Wednesday, June 01, 2005

ontology and epistemology

Last week, I was having a conversation with a friend about apologetics, and I mentioned that I wasn't 100% certain that Christianity was true. She was surprised by that. For some strange reason, every time I said, "I am less than 100% confident that Christianity is true," she heard me say, "I am confident that Christianity is less than 100% true."

The reason I'm writing this blog is because I had a conversation last fall with somebody who had this same misunderstanding. In both cases, I had a really difficult time explaining the difference in a way they could understand. I figured since two people who don't know each other both had the exact same misunderstanding, the fault must be with me. I just want to throw out some thoughts on the subject, though.

I think the confusion comes in not distinguishing between ontology and epistemology. Epistemology has to do with our knowledge or belief about something. Ontology has to do with the thing itself. There is a difference between reality and our beliefs about reality. Reality is some particular way, and whatever way it is, it is 100% so. My beliefs about reality, however, may not be based on conclusive evidence. Many of my beliefs about reality are based on probabilities.

If there are cookies in the cookie jar, for example, then it's 100% true that there are cookies in the cookie jar. But that doesn't mean everybody knows for sure that there are cookies in the cookie jar. A person may suspect there are cookies in the cookie jar, because he smells cookies in the air and figures somebody must've recently baked some and put them in there. But it's also possible that cookies were baked and eaten, and there are no cookies left. But that's unlikely since there's only one person living there. So this person believes there are cookies in the cookie jar, but there's room for doubt. Their belief that there are cookies in the cookie jar is less than 100% certain.

When I say I'm not 100% certain that Christianity is true, all I'm saying is that I'm fallible. I could be wrong. Christianity is either true or it's not true, but I can't know with absolute certainty which it is. David Hume once said that a wise man proportions his beliefs to the evidence. The stronger the evidence, the stronger we should believe. I'm pretty confident that Christianity is true, but it's possible that I'm mistaken.

Whether I believe something or not has nothing to do with whether it's true or not. A thing can be true even if I think it's false. A thing can be true even if I don't know whether it's true or false. A thing can be 100% true even if I only suspect that it's probably true.

7 Comments:

At 6/06/2005 7:33 AM , Blogger Jeff Downs said...

Are you 100% sure that you are not 100% sure that Christianity is not true?

 
At 6/06/2005 4:24 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Yes.

 
At 6/06/2005 4:48 PM , Blogger Jeff Downs said...

So, the certainty of God's existence (the Christian God), takes a back seat to your being certain that you not 100% sure that God exists?

 
At 6/06/2005 6:52 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Jeff, there are very few things I'm 100% certain of. I'm 100% certain of what I'm thinking because I have immediate access to my thoughts. I don't know that God exists with the same kind of certainty that I know what I'm thinking and feeling.

I don't see why this should trouble you. I mean which can you be more certain of--your own existence of God's existence? If you're more sure of your own existence than you are of God's existence, does that mean God takes a backseat to you?

 
At 6/07/2005 7:45 AM , Blogger Jeff Downs said...

Seems a little strange that knowledge of ones-self is more certain then the one who makes knowledge possible. Calvin had some interesting comments to say about this.

We are told in Romans 1 that God has made himself plain, He is clearly seen, we know God and we know God's laws.

Psalm 19 tells us that the heavens speak of God's glory and his work, etc...

Since our knowledge is revelational - not derived from ourselves, I think it is safe to say that we can be certain of the existence of the all-conditioner (Acts 17).

 
At 6/07/2005 8:20 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Jeff, since my existence (along with all my knowledge and everything else) depends on God, then God is ontologically prior to me. We seem to agree on that much.

Epistemologically, however, I am prior to everything else. Before I can know anything at all, I must first exist. If I didn't at least exist, I couldn't know anything about God, because there would be no me to do the knowing. So epistemologically, I am prior to God. That's why I'm more certain of my own existence than I am of God's existence.

This same distinction between epistemology and ontology can also be found in the two passages you cited--Romans 1 and Psalm 19. Both passages basically say that God is known through his creation.

Think about this. How is it that the heavens declare God's glory? How is it that God is known through what has been made? Well, the only way for creation to reflect anything about God is if God is the cause of creation. In other words God created it. If God created it, then the universe depends on God for its existence. That means God is ontologically prior to the universe.

Since God created the universe, the universe reflects his glory. That's why God's existence is evident in what has been made. Although creation comes by way of God, our knowledge of God comes by way of creation. That means creation is epistemologically prior to God.

Creation exists because of God, so God is ontologically prior to creation. But God is known because of creation, so creation is epistemologically prior to God.

 
At 6/07/2005 10:09 AM , Blogger Jeff Downs said...

"Creation exists because of God, so God is ontologically prior to creation. But God is known because of creation, so creation is epistemological prior to God."

But, creation is not the only way God has made himself known. I don't believe we can separate general and special revelation. We always...from the time of Adam, need both. But, ur knowledge of anything is revelational - reveal by God. So, if God makes knowledge possible, He would be epistemologically prior to creation.

 

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