It’s fairly fashionable to call the thinking of our time “post-modern” and to talk about how people believe we really can’t know anything for sure, or perhaps just can’t know anything. In many discussions that is the conversation ender. You really can’t know that you’re right, so I could be right as well. Alternatively we hear “My opinion is as good as your opinion.”
(Boring meditation alert!)
There’s a certain value in humility, in realizing the possibility that we may, in fact, be wrong. But I still tell people not to make use of any epistemology (theory of how we know stuff) that you wouldn’t want used by the designer of an airplane you were about to fly on. In a discussion about aerodynamics, my opinion is not of the same value as that of an aeronautical engineer. It’s possible that either of us could be wrong. Aeronautical engineers have been in error. But it’s more likely that I will be wrong on the subject than the engineer. Similarly if the issue is the translation of a New Testament Greek verse is at issue, I am more likely to be right than the average person who has not studied Greek, or the seminary graduate who has allowed his or her Greek to slip away. I not only have continued to read Greek, but continue to read whole Greek grammars. On the other hand, my opinion on the passage is of less value than that of someone who works with the language on a daily basis, such as a translator or a Greek professor.
That doesn’t mean I’ll automatically surrender my position. As I have frequently pointed out when someone has tried to trump me with the “I’m more educated” card, I can generally provide a reference to someone more educated than either of us. Following which it’s time to discuss our views on the merits. But that assumes that there are merits and that our opinions are not of equal value. One or both may be wrong. One may be more plausible than another.
I recall a debate between two of my undergraduate professors. I worked for one of them, so was able to discuss it with him afterwards. I took one philosophy class from each of them. In this debate the first one picked up a book from the table in front of them, fanned the pages, and said, “This is a book. I know it’s a book. It’s not just likely it’s a book. It is a book!” The other responded, “It’s always possible that I put something there very cleverly disguised as a book.”
Yes, it would be possible. Difficult, but possible. The probability was high that it was a book; low that his opponent had tricked out a fake book facsimile to catch him on precisely that point. But he was very likely right.
Similarly, in a recent discussion I had, an individual strongly derided those who were intolerant. How could they be so sure they were right? Nobody could be that certain. Nothing was that certain. Moments later this individual described another group of people as just plain wrong and said they should not be tolerated.
I was challenged on a similar point. I value tolerance, but I have low tolerance for the intolerant. I’ve been told that this is inconsistent. If I truly value tolerance, I must also be tolerant of intolerance.
I think all of these stories illustrate one problem in different ways. Our knowledge is not absolutely certain. Even the most certain things have some potential, however small, for error. On the other hand, we do have sufficient knowledge of many things for practical purposes. While aeronautical engineers are not perfect, they manage to design aircraft that tend to fly the vast majority of the time. Things may go wrong, but only rarely do they go wrong in a catastrophic fashion. Language is often a target of skepticism. How can we know the meaning of what someone has said or written? The further in time and space we are from the origin, the harder it is to comprehend. Yet communication does take place for practical purposes.
My wife writes a grocery list. I take it to the store and buy groceries. Most of the time I come back with what she wanted. Sometimes I don’t. The communication is not perfect, but it works for our practical purposes. She continues to make lists. I continue to follow the lists. We continue to eat.
We live with the potential for error all the time, and it tends to work.
The problem we have in discussions is that we (inclusively!) tend to think in binary fashion. People must either be able to communicate, or not. I must be able to understand a scripture passage, or not. But in fact I partially communicate, and I partially understand. (Methinks the apostle Paul said something of the sort!) I don’t get it perfectly, but I don’t (always) completely miss. I’m certain I’ve missed the interpretation of a passage pretty near totally a few times in my life. At least I’ve reversed my position on them, so I was either wrong before or now, or perhaps even both! But still I move forward.
There are two things I’m suggesting here:
1) The uncertainty of your position doesn’t mean mine is right. I’ve encountered this in various historical studies. Your position is weak, so the traditional position must be right. Not necessarily! Let’s discuss its merits.
2) Everything is uncertain so let’s be paralyzed and not act.
I can manage uncertainty in my perceptions of the grocery list. I can manage my uncertainties elsewhere. I don’t have to claim greater knowledge than I possess in order to move forward.