Epistemology is the study of the acquisition of knowledge, i.e. how we know things, or how we gain truth about our world. Often when I talk to people they will say that they know things by seeing them on the news, by reading them in books or in a newspaper. Scientists say they gain their knowledge by testing and experimentation, and by studying the publications of other scientists. These all seem to be reasonable ways of gaining knowledge; that is if you take into consideration the possible margins of error, and the motivations for distortion that some people may have for providing misinformation instead of valid information. “Trust but verify” seems a truism in this case.
The Oxford dictionary defines knowledge as: “facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject”; but to be fair, when you claim knowledge, you claim to know something that should be verifiable.
News programs consider it to be a high responsibility to stick to the facts and not report innuendo or propaganda, and take pride in adhering as closely to the truth as can be verified. Even the Fox channel claims to be “fair and balanced” and, when actually reporting the news, they come as close as they can, considering their political bias. However, they will be the first to admit that MOST of their programming is editorial, not news; and in those editorial segments, they can slant and skew the news as much as their political opinions allow. It is after all, opinion and not news.
The scientific community, however, takes extreme care to deal with facts, not opinions. They precisely measure and document every step of their experiments in order to be able to replicate their findings under laboratory conditions anywhere. They actually expect, and depend, upon other scientists to critically scrutinize every step of their procedures and every aspect of their results, to try to find any errors that may have crept into their processes. If errors are found, the original scientist will very much want to know what he did wrong, and redouble his effort to get it correct using that new information. Also, the scientist who found the errors will then receive credit from his peers for his work in doing so. Often, the biggest rewards in science (Nobel Prizes, research grants, etc.) are reserved for those who overturn the oldest, and most entrenched, scientific theories in their search for the truth. In other words, scientists want to know if they are wrong. They know that it is the only way to get to what is real, and what isn’t.
Another supposed “way to knowledge” is Religious Faith. The faithful claim to know many things about life, the earth, the universe, and life after death; and which, of the many, many gods that humans have worshipped, is the one and only true god. They even claim to know what He wants. They especially claim to know what He wants.
Faith is peculiar in that it is many things to many people. Faith, according to the bible is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), but I’ve met many believers who use it differently. They say that they have Faith that the Bible is the word of God; or they say they have Faith that Jesus will come back to earth. They are not ‘hoping” that it’s the word of God, or that Jesus will come back; they are saying they “know” these things. These are claims of knowledge, and as such they fall under the heading of epistemology.
However, it can’t be. If you see a little dog across the street, you can have as much faith as you want that it’s a female dog, and you can act on that knowledge all day long; but until you examine it, you won’t have actual knowledge of its sex. Further, if it turns out to be a male dog, your faith in its “femaleness” would prove to be dead wrong.
People of Religious Faith claim to have knowledge of things that contradict those of other Faiths, and of current scientific knowledge. Muslims claim to have Faith that Mohammed literally “split the moon” in two, but science tells us that there is no evidence that that has ever occurred, much less that it happened as recently as the life of Mohammed.
Christians will tell you that they have Faith that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended bodily to heaven. Muslims say that their Faith denies that, and scientists say that the laws of physics don’t allow that to happen. Not only that, but that if someone were to bodily ascend into the air and continue on into space they would spend centuries, or even millennia, travelling through the dark, cold vacuum of space before they even reached the nearest star.
Many believers of all faiths will tell you that Faith is “a feeling of certainty” about something which they believe because it feels right to them. Sometimes they will even say that they couldn’t live in a world without Faith, i.e. without that certainty. To me, that just seems like wishful thinking on a level that I find hard to comprehend; you want it to be so, so you believe it to be so. Ok, but you have to realize that it is not actual knowledge. If you experience a dream, you may have knowledge of the content of that dream, but you don’t claim that the things or events that happened in that dream actually happened in reality.
Paul Boghossian calls faith “pretending you know things that you don’t know”. When people say to me, “I couldn’t live my life without faith” what I really hear is “I couldn’t live my life without pretending to know things that I don’t know”. That seems more fitting than saying it is “that which is hoped for”. Religious Faith is a claim to knowledge, and it’s a claim about many things that are untestable and un-falsifiable, and as such Religious Faith should not be relied upon to give us actual knowledge of reality.
While it’s bad enough that Faith doesn’t give us usable, testable answers about reality; it’s worse than that. Faith keeps us from questioning that “knowledge” at all.
“Faith taints or at worst removes our curiosity about the world, what we should value, and what type of life we should lead. Faith replaces wonder with epistemological arrogance disguised as false humility. Faith immutably alters the starting conditions for inquiry by uprooting a hunger to know and sowing a warrantless confidence.” ― Peter Boghossian
Taking all this into consideration, it’s obvious that Religious Faith cannot be deemed to be the path-to-knowledge that it is claimed to be; and that claim has no support at all in the real world.