Here’s a word I almost never use: “epistemology”. And yet – I love it.
That odd-sounding word represents one of the defining themes of my life. A theme that runs through all my books and writings. A theme that engages my thoughts, rivets my attention.
That theme is a question: How do we know what we know?
Epistemology is the study of how we know things. Not what we know, but how.
When I was a child, this question haunted me. I didn’t even know, then, that there was a word for it.
How delighted I felt on learning that such a word exists. That someone besides me found it important enough to give the question a name!
Being curious about “how we know stuff” makes for a lonely childhood. Plenty of people (teachers, book-writers, TV commentators) were eager to fill my head with “facts” – with what we know.
Or with what, at any rate, they wanted me to believe we know.
What I learned, early on, was that lots of those older people become angry or upset whenever some smart-alec, snot-nosed kid asks, “But how do we know that?”
A Childhood Lesson
I won’t soon forget my experience in church, when I was perhaps eight or nine. Our Sunday-school teacher (who also was my elementary-school teacher for grades one through four) was impressing upon us that the Bible is never to be questioned, since it is the Word of God.
In itself, this premise – that the Bible is God’s Word – didn’t bother me. (It still doesn’t.) “But how do we know that?” I asked the teacher. “How do we know that the Bible is the Word of God?”
It’s my impression no one ever had asked her that. She hemmed and hawed, finally explaining to me (with her last dying vestige of strained patience) that we know it “because God says so”.
Fair enough, I thought. “Where does He say it?”
“Why, in the Bible, of course!” she replied. “He says so right there in the Bible – in God’s Word. Since it’s the Word of God, we don’t question it: God always tells the truth.”
In other words, the Bible is God’s Word because it claims to be God’s Word. My young, single-digit age didn’t stop me from seeing the hole in my teacher’s so-called proof. I didn’t know then that this is called the “fallacy of circular logic”, much less that it goes by pretentious Latin names like “petitio principii” and “circulus in probando”.
All I knew was that it set off my BS detector.
Realizing, though, that my teacher was serious and couldn’t see her own error, I tried to help. By pointing out that her statement made no sense: A controversial claim doesn’t automatically prove itself.
Sadly, my good intentions earned me no good will. Up to that point, my teacher has been willing to give me the benefit of the doubt – figuring I was merely crazy or ignorant. Now, though, I had branded myself a rebellious troublemaker. That is infinitely worse. (It was a rap I never lived down.)
From that point forward, all the other kids joined our teacher in striving to help me see the error of my ways. Error that was jeopardizing my soul, and (from the strident tone with which they lectured me) apparently theirs as well!
How ironic that I’ve since written books about the Bible, defending its divine inspiration, and offering ways we can test its claims. (“Because it says so” is not among those ways.)
This was far from my only youthful encounter with epistemology. Again – please remember – I didn’t yet know the name, or even that the field had a name.
The question, though, kept coming up in my reading and conversations. Not all those encounters were contentious (though some certainly were). Many were supportive and gratifying.
I was blessed to meet adults who loved talking with me about big-picture “how we know stuff” questions. My parents. Mrs. Bellar, my seventh-grade science teacher in Clarksville. Kenneth Kalantar Jr. Marzieh Gail. Winston Evans. Robert and Bahia Gulick. Ian Semple. David Ruhe. Lots of others.
People who loved it – folks whose faces lit up, with joy and encouragement – whenever I grilled them with the toughest, most awkward “epistemic” questions you could imagine.
Eventually I became a journalist. That’s a field that demands its practitioners wrestle with epistemology, just as Jacob wrestled with the angel of truth (Genesis 32:22-32). (Even though “epistemology” wasn’t a word found in any of my journalism textbooks.)
Long before that, I embraced a religion (the Bahá’í Faith) that is devoted to “independent investigation of truth”, that is “scientific in its method” of investigating, and that therefore includes “harmony of science and religion” among its defining principles. All principles brimming with epistemology.
My best-known books (The Challenge of Bahá’u’lláh and He Cometh with Clouds) are devoted mostly to epistemology. Don’t worry – I don’t call it that in either book: They just talk about “how do we know” X, Y, or Z.
There are hundreds of books about “what Baha’is believe”. Mine are not among them (except to a minimal and absolutely necessary extent). Instead, mine are searching, scorch-the-earth examinations of why it might make sense, and feel right, to believe as Bahá’ís do.
And why it might not.
That’s one of the things I’m big on: letting the reader decide. To that end, I back into my sought-after conclusions by striving systematically to disprove them.
Everywhere in Life
Yes, I know: Some people find that approach jangling. It isn’t customary in most fields.
Unless you’re a scientist, and your field is scientific. The main business of scientists is trying every which way to disprove their own pet theories. To strangle their children, so to speak.
That’s the key strategy of scientific epistemology. Personally, I find it useful most everywhere in life, not just “science” in the narrow sense.
Science, after all, isn’t narrow: The root word means “knowledge”. Which brings us back to that pesky question of how we know stuff.
It’s a question that won’t go away soon, or stop being pesky. Let’s all get used to it!
(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)