Thursday, December 16, 2004

Should You Know? Just Say No!

One of the drives behind postmodern language theory is the sense that any sort of epistemic certainty is equivalent to being an arrogant knower-to be able to know anything with certainty is to arrogantly assert some kind of omniscience. We see this kind of reasoning all the time in our world, especially when it comes to moral judgments. Any moral judgment is totalitarian, and any sense of moral right and wrong is seen as oppressive.

And this view of the world is not just limited to weirdoes on Jerry Springer who have salmon taped to their bodies. One of the motivations behind some of the leaders in the Emergent church movement is this very sense of epistemic humility. It is their contention that any flavor of epistemic foundationalism is tantamount to pride. Part of their corrective is to become more humble about what we know and to be very careful in asserting truths about God and the proclamations of Scripture.

Humility is clearly a biblical virtue, but it is a tricky virtue. About what should we be humble? If we are truly humble, will be know it and be tempted to be proud of it? How should we handle absolute and universal truth if we are limited knowers who need to exercise humility? For instance, what is true of “2+2”? If you know the sum, you probably believe it is the correct sum for everyone at all times. Is it arrogant for you to assert to an 18th century French existentialist that the answer is “4”? Of course not! It would be silly to believe that you should allow the Frenchman to come up with his own answer, whatever that may be. It is not arrogant to claim that something, whose truth value has nothing to do with you, to be true (or false).

I ran across this quote from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (chapter title, “The Suicide of Thought”) recently, and I thought I would let him have the last word in this post:

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn.

1 comment:

The Dawn Treader said...

Excellent stuff.