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How Do We Know What We Know?

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
August 1, 2022 12:01 am

How Do We Know What We Know?

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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August 1, 2022 12:01 am

If you took inventory of all the knowledge you've gained in your life, how could you confirm whether you know anything accurately at all? Today, R.C. Sproul explores the science of epistemology, the study of knowledge itself.

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How do we know what we know?

What are the means human beings use to contact reality and to discern between truth and falsehood? As we begin today, let me ask you to think about what you know for certain, the things that you would fight for, because you know they're absolutely true. Now, whatever you just thought of, how do you know that you know it? Hello and welcome to the Monday edition of Renewing Your Mind by Lee Webb. You know, when I first heard Dr. R.C. Sproul teach, my first impression was that this is a man with a powerful intellect, and he was passionate about helping people like you and me think critically. That's why he taught the series we're featuring this week.

It's called A Blueprint for Thinking. So let's join R.C. now. I'm sure that every writer of fiction, whoever picks up a pen, dreams of writing the great American novel. The bad news, however, is, ladies and gentlemen, it's too late.

It's already been done. The great American novel was written by Herman Melville. In my opinion, the greatest work of fiction ever produced in the United States was his masterpiece by the simple title Moby Dick.

I think we're all basically familiar with that story. It focuses on the work and activity of a madman, Captain Ahab, named after the wicked king of Israel in the Old Testament, who in this story suffers from a particular form of dementia that we call monomania. That is, he had a monomaniacal obsession with one aspect of his life. He wanted to capture and to kill the great white whale Moby Dick. But we know from the correspondence that survived the death of Herman Melville that this story was far more than an adventure story or a sea story. What makes it so great is its richness in symbolism, for at its depths dimension, Moby Dick is an intensely theological work. The white whale, the albino whale that is the focal point of this obsession of Captain Ahab, represents God.

And you know throughout the story that Ahab dropped everything, all other concerns, the commercial venture of the Pequod, he abandoned that. When he came upon a ship in distress searching for those who had been lost overboard, the Rachel, he refused to lend a hand because he had one thing in his mind, and that was to kill that cursed whale. Well, he charted the movements of the whale, he chased them over the seven seas, but he wasn't able to find him. And so to spur his crew on to greater intensity and concentration, there's one episode in the book you may recall.

He ordered that a gold doubloon be nailed to the main mass in the center of the ship. And he posted this doubloon and announced the reward for the first man who sighted Moby Dick would receive this small fortune. And then what follows in the story is Melville examines each of the crew members' responses and reaction to the promised reward. He gets inside their minds, the first mate comes and looks at it and he dreams of what he can buy with that gold doubloon. He thinks of cigars, he thinks of other creature comforts that he can purchase.

The harpooners look and see, oh, if I just could win this prize, I can have the largest, best, most well-balanced, and sharpest harpoon in the world, and so on. Each person, ladies and gentlemen, had a completely different view of what that coin could mean to their lives. Until finally the little cabin boy whose name was Pip, he was crazy.

He came and he danced around in front of the gold doubloon and he said, I see, you see, we all see. And the point Melville was making through the mouth of Pip was the idea that each individual, each personal subject had a different view of the matter. Well, no two of us view the world in which we live from exactly the same perspective. We have our antennae, we have the grid, we have the patterns, we have our own personal history, all of which contribute to the way we interpret reality as we encounter it. Now, from a philosophical perspective, we call that a worldview, a way of examining the world in which we live and the meaning of our own individual lives. Now, everybody has a worldview. For the philosopher or the theologian, perhaps, the structure of that worldview has been carefully thought out.

It's been criticized, it's been analyzed, it's been evaluated, certain elements have been discarded, others have been added. Most of us go through our lives with our own individual way of seeing the world around us without ever giving a moment's consideration to it. This is what Socrates called the unexamined life, where we just sort of respond to what's there.

But a Christian, I'm convinced, is called to seek the mind of Christ, to seek an understanding of his or her world from the viewpoint of the eternal, to see things as best as we possibly can the way God would have us view them, so that the things that we affirm are the things that God affirms, and the things that we deny would be the things that God denies. So what we're going to do in this series of lectures is to look by way of introduction at the most basic foundational elements that together make up the grid or the structure of a personal worldview. And so in this first session, we're going to speak on the theme of epistemology. And that's a word that we use every day.

It's on our grocery list and so on. I will define it in a moment, but before I do, I want to take a moment to introduce a guest that I have invited to be a part of this series to help us as we struggle through an evaluation of the elements that make up worldview. Now this guest is very famous, and you will recognize him instantly the moment I introduce him. However, he's not able to speak.

He can't speak, but he's by no means dumb. He's over here, and I'm sure you recognize him. He has been brought into the world by a Frenchman by the name of Rodin, and how many of you here know his name? And you all know this is probably one of the most recognizable pieces of sculpture in all of Western civilization.

Rodin's what? The thinker. Now we're glad to have the thinker with us because he's going to help us as we seek to establish the structures of a worldview. Now the first thing I observe about this gentleman, who's our guest, is his name. He is called the thinker. I think that had he been sculpted in the last 15 or 20 years, perhaps he would be known by a different name or a different title.

If a modern sculptor created this piece of art, I think that they would probably call him the feeler, because in our modern world, we don't think anymore. We feel. I have my red pen going constantly on my students' exams in theology class when they say, I feel that we should do this or that. I say, wait a minute, I'm interested in your thoughts, not your emotions at this point, not your feelings. But it's not by accident that language in our day has changed in this way, because we live in a world where preferences have supplanted objective truth.

Truth is now no longer considered to be a matter of cogent, thoughtful understanding, so much as it is a matter of personal feeling. A test was made internationally in terms of performances and the skills of mathematics among high school students. Six nations were involved. The students of the United States who were tested finished dead last in this international competition of mathematical proficiency. However, there were two parts to the examination. One part of the examination measured how the student felt about his or her performance on the examination. The students from America finished first. The students from Japan finished first in actual proficiency and sixth in their personal sense of how well that they did.

So we've been very effective in training people to feel good about their poor performance. And so truth now becomes a matter of feeling rather than thinking. Now the other thing I want us to observe about our guest here tonight, who is called the thinker, is the pose. Now I don't think that Rodin meant to suggest that in order for a person to become involved in any depth dimension of analysis or thinking that one had to shed his or her clothing and be in the nude.

And I'm a little embarrassed that our guest has come this way. But we notice that in the stance or the posture of the thinker that you see that Rodin has not represented the thinker in a posture of casual relaxation. He doesn't have him looking like a couch potato with his feet crossed and he's lounging just sort of half ready to fall asleep. One of the principles of those involved in art, particularly in painting and in sculpture, is what the Germans call the principle of the Fratbarraaugenblich, the fruitful moment. Rembrandt, for example, before he would paint one of his classic portraits of a biblical character, would go through the process of rendering over a hundred various sketches of the person he was going to capture on canvas. But he realized that in the final portrait he could only depict the person in one frozen scene. That's the difference between this kind of art and the art we find in drama or in the motion picture industry, where we can capture live action and movement. But so the artists like Rembrandt, Rodin, and the others, they would think, now how can I best express and capture and crystallize the essence of what this person represents in one still frame? Michelangelo did the same thing. He wants to do a statue of David. What moment in all of the life of David will he capture that will express the man?

And he chose the moment of the reaching for the stones and preparing to hurl the stone against the giant. And then our imagination fills in the rest. Well, Rodin postured the thinker in a pose of intense labor. His muscles are taut because deep thinking involves a kind of effort that is not only strenuous mentally, but it is actually a physical enterprise as well. He doesn't tell us what he's thinking about. Maybe he's thinking about thinking. Maybe he's thinking about thought.

Maybe he's wondering if he can know anything for sure. Recently I caught part of a television special that was called The Elvis File. And this particular special featured Bill Bixley, who was the host, and he was presenting the evidence to the audience, the studio audience as well as the watching audience on broadcast television. The evidence that would indicate that Elvis Presley is still alive and that his death was a carefully conceived hoax in an effort to shelter Elvis from criminal elements in this world as part of the government protection service for those who were involved in undercover work to serve the nation. And Elvis has been sent into hiding, and he's had these appearances that have been sighted here and there across the world where people think that they've seen Elvis Presley, and in this discussion, the testimony of two court-certified handwriting analysts was set forth. And both of these handwriting analysts maintained that writing that has clearly been written since the alleged death of Elvis Presley at Graceland Mansion in Memphis, that this handwriting matches exactly the handwriting of Elvis Presley, even on his own death certificate. And other anomalies were brought forth, such as the fact that the coroner's report on the death certificate listed the weight of the dead body that was taken from Gray's mansion as 170 pounds, and anybody that saw Elvis Presley in his last performance a week or so before his death noticed that he was weighing at that time between 240 and 250 pounds.

And so the case was set forth. And then at the end of this discussion, in typical American fashion, the studio audience was polled, and also phone lines were given to the national audience so they could call in and say yea or nay whether they believed that Elvis was still alive. Throughout the course of the program, they would flash the numbers of how the percentage of the people were responding. And at the end, 79% of the viewers of this program indicated that they believed that Elvis Presley is still alive. One of those who was involved in the program said that soon Elvis Presley was going to reappear. But he was coming back not as an entertainer, but as a spiritual leader. I listened to this, and what I found most astonishing was not the hypothesis. What amazed me was the facility by which 79% of the people who listened to this program had a conclusion that Elvis Presley was still alive. Now I'm taking a big risk saying that because it will be six months before this program is edited and then sent out to the churches and people will use it in study groups and so on. And all I need to hear six months from now is to have Elvis Presley show up. You're going to make me look awfully silly. But let me just protect myself for a moment.

I'll just come back. It doesn't change my level of astonishment at the credulity of the masses who listened to that program. Because even if he is still alive, the evidence for it that was presented in that program was incredibly flimsy. And as I watched it, I thought, on what basis are these people evaluating the data, analyzing the argument, coming to their conclusions? That's what epistemology is about. Epistemology is a science that deals with the question, how do we know what we know? What are the means human beings use to contact reality and to discern between truth and falsehood? Now, several methods of learning and of knowing have been examined and evaluated in the history of Western thought. Certainly the two most famous forms of epistemology that you've all heard of are those that in the broadest generic sense may be called rationalism and empiricism. Basically, rationalism says that the way to truth, the way to knowledge is principally, if not exclusively, through the mind, through the processes of thought itself. And of course one of the most important keys to rational investigation is the science of logic. Because the real is deemed to be logical. And among hyper-rationalists, the logical is deemed to be real.

But we'll let that for another time. On the other side of the spectrum, the empiricist is so-called because the empiricist says, unless I can see it, taste it, touch it, smell it, you know, feel it, it's not real. I don't believe it. That is, the empiricist says the way to truth is through the senses, through sense perception. It's basically more physical than mental. And for centuries, the battle was waged between these two schools and variations of these two schools, until the two arrived at a very important synthesis in the thinking of Immanuel Kant and a synthesis that was already coming together in a certain sense in what is called the scientific method. We know dogs can hear sounds that are at levels that we can't hear, that other animals' olfactory senses are far more developed than our own, and this has been an age-long problem. As anybody who relies simply on the basis of what they see or hear or taste or touch, we know that our senses are limited and subject to distortion, but we can't get away without them. That's why the New Testament witnesses of Christ insist time after time, we are not writing here carefully devised fables or myths. We're not playing Alice in Wonderland. We're not speculating philosophically, but we are writing to you what we have seen with our eyes and what we have heard with our ears. They appealed to empirical testimony, and yet at the same time, all of the data and sensations that we have in a given day would be meaningless if we didn't have a mind to organize them, to make sense out of them. And that's where the rational comes in. Quickly, logic has no content. Logic gives no information. All that logic does, as the thinker understands, is acts as a governor to prevent us from deriving false inferences from the things we experience. How do you learn?

How do you study? Do you give any stock to logic? Do you believe, for example, the truth can be illogical?

My seminary students, almost every one of them, comes in there their first year. I say, do you believe that the truth of God can be contradictory? The vast majority of them say yes, of course. They don't realize that they're blaspheming God. They've made God a liar. But they come that way because they haven't learned the role of rationality in the pursuit of truth. Christianity is not rationalism, but it is by all means rational. And so the Bible assumes both the importance of the mind and the importance of the senses as both are engaged in the enterprise.

That's the introduction. That's all I'm going to say about epistemology at this point, only to say I want you to think about thinking. I want you to think about how you know what you think you know, to ask yourselves the question, am I sure about this? Take out a piece of paper and write down on it ten things that you know for sure, ten things that you would die for that you know for sure. If we did that in this room tonight, we would find people convinced of one thing that's the direct opposite of another person is of the top ten things that they're both convinced of.

Somebody's wrong. But we are supposed to be people who are committed to the discovery of truth. But we can't even begin the enterprise until we answer the question, how do we know what we know? Well, that may be one of the most important questions we can ask. Our culture isn't chaos because the very concept of truth has been jettisoned.

It's been reduced to a mere preference, and that just reveals that as a culture, we have forgotten how to think critically. This week on Renewing Your Mind, we are pleased to feature Dr. R.C. Sproul's series Blueprint for Thinking.

What are the basic elements for right thinking? R.C. explains that in five messages, and we invite you to contact us today with a donation of any amount so that we can place these audio files in your online learning library. Ready for you to download and listen on your computer or phone. We also want you to have Dr. Sproul's comprehensive series on Western philosophy called The Consequences of Ideas. Make your request today, and we'll send you the nine DVDs, plus we'll add the digital study guide to your online learning library. All of these resources available to you today for a donation of any amount.

You can reach us by phone at 800-435-4343, or you can go online to make your request at Let me take just a moment before we go to thank all of you who are Ligonier ministry partners. You helped make this program possible along with all of Ligonier's outreaches, and we're grateful for your prayerful support. If you're not a ministry partner, let me encourage you to think about joining this growing outreach. There are a couple of things that ministry partners do.

They pray for us, number one, but they also give a recurring monthly gift of $25 or more per month, and that's allowing us to take advantage of the many ministry opportunities we see around the world. If you'd like to join us, please mention it to my colleague when you call us at 800-435-4343. Thank you. Well, earlier we heard Dr. Sproul ask us how we know what we know. Here's another question for us to consider. Why is there something rather than nothing? RC will address that big question tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind, and I hope you'll make plans to join us. Thank you.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-18 04:05:52 / 2023-03-18 04:14:14 / 8

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