I Probably Wrote This Article (An Exposure of Epistemological Agnosticism)

By Mac Deaver

Several weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a digital copy of a Master’s Thesis written for Abilene Christian University by Derek Estes. It was published in 2016. The thesis is entitled, “Epistemology in the Churches of Christ: An Analysis and Critique of Thomas B. Warren.” I was very interested in the thesis since I have long been interested in epistemology, and since brother Thomas B. Warren was a great friend of my family and a dear friend of my father, and one of my teachers. As I have stated before, other than my father, no one has influenced me more as to the work that I now try to do.

Now let me state at the beginning that I am not opposed to anyone’s analyzing the epistemology of Thomas B. Warren. And I appreciate the courtesy extended to brother Warren by Derek Estes as he writes of him. But it is the crucial mistake that Estes makes that calls forth this short piece.

This is not a lengthy analysis of Estes’ thesis. It is but a brief effort at showing why it is that Estes is very wrong to find fault with Warren’s view that knowledge entails certainty. On page 41 of his thesis, Estes states the most crucial and objectionable part of his thesis. He reaches the conclusion that Warren was wrong in his epistemology in that his view of knowledge was that knowledge is characterized by certainty. And Estes declares that the idea that knowledge entails certainty must be rejected.

This position is old, false, dangerous, and irrational. It is old in that Estes’ paper is a mere modern expression of old epistemological agnosticism. It is false because epistemological agnosticism unintentionally presupposes the possibility of knowledge in order for it to even be expressed as a legitimate epistemological position to be considered. It is dangerous because to the degree that the agnosticism is absorbed by the church, our effort at the defense of the faith is ruined. There can be no justified defense of the gospel if the gospel cannot with certainty be known. It is irrational in that the very concept of epistemological agnosticism is an unintended attack on the laws of thought (the law of identity, the law of excluded middle, and the law of contradiction, as well as the law of rationality), the laws that intuitively govern human thinking and reason. (For a good treatment of these basic principles of rationality, see Lionel Ruby’s Logic—An Introduction, pp. 262-268).

No one can be an epistemological agnostic, as Estes would have us all to be, without being irrational. And what is it that Estes leaves us with? Probability. This is the same false position taken by others before him including J. D. Thomas at Abilene Christian University years ago. One can get Thomas’ book, Facts And Faith with a copyright of 1965 and read for himself the details involved in the attempt to justify epistemological agnosticism (though Thomas never called his view that) and mere “probability” knowledge, which Thomas argued is all that we can have. Thomas, among the various errors advocated, stated, “Never will Christian faith be dissolved into complete certainty, however, and we must expect that there will always be a degree of contingency” (p. 269). Also, “If Christianity and all its demands could be proved, there would be no need for faith” (p. 269). Thomas declares, “We must remember that no philosophical or reasoned argument can absolutely prove that God exists, neither can science ever speak significantly either for or against the existence of God” (p. 234). Thomas thinks that atheists have a “faith” and that Christians have a “faith” but that the Christians’ faith is more probably correct. The Christian “…falls short of absolute certainty, but he has more certainty than anyone else. The Christian faith is the most reasonable, the most rational of all. ‘It makes more sense’ than alternative faiths, even though its extra upreach be ‘irrational’” (p. 277).

Without exploring all the errors that Thomas promoted in the field of Christian Apologetics, let it be clear that at ACU there has been a history of epistemological agnosticism long before Estes wrote his paper in another defense of it.

But now, let me briefly show why it is false to contend that knowledge does not entail certainty. This is not to say that everything we claim to know is an actual justified claim, but I am saying that a justified claim to know must entail certainty. It cannot be any other way.

What would be the conceptual distinction between knowledge and non-knowledge (ignorance) if certainty is no trait of knowledge? In other words, exactly how would one describe the difference between knowing and not knowing if certainty is not an essential characteristic of knowing?

If Estes’ view is correct that knowledge does not entail certainty, then when someone says, “I know,” he is also saying, “I am not sure.” And “I am not sure” means “I am not certain.” What does it mean to claim both that “I know” and “I am not certain”? “I am not certain” means “I do not know for sure” or simply “I do not know.” Estes creates the confusion that one can “know” without at the same time being sure that he does. But how would this constitute knowledge? If “I am not sure” can mean “I know,” then what is meant by “I am sure” and its relationship to the claim that “I know”?

Or again, if knowing does not entail certainty, then how could we rightly identify not-knowing (ignorance) from non-certainty? Can one be ignorant of something and claim knowledge of that something at the same time? Of course, he can. But can he be ignorant and claim knowledge correctly at one and the same time? Of course, he cannot, if rationality exists (that is, if a man’s mind is in intellectual reach [contact] of reality).

If one could not be certain of a knowledge claim that is inaccurate (or false), and if he cannot be certain of a knowledge claim that is accurate (or true), then there is no knowledge at all (whatever you call it or how you describe it). Man’s mind is out of touch with reality. There is no sanity; there is no reason; there is no recognizable truth.

How does the statement, “I know but I’m not sure” differ from the statement, “I don’t know”? Estes’ view is that both can be rationally uttered and that a real conceptual distinction can be drawn between them. But can it? Consider the following true-false assertions:

  1. T/F Knowledge is not knowing. [If you answer “true,” you attack the law of identity.]
  2. T/F Non-knowledge (ignorance) is not knowing [True.]
  3. T/F Knowledge is knowing without knowing. [If you answer “true,” you attack the law of contradiction.]
  4. T/F Knowledge is knowing. [True.]
  5. T/F Knowledge is knowing without evidence to justify knowing. [False. To answer “true” would be saying that guessing is equivalent to knowing.]
  6. T/F Knowledge is knowing with evidence to justify knowing. [True. Warren taught us that knowledge is “justified, true belief”.]
  7. T/F To know means to be fully and justifiably sure. [True. When one is convinced by his intellectual contact with information and that reason has reasoned correctly about it, then certainty must follow. This is the way that rationality functions.]
  8. T/F One can claim to know without being fully and justifiably sure. [True, by drawing a premature conclusion or by lying.]
  9. T/F One can claim not to know when he really does know. [True, by telling a lie or by refusing to admit the force of the laws of thought.]
  10. T/F There is no conceptual distinction between one’s making a knowledge claim while being fully and justifiably sure and making a knowledge claim while not being fully and justifiably sure. [To answer “true” is to attack all the laws of thought, thereby denying the possibility of human rationality. That is to say, if one answers “true,” he is implying that the laws of thought either do not exist or that they are not applicable to human reason. That would mean then regarding “the law of identity” that something is not itself and a true proposition is not true, and it would mean then regarding “the law of excluded middle” that it is not the case that something is or is not itself or that a precisely stated proposition is either true or false, and it would mean then regarding “the law of contradiction” that something can be and not be in the same sense at the same time or that a precisely stated proposition can be both true and false in the same sense at the same time.]
  11. T/F There is an evidential difference between one who is fully and justifiably sure and one who is not fully and justifiable sure. [True.]
  12. T/F If there is no evidential difference between one who is fully and justifiably sure and one who is not fully and justifiably sure, then there is either no such thing as knowledge or whatever “knowledge” is, it cannot be conceptually distinguished from non-knowledge (ignorance). [True.]

In further exploration of the suggestion that “probability” is what we are stuck with, let us mention that probability actually presupposes certainty just as evil presupposes good and falsehood presupposes truth. There is no getting around this. The very idea that one cannot know (for sure) anything is preposterous because the claim being made, to be considered as a serious suggestion at all, first of all must be an actual and recognizable claim (or, a claim that is fully and justifiably recognized to be a claim being made). And, furthermore, the claim to be considered as a serious suggestion presupposes that the claim has been made. Claims do not make themselves! When someone says that he is probably correct (but that such a conclusion is the best that he or anyone else can do), he is also affirming that he, himself, has made the claim. If he is asked if he is certain that he has made the claim, he either answers in the affirmative or the negative. If he answers affirmatively, he is in self-contradiction to his claim. If he answers negatively, he admits that his claim is not merely a probability claim but that it is worthless for it cannot ever be known for sure to be true.

We all need to understand that the affirmation of a probability claim is at the same time an admission of the possibility of the accuracy of the contradictory. In other words, to claim that God probably exists is to admit at the same time that it is possibly true that God may not exist at all. So, to affirm that some proposition is probably true is to affirm at the same time that, after all, it may be false.

It is sometimes said that the “God Question” (Does God exist?) is the most important question that there is. But this is not true. It is true to say that God is the most important entity in ontology (reality), but the most important question is whether or not we can have knowledge (whether he exists or not). What would our position be if God exists, but we are incapable of knowing it? Our agnostic brethren think we are still all right. But they are wrong—seriously wrong!

If someone claims that all we have is “probability” truth and “probability” knowledge and that he can say such because he has only probability knowledge with regard to his own state, we reply that he is merely playing games with himself and is implicitly denying the very laws of thought by which he is able to make a recognizable claim in the first place.

Let us raise a few more questions for Derek Estes:

  1. T/F I, Derek Estes, know (I am certain and cannot be wrong about it) that I wrote a paper on Thomas B. Warren’s epistemology to fulfill my requirements to receive the Master’s Degree from Abilene Christian University.
  2. T/F I, Derek Estes, do not know (I am not certain and may be wrong in my view) that I did write a paper on Thomas B. Warren’s epistemology to fulfill my requirements to receive the Master’s Degree from Abilene Christian University.

Now, if Estes says that #1 is true, then he denies what he affirmed in his criticism of Thomas B. Warren (that is, instead of rejecting the idea of certainty as a characteristic or trait of knowledge, he now accepts it). But if he says that #2 is true, he is calling into question his own conscious awareness. He is consciously denying awareness of which he is aware. He is employing his own self-consciousness to deny itself. This is not only simply epistemological agnosticism regarding the existence of God, but with regard to everything including himself. This is an unintended attack on human sanity! Furthermore, he is caught in an ontological contradictory state. While being fully and justifiably aware that he wrote the paper (since he remembers doing it), he must now claim, to be consistent with his rejection of certainty as a characteristic of knowledge, that he is not sure that he wrote it.

But what if he tried to stay consistent and suggested that he is not really sure that he wrote his paper because, after all, memory can fail us? Well, let us see—

  1. T/F I, Derek Estes, remember writing the paper.
  2. T/F I, Derek Estes, do not remember writing the paper.

Surely, he will claim #1 to be true or render himself ridiculous. But what if he says that the claim is still not certain because at times we think we remember what we only imagine, and sometimes we do not remember what, in fact, we have done. Well, we could then ask Derek if he is certain about this analysis. That is, we could ask him if he is sure or certain that at times we think we remember only what we imagine, and that at times we fail to remember what we have done. If he kept on claiming only “probability” knowledge, he would increasingly remove himself further and further from cognitive reality and from being taken seriously at all. He would be entrenching himself deeper and deeper in his unintended and confused attack on human rationality and the very concept of sanity itself. When one unintentionally attacks the “laws of thought” he is destroying the distinction between sanity and insanity! He is denying human rationality. He is attacking the relationship that exists between evidence and perception, conception, and reason. The reason that one cannot be aware of his own insanity (that is, to be actually insane is to be in a psychological condition that is not recognized for what it is) is that the laws of thought make sanity possible. One cannot “make sense” out of his insanity if he is really insane.

Now, what if Estes were to attempt to modify his view and dodge the force of the above true-false questions by saying that, in further consideration, we do have the right to claim absolute and infallibly correct knowledge (knowledge about which we cannot be wrong) about some conclusions empirically derived (that is, information that we receive through the five senses), but that we still cannot be sure about anything that is beyond the physical (which would entail any conclusion about God)? We would then affirm that this simply is not true, and its falsity is delivered via its own content.

Let us imagine that Derek were to modify his view and suggest that some things derivable from the five senses provide us with information so that we can make knowledge claims that are certain. (It might be good in passing to note that J. D. Thomas admitted, and rightly so, that science can provide us with no certain knowledge. Warren taught his students why this is so. The scientific method entails an invalid argument form. [See Ruby, pp. 274-276]).

But what if Estes were to change his mind and suggest that science can provide certain knowledge, but that since God is not the object of the scientific method, his existence (if he does exist) cannot with certainty be known? Consider the situation that he would then face:

  1. T/F I, Derek Estes, now realize that we can have some knowledge about some things but that the knowledge claims that we can make with certainty have to do with the physical and not with the metaphysical.
  2. T/F Since, God, if he exists, would not be physical, then his existence or non-existence cannot be known.

But do you see, dear reader, the problem with such a scenario? If one were to attempt to claim that all knowledge claims that are certain are restricted to the empirically derivable, then we would have to reject this theory of restriction that says certainty is possible only with physically derivable information (information derived through one of the five senses), since the theory itself is not derivable from such a source. It is a theory not received through one of the five senses. In other words, it is a metaphysical theory that contradicts itself!

Finally, let us observe that the nature of “probability” is such that it does not and cannot exist in external ontology. It is an intellectual calculation and as such exists in the mind only. Nothing occurring in nature does so by probability. “Probability” is an intellectual conclusion reached and exists in the mind of man. To affirm as the Bible clearly does that some things happen by chance (Eccl. 9:11; Luke 10:31-32) is not at all the equivalent of claiming that things that happened by chance only probably happened. To say that some things in the future will happen by chance is not to say that they will probably happen.

Also, we must remember that when we are talking about the existence of God, we are not talking about Someone whose existence could be merely an ontological possibility or a declared probability. As Anselm rightly claimed, God is the One greater than whom cannot possibly be conceived. “The non-existence, then, of that than which a greater cannot be conceived is inconceivable” (The Ontological Argument, edited by Alvin Plantinga, p. 18). He also said,

If it should be said that a being than which a greater cannot be conceived has no real existence, or that it is possible that it does not exist, or even that it can be conceived not to exist, such an assertion can be easily refuted. For the non-existence of what does not exist is possible, and that whose non-existence is possible can be conceived not to exist. But whatever can be conceived not to exist, if it exists, is not a being than which a greater cannot be conceived; but if it does not exist, it would not, even if it existed, be a being than which a greater cannot be conceived” (Ibid., p. 20).

It is true that Thomas B. Warren never did, in his formal encounter with Antony Flew, invoke the ontological argument of Anselm. He knew of the controversial history of that argument, but he also believed that a correct formulation of that ontological argument could be made. I know this is so because some time later I asked him about it. And even though he used only the cosmological argument, and the teleological argument, and the moral argument for the existence of God in his debate with Flew, when he used the word “God,” he was employing a term that, to him, necessarily or essentially had certain characteristics and whose existence was absolutely necessary (ontologically essential).

It would be good for us all to remember that on Wednesday night of the Warren-Flew debate in Denton, Texas, that Warren’s first true-false question for Flew was: “It is possible for God to be infinite in some of his attributes and finite in others.” Flew inaccurately and irresponsibly answered “True” (Warren-Flew Debate, p. 149).

Warren in response to such an answer replied, “I suggested a moment ago that Dr. Flew and I then are talking about different Gods. The God I am defending in this debate is infinite in all of his attributes” (Ibid.).

Warren was defending the concept of an infinite God! Under tremendous pressure, however, Flew began to deny the existence of a mere finite god, just as under pressure he began to advocate epistemological agnosticism rather than atheism! Flew began in the debate to relinquish bold atheism for a weak agnosticism. Unfortunately, Estes in his rejection of “certainty” is attempting to get us all to reject Warren’s bold claim by which Warren moved Flew from atheism to agnosticism! Of course, if Warren had believed what Estes has now concluded, he would never have defended the existence of God in formal academic combat with such a world renowned atheist as at the time Antony Flew was. Warren would never have been able to rout Antony Flew with the seeming ease that he did. When Flew years later surrendered his atheism for some form of theism, he referred to his encounter with Warren, but I do not think that he gave enough credit to Warren for Flew’s later shift in thought from atheism to, at least, some kind of theism. (See There Is A God—How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, pp. 67-69).

Warren believed and willingly affirmed in his 1976 debate with Antony Flew: “I Know That God Does Exist” (Warren-Flew Debate, p. 131), and by “know,” among other things, he meant that he was certain! And he proved in that extraordinary discussion that he had a right and an obligation to be.