I have come to terms. I’ll admit it: Philosophers are less attuned to ‘the obvious’ than most.
I even remember the morning that I realized I had no choice but to accept the stereotype. A group of philosophy faculty and students were gathered in my professor’s office, and we needed more chairs to accommodate everyone. Five or six people calculated the number of chairs needed. Five or six different numbers resulted.
The story came to my mind while exploring John Locke’s epistemology as described in his work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and his personal commentary on the Essay, The Sillingfleet Correspondence.
In a previous article, I discussed Locke’s theory of government: whether or not it is correct, I found his ideas, at the very least, readily understandable. So I was surprised by my reaction to Locke’s explorations of ‘human knowledge’. I couldn’t help but feel like Locke and I were struggling to accurately count chairs.
If we join Locke on his journey, by the end we cannot know God exists, much less that Jesus was and is God, much less that core Christian doctrines are true. The Trinity? In Lockean terms, we can’t even know that the house next door exists, or that Barak Obama is President! We can have faith in these things, but to have faith in any given thing, according to Locke, means it is not known:
Faith stands by itself, and upon grounds of its own; not can be removed from them, and placed on those of knowledge. Their grounds are so far from being the same, or having anything common, that when it is brought to certaintty, faith is destroyed; it is knowledge then, and faith no longer.
How did he take us here?
“For with me,” Locke writes, “to know, and be certain, is the same thing; what I know, that I am certain of; and what I am certain of, that I know.”
Locke equates ‘actual knowledge’, or “the present view the mind has of the agreement or disagreement of any of its ideas,” with certainty. ‘Certainty’ is not merely confidence: to satisfy Lockean certainty, the knower must, while knowing, have immediate perceptions of the relating ideas. Any connection between not immediately perceived ideas is less than certain, and is believed only based on probability.
For example, I can only know that ‘my soccer ball is round’ if I am right now perceiving my soccer ball and its roundness. Apart from that, I can’t be certain that it hasn’t ceased to exist or taken on a square shape, even if highly improbable.
If we accept Locke’s terms, we can understand his theory of knowledge. Locke would assert that I don’t know that my friend in the next room exists—it’s only highly probable. I don’t know that I was born in January. I don’t know that God exists.
As we approach the text, we probably come with a fairly solid idea of what ‘certainty’ is—the fuzzy term is ‘knowledge’. If we accept that knowledge is certainty, then sure: I guess I don’t know when I was born or that God exists.
But does Locke’s definition align with our experience, or is he miscounting chairs? While reading, I’m find myself tempted to say, ‘Well, yes, Mr. Locke, five chairs would be right if five people were here, but look—there’s seven of us!’ On an intuitive level, something doesn’t sounding right.
If a father says to his child, “You know I love you,” we don’t normally assume he is trying to say, “You know there is absolutely zero possibility that I do not love you.” That would be false: it is impossible to have a direct perception of another’s person’s internal feeling of love—we can only know the expression of those feelings. What the father refers to is a firm faith in paternal love that he understands to be a kind of knowledge even apart from certainty.
‘Common sense’ intuition will, I think, suggest that the father makes sense, and is not simply speaking lazily. The same applies to a person who says, “I know God exists.” When we hear that, it doesn’t seem we typically take her to mean, “It is absolutely impossible that God does not exist,” nor, “I have a highly probably opinion that God exists.”
Consider Locke’s description of faith.
Faith…is the assent to any proposition, not thus made out by the deduction of reason, but upon the credit for the proposer, as coming from God, in some extraordinary way of communication. …[But] revelation cannot be admitted against the clear evidence of reason.
Revelation as subservience to reason is the vital point. Locke defines reason as: “the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions which the mind arrives at by deductions made from such ideas, which it has got…by sensation or reflection.” Locke claims that faith is not made out by reason, but unless we have had a clear sense perception of God, or resurrection from the dead our lack of grounded ideas implies that even the most basic tenants of faith are, at best, probable opinions.
In one way, this may seem like pointless semantics. Whether faith is ‘knowledge’ or ‘high probability’: what practical difference comes from holding one or the other?
Stepping back a bit can reveal how Locke’s theory does matter. His theory didn’t stop with mere transfer of terms. Locke says that things not tied to physical reality are not certain, and therefore, cannot be known. This (though maybe unintentionally) grounds later philosophical assertions that anything metaphysical is not even probable, seeing as probability itself is not a ‘sensible’ idea. (See Hume.)
Arguably, the logical conclusion of that assertion is the contemporary divorce we see today that divides ‘science’ and ‘faith’. The secular academic community has been infused with the idea that scientific beliefs are ‘knowable’, but faith beliefs are personal and ‘irrational’.
Maybe Locke should slow down and recount the chairs. Knowledge intuitively seems separable from absolute certainty. Claims like, “I know when I was born,” “I know you love me” or “I know God exists” are understandable. In fact, I know they are understandable. ‘