Monday, February 2, 2015

Putting Descartes Before the Horse- On knowledge, belief and proof

I was recently asked, not for the first time, how I know that God exists. It’s a question that is often directed at religious believers in general, and at teachers and members of the clergy in particular. Before we can talk about how we “know” this, or more correctly, why we believe, it is important to discuss what it means when we say we know or believe anything.

Although a more complete treatment of this topic would involve a discussion about epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge, I will focus on a different area of discussion.

I was recently referred to an essay written by Isaiah Berlin, one of the preeminent thinkers of the twentieth century, by my friend Rabbi Todd Berman. In the essay, “The Concept of Scientific History”, Berlin explains why the attempt to treat history as a science, something that many considered an important goal for at least two centuries, is inherently futile. He conclusively shows that science, at least in its pure forms, can test claims and ascertain whether they are correct, while when it comes to the ideas of history, as well as many of its “facts”, this is not true. Thus there is a difference in kind, and not just degree, between saying that the egg broke because it fell on the hard surface, and saying that World War I started because Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated. He goes on to say something that shows that it is not just history which can not be treated like a pure science:

If I am asked what rational grounds I have for supposing that I am not on Mars, or that the Emperor Napoleon existed and was not merely a sun myth, and if in answer to this I try to make explicit the general propositions which entail this conclusion, together with the specific evidence for them, and the evidence for the reliability of this evidence, and the evidence for that evidence in its turn, and so on, I shall not get very far. The web is too complex, the elements too many and not, to say the least, easily isolated and tested one by one; anyone can satisfy himself of this by trying to analyse and state them explicitly. The true reason for accepting the propositions that I live on earth, and that an Emperor Napoleon I existed, is that to assert their contradictories is to destroy too much of what we take for granted about the present and the past (emphasis added).

Outside of math and the pure sciences when we talk about knowing things, we all use a different criteria for evaluating the truth of a statement. Even though we can not prove that we were not created last Thursday with memories of a false past, we all know that claim to be false.

Let’s take this a step further. How do we react when we read an article that makes a claim? Do we investigate it ourselves? Study the subject so that we know as much as an expert before deciding what we believe? Of course we do not. Somehow, in our inherently subjective experience, we form an opinion. Even as some of us try to know more before reaching a conclusion, we still fall far short of the level of rigor we would expect in a scientific experiment. What about when we read of two experts who disagree about a theory or idea? Do we commit to being agnostic due to our inability to evaluate which of the two are correct? Do we do a poll of all experts in the field? Would such a poll prove anything? In short, most of what we think we know comes from some combination of intuition, knowledge and whatever other conscious and subconscious thought that goes into deciding. We make decisions about family, safety, career and meaning without being able to prove almost anything.

So where does that leave us? I believe that it leaves us in the potentially uncomfortable position of recognizing that religion is a belief, and not something that  we can prove. As with most areas of life, we subjectively judge the facts and then make a decision. Our reasons for belief might not be able to convince anyone other than ourselves. For those of us who have relied upon the arguments of Medieval philosophers, be it Maimonides or Aquinas, accepting this idea can be somewhat disconcerting. Still, I am not convinced that this is a bad thing.

The inherent subjectivity of our religious beliefs allows us to believe with what Rabbi Herzl Hefter has called “soft certainty”. This level of belief allows for us to live a life of firm commitment, sure enough to serve, but not sure enough to destroy. In an unredeemed world, I don’t think we can ask for anything more.


  1. I would instead say that religion rests on a different justification system than those we use for math or science. One that may (or may not, but that's tangential) provide more room for error, but one we also consider "good enough" for all of life's decisions. The scientific and mathematical proofs only work because those disciplines are tailored to only include the subset of reality that such proofs do indeed work for. Relying on something else is inevitable. And therefore, it's not that uncomfortable of a position to be in at all.

  2. I enjoyed this post. The problem is partially with those that have always had the belief that you can elevate religion to an area of proof. Now, one has to be careful. Religion cannot simply get a pass because it is "religion." Judaism does in fact make claims about the physical world that can be tested. This is where it enters the domain of science and must deal with the consequences.

    But like you, I find MY own reasons to believe in God, and particular the God of Israel. It requires that level of sensitivity that perhaps you are alluding to.