How do we know anything ?

Article for St Catharines Standard newspaper by Peter Youngren.

Every day people make thousands of decisions, expressing thousands of opinions. All these various views beg the question: In what is our knowledge grounded? Furthermore, how do we know about God? What about the accuracy of the Gospel accounts of Jesus? How can we be sure that God made us, and not the other way around? Many people have ready-made answers, but maybe we should ask; “how do we know anything?” Regardless of the answer let’s not apply a double standard, but whatever criteria we use to gain knowledge about anything, let’s apply that criteria to God as well. There are three fundamental ways in which people know things; experience, reason and authority.

Experience is based on our five senses; we see, hear, smell, taste and feel. Empiricism, however, is insufficient, because it is limited, and in fact little of what we know comes by personal experience. You know that Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world, but likely not by experience. You may have seen a picture of Mt. Everest or watched documentaries about mountain climbing expeditions, but that doesn’t qualify as a personal experience. I flew over it once and the pilot asked us to look out the window, claiming we could see Mount Everest. I took his word for it. Sometimes our senses deceive us. When a straight stick extends under water it looks bent at the surface, but it isn’t. Empiricism without other sources is not enough.

Descartes used reason when he stated, “I think, therefore I am”. Our capacity to think proves our existence. Reason certainly gives us truth about many things, such as 5 + 5 = 10. Yet reason is also limited because some things seem logical, but turn out to not to be true.

What about authority? Is there a credible authority that deserves our trust? Life wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t trust authority. Think of our banking or postal systems, all run on our trust in an authoritative system. Yet, our experience must also confirm the claims of those systems. All knowledge is a combination of experience, reason and authority.

Take riding an elevator for example. The authority, which is the company who services the elevator, claims that the elevator is safe. Your experiences may have also taught you that riding in the elevator is safe, yet reason tells you that something could go wrong because there’s a button that says “alarm”. Nevertheless, you go ahead, though you’re not 100 per cent sure that you will arrive safely. Now change the scenario. What if that elevator was shaking, or looked otherwise unsafe, suddenly you wouldn’t trust the affixed paper that states it was serviced properly, and you wouldn’t rely on the fact that you had been on an elevator a thousand times before and it worked every time. We all reach conclusions based on a combination of experience, reason and authority, and if either one of these is not in sync with the other, we reassess what we thought we knew.

Now back to our original questions. What about Jesus? Let’s use the same criteria. I claim to have good reason to believe that God was in Christ, absorbing the world’s sins, bringing about a cure for the human condition through His death and resurrection. It makes sense that a loving Creator would have foreknowledge that His creatures would mess up, and that the divine would need to enter into His creation with a corrective love plan. Add to this the authority of those who were eyewitnesses of Christ’s work and resurrection. They were so convinced of the reality, not only of the Galilean Jesus, but also of the cosmic Christ who is alive forever, that they were willing to give their lives for the proclamation of this message. On top of that, I have experience, not only my own, but also the testimonies of millions of people, who would rather give their lives than deny the reality of Jesus Christ.

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