Longing to Know – 10/15/2017

When I taught courses in physics and engineering, occasionally a student – one who didn’t know me well – would ask a question clearly designed to ferret out what would be on the next exam.  “Is this topic really important?”  or “Are we going to be responsible to know this?” or, more blatantly, “Is this kind of problem going to be on the next exam?”  I would always react firmly.  “Everything I discuss in this course is really important or I wouldn’t waste my time and your time on it!” or “If you’re going to be an engineer, you’re going to be responsible for everything  you do!” or, more blatantly, “You should know that that question offends me.  I’ll never tell you what’s going to be on the next exam.  Study everything!  And quit whining!”

On the other hand, I love questions from students who want to learn something because they want to know more, because the subject interests them, because they know that knowing more is the stuff of life.

So how do we learn things?  How do we know what we know?  That’s a branch of philosophy called epistemology, usually a topic for the dry textbooks of courses in which students only care about what’s on the next exam.  Epistemology doesn’t have to be dry, though.  Hey, it’s important to know why and how you can have assurance on all kinds of beliefs, from whether you can trust the airline to get you to your destination to whether the Earth actually travels in an elliptical orbit around the Sun, to whether God exists and life has any point to it.

Blog 107 image - dolphins swimmingSuch is the subject of Esther Lightcap Meek’s 2003 book, Longing to Know:  The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People.  I love this book!  She (EM) fulfills her promise . . . this is a highly readable book for all those of us who were smart enough to avoid subjecting ourselves to formal courses in philosophy.  It’s written with a definite feminine touch and that’s particularly rare for any work in philosophy or apologetics.

A definition from her book:  “Knowing is the human act of making sense of experience, connecting the dots.  It is shaping a plethora of details in and around us, alongside us and ahead of us, in pursuit of a pattern.  We access the pattern by struggling to look through the details to a farther focus.  A successful effort transforms the clues we rely on.”

EM:  “Know is a success word:  when we use it we imply that we were successful at getting the truth right.”  If I say I know my wife is at the fabric store, it implies a certainty that I would have to revise if I get a call from her to find out that she took the shorter trip to WalMart and didn’t need to go to the mall after all.  Knowing, therefore, is real to us and extremely useful, but not infallible in practice.  But what good is a truth claim that turns out to be false?  We want to be sure about our title’s claim for the house we buy and we want to be sure that the aircraft’s pilot and the maintenance crew are reliable.  The stakes can be huge and yet we make decisions every day based on knowledge that is certainly not infallible.

We make vital decisions regularly on the basis of knowledge that we acquire in a very different way from the truth claims of logic or mathematics.  Knowing is more complicated than that, and that’s the theme of EM’s book.  Knowing is a very human process.  It’s messy, it’s varied, and that’s just the way life is.  How this couples into theology, into the foundations of our Christian faith, is worth thinking about.

Esther Lightcap Meek

Esther Lightcap Meek

Here’s a messy example from my own life . . . I spent a lot of years learning how to hit tennis balls.  I was a fairly accomplished amateur.  I really knew how to hit a tennis ball.  But how?  Did I solve equations for conservation of energy and momentum, calculate trajectories, estimate the ATP burn rate in my muscles, do an optimization analysis of spin and speed and direction to insure winning the point?  Of course not.  You have to learn a lot to hit a tennis ball well, but this knowing is not entirely reducible to words.  Similarly, how do you know you can trust someone close to you?  Do you prepare a spreadsheet and weight events in your relationship, generating a ‘score’ that measures trust?  No, it’s a complex and holistic process with innumerable variables.

With all the variables and uncertainties in knowing, should we default to skepticism, that we can’t know anything at all, that truth doesn’t exist?  Or to postmodernism, where truth is entirely personal?  No, nobody lives that way.  To get through life, to earn a living in the real world, to develop relationships, to become more skillful and more successful, EM points out that we have to know quite a lot!

Many philosophers through the ages have insisted “that knowledge is limited to what can be put into words and justified.  We think of knowledge as statements and proof.”  If so, scientific discoveries would never take place, which depend on leaps of intuition and recognition of patterns quite un-verbalizable.  And if we had to start with logic, math, and physics, no one would ever learn to hit a tennis ball.  EM observes that logic and propositional statements have their value – enormous value – but are only a component in the much vaster realm of human knowing, which goes well beyond the realm of strict logical certainty.

Blog 107 image - Roger FedererEM uses as one of her key models those 3-D computer-generated posters that, on the surface, look like a jumble of colors and random shapes.  But if you move your face away from the picture and keep your eyes’ focus beyond the surface, an entirely different pattern emerges, like dolphins swimming.  The instructions suggest getting close to the image and then moving away slowly.  To succeed you trust the people who prepared the instructions and who generated the image.  You allow yourself to be taught.  And yet we struggle to ‘get it’ – at least I do.  But if I doubt the existence of the hidden image or don’t care enough to try, I won’t see it.

The key to learning to see the hidden image is to get past the particulars, the details on the surface.  When I was a youth learning to play center field, I had to learn the particulars of getting a quick jump off the crack of the bat, tracking the ball in flight, running without my head bobbing too much, using my right hand to cover the ball when the glove closes over it . . . but I only became good at playing center field when I got past the particulars and ‘just reacted’ to get that ball racing toward the gap.

The application to apologetics is clear to me.  Detailed evidences for the Christian worldview are innumerable, including the information content of DNA, the sedimentary rock layers and fossils revealed in the Grand Canyon, the clarity of objective morality, the existence of rational thought and personhood . . . To make these evidences compelling to the unbeliever, he must see the deep pattern, the holistic Christian worldview, that God is a personal Creator, that we are accountable, that sin corrupts and destroys, that justice is necessary and that a Savior is vital.

The atheist tries to fit any evidence you offer right into his mythological evolutionary worldview.  Even if he can’t do that sensibly, he’ll live with mysteries and contradictions, because he is committed to the overall myth.  The solution is to present him with the only possible coherent worldview, the Biblical, to enable him to see how evidences fit coherently.  To get saved, he’s got to reject his false worldview entirely, admit he’s been wrong about everything, and embrace the truth of the Gospel, from Genesis to Revelation.  If he’s open to learning, open to knowing, the ‘hidden pattern’ will pop out and he will see enough so that he can make the high stakes choice.  He can stake his eternity, quite rationally, on the Gospel, without coming anywhere near a logical or mathematical proof.

Grand Canyon sedimentary rock layers

Grand Canyon sedimentary rock layers

Back to EM’s definition . . . He will connect the dots to see the overall pattern of God’s truth.  The evangelist gives him the instructions, including Creation and the Gospel and whatever evidences might benefit most helpfully.  The dots, the evidences, help him to see the pattern, and the pattern helps him make sense of the dots.  He is transformed by seeing the pattern and, seeing the pattern, the evidences are transformed in his mind, so he can see the overwhelming significance of everything in God’s creation, including the purpose of his life in God’s world.

When you see the dolphins, you might exclaim, “Oh, I see it!”  My own conversion experience had just such moment, after months of discussions, reading, investigation, and consideration of evidences.  Yet there came a point when ‘the pattern’ lit up for me and all the evidences fit.  The experience was overwhelming and extremely personal.  I cannot to this day articulate what ‘it’ was that convinced me, yet the pattern lit up with all the dots connected.  Then, knowing that it’s all true, and Jesus is who he said He is, I trusted Him.  My knowing transformed me.  The Lord Jesus Christ transformed me.  Life changed.

EM calls this personal process integration.  In mathematics the process of integration in calculus involves adding up an infinite number of particulars.  The result (for a definite integral) is just one number – a unique conclusion that ties all the particulars together.  In systems engineering, integration is the process of designing to insure that all components and subsystems fit together and operate as a coherent unit.

EM:  “Once we have seen the dolphins, we continue to integrate from subsidiaries to maintain our grasp of the focus.  We can lose sight of the dolphins and then have to struggle to regain it.  What causes us to lose sight of the dolphins?  Looking at the surface features of the page and no longer looking through them.”

This is a metaphor in the Christian life for doubt and discouragement, losing sight of the pattern, God’s will for His children.  Maturity is to continually integrate the particulars of life into a life serving the Lord.  Don’t focus on the details.  Yes, we must deal with the details, but our focus must be on the big picture.

the definite integral in calculus

the definite integral in calculus

No matter how good you are at playing tennis, if you start focusing on the mechanics, the mechanics of footwork or stroke production or follow-through, you can freeze up, miss the shot badly or lose confidence horrendously.  If you want to play ‘in the zone’, then focus on the pattern, clobber the ball, and win.  EM:  “The act of knowing is the human’s skilled coping with the world through achieving a coherence, an integrated pattern, a making sense of things, that opens the world to us.”

EM prefers to talk about ‘human acts of knowing’ rather than knowledge.  She cites the example, “My car needs a new power steering pump.”  Her declaration stems from the tingling alarm that spreads over her body as the steering wheel stiffens up.  Her knowing grows as she hears her mechanic’s diagnosis.  She knows enough to act, to drive to the service station, in trepidation all the way.  When the mechanic delivers her once-again functional car to her, she knows that she did make the right call and did the right thing.  Her knowing is validated.  She took responsibility for her knowing and suffered some risk in the trip to the shop.  She paid a small price – in her bank account – but reaped satisfaction.  It’s all quite personal and, yes, tied coherently to the real world of atoms, molecules, pumps, and safe driving.

I see a vital application to apologetics.  The evangelist shares the real world with the sinner and knows that the rebel – even in his determined rebellion – knows certain things.  In shining a light on what the sinner knows about creation, justice, sin, purpose, meaning, etc., keep it personal.  The hearer will not know what you are teaching him until he embraces it personally, involving his own conscience, heart, and will, integrating the truths about the real world and the real God you declare to him.  It’s a blessing that we don’t really have to teach the skeptic or the religious lost fellow entirely novel facts and ideas.  Despite twenty years of evolutionary indoctrination, for example, the skeptical college student knows that he is more than brain chemistry, that an objective morality exists about murder, rape, fornication, lying, etc.  You just have to light up his conscience with what he already knows about himself and the world and focus on his personal accountability and the consequences for his beliefs and actions.

Acknowledging the personal components of knowledge is not the death of truth.  All truth is of God.  All creation is from Him and God’s very character defines the truth of morality, shared by every image-bearer.  It’s the personal components of knowledge that connect us to God’s reality and enable a relationship with Him.  Truths offered impersonally are akin to tools closed up in a toolbox.  It’s only when you take the hammer in hand and drive some nails that you feel its functionality and see the value of what you can accomplish with that tool.  So it is with spiritual truth.  Exhort the sinner to pick it up and use it to change his life and his destiny.  When he knows the Gospel is true, he will act on it and it will save him.

aircraft systems engineering

aircraft systems engineering

EM asks, “How can you come to know anything at all?”  She quotes a text she uses (I don’t have the reference) to teach critical thinking, in a section on scientific reasoning:  “A hypothesis is a free creation of the mind used to structure the evidence and unveil the pattern that lies beneath the surface.”  That’s good, but how do you go about generating a free creation of the mind?  In ancient Greece, Meno asked Socrates, “How will you look for something when you don’t in the least know what it is?”  How do you even get started?

Whether it’s writing poetry, or solving a new physics problem, or looking for a Christmas gift – you’ll know what you want to get her when you see it – how do you start?  EM:  “The knower-to-be relies on sensed but as yet inarticulable clues.  At the time he uses them as clues, he is not yet able to put into words what the clues are.”  All knowing is the result of skilled human effort.

Even in formulaic approaches, as taught to students regarding the ‘scientific method’, defining the problem, collecting data, deciding what data points are valid, testing hypotheses (not to mention creating them in the first place), and drawing conclusions – all these ‘formulaic’ elements have intensely subjective components.  The skill to exercise this subjectivity well, derives from experience, from patterns recognized in developing those skills.  This takes time.  We don’t always realize how much of our past knowing contributes to the skills we use today.  We tend to think of knowing as something that occurs in a moment of time.  We often realize in a moment that we have learned something, but that moment often comes at the end of a process that we might not even be aware of.

Learning Biblical truths is such a process.  After all these years of reading and studying the Bible, I still learn new things every week.  How is that possible?  God’s word has subtlety and depth, of course.  But Scripture is intended to be accessible, and profitable for both novice and senior saint.  When I see something ‘new’, it’s only because I have been integrating patterns for decades that enables me to find another layer in the onion that I was not aware of.  It’s a wonderful experience!

a big-time transformational process

a big-time transformational process

Why is learning a struggle and why do some know a lot more than others?  EM suggests that caring is a major factor.  When you’re severely ill, you tend not to care about anything at all.  As you get better you notice that you start to care again about the details of daily life.  A healthy mind naturally cares enough to integrate the patterns around her, “to make sense of experience.”  The best knowers “will be the ones passionately struggling to make sense of the prospect of knowing God . . . Your longing sustains your effort.”

God commanded man to have dominion, to be God’s steward over the world.  We have been designed with a compulsion to develop creation and, in order to do so, to make sense of it.  “We as humans are compulsive carers.  Human acts of knowing are care-born integrations by which we extend ourselves into the world, shaping and developing the world as we go.”

If we find ourselves merely drifting through life, taking care of business perhaps, but not caring to learn, not actively seeking to know God, not submitting to our inborn compulsion to do something fruitful in this world, then we’ve missed the point of our very existence.  I meet lost people who may assent to the truth of the Gospel to some degree, but they simply don’t care.  Sin is just too easy.  I meet professing Christians who drift for years, even for decades, but apparently have no gumption.  What are they doing?

Integration is not deduction.  In deduction you go from statements called premises towards a conclusion statement.  In a properly deductive argument, the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises.  Here’s a classic . . .

Premise:  All men are mortal.

Premise:  Socrates is a man.

Conclusion:  Socrates is mortal.

Such reasoning is deemed to be the pinnacle of rationality.  On the other hand, integration links apparently unrelated particulars into a pattern that makes sense beyond what you can easily put into words.  “The integration transforms the clues, even as it transforms our selves and our world.  Where there was an inscrutable surface in a Magic Eye puzzle, now dolphins swim in an underwater paradise.”

Since integration is not deduction, is integration irrational?  No, the inferential  process of integration allows us to reach true conclusions without exhaustive information.  That’s powerful!  “Logical inference is too impoverished a procedure to capture the grand thing that is going on in the act of knowing.”  As a teenager I didn’t need to know everything about physics to know that I wanted to major in the subject and then pursue a career in it.  But I had integrated well enough to make the conclusion and act on it.  I didn’t need to know my prospective wife exhaustively to decide to marry.  And I didn’t know God or the Gospel exhaustively or by a complete set of premises to know truly that I needed Jesus as my Lord and Savior . . . I acted on what I knew and my knowing transformed my life and my eternity.

So integration is not irrational at all!  It’s transformational.  “Knowing is the responsible human struggle to rely on clues to focus on a coherent pattern and submit to its reality.”  How about people who know wrongly?  What about atheists, Roman Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, and Calvinists?  Are they not transformed by what they know?  Indeed, what you think you know may transform you, but your purported knowledge is simply not in correspondence with reality.  Heart, emotions, and will combine with mind and conscience to choose how you integrate, what you decide to know.  Reality matters and discernment starts with God’s word . . . no substitute.

Strong emotions, even religious experiences do not warrant integration that connects to reality.  “For example, all of us have known moments of glory, brushes with transcendence, whether in sports or in music, mountains or sunsets, creative acts, childbirths, or acts of heroism.  Those experiences have a bodily dimension to them.  We are caught up, transported.  Something in us cries out for transcendence.”  That’s why God gave us His word as the foundational standard.  God’s revelation must be the ground upon which integration occurs.  When we do that, it is possible to experience God in ways consistent with His design for our relationship with Him.  I have talked to lost people who had religious experiences that overwhelm any consideration on their part of what Biblical truth is.  I believe that this is one of the Adversary’s most effective tricks.

Esther Meek’s book is rich with insights.  In this essay I’ve surveyed – and very roughly at that – about half of the book.  I’ll finish up in the next blog.

  • drdave@truthreallymatters.com

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