How Do You Know?

The official name for the branch of philosophy that is concerned about what knowledge is and how we obtain it (as well as what its limits are) is epistemology.  This post is not an attempt to make a thoroughgoing statement about epistemology.  It is, however, a somewhat more than skin deep dive into the matter.  There are a couple of catalysts to this dive.  Actually there are three.

1.  EQ -This is shorthand for Emotional Intelligence, a phrase coined by Daniel Goleman (who happened to write a book with that exact title).  Emotional Intelligence refers to the type of intelligence that picks up on more than the information that is being formally given in any communication or relationship.  It also picks up on what is unspoken, what is felt, what is communicated non-verbally and in the context of all previous communication.  Goleman bases this on the architecture of the brain.  The human brain seems to develop in three specific stages.  The first stage involves the brain stem, which controls involuntary actions like the heartbeat and reflexes.  The second stage involves our limbic system, which develops around the stem and controls our emotions.  The third stage is the cortex and neocortex, which controls complex thinking.  Research seems to indicate that we respond to stimuli in the same order as our brain develops.  The limbic system, which stores our emotional memory, seems to have a direct connection to our thalamus (or stem), so we feel about stimuli before we think about it.  Every experience is processed emotionally before it is processed rationally.  We feel before we think and how we feel influences how and what we think.  People with a high EQ tend to be more intuitively in touch with others and process unspoken, intuitive or emotional communication well.

2.  Men with Chests – C.S. Lewis in “The Abolition of Man” refers to the way language can be used to corrupt genuine knowledge (as opposed to information).  For Lewis, genuine knowledge is not merely the acquisition of information via reason.  It is the use of the head (reason) to rule over the belly (appetites and desires) via the chest (what Plato called “the spirited element” or emotions that are trained by the habit of virtue into stable sentiments).  The stability of sentiment, or ordering of emotion is determined by what St. Augustine referred to as “ordo amoris”.  This is loving what should be loved and hating what should be hated all in its proper priority and proportion.  So, we process stimuli emotionally but we need to train or order these emotions properly to be able to properly process or “know”.  If we have ordered, healthy, mature emotions then we are able to genuinely know.  The inverse, unfortunately, also seems to be true.  Damaged, immature and unhealthy emotions inhibit our ability to genuinely know.

3.  Adam knew Eve – The primary Hebrew and Greek words that are translated “know” or “knowledge” (or similar) in the Bible  – Yadah, Ginosko (forgive the rough transliterations) – are relational in nature.  When the Bible says that Adam knew Eve and she conceived we are not talking about the mere processing of information.  We are talking about intimacy, in every way possible.  Biblical “knowledge” doesn’t divorce ideas from reality or information from concrete experience.  When Jesus refers to eternal life as “that they may know You, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3) it is not correct information that is the question.  Knowledge involves relationship and intimacy.  We are to acknowledge (yadah) the Lord in all of our ways (just like Adam knew Eve).  Otherwise, we can’t be properly said to truly know anything – despite how much information we have stored in our brains.

So truth is relative, but that is not in the sense that it is not absolute.  It is relative in the sense that it does not exist in a vacuum.  Knowledge is not neutral, it always points to Someone.  How do we know?  Only by Who we know.

Weighty

This isn’t a blog post about diet and exercise and it certainly isn’t about scales.  It is about giving things their appropriate weight.  What do I mean by that?  Let me start with a quotation from Scripture about the prophet Samuel.

“And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” (1st Samuel 3:19)

I love that phrase “let none of his words fall to the ground”.  It means that when Samuel spoke, people listened.  He could not be ignored.  What he had to say was worth saying and was worth hearing.  His words had weight.  They had content.  We live in a time of endless words.  We can watch TV, listen to music or surf the internet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  We carry cell phones so that we are never out of touch.  We text, we tweet, we Facebook (yeah, Facebook is not only a noun, it’s also a verb).  E-mail is becoming obsolete.  Our good friends that we live right across the street from sometimes text or Facebook us instead of picking up the phone or knocking on the door.  We are completely connected and all too often isolated at the same time.  Communication has become cotton candy, it is sweet, easy, pretty and of absolutely no nutritional value.  It has no weight.  Most of it is noise, completely unimportant.  If I am honest with myself, I say a lot of things that just fall to the ground.  I can blather on for paragraphs about subjects that are trivial.  But how much attention do we give to what is the most valuable, the most important, the most weighty?

For the last couple of months, the bedtime reading for our boys has been the “Little House” books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  We finished “Little House in the Big Woods” and “Little House on the Prairie” and are now reading “Farmer Boy”, the story of the some of the childhood of Laura’s eventual husband, Almanzo.  They are fun books, a window into a different time that really wasn’t all that long ago.  There are long detailed descriptions of farming techniques, churning butter, the building of a log cabin and activities that seem so foreign to my family and me. One thing that has made an impression on me is how hard people (including children not much older than my boys) worked for subsistence and how thankful they were for what we consider to be simple, unimportant things.  It amazes me how little time they wasted.  They were rarely idle. There was always something important that needed to be done.  By comparison, we are idle.  How much time do we spend doing things of very little value?

I am convinced that we live in a time of lightness.  A time of spiritually empty calories.  Of celebrity gossip and political sound bites.  Of cliches and bumper sticker philosophy.  Of entertainment that can only be described as “idiocracy”.  What is the way out?

Why did Samuel’s words have impact?  Why was he weighty in his presence and communication?  I think the answer to that is found in the chapter before.  Samuel learned to hear God’s voice and grew up in the presence of God (represented by the Tabernacle in Shiloh during this time frame).  He lived, worked and spent large amounts of time in God’s presence.  There isn’t any substitute for that.  God’s presence, His glory is weighty.  In fact the Hebrew word for glory can be translated as “weighty”.  When we spend time in that presence, the glory, the weightiness of God soaks in.  Priorities get re-ordered in God’s presence.  Our very way of thinking gets changed.  We learn (for lack of a gentler way to put it) to shut up and listen.

I am typically pretty tough to beat in a game of Trivial Pursuit.  I would like to be little less trivial and a lot more weighty.

Planet Narnia

Yes, I know….the title of this post sounds like an awful science fiction movie from the 1950s.  But it is actually the title of a book written by Michael Ward which claims (and in my opinion, proves quite convincingly) that the seven books in the Narnia series written by C.S. Lewis correspond thematically to the seven planets of medieval cosmology.  The basic breakdown is as follows:

  1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Jupiter
  2. Prince Caspian – Mars
  3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – the Sun (yes in medieval cosmology the Sun was considered a planet)
  4. The Silver Chair – the Moon (see comment on the Sun above)
  5. The Horse and His Boy – Mercury
  6. The Magician’s Nephew – Venus
  7. The Last Battle – Saturn

Why this is significant is that for many years, critics (even as far back as J.R.R. Tolkien, who hated the Narnia books) considered the works – charming as they were- to be kind of a sloppy mish-mash of mythologies with Christian themes kind of shoehorned in clumsily.  After all, what the heck is Father Christmas doing in The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe when in Narnia there isn’t a figure known as Christ?  Furthermore, other critics tended to consider Lewis’ foray into children’s literature to be something of a retreat or departure from Christian apologetics after his well-publicized defeat in debate by the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (who was herself a quite committed Christian).  Neither of these things is true.  The fact that Lewis could effectively hide a layer of meaning in his books that stayed hidden for over 50 years shows how multi-layered and complex these deceptively simple works really are.  But the other thing this shows is something that endlessly fascinates me.

Lewis, the straightforward polemical debater, came to believe (if he ever really believed otherwise) that in many ways Truth is much more effectively communicated via the vehicle of story, myth or parable (or even for lack of a better term, fairly tale) than straightforward polemical argument.  Jesus, after all, told many parables and the Bible does not present a coherently argued philosophy as much as it tells a Story.  I think that this is true in many, many ways.  We have difficulty processing facts and events that do not fit neatly into the narrative (or another way of putting it, reality) that we have constructed for ourselves.  This is often seen in political discourse, Ronald Reagan is seen as the ultimate tax-cutter by some despite the fact that as President (and Governor of California for that matter) he raised taxes several times for various reasons.  Barack Obama ran explicitly in 2008 as a peace candidate but has increased troops in Afghanistan, greatly increased unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan and involved the U.S. in a war (er, kinetic action) in Libya.  Facts that don’t fit neatly into a narrative tend to be either ignored or re-defined to fit the narrative.

Where this really hits home is in our personal lives.  Who constructs the narrative that the facts of our life fit into?  That really is a question that determines a great deal of the way that we live.  One way of looking at life in Christ is that is the constant battle to deconstruct the harmful narratives that the world, the Enemy, ourselves or others (or all of the above) have built into our life and reconstruct the narrative of God’s actions and presence in our lives through the action of the Holy Spirit.

If you like the Narnia books, I would highly recommend reading Ward’s book or getting a hold of the DVD – “The Narnia Code” which was produced for BBC.  The documentary is very, very British (and I mean that in a good way) and teases out themes in Lewis’ work I had never really considered before.  Check it out.