June 18, 2014


Certainly? Not! : Radical doubt, radical faith, and why we can believe anything at all. (JOHN G. STACKHOUSE, JR., Books & Culture)

As the world begins to shimmer ever more before our eyes and the solid ground beneath our feet threatens to evanesce, along comes historian Alison Winter to offer an entire book about the questionable reliability of Memory. What we do not readily comprehend, what does not fit within our set of presuppositions, does not tend to register with us immediately and clearly, if at all, and therefore also not in our memory. Conversely, what we expect to experience, or afterward believe we must have experienced, gets written into our memories despite what may have actually happened.

Contrary, that is, to the popular notion that somewhere buried in our brains is a perfect recording of everything we have ever experienced, Winter shows through her study of the last century of memory research that our minds instead are constantly coding what we experience as "memorable," "sort of memorable," "not memorable" and the like, according to our understanding of the world and according to our valuing of this or that element of the world.

Furthermore, our memories are plastic, and remain vulnerable to addition, subtraction, deformation, reformation, confabulation, and other processes as our lives progress and as our beliefs change, rather than being fixed, veracious "imprints" of the external world upon our minds.

Scientist and theologian Blaise Pascal anticipated our postmodern doubts as he warned,

Man is nothing but a subject full of natural error that cannot be eradicated except through grace. Nothing shows him the truth, everything deceives him. The two principles of truth, reason and senses, are not only both not genuine, but are engaged in mutual deception. The senses deceive reason through false appearances, and, just as they trick the soul, they are tricked by it in their turn: it takes its revenge. The senses are disturbed by passions, which produce false impressions. They both compete in lies and deception.
What, then, can we possibly trust in our quest for knowledge? If we cannot trust our own senses, reason, memory--or even those of the most expert experts in our society--are we simply lost in the blooming, buzzing confusion of an incomprehensible world?

In a word, yes. Yes, we are.

Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga shrugs off this storm of frightening doubt, however, with the robust common sense of his Frisian forebears:

Such Christian thinkers as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Kuyper ... recognize that there aren't any certain foundations of the sort Descartes sought--or, if there are, they are exceedingly slim, and there is no way to transfer their certainty to our important non-foundational beliefs about material objects, the past, other persons, and the like. This is a stance that requires a certain epistemic hardihood: there is, indeed, such a thing as truth; the stakes are, indeed, very high (it matters greatly whether you believe the truth); but there is no way to be sure that you have the truth; there is no sure and certain method of attaining truth by starting from beliefs about which you can't be mistaken and moving infallibly to the rest of your beliefs. Furthermore, many others reject what seems to you to be most important. This is life under uncertainty, life under epistemic risk and fallibility. I believe a thousand things, and many of them are things others--others of great acuity and seriousness--do not believe. Indeed, many of the beliefs that mean the most to me are of that sort. I realize I can be seriously, dreadfully, fatally wrong, and wrong about what it is enormously important to be right. That is simply the human condition: my response must be finally, "Here I stand; this is the way the world looks to me."
In this attitude Plantinga follows in the cheerful train of Thomas Reid, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher. Reid devotes a great deal of energy to demolishing what he sees to be a misguided approach to knowledge, which he terms the "Way of Ideas." Unfortunately for standard-brand modern philosophy, and even for most of the rest of us non-philosophers, the Way of Ideas is not merely some odd little branch but the main trunk of epistemology from Descartes and Locke forward to Kant.

The Way of Ideas, roughly speaking, is the basic scheme of perception by which the things "out there" somehow cause us to have ideas of them in our minds, and thus we form appropriate beliefs about them. Reid contends, startlingly, that this scheme fails to illuminate what is actually happening. The "problem of the external world" remains intractable: We just don't know how we reliably get "in here" (in our minds) what is "out there" (in the world).

Having set aside the Way of Ideas, Reid then stuns the reader again with this declaration: "I do not attempt to substitute any other theory in [its] place." Reid asserts instead that it is a "mystery" how we form beliefs about the world that actually do seem to correspond to the world as it is. (Our beliefs do seem to have the virtue of helping us negotiate that world pretty well.)

The philosopher who has followed Reid to this point now might well be aghast. "What?" she might sputter. "You have destroyed the main scheme of modern Western epistemology only to say that you don't have anything better to offer in its place? What kind of philosopher are you?"

"A Christian one," Reid might reply. For Reid takes great comfort in trusting God for creating the world such that human beings seem eminently well equipped to apprehend and live in it. Reid encourages readers therefore to thank God for this provision, this "bounty of heaven," and to obey God in confidence that God continues to provide the means (including the epistemic means) to do so. Furthermore, Reid affirms, any other position than grateful acceptance of the fact that we believe the way we do just because that is the way we are is not just intellectually untenable, but (almost biblically) foolish.

Thus Thomas Reid dispenses with modern hubris on the one side and postmodern despair on the other. To those who would say, "I am certain I now sit upon this chair," Reid would reply, "Good luck proving that." To those who would say, "You just think you're sitting in a chair now, but in fact you could be anyone, anywhere, just imagining you are you sitting in a chair," he would simply snort and perhaps chastise them for their ingratitude for the knowledge they have gained so effortlessly by the grace of God.

Posted by at June 18, 2014 6:51 PM

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