My instinct that ‘there’ll be snow in the UK this year’ may turn out to be justified, if with the benefit of hindsight, the snow shows up. If it doesn’t arrive, I might think that my instinct was wrong. Either way, instinct doesn’t fit well with Plato’s definition of knowledge as ‘justified, true, belief.’ If I claim to know something I mean more than that I have an intuition. To know something needs a stronger justification and our animal instincts, whilst apparently natural and universal, seem lacking in justification. To know something is to be able to support it, with evidence, or examples, to provide a justification.
We commit an error in reasoning, the ad ignorantium fallacy, when we claim that we need no evidence for our beliefs and knowledge claims. It’s the thinking that goes along the lines that, ‘there may be fairies living at the bottom of my garden’, since there’s no evidence to disprove it. This thinking leaves open any number of things that are the product of wishful thinking – ghosts, unicorns, and fairies, but where’s the limit to this potentially long list of fantasies? Some atheists would add the notion of God to this list, however Alvin Plantinga has argued that belief in God is a properly basic belief.
Many religious knowledge systems would root their knowledge claims in a historical setting where they claim knowledge of God on the basis of a particular revelation in a concrete historical setting. Judaism, Christianity and Islam amongst others, are historical religions. Academic scholarship into the historical Jesus has been documented by NT Wright and the so-called quest for the historical Jesus offers evidence of a person who existed in history, who for Christians became the Christ of Faith. Followers of religious knowledge systems will point to evidence to support their claims, a theme explored in a BBC series The Big Questions.
A different approach would be to evaluate a religious knowledge system in terms of the narratives they tell. A paradigm is a model for understanding, for example, the atomic paradigm in chemistry and the evolutionary paradigm in biology are the lenses through which data in those subjects is understood. In religious knowledge systems, the overarching narratives told about who we are and what our place in the world is, act as similar knowledge filters.
BBC Panorama focuses on The Battle for British Islam and explores how a fanatical rhetoric narrative of grievance and ‘them and us’ has lead to an extreme interpretation of Islam, which bears no relation to the teaching of mainstream Islam. The film Riot Club based on the play Posh by Laura Wade and set in Oxford in the UK, explores the horrifying consequences of a narrative of looking down on others, based on a revolting arrogance, snobbishness and privilege.
The impact of a narrative, whether secular or religious, is a type of evidence that calls for evaluation. Martin Buber in his book I and Thou (1923) set out a paradigm where our relation to others is mutual. Perhaps assessing the impact that a narrative has on our behaviour and values is what matters. The question is, which narratives do we tell ourselves, secular, religious or otherwise? If a narrative inspires division and mistreatment, that’s a far cry from one that inspires concern for others, fosters our connections and reminds us of our common humanity. So what are your narratives, both personal and shared? How might they support the pursuit of knowledge? How might our narratives act as paradigms or knowledge filters and affect the way we live and behave? These knowledge questions are still up for grabs. Sartre said it best with the words, ‘everything has been worked out, except how to live’.
For more exploration: Decoding TOK for the IB Diploma