One of the benefits of doing graduate studies is you begin to be well versed in a few fields. One the things that this has instilled in me is a sense of epistemological humility. Another way of putting this is that there are very few things that I would say that I know and there are an extremely few things that I would say that I know and if you disagree, you are wrong.
Here are some examples of what I’m talking about. I often read introductory books or listen to introductory courses on subjects that I have a fair bit of knowledge about. When I do this I am very aware of times when the author or teacher says things like, ‘scholars now say….’ While this type of statement is often true, other times it is merely a gloss for ‘really there is a lot of scholarly debate about this subject, but the best people that I have arbitrarily chosen based on my limited knowledge of the subject say this.’
What this type of rhetoric does is imply to the student, who is there to learn from the ‘expert’, that this statement that the expert has made is a ‘fact.’ Maybe I am too postmodern in my thinking but I am afraid there are very few things that can be said to be fact. Facts always are interpretations of data, and while data may just be data, for it to be meaningful it must be interpreted as fact. Interpretations, however, are always open to question. So what we may assume is fact is actually a careful argument made by experts that is actually based on a number of assumptions and other facts, which are in turn interpretations of their own.
It is not only academics, however, that are guilty of what I will call epistemological arrogance. I recently heard someone say on a Christian radio station that “the more archaeology we uncover, the more the Bible is proved to be historically true.’ Now there are whole schools of thought that would take issue with this statement. The problem with this situation is that the person on the radio is not an archaeologist nor a biblical scholar, they are merely repeating what they heard ‘some expert’ say.
This kind of rhetoric is, I think, damaging, especially for Christians. For once we have begun to perpetuate things that are really arguments and points of view as fact we have begun to deceive those who are not in a position to know the difference. This is especially true in matters of faith. Once we have convinced people of the fact that the Bible is proved historically true by archaeology, then when that ‘truth’ is called into question by this or that archaeologist then people’s worldviews are questioned.
What I have come to treat as axiomatic for my life is a kind of epistemological humility wherein I am unquestionably sure of very few things so that I would say that I know them and if you disagree you are wrong, and in turn am questionably sure of a very many things wherein I would say that I think them and if you disagree then let’s have a conversation and see if we can’t get closer to the truth.
I am not a pluralist, I believe there is objective truth. But I am drowning in the amount of information that I do not know for sure, and I have studied a few things extensively. I wonder if things like church splits, denominational fights and academic snobbery would be greatly lessened if we admitted that most of the things that we say we know we only think. And if we could, in epistemological humility, come together to try and find the truth, even if, in the end, we merely agree to disagree. We could, after all, both be wrong.