Issues of Epistemology

Here lately, I have been pondering issues of epistemology. Not too hard to figure out why—after all, we live in a world where large numbers of people believe that a female presidential candidate headed up an organized pedophile ring in the basement of a pizza parlor that has no basement. So I have been exploring exactly how we establish our basis of shared knowledge and where divergences between populations’ own epistemological practices lie.

David Roberts over at Vox has recently written on the subject of what he calls tribal epistemology, tracing its emergence in the talk radio phenomenon, as typified best by Rush Limbaugh:

“In Limbaugh’s view, the core institutions and norms of American democracy have been irredeemably corrupted by an alien enemy. Their claims to transpartisan authority — authority that that applies equally to all political factions and parties — are fraudulent. There are no transpartisan authorities; there is only zero-sum competition between tribes, the left and right. Two universes.”

It’s a worthwhile read, and I highly recommend it. However, he traces this epistemological crisis, especially the postmodern rejection of an absolute truth (that is, independent of one’s tribal affiliations), to the Reagan era. I, however, would go back a ways on this.

I recently happened upon the following quotation by H. P. Lovecraft: “If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences.” The point is, of course, that religious groups do not send their people out into the world to discover truth but insist that they possess the truth, and thus send their people out into the world to share it. The unbending quest for truth is the domain of science.

But it’s more than just a simple religion v. science dichotomy at work here. Religious truth is fundamentally individualized. In the prologue of his 2001 book Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, Jack Miles observes that the place of the crucifixion in Western culture has revolutionary implications—most notably a suspicion that political or religious authorities may be the bad guys of this story. After all, the fact that this upstart itinerant preacher, and accused criminal, was actually the Son of God might make any suspected criminal be Christ, and any authority, in turn, be Herod or Pilate.

The revolutionary implications are there, I grant you, but what Miles (and others) have missed are the epistemological implications. Truth, in such a worldview, is so highly individualized as to be meaningless because, as it turns out, only the individual can surely know that he has been granted access to the truth, that he has been blessed by God to carry that truth into the wide world. From the outside, they look rather insane, but from the perspective of the believer in his own divinity, it makes perfect sense, and if the world rejects your message, well, that just shows the truth of it, doesn’t it?

Now, not every believer also believes himself the messiah, but traditional religious observance is not that far different, given the reliance upon faith, defined in Hebrews 11:1 as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. And how does one have faith? In the Baptist community to which I briefly belonged oh so many lives ago, one prayed a special prayer and received a secret and internal assurance from God that one was saved. In other words, it’s the same dynamic as our would-be messiahs, but just with greater collective agreement on the identity of the actual messiah.

Accessing truth via faith, rather than via some shared concept of material reality, means that you can never share your version of truth in toto, because such a way of knowing truth remains forever internal, dependent upon some still, small, voice rather than accurate measurements and observation. A worldview of faith is necessarily a break with material reality—small wonder that a movie like The Matrix not only shares with Christianity its messiah story but also its fundamental suspicion of the world in which we live. In fact, there is a species of Calvinism, Kuyperianism, which holds that believers and non-believers have access to two completely different realities. This is perhaps exemplified by Harold Coffin, a witness in one of the most famous trials of creationism, McLean v. Arkansas, admitting under oath that one could only understand the young age of the earth by reference to the bible.

My point here is this—the rise of tribal epistemology is nothing new. We are, instead, reaping a longstanding denial, lasting millennia, of the nature of reality. Tribal epistemology is only the latest synonym given to the phenomenon of faith.

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