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Nietzsche on Morality (New York: Routledge, 2002), 87
8 Excerpt from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, as quoted in Christopher Cone, Life Beyond the Sun: An Introduction to Worldview and Philosophy Through the Lens of Ecclesiastes (Fort Worth, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2009), 323.
9 Ibid., 326.