How do you know?

Posted on May 3, 2006
Filed Under Timeless Questions | Leave a Comment

thinking.jpg Augustine said, “I doubt therefore I am.” Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” All I can say is, “I doubt that I think, therefore what am I?” At least Augustine and Descartes knew one thing for sure: they existed. For the rest of us the question remains: how do you know? Basically, there are two ways in which we come to know things.

The first way that we can know anything is from our personal observations and experiences. Every day of our lives we see and experience a variety of people, places, and events. We learn by seeing and doing. Those personal experiences are stored in our memories and we grow in knowledge as we experience the world around us.

The second way we can know something is if someone tells us about something that is outside of our experience. For example, if a friend returns from a vacation to Italy we can learn about that place from their experience. Or, if we want to learn about how Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity, we can read his autobiography and learn from someone who lived 200 years ago.

Have you ever heard someone say, or said yourself, “I will have to see it to believe it”? That may be a good test for some incredible claims, but it is a rotten way to live life every day. Like an infant who doesn’t know better, and thus cries when a parent moves outside of his or her line of sight are those who act like nothing exists outside of what they can see. Of the two ways that we come to know things, we learn much more by far from others about things that are outside of our own experiences. Everything that happened before we were born, everything that takes place out of our sight, and most of what will happen in the future we will not experience first hand. This fact is humbling and challenging: humbling because it means that none of us knows as much as we might hope, and challenging because it means we must be careful whom we listen to and carefully investigate claims to truth. We must rely on others as we come to know things, but we must make sure that we have good reasons to believe their accounts.

There is a principle that is critical to understand in this process. The more important the fact or belief, the more credible the person sharing the knowledge must be. It is fine to ask any stranger for directions to a nearby restaurant, but it is critical that someone who claims to be able to tell us about the meaning of life, God, and eternity be a very credible and tested authority. Since we all have to rely on others, it is worth our effort to make sure that those people are worth believing. Anyone can get a dog to follow him by feeding and petting it. I like to think that humanity is more reasonable than that. We ought to test claims that people make to determine if they are true.

Not only are there two ways of knowing, but there are also two types of knowledge. Augustine called the knowledge of temporal and changeless things “scientia.” He called the knowledge of changeless guidelines for living in the changing world “sapientia” or wisdom. Knowledge of changing and temporal things is important, but wisdom is the higher and ultimate goal. So, if wisdom is your goal, then think clearly about the source of your knowledge.

A person can go through life limited by only trusting his experiences or he can learn to find credible sources of knowledge that will lead to gaining wisdom. When it comes to questions about spiritual truth, we need to ask: who exhibited the greatest wisdom, teaching, understanding, insights, and life? That person deserves a hearing. These are not new thoughts: 1,600 years ago, Augustine wrestled with these same issues and found that God seems to be very concerned about how we know and what we know. Remember, Augustine went from, “Dubito ergo sum” (I doubt therefore I am) to, “… you [God] made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”


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