The heart of the Epistemological Problem


Dear hijas,

It was Schaeffer who said that the Greek philosopher Plato wrestled with it most and had the greatest sensitivity grappling with the problem of knowledge. Plato understood that in the area of epistemology or one’s theory of knowledge, ‘there must be more than particulars if there is to be meaning.’

We’re speaking here of the universal problem all the way back to antiquity of the relationship of the one and the many, or universals and particulars.

Stated another way, in the area of knowledge, “Philosophers see in the world certain particulars as well as a basic underlying unity. For instance, many particular dog breeds exist: dachshunds, Dobermans, terriers, pit bulls, etc. Yet all of these have a basic unity, which we might call ‘dogness.’ They are all members of the one biological family known as Canidae. The many dogs are related by their one dogness” (Gary DeMar, ed., Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen, American Vision, 2007).

Schaeffer states it this way, “In the area of knowledge you have particulars, by which we mean the individual ‘things’ which we see in the world. At any given moment, I am faced with thousands, indeed literally millions of particulars, just in what I see with a glance of my eyes. What are the universals which give these particulars meaning? This is the heart of the problem of epistemology and the problem of knowing” (Francis A. Schaeffer, He is There and He is not Silent, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, IL, 1984).

The issue boils down simply to this; what is it that ties the universals to the particulars, the one and the many? What overarching unity or unities makes sense of each of the particulars so that we can say we truly know something? Is it human experience? In other words, “I know it because I’ve experienced it?” Is it perhaps science? Is scientific consensus the source of all knowledge? “Science said it, I believe it, therefore it’s true” mentality? Or is it something else?

What we have to remember is that we are trying to find large enough universals to cover the particulars so that we can know we know. We must find a basic unity in order to organize and understand the various particulars that are part of our human experience so that we are sure of being sure. This in essence is the epistemological problem in a nutshell.

Philosophers have struggled with this for eons, with various proposals depending on the philosopher. Plato’s answer was the concept of ‘ideals’. He tried to find his universals in this concept of ‘ideals’; that somewhere there is an ideal dog, for example,  that would cover all the particular dogs that exist. Anything outside of this was not a dog. Today it is ‘science’, or the ‘scientific method’ that enamors man’s heart as an answer to the epistemological problem. Man thinks that ‘science’ has all the answers for truly knowing something; an exalted position from which there is no dissent. Yet, are these enough to explain all there is to know about everything, to tie the universals and and all the particulars together? Many people would say “No, not even science is the complete answer.”

The question before us still remains: how do you know and how do you know you know? If we would but listen, it is the Judeo-Christian system of the infinite-personal God on the high order of trinity that answers the question of the one and the many.

With love, I remain,

Dear ol’ Dad

Vaya con Dios mis hijas!


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