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Epistemology, part 3

June 30, 2012

“I don’t care how many books you’ve read or who’ve you talked to, I know it’s real because I had an experience.” Interesting enough, I’ve heard both Christians and those who believe in extra-terrestrial (E.T.?!) life make this claim. One argues only God exists as the extra special Being, and another is convinced that only aliens are really real. How do we settle the debate? Both have had very powerful experiences which has shaped and changed their lives. Again, this is why the issue of epistemology is so crucial for us to understand as Christians.
Before we proceed, let’s review where we’ve been so far. First, we learned epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. It is the study of the foundations people base their knowledge on they profess. It deals in the area of ultimate truth claims, assumptions, and presuppositions. Second, we saw how reason cannot give us the ultimate basis for knowledge. We are not denying reason plays a role. It is a subservient role though. Reason has weaknesses because it neither has the power or time to reason everything about everything nor reason about everything in relation to everything. Therefore, there will always be room for ‘doubt and uncertainty’ about any conclusion of so called ‘knowledge’ that is based on reason as the ultimate standard of knowing reality/truth. This week we will look at the role of experience plays (or, should not?!) in our basis of knowledge.
No doubt, it is hard to convince anyone out of an experience. Matter of fact, it is culturally taboo to even seek to undermine another person’s perceived experience (unless you’re seeking to undermine a Christian’s experience, then it’s open season!) There is something very appealing to our culture the loves experiences. Here’s why: it is because a belief in ultimate truth has died. People no longer think/feel(?) absolute truth exists so the only way to validate or give meaning to one’s existence is to do it through subjective experience. The ‘perceived truthfulness’ of an experience is dependent on how much it PERSONALLY impacts the individual, not whether it affects others. Here is the idol of where our culture, and sometimes our churches, worship.
This is existentialism. I EXPERIENCE reality and how I perceive I experience it validates to me the MEANINGFULNESS of my existence. Many believe here is where truth is discovered and understood. The experience of the moment/event makes it real and therefore becomes my way of knowing truth. But can experience be the ultimate basis for our knowledge? Surely, experience teaches us things nothing else can. I mean, who doesn’t base their life on their experiences?!
The problem with experience being the ultimate foundation or assumption of how we know what we know is fraught with weaknesses. To be brief, experience cannot be our epistemology nor give us certainty about the knowledge we do have from experience. Let me list some more obvious ones: Who has experienced everything? Then how do you know you fully understand your own experience? How do you know there is not something you’ve missed in an alternate experience that would make your knowledge more full and therefore more certain? Further, who has the intellectual capacity, time availability, resources (physically), etc to experience everything ABOUT everything?! No human that I know of!
Consider, who has access to all things to even be able to experience everything? How do you know with certainty that your experiences are not just illusions? Or, how can you be sure your interpretation is the correct one? Haven’t other people had more intelligence, happenings, time, etc to judge experience better than you? Experience as an epistemology leaves one in a cloud of confusion and permeating doubt. This is no way to know conclusively. It’s why those who base their lives on experiences have to keep having more and more experiences just so that they can keep life ‘meaningful’. As soon as the former experience fades, it’s time for a new one. This how some churches go from mild experience based to having more and more volatile services. Since the experience is validation of the truth, they begin to make the experiences greater so their sense of ‘certainty’ is stronger.
We can’t continue to live here. Experience has and will continue to kill the church’s witness if we make it our ultimate basis for knowledge (epistemology). And that is certain.

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