Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Emergent and Truth II: Can We Be Certain?

The Emergent and Postmodern penchant for uncertainty and our cultural captivity misses a couple of very important points when it comes to human beings as knowers. It is certainly true that we all see the world through lenses, and that our cultures often provide lenses for us that we know not of. But that then does not make it true that we are unalterably bound by our cultures, that language is a kind of game we cannot escape, that we cannot find any kind of epistemic objectivity, or that our belief system as Christians is a muddle of Western and Greek cultures more than is it a genuine representation of Christ and the Apostles.

So can we genuinely know things with any kind of objectivity or are we insurmountably bound by our communities? A good place to begin thinking about this would be the distinction between psychological objectivity and what we might call rational objectivity. Psychological objectivity describes a knower who is outside of or above any particular bias about an issue. While psychological objectivity may be rare or seem to be an impossible mental state, it really does exist. You are totally objective about the present temperature in Singapore. So it exists in any person’s catalogue of knowledge, but it may be trivial in many instances. A second note about psychological objectivity is that it is a good thing in several ways. We adhere to beliefs like the value of family and the good of voting in a democratic society through our cultural lenses. But we are not wrong on either count, and it would be a vice, for instance, to constantly regard your family with an affectionate disconnection.

Psychological objectivity appears to be the only kind of objectivity Emergent authors and pomos are willing to admit. But there is another that makes all the difference. The second form, rational objectivity, is simply the state of having good reasons for believing something, or, having good epistemic access to a thing itself. It is crucial to note the relationship between psychological and rational objectivity:

Being psychologically committed to a belief does not exclude rational objectivity,
Rational objectivity is probably the more important of the two, and it is an entirely possible epistemic state.

If either one of those propositions were false (as some Emergent and all pomo authors claim), then we are in a pickle indeed. If bias made rational objectivity impossible, math teachers would not be a reliable source of mathematical instruction (they would be too biased). You can multiply the examples ad infinitum, leading to utter absurdity.

The best kind of example within a Christian context would be some apologetic matter such as the historical reliability of the Scriptures. I am psychologically committed to their historical reliability, but I have good reasons behind that belief. I do not believe the proposition, “the Christian Scriptures are reliable,” because I dreamt it or because a squirrel once spelled it out in nuts on my back porch. Those would obviously be bad reasons for believing anything, and if we are honest with ourselves, we know the difference between good and bad reasons.

Many Emergents believe they are doing us all a service by rejecting “Modern” or “Enlightenment” views of things and picking up on a much more Postmodern view of things. Exactly the opposite is true in too many cases to count.


Steve said...

Thanks Phil-

Very good post! Though you and I are coming to the emerging church discussion from very different places, and I am probably more sympathetic, I agree that much of the emerging church discussion is off base.


Tim S said...


As we know, it comes down to the question "what is truth and how do we know it?". A big question with an entire field of study (epistimology) devoted to it. Unfortunately, how some define "truth" doesn't even reflect the traditional English definition but often is simply just a term contorted on to another English word, say "perspective" (truth and perspective aren't the same thing).

Having not heard the term before, I find "psychological objectivity" as defined in the blog somewhat curious. We often do not associate "psychological" with "objectivity". Rather it seems to be related to more subjective matters (i.e. outside influences, environment, feelings that produce a psychological state).

Also, interestingly, if you say "psychological objectivity" (an oxymoronic term in some ways), as defined in the blog, to be the only kind of objecvtivity Emergent authors admit then they have unknowingly adhered to the success of the scientific principle! After all, how do you know you are objective about the temperature? Because all the participants have agreed upon a common temperature gauge that is assumed to be correct (and it's assumed it's correct based on observation and test in light of our knowledge of thermodynamics).

Public Theologian said...


I think the math illustration is off base. Mathemeatical problms can be solved by various means which are sbjective and mathematical systems, like the Babylonian's which were based on 60 rather than 10 are also subjective.

To say that signs can mean more than one thing is not to say that meaning doesn't exist. That we agree on the meaning of a given sign says something about US, however, not necessarliy anything inherent in the meaning of the signs themselves.

I too believe in the reliability of the scriptures, but I do so as a matter of faith, not as matter of reason. So it is possible even to agree on the meaning of the sign )as when one solves a geometry problem with a different set of theorems) but to have arrived at the conclusion by differing means.

My disagreement with those who want to advocate objectivity is that they have no theory which will stand to scrutiny either in language or physics whereby to make such absolute statements. There is a lot of fearmongering about what will happen to the world if we can't spell truth with a capital T but no decent evidence as to why it is necessary that we should. Why isn't it enought o simply say that we share a language gane with most people in our environment and that probably 99% of our utterances, verbal or written, are intelligible based upon that shared framework, but that at certain points our expereinces differ and agreement cannot be reached on the other 1%? What is wrong with that? Of course, the farther afield we get from our language game, the dissonance increases. Talking with a North Korean for example, would probably yield a much higher percentage of dissonance. But again, why is this observation wrong?

Why is it so important for you to be able to assert a universally valid, universally applicable lamguage and logic? Isn't that simply a political move designed to use Christian muscle to force its sopposedly transparent and universal worldview on everyone else?