Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Gospel Coalition's Claim that Due to Human Finitude Truth Is Subjective

     In his booklet, Can We Know the Truth?, Phillips writes that “humans are finite” and therefore “can only know truth partially, so their knowledge is subjective, selective, and incomplete.”[1] Here Phillips speaks of the human condition for knowing by virtue of creation and apart from any effects of original sin on the mind. (We will consider what he says about the latter in my next post.) Notice that as Phillips makes this claim that truth is subjective because of human finitude he offers no support from either Scripture or philosophy (modern or postmodern). 

     As for the word, "finite" (or "finitude"), though many of us employ this term, it is not found in Scripture. Moreover, one would also not find there man’s capacity for knowledge characterized as “subjective,” "partial”[2], and "selective." On the other hand, one can easily find what Phillips is claiming here about human knowledge in the modern philosophers beginning with Descartes. The modern philosophers, in contrast to Phillips, rightly knew that since most people have a common sense view of truth, it was their responsibility to present some good reasons for believing, to the contrary, that truth is subjective. 

     So what does it mean to say humans are “finite”? Simply put, what is “finite” is “limited” or “restricted.” In a Christian context, human finitude involves a comparison to God who is infinite and, therefore, not limited or restricted. Does the Scripture support such a view? Certainly. But the question is this: What does this mean for us as humans when it comes to our ability to know things? That our knowledge is limited compared to God is trivially obvious. However, both in the Bible and in life, we do commonly experience and are even, as the ninth commandment implies, responsible for an objective apprehension of reality. Indeed, there simply is no reason to equate human finitude or limitedness to defectiveness or errancy for knowing. We do not make such an inference, for instance, when it comes to the limits of our humanity with respect to physical strength. As infinite, God is all-powerful. But we do not infer from such that the power a finite human has to walk or run or throw or lift things is defective or errant. That is, to be finite, in this respect, does not mean that one always limps or falls when one walks or runs; that one cannot throw strikes in baseball; or that one necessarily and always drops things in the act of lifting. To be sure, human power is nothing compared to God, but this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t require us to use the power he has given us (however limited) or that in using such we are always experiencing problems.

     What about Phillips’ claim that human knowledge is "subjective," "partial," and "selective"? When I hear a statement like that, I am always tempted to ask: How would someone know something like that? Is that to be taken as objectively true and reliably knowable? If so, it is self-defeating. If not, then, it is, as a statement about knowledge, just as subjective, partial, and selective as it claims all knowledge is. That is, the statement itself is, for all we know, unreliable or not worthy of acceptance.

     Similarly, how do we know that our knowledge is "partial"? Is that the whole truth? If not, why should we rely on such a partial truth about the nature of knowing? It could be—as "partial"—either misleading or false. Or, if all knowledge is "selective," is that true in a non-selective sense? If not, why should we put stock in a statement about knowing that is openly selective—that may have (again, for all we know) left something quite important out of consideration, leaving us with a distorted view of knowledge?

     More generally, what does this belief that our knowledge of truth is "subjective" even mean, practically speaking? Obviously, to claim that knowledge is subjective implies that it is not objective. However, can we not know or tell others anything objectively true? For instance, if it is not raining outside my house right now (and it isn’t), is it subjective for me to claim as much? If so, why is it that if one were to poll my wife and my next door neighbors, they would have the same answer? It seems reasonable to suppose that if my knowledge that it is not raining outside my house right now were truly subjective it would run askew of what others in the vicinity of the house believe. But it doesn’t. So what sense is there in claiming, as Phillips does, that our knowledge is subjective, when there are so many instances we could point to, even with considerable regularity, that prove otherwise? 

     If knowing is "subjective," this means (or so I understand it) that in subject-object relations for knowing knowledge itself is more about the subject (or centered therein) than the object. This is what some have called the “egocentric predicament,” and others, “the categorio-centric predicament.” (The latter is the view that when it comes to knowledge we as humans are centered in the categories of the mind such that we have no way to get outside ourselves to check if our perceptions match reality.) So, again, this implies that knowledge isn’t centered in the object, and, consequently, cannot be tested or verified by the object itself. Hence, what we claim to know, if subjective, is significantly influenced by our subjective needs, conditions, biases, and inclinations. At best, this means, our knowledge does not correspond to or accord with the reality of the object or thing itself which we claim to know.

     But, again, is this truly what we experience as knowing? Someone has said that no one is a postmodernist at 10,000 feet. It is also true that at that altitude no one believes that truth is subjective, partial, or relative. Indeed, at times like that, we are grateful for how truly objective human knowledge is and can be. We even count on it being so. When I walked into my office just now, I began to list in my mind the kind of things we all commonly know with a high degree of success. For instance, I know the difference between my chair and my desk. (I didn’t attempt to sit on my desk.) I know what switches to use to get the lights on. If I don’t want to hear my radio, I don’t turn the knob that turns it on. As I open my laptop, I know that it does not come on by pushing the knob on my desk drawer. I also know how to read the letters on the keys of my laptop. As I use my word processing software, I know how to form words on the screen by pressing certain keys down. I understand what words I want to use and which words I don’t want to use. The knowledge I am presently conveying will hopefully be read by someone. At that time, our shared knowledge of the English language and perhaps something of the theological and philosophical background for what I am writing here will be helpful. So much of what we do occurs successfully because we indeed have knowledge and are not pervasively errant in our knowing.

     In his Truth and the New Kind of Christian, R. Scott Smith offers a number of every day examples (much better than mine) to demonstrate how we do in reality know much about our world in an objective manner.[3] But this sort of exercise could be done by anyone. And the obvious and perhaps more important question is: why aren’t we doing so? Why are we counting our failures rather than our successes? Why do we focus on the problems there may be with knowing and truth rather than the amazing integrity and consistency we regularly experience in that regard? Why don’t we say of our ability to reliably know things: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psa. 139:14)—and give all praise to God?

     Instead, we seem bent on making rules out of exceptions. For instance, we look at an ambiguous drawing—is it an ugly old hag or beautiful lady—and then think to ourselves: “All reality is ambiguous.” Really? That a particular drawing is ambiguous and even exceptional as such may be true. But how does a rare experience of knowing convince us that this is how it is with all knowing? Are all drawings that ambiguous as to their subject matter? And are all objects in life that ambiguous for any attempt to know them as they actually are?

     Be that as it may, what does Phillips’ first reason that “humans may not be able to know the truth truly” or that truth is subjective imply? It seems to mean at least that human knowledge is relative. This is because a view that truth is subjective implies that truth is relative to the subject or knower—the one who claims to know something. Put a bit differently, under subjectivism a claim for knowledge, to the extent that it is decisive at all, actually says more about the subject who is doing the knowing than about the external object which is known. The implication of a statement like this is that truth is not decisively or ultimately related to the object one claims to know.

     Those of us who believe that truth is or may be objective are actually relativists as well. What made it unnecessary to highlight this particular kind of relativism is that it was always equated with what is simply there or what we as humans have always assumed to be the case for knowing. For instance, when I claim that I am presently looking at the screen of my laptop, I don’t have to qualify this item of knowledge by prefacing it with, “relative to what is there in front of me.” When we say that a subjective view of truth is “relative,” we mean that a special or an uncommon sort of relativism is being espoused—one that is centered in the knower rather than the known.

     To claim, therefore, that truth is subjective means (if it is a modernist claim) that even though we may believe truth exists or is real, knowing that truth is a problem. That (as Phillips says) we may not know “truth truly” (in this context) means that we may as easily know “truth falsely” as know it truly. Importantly, Phillips is not speaking here of the normal challenges for knowing truth associated with a common sense or realistic approach to truth. Rather (based on other things he says as well), he seems to imply that there is no epistemicly accessible and objective criteria whereby truth itself (understood generally) can be tested or verified.

     If that is so, however, we come face to face with a significant irony in Phillips’ book: although he seems to be concerned about the subjectivism and relativism of our modern and postmodern times, the truth is that Phillips himself believes (even, clearly states) that truth is subjective. As a logical consequence (and again), this also means (though Phillips doesn’t say this), that truth is relative. Consequently, what we seem to have in Phillips is a relativist who is not so much telling other relativists that they are wrong as relativists but that they are invited to experience the Christian form or variety of relativism, since it is sanctioned by God and confirmed to the heart by the Holy Spirit through reading Scripture.[4]    

     What does it mean, practically speaking, to claim, as Phillips does, that human knowledge is “partial”? One way to approach this is to recall what happens in a court of law. A witness is charged to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”? Why? Because partial truths may be misleading, significantly errant, if not lies. For a witness to tell “the whole truth” means that, in response to questions, they should tell everything they know as completely as possible. Having “the whole truth” from witnesses—the truth sufficient to know whether or not someone is guilty of an alleged crime—is critical to a court’s veridical quest.

     It is also fundamental for every day issues pertaining to truth. For instance, to a parent’s question, “Where did you get that gum?,” a child may respond, “The store.” But let’s suppose that the child has stolen the gum from the store.[5] The partial truth, “the store,” obscures something parents would want to know from their child in this case. But let us suppose that both parents and their children were educated to believe that, because as humans they are finite, all they can expect from knowledge in this world is partial truths? Would this expectation for truth, namely, that under certain circumstances we need “the whole truth” fare well in that case?

     More to the point: if humans by virtue of creation are shut up to a state of partial knowing (for all we know: a false perception of reality), what does it mean for us when the Bible presents a case for the truth that Jesus is Lord? If in our capacity to know things we are errant by nature (even before original sin—much more after sin, as Phillips maintains), what do we as humans have to do with “truth”? Would we not be, from that consideration alone, in the same position as Pilate with his, “What is truth?” 

     Phillips’ claim here also means that to the question which serves as a title for his booklet, Can We Know the Truth?, we must answer, “We may not know the truth truly.” That is, if we were to make a distinction between knowing the truth in particular cases or knowing truth generally, Phillips states that it is doubtful that we can know the truth either way. This would also seem to imply that if what we mean by “the truth” is the “truth of the gospel,” this item of knowledge, also, cannot be known as “truth truly,” as it is a subset of knowledge in general. As already indicated, what he argues elsewhere is that the “truth of the gospel” is a kind of knowledge that the Holy Spirit assures to our hearts through regeneration but (by implication) is not known in an ordinary sense the way we might want (or need) to know the truth of other matters.

[1] Can We Know the Truth, p. 14.
[2] Though Phillips himself doesn’t do this, Christians today often quote Paul’s “for we know in part” (1 Cor. 13:9) as a scriptural justification for equating human finitude with a subjectivity as our necessarily knowing truth only partially. The context for this statement (1 Cor. 13:8-12) shows, however, that the “whole” (or the “perfect”) to which this partiality is related is not knowledge on this side of glory but rather, on that side of glory, when there will be a “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12) encounter with Christ in heaven. Paul says, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
[3] Truth and the New Kind of Christian, pp. 174-180.
[4] Just so I am not misunderstood, God does confirm his Word subjectively by the Spirit in this manner. My objection here is to any proposal that (apart from such subjectivity) denies a common, universal, objective, and knowable ground for truth between believers and unbelievers.
[5] This is actually a personal account. As a child of four, I helped myself to a pack of gum from the store. After a “conversation” with my parents (what in the South they more precisely call a “reckoning”), I received my first spanking—memorable for its intensity. Needless to say, my parents got “the whole truth” out of me.

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