Posts Tagged ‘epistemology’

On December 21, 2012—the day of the winter solstice—the 5,125 year cycle known as the Long Count in the Mayan calendar ends. Russia, which as a “minister of emergency situations,” said on November 30 2012 that he had access to “methods of monitoring what is occurring on the planet Earth” and that he could confirm with confidence that the world was not shortly to end. A top official of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia’s “chief sanitary doctor” echoed the minister’s words to calm the Russian masses, which have a penchant for superstition.

Lest the penchant be presumed limited to Russia, in France access to Bugarach mountain was to be blocked on the “fateful day” out of concern that visitors would inundate the area due to its “sacred” character. Meanwhile, the patriarch of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church issued a statement assuring the faithful that “doomsday is sure to come,” but that it will be provoked by the moral decline of mankind, not the “so-called parade of planets or the end of the Mayan calendar.” That the patriarch knew that doomsday is sure to come is no less of a dogmatic claim for him to make than those of the believers in the Mayan calendar. Even so, making a claim that is in the mainstream or at least is in line with a biblical basis is typically not viewed as an over-stretch of human reason beyond its capacity.

More generally, religious belief, being treated as though it were known (i.e., as a fact of empirical knowledge), can be regarded as an encroachment by human beings beyond our native fauna. Even were there a “doomsday” by supernatural design or “intent” revealed to us, we could not say for certain that we had interpreted the signs correctly. Particularly troubling is the presumption of being correct regarding a domain that is inherently transcendent. The habit at issue is the willingness to overlook or ignore the fallacy wherein one can know what lies inherently beyond human cognition and perception. Rather than being rooted in religion, the nature of the error is epistemological—based on what the human mind can know.

Whether it is known that the world will end at the end of the Mayan calendar or as a religious Armageddon, the sheer certainty in the declaration itself is almost always overlooked or taken for granted rather than treated as a problem—even a sickness. Put another way, the old sin of pride may be all over the place in the form of presumption. The “sin” is in the asserting itself, rather than the content of that which one is asserting. Whether that content seems odd or is familiar, the presumption is the same in that it goes beyond human capacity as though with impunity.



For more on superstition based on the Mayan calendar, see Ellen Barry’s report, “In Panicky Russia, It’s Official: End of World Is Not Near” in the New York Times (December 2, 2012). http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/world/europe/mayan-end-of-world-stirs-panic-in-russia-and-elsewhere.html




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While it might seem easy, discerning saints from sinners can be rather difficult. Hence, we are urged not to judge, lest we, too, be judged. This lesson landed on me when I found my opinion on a seemingly-saintly elderly woman change dramatically.

The elderly Philipino woman whom I met seemed at first to be very pious, having an explicit desire to gain the attribute of holiness. The simplicity of her faith appealed to me. Yet when I made reference to one of her priests being–to put it nicely–more of an administrator than a pastor, she replied that her priest “was Jesus.” I replied that the priests are in the line of the Apostles, rather than instantiating Jesus. I cited apostolic succession, and she relented. Not content to be corrected, she asserted that the Bible is sufficient as a source of historical evidence. I replied that a faith narrative is neither written with the intention of recording historical facts nor of the genre of historical writings that is taken as proffering historical evidence. The woman disagreed, insisting that a faith narrative can be considered as a source of historical facts. I asked her whether she knows or believes the so-called facts. She readily replied that she knows them. “Well,” I observed, “then it would seem that you have no use for faith then.” My unexpected comment stopped her in her tracks. “What do you mean?” she asked. “We have faith in things we don’t know–things we are not certain of, such as whether we will be alive tomorrow,” I replied. “It doesn’t make sense to have faith in something we know because there is not uncertainty about it. So if the Bible gives you facts that you know, that tells me that it is not a matter of faith.” Taken back, she repeated that she knew that the Bible proves that certain historical events took place. “And you can’t be wrong about that?” I asked. “Yes, I can’t be wrong about it.” As if giving the conclusion of a syllogism, I remarked, “Then that means that not only is faith unnecessary for you, but it is based on arrogance–that of presuming that you cannot be wrong.” My pronouncement stunned her into speechlessness. She stood staring at the ground as if unable to move. There was no anger or resentment–just a wall that was blocking her view and not letting her pass.

If Jesus is a door, then a believer opens the door and walks through; one does not keep holding on to a front door once one has entered a house. The elderly woman was stuck holding on to a doornob as if it were attached to a wall. For myself, I was simply stunned that religion could so distort cognition so much and involve denial to the extent that a human being readily admits to not being able to be wrong about something that most of us would say involves belief rather than knowledge. It is as if the domain furtherest from certain knowledge were somehow the most capable of proffering evidence about which a person could not be wrong.

Perhaps this exchange reflects the saying, “Where God builds a church, Satan builds a chapel.” My question is: In preaching against arrogance, was I in the church or chapel?

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I suspect that a religious perspective contains a vulnerability to making empirical inferences for which the religious nature of the sources are insufficient.  This impedes interreligious dialogue and does not reflect well on the religionist.  I don’t believe the religionist realizes the extent to which his or her empirical justification is over-extended.  From the other direction, we tend to “excuse” the religionist, not letting a non-religionist get away with such over-reaching.  This is ultimately enabling. 

In other words, just because we think we know that Paul made an empirical claim does not mean that he did, or that the empirical event really happened.   Tradition might say that he made the claim, and we might think it probable…but neither is sufficient to justify knowledge that the empirical event occurred historically. 

The leap from “probable” to “so it really happened” is a cognitive lapse that I believe goes with a religious frame of mind.  I don’t want to say as some have theorized that this makes religiosity some sort of sickness; such a conclusion is generalizes over too much of religiousity.  I believe there are healthy or positive elements even if there are “short-circuits.”   If we could have the former without the latter…that would be an improvement in the phenomenon of religion.  Is this possible?  Can you have one side without the other?  I really don’t know, though I have faith that it is possible.  This is not to say that I KNOW, for if I knew, I wouldn’t be relying on faith.

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