Chapter 4: Some Points from Epistemology and Philosophy of Science To Help Us Think

4.5 What is knowledge?

We’ve come a long way from the day of logical positivists[1] — postmodernism and the positive engagement of religions in environmental issues have had an impact — and maybe the discussion above indicates that science and religion are moving toward better complementarity. [2] At the same time, there is still resistance to this. Sometimes people fight about objectivity versus subjectivity; or, the trajectory of modernity might imply that we can only “know” things of which we are “certain.” But if we think about it, we know almost nothing in that way – save for a range of important physical facts about how the material universe works, we do not have theoretical certainty (like predictable cause-effect relationships governed by scientific theories) about most things. For all we know, the elevator we get in every day could fail catastrophically at any moment, or we could be killed in a traffic accident, and yet most people don’t only get into elevators (or take any other action) when they are absolutely certain that no harm will come to them by doing so. We live our daily lives based on much less absolute or certain knowledge about things. Knowledge, for all practical purposes, doesn’t rely on absolute certainty. So what is knowledge if it’s not theoretical certainty?

Theoretical certainty is not the basis of most of what we know and act upon, since we would be paralyzed if we could only take actions where we were certain what the outcomes would be. So what is a more likely definition for knowledge? What sort of thing is a knowledge claim upon which we might base our actions or our lives? It might be something like the following:

  • a claim for which we can give good reasons
  • a warrantable assertion
  • a justifiable claim or belief

We cannot know for certain that each car ride we take won’t end in a terrible wreck that takes our lives, but we can justify our choice to ride in a car based on the warrantable claim that only a small percent of people crash and die when they drive somewhere in their car, and we feel the risk is sufficiently low to allow us to drive or ride in cars when we need to. We live our daily lives despite innumerable bits of knowledge about which we cannot be certain. There will probably not be an earthquake that will swallow me up into the sidewalk today. Gravity will not stop working today. We can give good reasons, though, for why these things are very unlikely to befall us, and that’s enough to live by.

Now, as we’ve noted above, these ideas might not sit well with everyone, and for anyone who agrees with scientism (the belief that science can provide all the answers and knowledge necessary for life), these ideas admittedly pose a challenge. We should expect, as our discussion of knowledge has concluded, that knowing something (including knowing that the world is a certain way) should mean that we have good reasons or warrantable claims as our basis. But sometimes when faced with challenging ideas, rather than address them seriously, we dismiss them with a certain argumentative sleight of hand known as relativism.


Allen Wood’s article on relativism addresses this possibility, and challenges us to avoid lazy thinking. Wood’s argument partly aims at helping us avoid simplistic dismissals of the ethical, moral or religious views of others by appeal to the claim: “what’s true for you is true for you; what’s true for me is true for me,” which is the basic argument of philosophical relativism. At first glance this view can seem to be epistemologically enlightened. But if we look closer, it seems that such claims are really saying “I think I’m justified in simply ignoring your view and any shortcomings in my own, because I think it’s impossible for my own view to be flawed.” [3] Wood wants to avoid that relatively sophomoric philosophical cop-out, in order to make more engaged and thoughtful dialogues possible. He also helps us dial down the tension that is often felt between those who seem to believe in “absolute truth” and those who don’t agree with them. Wood demonstrates that relativists, quite opposite to their own claims, are actually claiming an absolute truth (that of relativism, a move that ironically makes relativism self-refuting, and thus a philosophically indefensible view), and he suggests that relativism simply can’t support the sort of tolerance and open-mindedness that relativists seem to want to champion. Instead, Wood describes what he thinks are the quite positive moral ideas that relativists might be trying to affirm, views which aren’t threatened with self-refutation. They aren’t relativistic at all, it turns out – they are values that relativists think everyone should honor. [4]

While Wood shows that basic philosophical relativism is self-refuting and thus incoherent, he also shows that ethical relativism [5] is self-refuting and inconsistent. He even explains that cultural relativism [6] is saddled with similar problems of self-refutation and incoherence. Wood nonetheless is at pains to defend the values and virtues that he thinks relativists are (rightly) asserting. [7] However, Wood makes clear that absolute truth is not the enemy of these values – indeed, those arguing for tolerance, open-mindedness, and humility tend to believe that these are values that truly and absolutely are important and commendable.  But through a view like fallibilism, rather than a simple absolutism, Wood makes clear that just because someone believes in absolute truth or in some particular truth or value, it does not follow that they must believe themselves to be in possession of (or even that humans can be fully in possession of) all truth. A fallibilist can hold to a belief in absolute truth, but will at the same time be able to say “I could be wrong.” They can live their lives and stake their well-being on what they believe to be true, and they can discuss and argue and disagree with others about what is really true or not, all the while admitting that they could be wrong. It seems that it’s not so much the notion of absolute truth that is offensive to people (indeed, the idea that there isn’t any absolute truth is itself an absolute truth claim!), but the presumption that because there is truth, that someone must believe that they are in sole or full possession of it and that they have some right to force that truth onto others. In my class, we proceed with an embrace of the idea that absolute truth (in whole and in parts) is a legitimate thing to discuss, believe in, compare notes on, and think more deeply about.

This photo, “Seeking Truth Among the Birds,” is accompanied by a relevant story from photographer Iris Mark about her 9-year-old sister Libby. Libby, a “future explorer and curiosity extraordinaire, tests out the binoculars as she looks towards the heavens to find species of bird that live in the saltwater marshes lining Barnstable Bay, Cape Cod. Similar to the way we look for God in our day to day lives, we often find his wonders in nature. My sister looked a little too hard though–the bird was sitting right on the railing behind her, just like sometimes you only need to turn around for the answer to become clear.”

This is not the end of what we might think about truth and knowledge. There are libraries worth of books about these subjects. One additional concept to put in our toolbox is the term phronesis, which Aristotle described as practical wisdom, or knowing how to live in the ways we discern as best. It does us little good to “know” what is right and wrong or to know what the good life is if we have no clue how to live well. Another idea is this: we’re not Gods, we’re humans (we are not all-knowing), so maybe it is no surprise that faith enters our knowing.

The concepts we’ve discussed above will cover our purposes, and the next chapter will explore two faith-based accounts of the human person – the spiritual anthropologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and David Loy. But for those who want to dive a little bit deeper into this philosophical territory, the next section adds a few more thoughts to the pot.

  1. Logical positivism (later evolved to logical empiricism), a form of positivism, was a movement in western philosophy whose central thesis was the verification principle; developed by members of the Vienna Circle, it claimed that the only meaningful philosophical problems are those that can be solved by logical analysis (see section 4.6 for more discussion of positivism).
  2. Sometimes there is still resistance to this, as an article by Charles Krauthammer, “Coffee, Tea, or He?” describes. The influence of modern scientific or positivist thinking still holds sway even though these paradigms have fallen out of favor. For instance, some suggest that we have moved beyond a "modern" ideal, where science and technology and human smarts were believed to be capable of improving and perfecting all life. One need only look at the evils of Nazi Germany - the Germans having attained the best universities and a high culture of arts - to realize that such an ideal is not an end-all, be-all; thus the need for post-modern thinking. 
  3.   It is also possible that I might invoke relativism simply because I am legitimately threatened in some way by a particular conversation. Perhaps I was bullied by my parents or my community, and religious ideas were used almost like a weapon against me (to control me, to criticize me, to “put me in my place,” to ostracize me, to threaten me, to judge me), and if so, I might simply need to check out of a conversation that will otherwise be too emotionally loaded, or too painful to bear. In this case, I would hope readers can acknowledge and honor anyone’s need to not be pressed into painful, dangerous/threatening discussions, and it is always ok to say “I think I need to just sit back and listen a bit” rather than answer to a particular charge that creates anxiety. In fact, outside of the class I teach, I might even commend the tactic of the relativist when faced with an absolutist who has no interest in a mutual exchange, and is only intent on forcing their views on you – just saying “well, whatever is true for you is true for you, and something else is true for me” can quickly conclude that conversation, and save you from the unjustified sermonizing of another. But it should be clear why I want to protect the conversation space in my class (ENR 3470) so as not to have to invoke this conversation-ending relativist (and basically insulting when intentions are not to bully) tactic.
  4. Here Wood distinguishes himself from some other forms of postmodern thought, which embrace relativism. 
  5.   Ethical relativism believes that if truth/reality itself isn’t relativistic, maybe just “ethical truths” are relative to individuals.
  6.   Cultural relativism believes that right and wrong are relative to different cultures.
  7. Virtues of tolerance, open-mindedness, and humility, for instance.


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Religion and Environmental Values in America by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.