The Nature of Knowledge
Here’s a simple definition of knowledge: It is to represent reality in thought or experience the way it really is on the basis of adequate grounds. To know something (the nature of cancer, forgiveness, God) is to think of or experience it as it really is, on a solid basis of evidence, experience, intuition, and so forth. Little can be said in general about what counts as “adequate grounds.” The best one can do is to start with specific cases of knowledge and its absence in art, chemistry, memory, mystical experience, scripture, and logic, and formulate helpful descriptions of “adequate grounds” accordingly.
Please note three important things. First, knowledge has nothing to do with certainty or an anxious quest for it. One can know something without being certain about it and in the presence of doubt or the admission that one might be wrong. Recently, I know that God spoke to me about a specific matter, but I admit it is possible I am wrong about this (though, so far, I have no good reason to think I am wrong). When Paul says, “This you know with certainty” (Ephesians 5:5, NASBScripture quotations marked (NASB®) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. (www.lockman.org)), he clearly implies that one can know without certainty; otherwise, the statement would be redundant. Why? If I say, “Give me a burger with pickles on it,” I imply that it is possible to have a burger without pickles. If, contrary to fact, pickles were simply essential ingredients of burgers, it would be redundant to ask for a burger with pickles. The parallel to “knowledge with certainty” should be easy to see.
Second, one can know something without knowing how one knows it. If one always has to know how one knows something before one can know it, then one would also have to know how one knows how one knows something, and so on to infinity. Life is too short for such lengthy regresses, and thankfully, we often just know things without having any idea how we do. Thus, a person could know he or she has experienced union with God without being able to tell a skeptic how he or she knows this.
Finally, one can know without knowing that one knows. Consider Joe, an insecure yet dedicated high school student, who is about to take his history final. He has studied thoroughly and knows the material, but when a friend asks him if he is prepared for the test, he says, “No.” In this case, Joe actually knows the material, but he doesn’t know he knows it. Thus, he lacks confidence. In general, confidence in the spiritual or mystical life does not come simply from knowledge, but from knowing one has it. This “second-order” knowledge (knowledge about having knowledge) is especially important for those who would teach about spiritual life and be spiritual directors. As we shall see, postmodernism denies the possibility of having knowledge—even of what the Bible teaches—and thus, it robs people of the confidence, authority, and skill needed to make progress in the way of Jesus and lead others in that way.
In addition to these three observations about knowledge, there are three different kinds of knowledge: knowledge by acquaintance, propositional knowledge, and know-how.
- Knowledge by acquaintance happens when we are directly aware of something; e.g., when I see an apple directly before me or pay attention to my inner feelings, I know these things by acquaintance. One does not need a concept of an apple or knowledge of how to use the word apple in English to have knowledge by acquaintance with an apple. A baby can see an apple without having the relevant concept or linguistic skills. Knowledge by acquaintance is sometimes called “simple seeing,” being directly aware of something.
- Propositional knowledge is knowledge that an entire proposition is true. For example, knowledge that “the object there is an apple” requires having a concept of an apple and knowing that the object under consideration satisfies the concept. Propositional knowledge is justified true belief; it is believing something that is true on the basis of adequate grounds.
- Know-how is the ability to do certain things, e.g., to use apples for certain purposes. We may distinguish mere know-how from genuine know-how or skill. The latter is know-how based on knowledge and insight and is characteristic of skilled practitioners in some field. Mere know-how is the ability to engage in the correct behavioral movements, say, by following the steps in a manual with little or no knowledge of why one is performing these movements.
Because this is so important, let me elaborate on these three kinds of knowledge. The first sort of knowledge is knowledge by simple seeing—by directly experiencing something. One can think of a tree, of God, or of whether one is angry, but these are all different from being directly aware of the tree, God, or one’s inner state of anger. Knowledge by acquaintance is an important foundation for all knowledge, and in an important sense, experience or direct awareness of reality is the basis for everything we know. Experience is more basic than ultimate worldview presuppositions, and in fact, the evidence of experience provides data for evaluating rival worldviews or interpretations of some event.
One should not limit what one can see or be directly aware of to the five senses. One can also be directly aware of one’s own soul and inner states of thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs, and so forth by introspective awareness of one’s inner life. One can be directly aware of God and his presence in mystical experience, of his speaking to one in guidance, of the Spirit’s testimony to various things, and so forth. From Plato to the present, many philosophers have believed—correctly, in my view—in what is called rational awareness, the soul’s ability to be directly aware of aesthetic and moral values, numbers and the laws of mathematics, the laws of logic, and various abstract objects such as humanness, wisdom, and so forth. The important thing to note is that we humans have the power to “see,” to be directly aware of, to experience a wide range of things directly, many of which are not subject to sensory awareness with the five senses.
To simply see an apple (or experience God in contemplative prayer) is to be directly aware of it. To see something as an apple (or God) requires that one have acquired the concept of being an apple (perhaps from repeated exposure to simply seeing apples) and applied it to the object before one. To see that an object is an apple (or God), one must have the entire thought in one’s mind, “The object before me is an apple,” and judge that the object genuinely corresponds to that thought. All three have relevance to mystical experience and awareness of God.
Given the reality and nature of knowledge by acquaintance, it follows that knowledge does not begin with presuppositions, language, concepts, one’s cultural standpoint, worldview, or anything else. It starts with awareness of reality. Seeing as and seeing that do require that one have presuppositions, concepts, and so forth. One’s presuppositions and so forth will influence how one sees things as such and such, e.g., as a healing from God; and one’s worldview will influence one’s seeing that or judging that such and such, e.g., seeing or judging that this event is a miraculous healing. But one’s worldview does not determine the way we see or judge things. That’s far too strong. Influence is one thing; determination is another. Failure to make this distinction has contributed to confusions I will address later.
And because we have direct acquaintance with the world itself prior to seeing as (applying a concept to something) or seeing that (judging that an entire proposition is true), we can compare the way we see things or judge things with the things themselves, and thereby we can adjust our worldview. For example, because we actually see the person get well, we can verify or disconfirm that we are right to see the event as, or judge that, it was a miracle from God. Knowledge by acquaintance gives us direct access to reality as it is in itself, and we actually know this to be the case in our daily lives.