Is It Epistemological Agnosticism Or Not?

By Mac Deaver

Recently, in response to my criticism of Derek Estes’ Master’s Thesis conclusion that certainty must be rejected from the concept of “knowledge” as an essential trait (which criticism I presented in my article, “I Am Probably Writing This Article”), I received a very cordial email from Derek. I do indeed appreciate the tone of the response.

Just here I will respond to that email.

Derek wanted “to provide just a couple of points of clarification” regarding the issue between us. I had claimed that to reject certainty as a characteristic of knowledge amounted to giving up knowledge itself. Derek had claimed that “certainty” was not an essential part of the definition of “knowledge.”

Now in response to my response, Derek in offering his clarification makes two points. His first point is to suggest that it is not the case that the only alternative to certainty is epistemological agnosticism. And his second point is to say that while he had affirmed that subjective certainty is not essential to knowledge definition, he had also claimed that knowledge was still possible if objective certainty exists.

Regarding the first point, Derek says that it is not true that the only alternative to certainty is agnosticism (and by this, he and I both are referring to epistemological agnosticism). I hasten to affirm that just here Derek is absolutely wrong. We either can know (and by this I mean know with assurance that the conviction held is correct) or we cannot know. Does Derek know that he holds the view on his concept of knowledge that he does? If he does, then I claim that he must be certain that he knows that he holds that view. How can he possibly know that he holds the view without being certain that he holds the view?

Regarding communication, let me offer just a few truths. (1) Communication (oral or written) is possible only if words have meaning. Sentences are intelligible if words or connected in such a way as to present the expression of a thought. (2) Words have meaning as we use them, thus defining them or inserting rational content into them. (3) In matters of great significance, precision of meaning or definition is necessary. (4) In everyday discourse the definition of words may be altered or refined or even changed. But with regard to the Bible, we must, in order to know what God teaches, reach the definition of the words that he used when the Holy Spirit wrote Scripture. We have to know what God originally intended. (5) So, any modification of definition today is useless if it cancels or contradicts the intended meaning of the original term in Scripture. If there were never an intended meaning of the original term, then whatever that term was, it was not a discernible word with meaning. (6) The modification of the original definition by redefinition is not mere refinement, but constitutes rather a cancellation of original meaning if in the “refinement” the originally intended meaning is denied.

But even in everyday language as well as in Sacred literature, the words “I know” and “I do not know” are used in a way that clearly distinguishes the ideas entailed in the propositions that they compose. Furthermore, the distinction that obtains between the two propositions is logically one of contradiction. And since contradictory statements cannot both be true and cannot both be false, then if one by an attempted redefinition of the word “know” attempts to deny the obvious meaning of the two contradictory statements, he is denying the contradictory nature of the concepts that the propositions express.

Now, consider the following True-False statements or propositions, remembering that every precisely stated proposition is either true or it is false per the “law of excluded middle.”

  1. T/F I know.
  2. T/F I do not know.
  3. T/F I know, and I am certain that I know.
  4. T/F I know, but I am not certain that I know (that is, I claim to know while at the same time asserting that I may not know at all).
  5. T/F I know, and I do not know.
  6. T/F I do not know, and I am certain (that I do not know).
  7. T/F I do not know, but I am not certain (that I do not know—I may, after all, know).

Now, think about these True-False statements as related to the alleged question of the existence of God. Apply these propositions to that issue. So, regarding God’s existence:

  1. T/F I know that God exists.
  2. T/F I do not know that God exists.
  3. T/F I know that God exists, and I am certain that I know that God exists.
  4. T/F I know that God exists, but I am not certain that I know that God exists (that is, I claim to know while asserting that I may not know at all).
  5. T/F I know that God exists, and I do not know that God exists.
  6. T/F I do not know that God exists, and I am certain (that I do not know that God exists).
  7. T/F I do not know that God exists, but I am not certain (that I do not know that God exists; after all, I may know that God exists).

Now, keeping in mind that whatever the definition of “knowledge” is, it remains the same throughout its use in the above propositions. Let us look then at what we face.

Statements #1 and #2 cannot both be true, and they cannot both be false. One of them must be true, and one of them must be false. If one knows that God exists, it is not possible for him not to know that God exists. If he does not know that God exists, it is not possible for him (at the same time in the same way in the same sense) to know that God exists.

With regard to statements #3 and #4, whatever the legitimate definition of “knowledge” is, the word “certain” explicitly adds assurance to the claim so that the claimant is saying that he cannot be wrong about his statement: God exists, and the claimant knows it for sure. Statements #3 and #4 are also contradictory in their relationship. Both cannot be true and both cannot be false, and one of them must be true, and one of them must be false.

Now, statements #6 and #7 are both denials of the “knowledge” of God, whatever “knowledge” is. #6 is the claim that I do not have knowledge that God exists, and that I am certain that I do not have knowledge that God exits. #7 is the claim that I do not have knowledge that God exists, but that I am not certain that I do not have knowledge that God exists (after all is said and done, I may know that God exists).

The relationship between #6 and #7 is somewhat curious. #6 is the claim of the non-knowledge of God with the additional claim that the non-knowledge claim cannot be wrong. In one sense, this is a strong epistemological denial. The claimant is saying that he does not know that God exists, and he is certain of his claim that he does not know. He is not certain of God’s non-existence, but he is certain of his non-knowledge of that existence even if God’s existence is ontologically actual. He knows that he does not know that God exists.

And #7 is again the denial of the knowledge of God but with the additional explicit claim that the first claim of non-knowledge could, after all, be a false claim. He is not sure whether he does or does not know that God exists while claiming that he knows. #7 entails two claims, but both claims cannot be true and both cannot be false. #7 is irrational because it is self-contradictory. #6 is an admission that he really or assuredly or certainly knows that he does not know that God exists. Whether God exists or not, the claimant is affirming that he is not aware of conclusive proof of that existence, but he is aware of his own lack of knowledge as to the proof of that existence.

The relationship between statements #6 and #7 is also contradictory, but the contradiction appears in the last part of the compound statements. In #6, the claimant is saying that he is certain that he does not know that God exists, and in #7, the claimant is saying that he is not certain that he does not know that God exists (the implication is that he may, after all, be certain). The contradiction here appears in the claim regarding certainty. Again, #6 and #7 are contradictory in their relationship. The claimant cannot be both certain and non-certain as to his knowledge of the existence of God. Oddly, in #7, the claimant declares that since he is not certain that he knows that God does not exist, he is implying that he may “know” (whatever that word means) that God exists without at the same time realizing that he does. He knows but he does not know that he knows! This is the implication that knowledge, at least in some cases, can be a non-recognizable intellectual and psychological condition. The implication is that one can know without knowing that he knows. But this is not true. One can know something without remembering that he does, but it is impossible to know something without at the same time realizing that he does. It is impossible and thus irrational to say that I know that I am writing this article, but at the same time to say that I am not aware or do not realize with certainty that I know that I am writing this article.

Now, after all of the above analysis, look back at statements #2 (I know, but I am not certain) and #5 (I do not know, but I am not certain). By comparing these two propositions, we see the error involved in the claim that one can have knowledge without having certainty. Again, now, apply the statements to the issue of God’s existence.

  1. T/F I know that God exists, but I am not certain that I know that God exists.
  2. T/F I do not know that God exists, but I am not certain that I do not know that God exists.

What do we have? We have two compound propositions. In #1, while affirming that I know that God exists, I am also denying that I am certain of the accuracy of that knowledge claim. In #2, while declaring that I do not know that God exists, I am admitting that I may be wrong with regard to my own certainty. In #1, an affirmation of knowledge is made regarding the existence of God, but the certainty regarding that knowledge of his non-existence is denied. In #2, a denial of the knowledge of God’s existence is asserted, but the certainty of the initial assertion is also denied.

Now, the question at this point is: what is the difference between the two statements regarding the definition of the word “knowledge?” If one can correctly say with regard to himself that “I know that God exists, but I am not certain that I know that God exists,” and another man can just as legitimately state, “I do not know that God exists, but I am not certain that I do not know that God exists,” then where is the distinction to be made between “knowledge” and “non-knowledge”? I affirm that the rejection of “certainty” as an essential component element of knowledge is a cancellation of any meaningful distinction between “knowledge” and “non-knowledge.”

Derek says that he isn’t an epistemological agnostic because in order to be such a person, he would have to “(1) have a definition of knowledge, and (2) believe there are no beliefs that satisfy that definition,” while he on the other hand claims to have a definition of knowledge and that there are many beliefs to satisfy that definition. My response is, as argued above, that any definition of “knowledge” which so redefines that word as to obliterate the difference between “knowledge” and “non-knowledge” is not a legitimate definition of “knowledge” at all, but is rather a denial of the possibly of knowledge itself. So, to say “I know” which amounts to the linguistic equivalent of “I do not know,” is no mere redefinition of the word “knowledge.” And one gets to that point by the cancellation of “certainty” as an essential trait of knowledge itself.

Derek reminds me that he never referred to brother Warren as an agnostic, and he would rather that I not refer to him (Derek) as such. But, first of all, brother Warren was never an agnostic regarding the existence of God, and he was never an agnostic epistemologically. Derek may claim that God exists, and he can try to claim that in some sense he knows that God exists, but in his thesis he denied that the knowledge of God is possible by rejecting “certainty” as a necessary component part of its meaning. He does not realize this yet, but in rejecting “certainty,” that is what he has done. Second, Derek may never have explicitly called brother Warren an epistemological agnostic, but on page 44 of his thesis he wrote,

“…if a person is both an internalist and a foundationalist, by his own definition, he cannot actually know anything and is doomed to radical skepticism; internalist foundationalism is self-defeating with regard to the belief that a person can have knowledge of at least some of his beliefs. If one believes that knowledge is possible, internalist foundationalism cannot be the answer. Thomas B. Warren’s epistemology, as I have argued, is a version of internalist foundationalism, and as such, it is subject to the infinite regress problem. Consequently, Warren’s epistemology is doomed to radical skepticism and, by extension, agnosticism as well…”

That is certainly, by implication, a claim that Warren was, without realizing it, an epistemological agnostic! I deny the claim, but that is the very claim that I make with regard to Derek: without realizing it, he is the one who is the epistemological agnostic. Derek attempts in his thesis to show high regard for much of Warren’s work in spite of his conclusion regarding Warren’s epistemology! Something is very wrong here. I appreciate Derek’s intended declaration of admiration for brother Warren’s work, but why should Derek respect the work of Warren given the fact that one of Warren’s major efforts in life was to prove that we could know with certainty that God exists? I do not understand this. And I submit that if Derek thinks that his use of “internalism” and “foundationalism” imply that Warren was an epistemological agnostic, then the terms, as Derek conceives of them, are either (1) inaccurately or inadequately described and/or (2) wrongly applied to brother Warren.

Now, to the second point of clarification that Derek made in response to my article, Derek states,

“I should perhaps clarify what I mean when I say that certainty is not a criterion of knowledge. As I say in my thesis, my claim is that we should reject the idea that certainty, as a subjective state, is a criterion of knowledge. That is, we should reject that in order for my belief to count as knowledge, I must have subjective, internal access to reasons such that my beliefs cannot possibly be wrong. This is different, however, from saying that my belief must not be objectively certain. This is a critical distinction. Obviously for a belief to count as knowledge, it must be objectively certain; a false belief cannot count as knowledge.”

Here, of course, the difference being asserted by Derek is that between “subjective” and “objective certainty.

First of all, I’m not sure what Derek means by “objective certainty.” It seems to me that what he means is “objectively true,” but that is not what he says. “Certainty” can exist only in a mind. Technically or logically speaking, “truth” is a trait of propositions. We distinguish between “truth” and “fact.” Truth applies to things said or written (language). Facts have to do with conditions, events, states of affair, situations, etc. That is, facts are not statements as such. It is a fact that I am writing this material. It is true for me to claim in statement that I am doing so.

Now, taking Derek at his own words, I ask, where does “objective certainty” exist? Since it can only exist in a mind, and if it cannot exist in my mind (since Derek denies subjective certainty), it must exist in someone else’s mind, if, as he claims, it does actually exist. But if humans need not have subjective certainty in order to have knowledge, and if objective certainty must exist (for human knowledge to be possible, per Derek), then it must exist in God’s mind. (This would imply, by the way, that per Derek’s argumentation, if humans can have knowledge without having certainty, then such “knowledge” still could only imply God’s existence).

So, we come to the realization that for us to have the right to make a “knowledge” claim, even though we may never be certain subjectively in our own minds as to the accuracy of the claim, God alone can, given the way that Derek argues. The objective certainty exists only in the mind of God. God has certain knowledge; we have only subjective knowledge (which may or may not be accurate) but it can be accurate only if it corresponds to the objective knowledge in the mind of God. This means, of course, that there is no human knowledge at all. God is the only one who knows anything (and, of course, he does know everything). Humans know nothing. The whole enterprise of research into the area of epistemology becomes both irrational and impossible. If we cannot be certain of anything because it is merely “subjective” certainty (it is my own personal, individual confidence), then certainty is not a trait of human knowledge, but I have already exposed this conclusion as false.

Furthermore, when Derek says that “certainty” can be a trait of human knowledge but not a necessary one, he is admitting that “subjective certainty” can be accurate and justifiable in some situations so that one can rightly claim to be certain of some things. This, would, of course, apply to atheists as well as theists. If certainty can exist in some human minds in spite of the fact that the knowledge claim is only a subjective one, then atheists have as much right to claim certainty (without admitting God who has objective certainty) as theists do. Notice what Derek wrote:

“Obviously for a belief to count as knowledge, it must be objectively certain; a false belief cannot count as knowledge. (Here Derek shows that he is using “objectively certain” as a reference to “objective truth” or “objective fact,” and these do not have the same meaning as “objective certainty” MD). But as any epistemological externalist would say that does not mean I must have subjective certainty. So if an externalist claims to know God exists (as many do, by the way), this is not a claim that God probably exists. To say I know that God exists, for an externalist, is to say that God objectively exists. And likewise, if I say I know I am writing this email, it is not to say that I am probably writing this email. I am either writing this email or I am not; there is no middle ground about that proposition. It is only to say that in order for me to have knowledge that I am writing this email, it is not required that I am certain I am writing this email. Maybe I am certain I’m writing this email (for the record, I am certain I am writing this email). That’s great! But it’s not required for me to know I am actually writing this email. It is, if you will, the epistemological cherry on top, but it’s not required. Likewise, maybe a person is certain God exists. If so, that’s also great! But it is not necessary for the belief to count as knowledge; there are other, less philosophically problematic criteria for what belief counts as knowledge.”

The just quoted reference conceptionally collapses of its own accord. A belief may “count” as knowledge without its actually constituting knowledge. Derek admits that he is either writing his email or that he is not. This is correct. However, when it comes to locating his intellectual relationship to that email (that is, coming to terms with whether he actually knows that he is or is not doing so), he claims on the one hand (1) that he not only knows that he is writing it, but that he is certain that he writing it, while on the other hand claiming (2) he could claim to know that he is writing his email without being certain that he is. I deny it, and as already by means of the true-false questions/statements above discussed, I have shown that he is actually in self-contradiction with himself by denying a conceptual (substantive/content) distinction between knowing and not knowing.

Furthermore, when he says that he knew that he was writing the email and was certain of it, but that he could have known that he was writing the email without being certain of it, I would submit that an atheist could just as correctly use the concepts of “knowledge” and “certainty” to declare that (1) he knows that God does not exist and that he is certain of it, but that he just as correctly could claim that (2) he knows that God does not exist but that he could make that claim without his being certain of it. Thus, Derek’s dismissal of “certainty” as an essential trait of knowledge eliminates the distinction between a theistic atheist (a man who says that he does know that God does not exist), and a theistic agnostic (a man who says that he does not know whether God exists or not because such knowledge is impossible). So, regarding the “law of excluded middle” consider:

  1. T/F Derek knows that he was writing the email or he did not know that he was writing the email.
  2. T/F If he knew that he was writing the email, he was certain that he was writing the email (Derek claimed this).
  3. T/F If he did not know that he was writing the email, he could not be certain that he was writing the email.
  4. T/F If he was not certain that he was writing the email, he did not know that he was writing the email.

How would it be conceivable (though he claimed such could be accurate) that Derek could know that he was writing the email without being certain that he was? Such a contention, I submit, is an unintended but actual assault on the concept of human reason. Words (and thus their meanings) are being abused in order for such a position to be advocated. Language is being turned against itself; irrationality is the result.

Now, let us consider a few more True-False statements/questions that help to pinpoint the relationship between faith (belief), knowledge, and certainty as to their conceptual connection in Scripture. Consider the following:

  1. T/F Faith with certainty is or can be knowledge (Derek admits this).
  2. T/F Faith without certainty is or can be knowledge (Derek claims this).
  3. T/F With faith one can please God (Heb. 11:6).
  4. T/F Without faith one can please God.
  5. T/F Knowledge is essential to salvation (1 Tim. 2:4; John 8:32).
  6. T/F Knowledge is not essential to salvation.
  7. T/F If knowledge is not essential to salvation, then certainty is not essential to salvation.
  8. T/F If knowledge is essential to salvation, then certainty is essential to salvation.
  9. T/F If certainty is essential to salvation, then faith (belief) entails knowledge.
  10. T/F If faith without certainty is knowledge, and if faith is essential to salvation, then knowledge is not essential to salvation though faith is (that is, faith without knowledge pleases God). [But John 8:32 and 1 Tim. 2:4 show that knowledge is a requirement for salvation! See the relationship of faith (belief) and knowledge in John 6:69].
  11. T/F If knowledge is essential to salvation, and if faith is essential to salvation, then certainty is essential to salvation (cf. Acts 2:36; 13:34; 17:31; 2 Tim. 3:14; Col. 2:2; Rom. 4:16; 2 Pet. 1:10, 19).

Now, according to Heb. 6:11, Col. 2:2, and 2 Pet. 1:19, for example, we have justification for speaking of “degrees” of certainty. We do, after all, at times have the right and, perhaps, the need to ask someone, “Just how certain are you?” But we do not find in Scripture justification for non-knowledge of the saving gospel of Christ. When Derek claims that knowledge does not require certainty as an essential component part of its definition, then he eliminates any degree of it at all, and this is clearly wrong. This is where a breakdown between knowledge and non-knowledge occurs.

Finally, I would like to make an observation regarding the significance of the history of the denial of knowledge and, thus, the denial of certainty. It is interesting to me to observe the fact that by way of Abilene Christian University through the efforts of the late J. D. Thomas, longtime head of the Bible Department and much respected professor, the view was advocated that while we must have faith, we cannot have knowledge. Now more recently, by way of Abilene Christian University again and through a Master’s Thesis, the view is advocated that while we can have knowledge, that knowledge does not essentially or necessarily entail certainty. The first view (that of J. D. Thomas) states explicitly that we cannot know truth. The second view (that of Derek Estes) states implicitly that we cannot know truth by its rejection of certainty as an essential characteristic of knowledge itself. Both views were staunchly confronted and passionately refuted by Thomas B. Warren whose epistemology Estes was considering.