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On Certitude

Most of us recognize the thin ice we are on when we think and speak in categorical terms, yet it is all around us—talk-radio, cable news channels, religion, and yes, occasionally even postings on the Spectrum Blog. So what is it about human nature that inspires the spirit of dogmatism and self-delusion? More importantly, how do we create a more mature and defensible modus operandi? These are pressing questions facing us today as a civil society, as a church, and as a virtual community.

Perhaps the appropriate place to begin would be to query the source of our common capacity for dogmatism and self-delusion. Without doing a formal study, we can probably guess that such behavior is connected to personal narrative—narrative often associated with a religious tradition, or other grand presuppositions that attempt to make sense of it all. Yet we must recognize that the larger reality does not correlate precisely to our self-perceptions. This recognition is key if we are to make appropriate judgments about the categorical essence we convey in what we think and say. It seems that the key to improved discourse with each other is to develop a clear distinction in our understanding about what constitutes knowledge, and that, which constitutes opinion. This formalized area of study is known as epistemology and it does offer assistance in identifying when expressions of mental certitude are appropriate and when they are not. 

With this as sort of the backdrop for our discussion, it might be useful to give some thought to this in a way that avoids as much as possible the mire of a technical discussion. To this end, I would like to offer up one school of thought (there are several) that proposes three primary levels in the ladder of knowledge as follows:

  1. Knowledge in the extreme and absolute sense—represents a category that relates to self-evident truths about which reasonable people cannot otherwise object—things such as all triangles have three sides, or a whole is greater than any of its component parts, or 2+2=4. As should be clear, this is a distinct and rare category in the context of all the assumed wisdom we have acquired and so what this means is that there is very little we can classify as knowledge in the pure sense. On those occasions when we are conversing a point that fit into this class, categorical language is definitely appropriate.
  2. Knowledge with a practical definition (sometimes understood to be opinion in the strong sense of the word)—represents a category that relates to conclusions we reach based on empirical data and reason—essentially the scientific method. We often classify such opinions as “knowledge” because it is based on sufficient probative force so as to justify the claim being made at the time that the opinion affirmed is true. Yet we know from experience that such knowledge is sometimes insufficient in the long term. Consider the case of Newtonian physics. It sets forth principles regarding the laws of motion that have predictive value in describing motion. These principles are still considered valid today, yet Einstein was able to demonstrate that Newtonian physics was inadequate in addressing a broader range of circumstances. The point is, our practical definition of knowledge is one that elevates sense data and reason, representing a powerful tool in our ability to unlock the mysteries of the universe, and is broad enough to allow for modification if necessary at some point in the future. Below we will consider how this category correlates with religious belief.
  3. Opinion (If we have reach conclusions that don’t fall into levels 1 or 2 above, then they should be regarded as opinion in the weak sense of the word)—Opinion represents a broad category of discourse that is usually short on reason and evidence. It generally lacks any semblance of objectivity and is well known for cherry picked data designed to reinforce personal prejudice. Interestingly opinions may be true or they may be false, but the distinguishing feature is that they are assertions, beliefs, or conclusions that are not derived from structured thinking. Consequently, this category is fundamentally distinct from levels 1 and 2 above, and the least appropriate for assertions of mental certitude. As a point of illustration somewhat removed from Adventism, let’s consider those whose main narrative comes from the Islamic tradition, a tradition that will likely include the idea that the Quran is the literal word of God. Such claims are not supported by criteria open to objective inquiry and this makes such claims mere opinion. Likewise, and closer to most of us, some hold a standard for Scripture that is similarly not open to outside data that might otherwise influence interpretation (sola scriptura), or objective inquiry, and consequently such treatment also pushes it into the domain of opinion (1).

We come then to the main issue I would like readers to consider, namely, whether religious belief has the capacity to rise above “opinion?” Certainly it would arguably seem to be a worthy goal if this can be accomplished.

Enter the eminent European scholar, Michael Polanyi, whom I referred to briefly in a prior article. He immersed himself in the ongoing debate in the disciplines of philosophy and the sciences regarding the priority that should be accorded to sensory experience verse theoretical endeavors. He argued that theory is more objective than sense data for the simple reason that our senses can sometimes get fooled, and it is the theoretical that can help us figure that out. His poster-child in this argument was Ptolemy’s geocentric understanding of cosmology.

He went on to note that theory itself has a subjective element in its starting point due to the impossibility of ever getting outside self or culture to make objective judgments about anything. It was his view that knowledge must be guided by “antecedent belief.” What he meant by this was that we must start the thinking process with a set of presuppositions or givens (belief). While belief has long been thought to be inferior in its validity to empiricism, Polanyi held that belief is the source of all knowledge (2).

He made much of what he termed “local rootedness,” and by this he was referring to the presuppositions that a person commits to prior to thinking. He indicates that behind all knowledge there is the pre-logical and a-critical commitment to certain implicit beliefs, noting that there is no way to test or verify a basic set of presuppositions to which a person commits. As he puts it, “we live in the garment of our own skin.” These presuppositions are transmitted from one generation to another, and a child grows up committing to them. Thus, tradition is indispensable: “a society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition (3).”

This all provides the possibility of religious belief playing a role in our systematic decoding of the laws that run the universe.

There is a lot more that could be said, but this seems to be a good point for bringing things to a close. So, what are the takeaways from this discussion? Let me propose the following:

  1. The way in which we organize our understandings of the world (personal narrative) should not be confused with reality. It is never the same thing even though it may seem like it is.
  2. “Knowledge” in the strong use of the term is something that none of us have very much of.
  3. “Knowledge” in the weak sense of the term is acquired through sense data and reason, and is something we each have the ability to develop.
  4. While not settled philosophical dogma, Polanyi makes a strong argument for the theoretical realm being more objective than empirical endeavors, thus opening the door for religion to have a role to play in the acquisition of knowledge in the weak use of the term (the best on point example that comes to mind were comments made by theologian John Cobb’s, referenced in a prior article, namely his belief that many of the current problems in physics stem from bad metaphysics).
  5. Many frame religious understandings in a manner that cannot be classified as knowledge by any fair use of the term, and therefore is mere opinion in the weakest sense of the term. In order to push religious beliefs into the knowledge realm it must engage the world, and be open to inquiry and revision as necessary.
  6. Inferred in this entire discussion is the idea that we can avoid dogmatism and possible self-delusion by maintaining a sense of propriety and humility about what we truly know. 

—Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California.


  1. See Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (University of Chicago Press), 1962, p. 266. Polanyi discusses the value of presuppositions in detail and why theoretical knowledge should be thought of as more objective than knowledge acquired from the senses. It is a significant book and well worth review by those considering this issue.  A nice summary can be found in Leroy Seat, Robert E Patterson ed., Science Faith and Revelation (Broadman Press: Nashville, TN), p. 336-354; Polanyi was early to the present day debates related to social constructivism which I have not gone into in this article, but which covers a rather wide spectrum of thought with the extreme end of it tending towards nihilistic and post-modernist thinking, often denying the existence of objective reality. Regarding issues of social constructivism, see generally James Robert Brown, Who Rules in Science (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA), 2001.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Regarding issues of epistemology, see generally Mortimer Adler’s discussion in Ten Philosophical Mistakes, (Macmillan Publishing Co.: New Jersey), 1987
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