In the last two blog posts, I began with some form of media (a painting and a video); this time, we’re heading right into the meat of things. Whether you knew it or not, there are different types of knowledge. For our purposes in this blog, we will concern ourselves with two kinds: propositional knowledge; and personal knowledge (or “knowledge by acquaintance”).
Most simply, propositional knowledge is knowledge of facts. That one would say “I know that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States” is an example of a statement made in view of one’s propositional knowledge. By contrast, personal knowledge (or knowledge by acquaintance) has to do with one’s direct knowledge of something or someone by way of familiarity. So when one says that “Mary Todd Lincoln knew her husband Abe very well, one is making a statement of personal knowledge. Other examples of statements of personal knowledge include “I know what’s it’s like to see red” and “I know what it’s like to taste strawberries.”
So when it comes to the natural sciences and the Christian faith, what kinds of knowledge might one think is associated with the first domain of inquiry, and which kinds with the second? It is probably safe to assume that many might suggest that science has to do with propositional knowledge, whereas faith with personal knowledge. However, each has to do with both kinds. For example, for the natural sciences, while proposition knowledge may be required to know how fast objects fall to the ground, personal knowledge is needed to know what certain colors look like on a fMRI scan. Also, within the Christian faith and theology more generally, while personal knowledge of God is needed for a saving faith, Christians can know many things propositionally, given that we know things by way of both “special” and “general revelation” which requires inferences and deductions to be made with propositional knowledge. This is the first way in which science does not triumph over the Christian faith: each domain of knowledge respects and requires both personal and propositional knowledge.
A second way in which science can be seen not to trump other disciplines like Christian theology is when one consider the limits of natural science. Science is one thing; “scientism” another. Whereas science is a helpful way of coming to know many things about the world, scientism is the ideology which suggests that science alone delivers true knowledge about reality. The famous European (secularist) philosopher defines it succinctly as follows: “Scientism means science’s belief in itself: that is, the conviction that we no longer understand science as one form of possible knowledge, but rather must identify knowledge with science” (Jürgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interest, pp. 4-5). The problem, however, with scientism is that it is self-referentially incoherent; that is, when applied to itself, the ideology of scientism doesn’t deliver – indeed it can’t – because scientism itself is not a scientifically testable deliverance of knowledge: it’s philosophy, not science.
A third and final way we could consider of how science does not triumph over the Christian faith is by understanding the importance of notion of “category error.” One is considered guilty of having committed a category error when one misapplies to a thing of one category attributes which belong to another. Some simple (if silly) though helpful illustrations of such an error can be seen in these three questions and one statement: “How much does the color red weigh?” “How much does the note C cost?” “What color is the moral obligation to help the poor?” “Modern science proves the impossibility of miracles.” As the late great (secularist) biologist Peter Medawar (d. 1987) put it:
“Science is a great and glorious enterprise – the most successful, I argue, that human beings have ever engaged in. To reproach it for its inability to answer all the questions we should like to put to it is no more sensible than to reproach a railway locomotive for not flying or, in general, not performing any other operation for which it was not designed” (Medawar, The Limits of Science).
There are some questions science does not, indeed cannot – moreover, was never meant to – answer: and it is a category fallacy to think that it should. What is needed further are the deliverances of a host of other disciplines, including that of Christian theology.
In the next (and final) blog in this series, I shall discuss why all of this discussion matters, returning to, among other things, the painting with which we began: Rembrandt’s the Jewish Bride.