COMPULSORY FIGURES WERE ONCE A REQUIRED COMPONENT OF FIGURE SKATING COMPETITIONS —it’s how the sport got its name. Skaters carved intricate figures into the ice using the edges of the blades, demonstrating the skaters’ dexterity and control on the ice. As the more artistic dance elements and athletic jumps of the free skating program became more prominent, compulsory figures gradually diminished in importance and were eliminated from international competition in 1990. I am old enough to remember watching the compulsory figures program during Olympic competition. It was impressive, but admittedly tedious to watch for very long. Some supporters of compulsory figures said their elimination would cause an erosion of basic skills and lead to a decline in skaters’ technical ability in using the blade on the ice (see http://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/09/sports/no-more-figures-in-figure-skating.html). This seems plausible to me, but I admit I am not familiar enough with the technical aspects of the sport to know if that’s a fair assessment, then or now.
BUT, OF COURSE, I’M NOT REALLY HERE TO TALK ABOUT THE DEATH OF COMPULSORY FIGURES; I just think it’s a very helpful analogy. I’m here to talk about epistemology—the study of how we know things. In this field an erosion of basic skills has indeed led to a decline in our ability to distinguish truth from lies or illusion. For example, one dismaying aspect of the postmodern condition of our culture is the use of personal feelings and group identity as primary tools for assessing what one will accept as “truth”. Truth really is best understood as encompassed by a story, but for people suffering from acute cases of postmodernity, one story is as good as any other story, as long as they like it and/or their group or community supports it. Another serious symptom of the postmodern condition is the belief that a lack of agreement between different “narrative communities”—groups of people who accept the same Big Story about reality—means we must always live with uncertainty about what is the truth, even about the core truths of our Big Story—our metanarrative. I have heard and read impassioned arguments that indicate how certain some advocates of uncertainty are about everything being uncertain. I do not merely want to be unkind, but I think a certain laziness and lack of serious thinking is behind this insistence on uncertainty, as well as one reason for a reliance on feelings or group identity. The Gospel writer Luke emphatically believed that “certainty of the things you have been taught” was attainable through “carefully investigat[ing] everything” (Gospel of Luke 1:3-4).
To make matters worse, in the same way that American popular culture has engendered a general disregard for truth and genuine knowledge, so too have American churches neglected understanding why and how we know that the Christian worldview—the Christian Story—is true. I believe a disciple of Jesus Christ should be both passionate and part of a community, but there is no substitute for understanding; it is part of loving God with our minds. And the basic “compulsory figures” of epistemology are actually quite simple; you don’t even have to know what the word “epistemology” means. To use another analogy, learning “how we know” is like learning how to play chess: Anyone (really) can learn the rules, the object of the game, and the basic moves of chess and be playing in ten minutes. After that, becoming good at the game is a matter of diligence and practice, and it’s the same with epistemology.
1. The most basic unit of knowledge is a “fact”. Facts come in different sizes and shapes, but a common characteristic of facts is that to be useful they must in some way be verifiable.
b. Historical facts about past events are known through eyewitness testimony and historical documents.
c. Existential facts are known through personal experience, introspection, and intuition. These can be verified if the experiences, introspections, and intuitions are universal or part of common human experience.
3. There are three basic types of logical argument / inference: Deductive, Inductive, and Abductive (also called Argument to the Best Explanation).
(Here are two clear and simple explanations of these arguments: http://www.fibonicci.com/logical-reasoning/; https://www.butte.edu/departments/cas/tipsheets/thinking/reasoning.html)
And that’s it. Of course, anyone who has taken even an elementary college course in epistemology knows that the subject is much deeper and wider. But, to use another analogy, just as we don’t need to know the intricate engineering details of the internal combustion engine to know how to drive a car or fix a flat tire, knowing the basic “figures” of epistemology can still help us seek and know the truth.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Arguments and facts are important, in fact essential, but Truth is not just a random agglomeration of facts, anymore than a living organism is a random collection of cells. But cells are real, and so are facts. As cells are encompassed and “make sense” within a body, so facts are encompassed and made sense of within a Story. But there are lots of Stories about who we are and what our existence is all about. Can there be one True Story? And how would we know?
Next Week: Truth Be Told—Part 2 cont.: How Can We Know What Is True? – A Story With Beauty and Power