Do They Know that No One Knows?
If one word were chosen to describe the prevailing general attitude theologically, the most appropriate word would be “schizophrenic.” This is not merely to say that one theologian will radically contradict another, but to the fact that a theologian will hold views violently contradicted by other views he also holds. This situation is the rule rather than the exception.
It is very common to find a leader in philosophy or theology expressing the opposing positions (1) “I cannot accept the Bible fully because it is in opposition to science” and (2) “I cannot accept the proposition that one can have knowledge in religious matters, because I do not believe that one has real knowledge in anything.”
Science is, by definition, that which is known. Skepticism is, by definition, the contention that nothing is known. It is hardly believable that a rational person would claim to hold the position often expressed, “I am a scientist, therefore, I am a skeptic.”
This schizophrenia is manifest in many facets. Some would contend, “Nothing can really be proved and I will prove that this is true.” Again, “We cannot be certain of anything and I am certain that this is the case.” Other strange positions of a similar nature are, “We ought not to believe ‘oughtness,’” and “It is contrary to the purpose of man’s existence to contend that man’s existence has a purpose.”
The title of this article expresses one of these contradictions common to the unbelief of today. “Nothing can be known” says the skeptic, and yet he claims to know that nothing can be known. If nothing can be known, then the skeptic cannot know that nothing can be known. It is strange that this is not immediately seen by those who hold this position, but apparently it is not.
Often when this is pointed out, the skeptic will retreat to another position where he says, “Although I cannot know that nothing can be known, I will contend that I cannot be certain that anything can be known.” Though the skeptic has changed his position significantly, this will not solve his problem because now he is in the position where he must decide if he is CERTAIN that he cannot be certain about anything. Evidently he must retreat from this position also and confess that he cannot be certain that he cannot be certain.
This may seem to the reader to be an effort to entrap the skeptic merely to embarrass him. However, an analysis of this sequence of retreats by the skeptic reveals the true nature of the position. Although the skeptic’s contention may seem strong, humble and wise in the beginning, the analysis reveals that it degenerates to a point where it is nothing more than an admission of weakness on the part of the skeptic. When the skeptic states his position, “Nothing can be absolutely known,” it first appears to be a profound, universal principle. Yet, in the end, it dissolves into the admission that this particular skeptic is not AT THIS TIME sure of anything. The moment he tries to make it universal and absolute, he is violating his own rule. Thus, the sequence becomes:
INITIAL STAND: Nothing can be known absolutely by anyone.
FIRST RETREAT: We cannot know that nothing is known but even if we know something, we cannot be certain that we know it.
SECOND RETREAT: I cannot be certain that others cannot be certain; I only know that I am not certain that I know anything.
This last position presents some intellectual difficulties to the skeptic, but these are largely the difficulties one has in trying to precisely express his own confusion.
A Strange Application
Convictions in the area of science have continued to grow and gain greater acceptance. Today our world is one of science. Medical researchers never seem to culminate their efforts with the conclusion that nothing can be known. New techniques for saving lives are constantly heralded. Recently men have stood on the surface of the moon. At any point in this endeavor, it could have been decided that these efforts would be fruitless since nothing could really be known.
Examples could be multiplied into the millions, where intellectual leaders of our day have pursued knowledge with never a suggestion that knowledge could not be attained. In religious matters, some seek to hinder this investigation with the fatalistic approach that truth cannot be known.
This approach seems similar to that of a man who had a red haired brother-in-law, whom he disliked. He contended that all red haired people were lazy, irresponsible, and dishonest but regarded the red haired minister, the red haired mayor, his red haired mother and his red haired son, as exceptions to the rule. Actually, he simply never mentioned the supposed universal rule in their connection. This “universal” rule was applied only to the one special case which suited his purpose.
It seems a waste of time to try to argue the point that all red haired people are NOT lazy, etc., with a person who obviously does not accept his own contention.
The Special Case
When the modernists among us make the sweeping generalization, “Nothing can be known certainly,” they do not mean to apply this to the areas of science, nor do they intend to make any applications to their personal experiences, and often they will exclude some fundamental concepts of religion, even some specifically of Christianity (for example, they will say that one can KNOW that Christ in a personal experiences fashion.) This sweeping generalization which first appears to be applicable to all of human experiences is actually intended to be applied only to such things as certain commandments in the Bible. For example, it is the contention that we cannot know that a person must be baptized to be saved. We are assured by them that we cannot KNOW the limits of Christian fellowship.
It appears that only a few red haired brothers-in-law are meant to be affected by this universal rule.
A Basis for Contention?
There is one element of this question which does need some explanation. It is known that language is often vague and sometimes ambiguous. It is further known that the mind of man is not capable of omniscience. For these reasons some are frightened that the human mind and communication through ordinary language are not sufficient to assure that God’s will can be communicated and received precisely.
This is the point that is overlooked. Brother N. B. Hardeman once posed the question, “Is the gospel, as God gave it, appropriate for man, AS GOD MADE HIM?” Both parts of this question are important but the latter part seems to be most often overlooked. God made man and surely God can communicate to man. We all agree that we cannot know everything but this is considerably different from the contention that we cannot know anything.
The writer knows of an old mongrel dog. This dog is not of superior intelligence even for a dog, yet he can be told to roll over and he will respond by rolling over. In spite of the semantic problems that might arise in simple command, for example, the word “roll” might be variously defined, and the astute could raise a grave question concerning “over” since it could imply “over something,” yet cutting right through these profound problems, going to the heart of the matter, this old mongrel dog responds to the command and does the thing which I desire him to do. Furthermore a system of rewards and punishment may be associated with this so that the dog is rewarded for his obedience.
I am not going to require this dog to work a problem in algebra because I know the limit of his intelligence will not permit this. Furthermore, although words are ambiguous, because I have a benevolent attitude toward the dog, I am going to use these words in a way which would be most reasonable for him to interpret them.
Also, although the action required is specific enough that barking will not satisfy the command, sitting up and begging will not do, lying still, refusing to respond, will not be acceptable, nevertheless rolling over from left to right or right to left would be acceptable.
The main point is that I, the dog’s master, know his limitations and I further know how to communicate with him and what I have reason to expect from his understanding.
It seems obvious that if a human being can communicate with a dog to such an extent that the animal will respond with the action desired by the human, Man’s Creator can communicate with him so that Man can respond with the actions God desires him to do.
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Robert S. Camp was an associate of Dr. Thomas B. Warren along with the late Roy Deaver, Mr. Camp served as a moderator for Dr. Warren in his 1978 debate with Professor Wallace Matson on the Existence of God.