What do you know?

For some time I have been saying that all teaching and all knowledge begins with the senses. Now I don’t know why I ever said that because I realize I don’t and never really did believe it.

I think I simply didn’t realize what I was saying.

This notion is probably rationally absurd and certainly not Biblical.

For one thing, the Bible makes it clear that we know God’s law from the day we are born. That is why when I teach Aesop’s Fables (and I never tell the moral), I never hear anybody make an immoral application. Children get the morals more rapidly than adults do, and that point in itself bears great reflection.

There are things we know “by necessity.” But there are other things we know even before necessity presents itself. We know them by nature, in the sense that they are woven into our nature. We know, for example, that different things are similar and that similar things are different. We know that events occur in sequence.

We also know things that cannot be defended by words or even necessarily put into words, things that may not even be comprehensible, and yet things that precede all knowledge. We know that we are souls, for example. We just might not know what souls are. We also know there is a God, though we cannot know what God is.

This being so, it is dangerous to try to build a philosophical argument to defend the existence of these things, not because we seek to be irrational, but because two errors follow from the attempt:

  1. We misdefine the thing we are talking about
  2. We reduce the thing we are talking about to what we can understand.

As a result, a third error follows, namely that if someone doesn’t want to believe in what we are talking about, they can 1. point to our inadequate idea and disregard that and 2. attack our argument and think that doing so shows that the thing we are talking about does not exist.

If I were debating a “new atheist” or a french man, when they snickered at me, smirking, “ah, so you believe in god, do you?” I would answer, “Probably not. What do you mean?” If they could attach meaning to the word, I would know that whatever meaning they have attached would not refer to the true God, so I would say, “No, I don’t believe in that God either.”



3 Responses

  1. I think it is only in the English-speaking cultures that people are stuck on this notion that all knowledge must have a source in the senses. But there is plenty of evidence (and excellent arguments) that we have several different kinds of knowledge that do not rest in the senses.

    One example is language. If the most important linguist of the 20th century, Noam Chomsky, is correct (and I believe he is–my Ph.D is in linguistics), the most important aspect of language–syntax–the ordering of constituents in human language, is innately given by certain structures in the human brain, structures which animals do not have. Syntax is not given to us by any sense organ.

    Another example of non-sensory knowledge has been explored by the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose writings, especially on the concepts of authority and tradition as contributing to anyone’s understanding of oral and written discourse (in Truth and Method, NY: Crossroad, 1989) describe how humans in themselves bodily internalize and transform tradition.

    While I personally do not believe in God, given the fact that we humans have various forms of nonsensory knowledge, any argument for God should utilize modern linguistic and philosophical knowledge of the nature and origin of this nonsensory knowledge.

  2. When you deny that knowledge begins with the senses, do you mean beginning in a temporal sense, or in an ideal sense?

    It seems the distinction is helpful, because a strong argument can be made that understanding is made possible by higher structures of experience. This doesn’t have to be Kantian, both Platonism and Aristotelianism could be understood this way.

    However, it also seems that, in terms of sequence, sensory perception precedes the more a priori things you mentioned. St. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, claims that the intellectual part of the soul requires the sensible part of the soul to have anything to think of in the first place (which in turn, requires the nutritional part of the soul). The intelligible, in his account of evolution, comes last in order of sequence, but first in order of logical priority.

    On a slightly different issue, are you saying that we should not use a posteriori arguments for God’s existence?

  3. It seems we ought to be careful to make a distinction between ‘what’ we know and ‘how’ we come to know it. It may be that we know something from a very young age (I would hesitate to say “from birth” in a strict sense only because I cannot think of a criterion of knowledge that would here apply, that would also apply to an adult, i.e., what does it mean for an infant “to know”), but that we nevertheless learn them from our senses.

    I don’t think your example of Aesop’s Fables necessarily makes your case. Young children may still infer these morals from their experiences with others & previous lessons from parents/authorities.

    I do agree that all knowledge presupposes certain first principles which themselves have no further justification (along the lines of those advanced by Thomas Reid), but which are impossible to deny. Nevertheless, we may come to know these first principles from our senses.

    A further question I have is, “why should I be bothered that all my knowledge is rooted in my senses?” Especially senses which were created and designed by a trustworthy God to function accurately, if not perfectly (possibly due to the Fall)?

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