Experience-Based Knowledge and Logical Problems

A fellow student and myself found ourselves in a perplexing situation in a recent theology class. Another person in class proposed that it is acceptable to live with logical inconsistencies in one’s worldview so long as the Bible supersedes the inconsistency itself. Here we found ourselves in a culture war reduced to one conversation. It is becoming more common to interact with Christians who are willing to ignore (or embrace) logical inconsistencies simply because their belief structure would collapse without such ignorance. Little does one know that the noetic structure of such a worldview is already in disarray. While this is problematic on the surface, the problem stems from deeply rooted distortions in common thinking.

It may be said that acquisition and solidification of knowledge is to produce a better quality of beliefs. In epistemology, such an endeavor is often called warrant. While knowledge is connected to belief-building or belief-supporting, it would be premature and limiting to claim that all knowledge is belief-oriented. Knowledge can also be acquired through the personal experience. For example, one can go on a sight-seeing tour of NASA’s now-defunct space shuttle launcher, but one does not here develop knowledge of the inner workings of the precise calculations of how the shuttle can penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere and enter in orbit. Nor would seeing the launch pad satisfy the extreme skeptic that humanity has indeed reached space. What one does come to know in this experience is a better familiarization with the launch pad structure itself. Yet this does not require the acquisition of new propositional truths.

The two types of knowledge explained above, belief-oriented knowledge and experiential knowledge, are commonly confused and often distorted into each others categories. That is, culture tends to base propositional beliefs on experiential beliefs. In this confusion, actual propositional knowledge is not acquired. The closest one can get in this confusion is some (possibly unwarranted) understanding of a subject. For example, in this confusion one may come to understand a particular worldview without its being true, but one cannot know a proposition x without x being true.[1]

Throughout the semester in the theology class, it has become evident that many students base their theology off their experience. This subjective and relative approach may reduce key doctrinal issues to one’s mere experience or preference.[2] Let it be clear that I am not positing a total separation between one’s cognitive beliefs of theology (or any other field of the humanities), but rather that what I am asserting is that theology ought to shape experience, not the reverse. Practical living and learned knowledge from experience is a crucial aspect of life. One could learn all of the moral virtues posited by Saint Thomas yet never actually apply them practically. While such knowledge of the virtues is important, the knowledge is of little use if not lived out.

Thus, experience is connected to theology, but it is theology that should shape experience. Referencing back to the opening example which spawned this post, it appears that some base their theology upon their experience only. And, as it seemed clear at least amongst some in the class, some people are content living with logical inconsistencies. Now let me be clear that I am not proposing that one will have the perfect worldview or theory. The general nature of philosophy and theology is that there is disagreement and challenge based upon other beliefs. What is intellectually irresponsible and lazy is the mere acceptance (or embracing) of logical inconsistencies and not trying to work through said problems. The experience of accepting such logical problems is subjective to the individual. Yet, if the individual bases his or her own theology foundationally on experience, then the theology formed out of an inconsistent epistemic framework will distort how one understands the objective and absolute God. Thus, if one is willing to accept and embrace logical contradictions or inconsistencies then one will fall into the misunderstanding that God is not a logical Being. It is of no wonder that I was scoffed at when I proposed that we have an epistemic duty to work through logical issues because God is the perfect logical Being.

What is needed is the reversion back to propositional and belief-based knowledge to form our experience. It is not merely enough to live out an experience, nor to simply understand a specific theory or worldview. Rather, one must come to knowledge of a belief system, support it, work out kinks and then base experience upon it. The reversal of this procedure is to limit one’s knowledge to experience, or, to subject the knowledge aimed at belief-building to mere experiential support. As thinkers, there is an epistemic and virtuous duty to know the tenants of doctrine, abandon contradictory beliefs and work through inconsistencies with due diligence. To simply be complacent with inconsistencies is not only have problems in one’s worldview, but also the practical and experiential-based living that culture values.

[1] This generalized example is taken from Robert C. Roberts and W. Jay Wood, Intellectual Virtues. New York: Oxford, 2007.

[2] Note that this reduction is not limited to epistemic issues. Often is such the case in issues of moral relativism.

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