Saying You "Know" Something to be True.-- II
As I said in my last blog, the hallmark of someone who can think at a high level is an ability to distinguish assertions that express testable claims and knowing what evidence is and is not relevant to testing such claims. If the person can also conjure up from his or her imagination some novel thesis that is testable, all the better. The fact is that the percentage of people who can distinguish testable claims from nontestable ones and who know what evidence is relevent to determining the truth of such claims is not very large if my experience in academia is any guide. This is the toughest thing college students are asked to master and not a lot of them do.
By now your local newspaper will have printed a story about a priest in Italy being sued by someone for claiming that Jesus Christ lived. The specific charges were made because of two Italian laws: “abuse of popular belief” in which someone fraudulently deceives people; and “impersonation” in which someone gains by attributing a false name to someone." Of course the suit will go nowhere. But it is interesting to look a bit at claims of the form, "I know that X lived."
In this article the atheist plaintiff argues that the evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ does not stand up to scholarly analysis. One Professor Appleby puts his finger on a key issue.
Prof. Appleby is quite right in saying that the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth existed is easier to prove than that most other people living at the time existed. And, Prof. Appleby is also right in saying that the assertion hat Jesus of Nazareth existed is not the same thing as asserting that Jesus Christ existed. As he notes, reference to this man in various texts provides evidence supporting the claim that Jesus of Nazareth existed. The claim that Jesus Christ lived would also be an empirical claim if we specified the properties this person had and these properties were empirical in nature.
R. Scott Appleby, a professor of church history at the University of Notre Dame, concurs. There's “no real doubt” that Jesus existed, he said.
“But what Jesus of Nazareth did and what he means is a different question,” Mr. Appleby said. “But on the question of the existence, there is more evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth than there would be for many other historical people who actually existed. Not only did Jesus actually exist, but he actually had some kind of prominence to be mentioned in two or three chronicles.”
When we talk about Jesus Christ existing we are talking about someone who was seen walking on water and turning water into wine and who was crucified and a few days later rose from the dead, among many other things. To prove that all of these claims about the historical Jesus of Nazareth are true, we have to have evidence independent of that provided by the Bible. Many of us learned to sing “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Who knows how much damage that verse did to the ability of Christians to think clearly about their faith.
Over and over throughout my life, I have run into people who happily assert that they know that there is a God (Jesus's God Father). My response has always been that they can't know this; at best they can simply think that there is a God. The proposition "God exists" isn't an empirical claim, which is to say, isn't a testable claim until we specify the properties God is supposed to have. Moreover, these properties must themselves be empirically determinable. It is interesting how few such properties are empirically determinable.
Propositions like "God is the entity that created the universe" cannot be determined to be true without saying exactly what this means. Someone might say that prior to the existence of the visible universe there was nothing but energy and God was an extraordinarily powerful, isolated bundle of energy that was sentient in nature and further that this bundle of energy turned much of the rest of the energy that existed at the time into matter and in the process caused a great explosion (the Big Bang). I hope you are getting the point by now. The claim that God exists isn't an empircal claim though it looks like one because it is simply too imprecise to be tested. Ditto with the claim that Jesus Christ (as opposed to the historical Jesus) existed.
Perhaps knowing that they can't prove that God exists using respectable methods, we find people saying things like "I know in my heart that there is a God." This sort of claim seems to be encouraged by the Bible. I found a web site citing Jeremiah 29:13-14 as saying "You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you." This "knowing in my heart" seems to be a very popular epistemological method. Consider Ronald Reagon's very stupid claim "I know in my heart that man is good" and check out this Google search result for more instances of people knowing things in their hearts. Of course, the phrase "know in one's heart" is a totally nonsensical concept. The heart, which has some very nice properties, is not involved in thinking except through supplying oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Ditto with "I know intuitively that there is a God." If my Google searchis reliable evidence, the phrase "know intuitively" is very commonly used, probably by people who probably wouldn't have a clue how to prove something empirically. Claims of the form, "I know there is a God," usually come down to knowing this in one's heart or knowing it intuitively. I would be delighted if readers came up with some other nonsensical "ways of knowing things." Gut knowledge is one. There will be more. The web site that provided the Jeremiah quotation uses the "hard to believe that" mode of argument. This is the mode of argument behind the nonempirical nontheory of Intelligent Design.
We all marvel at the universe. If this universe really was created by a God, whatever that means, I would be pretty pissed at him/her/it. Given that faster than the speed of light travel is out of the question, we will never be able to visit another habitable planet, much less one with sentient life. In fact, communication with life on another planet is nigh on to impossible. Suppose there were a planet 20,000 light years away from Earth who are exactly as intelligent as us and we determine this because our SETI program has found an interpretable message from such "people" fully describing them and the planet they live on that includes a request that we do the same. Sadly, our reply might never be heard since, being no more intelligent than us, they will very probably have destroyed their planet, something we are hell-bent on doing. I am pissed that we can't travel to other habitable planets. So, to compensate for this, I watch Stargate SG-1 each week for a fix. It, along with the two shows after it, should help to relax people who do hard empircal thinking during the preceeding week and need relief.