The chronology of epistemology: two vices

Aristotle, in his various ethical works, propounded a view of virtue that placed it as the mean between two extremes; courage, for instance, was the balance between cowardice and foolhardiness. In classically influenced Western thought, this has been taken broadly as the maxim “Everything in moderation.” I think this is a good rule of thumb, and rationality, in my estimation, is concerned with finding reasonable balances in thought. I wish to speak of one such balance now by looking at some extreme views in the area of epistemology – how we attain knowledge.

I am here especially concerned with epistemological progress, which is roughly defined as the way in which knowledge shows progression or regression. Most often, this is spoken of in terms of progression, how knowledge has increased both in its accuracy (how current knowledge has become more correct) and precision (how much more detailed our knowledge is of everything, despite the fact that there are still many things yet beyond our epistemic reach). In some areas of knowledge, this is accepted by most everyone, but there are areas of contention, and there is a tendency to fling mud about either past or present knowledge when disagreement arises.

One such way is fairly well-known; it is the so-called fallacy of chronological snobbery, a term coined by C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield to describe the idea that presumes current knowledge is the quintessence of knowledge and that past knowledge, especially things that have fallen out of (as J.P. Moreland calls it) the “plausibility structure”, has been deemed false. Generally, this involves questioning beliefs that are held by peoples who believed other wrong things, such as geocentrism or a flat earth. In some cases, it involves casting doubt on sources of knowledge that are old. How many times has an atheist denigrated Christian belief by suggesting that belief in a millenia-old document is backwards? (On the other hand, how many times have you seen anyone suggest that the Code of Hammurabi, which predates the canonization of the Bible by another two millenia or so, should not be used as a basis for current legal codes?)

The problem, as Lewis points out in his book Surprised by Joy, is that the fact that a belief is old does not prove its falsity, nor does the fact alone that people have generally rejected it (for such would be an argumentum ad populum). The latter is broadly demonstrable as historical myopia, for certainly the people of Copernicus’s time thought that geocentrism was true and those of Kepler and Galileo’s eras thought that celestial perfection (that celestial bodies were perfectly spherical and had perfectly circular orbits) was evident from nature. Essentially, those “chronological snobs” make the mistake of thinking that current knowledge is the goal of the epistemic searches of past generations, and because of the nature of knowledge itself, that will likely never be the case. It takes some humility to remember that every generation has its epistemic limitations, and the next will likely succeed the last.

The second such misstep in thinking about knowledge over time is much less common but just as wrong. The first time I came into contact with this idea was from a blog called Old Truth (tagline: “Modern church news, from an old church perspective”), which appears to get its name from a Charles Spurgeon quote (sometimes visible in the site’s header):

“I cannot agree with those who say that they have ‘new truth’ to teach.
The two words seem to me to contradict each other;
that which is new is not true. It is the old that is true,
for truth is as old as God himself” — Charles Spurgeon

Now I admit that I don’t have any soft spots for Spurgeon, but there are a number of problems with this quote (especially theologically and philosophically – is the truth relation co-eternal with the Godhead? all true propositions?). The main issue is that truth is here equivocated with knowledge, and although they are related on the Platonic formulation (knowledge = justified true belief), they are by no means the same. So when Spurgeon talks about “those who say that they have ‘new truth’ to teach,” he is referring to people who say that there is new knowledge to be gained, but he then talks about truth itself (likely referring to the notion of objective truth), divorcing it from the context of knowledge acquisition. Without a fuller context, I can only assume (however tentatively) that Spurgeon’s purpose for saying this was to suppose that new ideas have no merit and that we should only trust the ideas that have been around for the ages (perhaps based on a misguided view of Ecclesiastes 1:9).

But again, this very notion is counter to rational thought and even to the witness of Christian revelation. John Polkinghorne, in his marvelous book Belief in God in an Age of Science, presents ways in which religion (albeit imprecisely) reflects the same trends as scientific inquiry, including Kuhnian paradigm shifts and the periods of uncertainty that follow these shifts. Would Spurgeon insist that the concept of a Trinitarian Godhead is false because it was a “new idea” to the early church, most of whom had grown up with the idea of a God who was very much unitary (cf. the Shema – “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one”)? I would suggest not. So whereas it might be true that truth is never new to God (since novelty suggests tensed knowledge, which would appeal only to the open theist), certainly that should never been a reason to prefer older ideas over newer ones. (I would say that older ideas are only preferable insofar as they have had more time to be analyzed and evaluated, but certainly ideas should be accepted or rejected on their own merits.)

The crux of the matter, in my estimation, is somewhere in-between: We should not reject the knowledge of the past (for, as the old aphorism goes, it is only on the shoulders of giants that we can reach great heights), nor should we reject legitimate advances in knowledge. Epistemic inquiry requires that we be open to evidence, no matter what the age, and denigrating any sort of knowledge only throws the whole endeavor off-balance.

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One Response to The chronology of epistemology: two vices

  1. Joe says:

    Well said. I am an atheist, but I definitely agree with the crux of this article. The newness or oldness of an idea does not effect its trueness or falseness, but as you say “ideas should be accepted or rejected on their own merits.”

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