What Does it Mean to Know?
by Mark Shelhamer
I have here collected some random musings on the question of what constitutes knowledge, and how it is that I can claim to “know” something. These are part of a larger set of even more random musings on the nature of God more generally, and how God interacts with the world and with us. This is the problem of divine action, one that I think is at the critical junction between science and faith: how are we to understand that God is in control, while at the same time learning more and more about the explanatory power of (impersonal?) physical laws? This question applies also to physiological and psychological “laws” since, as we advance in our understanding, the physical bases of these sciences are coming to be better understood.
But for now I will limit my comments here to the question at hand: what does it mean to know something? In particular, how do I “know” that God “wants” something or that God “did” something? The first is the issue of discernment while the second is the issue of divine action. But both come down to the question of claimed knowledge. When we speak of this type of “spiritual” or “religious” knowledge, do we mean the same thing as scientists do when they speak of knowledge? It is important to understand any distinction here, since careless use of common terms can lead to misunderstandings and, even worse, to stereotypes and ridicule. Perhaps this language issue is one of the contributors to the apparent gap between science and faith.
A key tenet of scientific understanding or knowledge is reproducibility. We understand physical laws, for example, to be consistent and universal. You cannot have your own set of laws of motion, or of thermodynamics, that differ from mine – not if they are true laws of nature and reflect true knowledge. These common laws might exist in different formulations that obscure their universality (Maxwell’s Laws as originally formulated would be all but recognizable to us with our more modern mathematical nomenclature), but part of the fun of science is finding these common underlying connections. Part of this universality is what fuels the optimism behind the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—the well-founded assumption that such an intelligence might differ from us in many ways, but that a fundamental common understanding of essential scientific principles will help establish grounds for communication. (The choice of what frequencies to monitor in this quest, for example, based on the radio spectrum of hydrogen.)
Does spiritual knowledge work the same way? Are these truths also universal and applicable, to all people, at all times? I have no definitive answer, but my impression is that the answer is No. This is a decidedly unscientific answer. But consider this premise: God can act in each of our lives in the most individual and personal of ways. What I need and want from my interaction with God might not (hopefully will not) be the same for you. In science, on the other hand, I can resort to the findings of others – the accepted body of knowledge in a given field – to make a judgment on your scientific claims. You might claim the discovery of a perpetual-motion machine or faster-than-light communication, but I am on solid ground in doubting those claims, to the point of disbelief. On the other hand, who is to say that your spiritual experience – even if it does not match my understanding of God – is not legitimate?
But back to the issue of reproducibility, which is related to the issue of predictability. Can we predict what God will do in any given situation – assuming that we have settled the issue of God’s existence or at least accept it as an axiom. This ability would lend a substantial amount of credibility to religion and faith even among the most die-hard of skeptics. If we could say “God will protect that church during a tornado because it is the home of genuinely spiritual people who pray honestly for safety and protection” or “this missionary will be protected from all harm because she is doing the Lord’s work” – well, that would have high credence. The ability to predict outcomes in science is based directly on the universality and consistency of the scientific laws that we know. That’s what it means to know them – through their predictive power. But we all know that such spiritual predictions are a fool’s game. God in this manner appears fickle and inconsistent. We are close to resorting to the explanations made by proponents of ESP: it is inherently finicky and labile, and if it were not, then it would not be extrasensory but rather would be understood by existing conventional science. This is not an argument that wins over many (or any) skeptics. But can we do any better?
An area of great research interest at the moment is personalized medicine. We know that people respond to different drugs in different ways, that people respond to therapeutic interventions (surgery, rehabilitation, physical therapy) in different ways. So is it then correct to say that medicine is not based on solid underlying physical (physiological) knowledge? Not at all. We can speak of individual genomes or epigenetic (environmentally induced) modifications to the genome, but the underlying embodiment in DNA and RNA and gene transcription is common to all of us (and across plants, animals, and humans). There is a common core. So then – what is the common ground on which we can agree that God is involved in the universe, while allowing for God's freedom to deal with each of us individually?
This might seem like nothing but meaningless philosophizing, but there is an important point to it. As Christians, we believe that God is reliable and trustworthy. For many of us in the sciences, the consistent and reliable physical laws that guide the universe provide a basis to believe that God has created the world for us to explore and comprehend. This belief provides a crucial foundation for the sense that many of us have that science is a calling, one not just secular but also consistent with a spiritual quest: as Einstein said, “I want to know how God created this world.” We feel that it is understandable because there are guiding principles: the laws of nature. Thus the apparent inconsistency in God’s actions can be troubling in very practical terms.
Are there spiritual laws that govern God’s interaction with us and the world which, if we just comprehended, would allow God's actions to be completely understood and predictable? One would have to wonder about the benevolence and munificence of such a god, if such laws were so obscure. Or, coming full circle, perhaps we should broaden or conception of what it means to know something, and recognize that while science provides a very strong and very successful means for doing so, it may be just a subset of a broader understanding.
Mark Shelhamer is on leave from his faculty research position at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, currently serving as Chief Scientist for the NASA Human Research Program.
His research interests include human sensorimotor function and adaptation to space flight, with an emphasis on mathematical modeling. He is also an avid jazz drummer and amateur radio operator.