Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Problem of Criterion as a theological key

How do you know?  How do you know that you know?  This is the problem of criterion, and far from being a technical point in epistemology, it is huge for theology and the life of the church.  It runs like this:

How do we decide in any case whether we have knowledge in that case? What are the criteria of knowledge? (Moreland 2007, 123).

To risk a dangerous oversimplification, "How do we know that we know x?"  Here is an example.  If I tell someone that God gave me a word of knowledge, the cessationist will respond, "Yeah, but how do you know that was from God?"

If I say that I have the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit bearing witness that I am a child of God and destined for heaven, the anchorite will ask, "Yeah, but how do you know that without using your own subjective demon-inspired reason?"

It boils down to this:  Before I can legitimately claim knowledge in these areas I must first satisfy the condition of knowing how I know.  Seems fair enough and few people challenge this.

But there is a problem.  Before I can know anything (say P, representing that I have the internum spiritum sanctum), I must know two other things: Q (my criterion for knowledge, which the critic seeks) and R (the fact that P satisfies Q).  But there is no reason to stop here.  One can now ask how I know Q and R, to which the new answer is Q' and R'.  But now I have to give a reason for Q'' and R''.  Further, I must now give a reason for Q''' and R'''.

Said another way:  Before I can know, I must know how I know.  Before I can know how I know, I must know how I know how I know.  And on the nightmare goes.

Best just to dismiss the critic's question. But before that, let's give our own solution. We can start by knowing specific, clear items of knowledge.  We can solve the problem of criterion by beginning with particular cases of knowledge and generalising to formulate a criterion for true belief.  For example, while I know my faculty of reason can be faulty at times, I had to use the faculty of reason to write that sentence (assuming A = ~~A and that my terms meant what they meant).  Using this reason I am able to read texts (and everyone will assume the text is clear at at least one level, otherwise why would you ever appeal to an opponent to read a text like 2 Peter 1:4?).  This immediately falsifies the claim that I can't understand a text unless I am already in a community of text (no one seriously believes this when push comes to shove).  

Moreland, J. P. Kingdom Triangle. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2007.  


  1. Knowledge basically boils down to being able to refute objections in a non question begging fashion. If you cant do that, then why would you say that you have knowledge about x?

    If you cannot do that but still want to call it knowledge, then how does one maintain the distinction between knowledge and option or knowledge and guessing of some sort?

  2. So that we are on the same page and that I understand what you are saying,

    Given the problem of criterion, can you give a non-question begging account of knowledge without going into an infinite regress?

  3. Sure, Knowledge is Justified True belief, and justification is simply that which is necessary to refute objections in a non question begging fashion.

    Next, the way to avoid infinite egress is simply to show that there is a foundation that cannot be questioned. That is the three laws of logic. They cannot be coherently questioned and therefore are your infinite regress busters.

    Next, your claim about particular cases of knowledge seem to be an example of begging the question unless you have a way to stop the infinite regress. But if you can, then why not why is infinite regress a problem in the first place?

    1. ***hey cannot be coherently questioned and therefore are your infinite regress busters***

      One can preface the statement with "How do you know____?" and it remains coherent, if empty.

      ***Next, your claim about particular cases of knowledge***

      It's not my claim. I am simply restating the literature and the problem.

    2. Coherent but empty? Is coherent but empty equivalent to saying that I can be coherent if I dont say anything or attempt to convey knowledge or information of any kind?

      For it to be coherent, it would simply assume that there is no stopping the infinite regress. If that is the belief then such must be demonstrated, not simply asserted.

      Next, it seems that you put this forward as a solution as opposed to simply what is in the literature. Are you asserting now that there is no solution and the literature on this is simply wanting?

    3. If I say "Jacob is Jacob" that is a coherent statement, but there isn't much to it.

      ***Are you asserting now that there is no solution and the literature on this is simply wanting?***

      No. I follow GE Moore and Roderick Chisholm on this point.

    4. Jacob is Jacob is simply a direct application of the law of identity which is in accordance with my position that we can and do know such.

      Next, if you follow them in accepting such, you simply are saying that begging the question is fine as a foundation?

    5. I don't disagree.

      Formally, at one level you are begging the question by using the laws of logic to prove the laws of logic.

      On another level, as Chisholm mentioned, it's okay to start with the laws of logic in situations in order to avoid an infinite regress. That's particularism as opposed to methodism.

  4. Who said anything about proving the laws of logic. I certainly did not. To do such would imply that there is something more certain/more basic than those laws. There is not. Those laws of logic are the underpinnings of all other knowledge claims (whether they are false claims or not).

    Next, as far as non question begging goes, I would challenge one to start somewhere else and avoid infinite regress. Since one cannot, why would one consider it question begging to start with those laws?