Saturday, December 30, 2006


"I notice that you believe in God, but that you want a God who is discreet, not too exacting and comfortably unknowable" - Paul Claudel

One of my newest favorite words, epistemology - the study of knowledge. Or, how do we know what we know? There are multiple ways to gain knowledge, which is to say, an intelligent person might recognize several valid epistemological approaches. I would like to touch upon just two or three of the most significant, as i see them:


The epistemology of science is based upon observation of empirical data. From these observations, the scientist looks for patterns, formulates a theory to explain the patterns, constructs experiments to test the theory, which yield more data to be observed, and the cycle repeats.

'Observation' is to be understood as any direct or indirect noting and measuring of the subject matter by the scientist's five senses, perhaps aided by instruments. Hence, the scientific method can only be concerned with the physical properties and behavior of the subject studied. That is, the proper domain of science is the physical universe, all things composed of matter and energy.

Note that this epistemology is necessarily tentative and experimental, always open to newly observed data which may alter the currently prevailing theory.

Note this also: Our perception of physical realities is a given; our senses will observe certain phenomena in the matter and energy with which we deal. But the scientific approach applies a discipline, rigor, and methodology to turn our observations more reliably into knowledge. The scientific method is absolutely the best thing going if you want to better understand our universe, and everything in it.


Not content with a single narrow epistemology, most reasonable people also recognize that much of reality does not fall within the category of physical matter and energy. Our lives are full of such non-material realities as love, honor, tragedy, beauty, good, evil...

The innate yearning of the human spirit for the Transcendant and the nearly universal recognition of moral responsibilities demand an appropriate means of knowing about these things, a fitting epistemology.

The scientific method, observing and measuring data, cannot be applied here. One cannot prove the existence of God by empirical observation alone, nor can one disprove His existence scientifically. Nor can moral principles be proven scientifically. Show me the empirical data which indicates that Mother Teresa was virtuous, or that Hitler was evil. It cannot be done, because examining and measuring mere matter and energy will never reveal any such non-physical stuff as virtue or vice.

As with physical reality, most humans will recognize transcendant and moral reality. Our dealings with moral and spiritual realities does not begin with theology. It begins with an inner experience which may seem inexplicable, beyond words. Yet we must explain it; we must try to understand it. Theology is just that - faith seeking understanding. As with physical reality, we will profit greatly from an appropriate epistemology, so as to reliably attain the knowledge we seek. No sense in a sloppy, undisciplined, or haphazard approach.

A person recognizes that the experience of faith is intensely personal, but a shared experience as well, common to Man. The best theology, then, would seem to be a didactic one, in which the knowledge is imparted from teacher to student, from mentor to disciple. And, as this would ultimately suggest, from God to Man. The epistemology of theology, then, is one of revelation and of authority, both divine authority and divinely ordained human authority. This is, in fact, the pattern we see in the three major creedal religions.

Note that, unlike the epistemology of science, this epistemology does not allow its knowledge to be experimental, tentative, or even changeable. Our theological understanding may deepen over time, but, once Truth is revealed divinely, it can't be 'unrevealed'. If ever we find ourselves saying that what was once true in a theological sense is no longer true, then we have a failed epistemology. Theological truth that is no longer valid must not have ever been so; and so our new 'truth' is unreliable, too.

Given the above, the most complete and reasonable system that i can find is that of Catholicism. God not only reveals Himself, but comes to us in the person of Jesus who gives authority to men, thus establishing the Church as 'the pillar and bulwark of truth' (1 Tim 3:15). Why single this creed out from the rest? Perhaps a future post will further explore my thoughts on this question.

(Later note: that post is Epistemology - Part 2, above)


I'm not at all sure that 'intuition' is the right word here. What i mean by it is the kind of knowledge that just sort of comes to us, in an inner and subjective way. What one may subjectively 'know' to be true in one's 'heart'.

Not much to say about this epistemology. It's best use is probably in such things as deciding upon a career path, whom to marry, and in other such cases in which the methods above may help, but the specifics of the situation require a more personal knowledge.

Putting it all together

I like to think of myself as a well-rounded and reasonable fellow. So i embrace all of the above, each in its own proper way. Science to answer questions of matter and energy, and everything included therein. Solid Catholic theology to answer questions of faith and morals. Subjective intuition to make those personal decisions (though first guided by good science and theology).

On that note, i make these three appeals (to whom it may concern):

You scientists, please recognize the limits of your discipline, and refrain from trying to draw moral or doctrinal conclusions from your empirical observations. Doing so will only damage your credibility as a scientist.

You theologians, please recognize the demands of your discipline, and refrain from trying to alter or experiment with eternal Truth.

Those of you who routinely call upon your 'heart' to draw scientific, doctrinal, or moral conclusions... please use your brain.

pax et bonum,

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