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Reflections from the Evangelical Theological Society Part I

November 21, 2016

Epistemologist Kegan Shaw, from the University of Edinburgh (http://www.ed.ac.uk/profile/kegan-shaw), presented a paper challenging the Ability Constraint on Knowledge Syllogism. The syllogism is as follows:

  • If you know that p then you truly believe that p on account of your cognitive abilities. (Ability Constraint)
  • Cases of faith-based belief are not cases in which you form true beliefs on accounts of your cognitive abilities. (No Ability)

Modus Tollens You don’t know anything you believe on the basis of faith. (Agnosticism)

Shaw’s critique centered around premise two. His paper desired to show that religious epistemologists “needn’t accept No Ability, so long as they conceive of religious faith as a [sic] form of extended knowledge, that is, as a product of an extended cognitive ability.”

His rejection of the No Ability premise is two-fold. First, cognition is not simply an isolated, individual, and neurological exercise. Group cognition is possible in the sense that processing can be extended and distributed among persons. Since the Holy Spirit is a person of the Godhead, the Spirit, upon residency within a human person, can be an agent of cognitive change. Thinking is not simply synapsual. “There is nothing sacred about skull and skin.”  (Clark and Chalmers, 1998, pg. 14) Cognitive processes can be distributed among, between, and as a result of plural interaction. Daniel Wegner calls this “Transactive Memory Systems.” (http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/dwegner/files/wegnererberraymond1991.pdf)

Second, Shaw examined the “Glue and Trust” and Reciprocal Interaction processes. Scripture has proven its veracity, reliability and accessibility and should therefore be considered a “reliable-belief” process. This seems too linear though, for what is required of group cognition is dual contribution: what is known as “feedback loops.” Shaw used the example of the centrifugal or Watt governor-engine system; “When the two of them are mutually interconnected – some of the governor’s ongoing behavior both determines and is – simultaneously – determined by the behavior of the engine (and vice versa).” The Holy Spirit and believer share a non-linear interconnectedness. Though this means that the Spirit can directly or indirectly influence the cognition of the believer, it doesn’t imply that the believer can somehow influence the Spirit. Shaw gives the example of religious affections and religious discipline; “It’s one’s faith that naturally spurs one on in her religious activity – in her habitual reading of the Scriptures, communication with God through prayer, sharing about Jesus’ story with others, and in general participating in the activities of the Church. And by engaging in these religious activities one naturally increases in their affections for the things of God – affections which the Holy Spirit draws on in turn for sustaining or increasing one’s religious faith.” Love produces action which, in turn, produces love. The same can be said of Christian faith as cognition.

Shaw’s critique of the No Ability premise is sound. There is no reason to think that faith cannot be an extension of knowledge through the interaction with and influence from the Holy Spirit. Belief can be an extension of knowledge. While Shaw’s conclusion is interesting, I think it is incomplete.

Augustine, when discussing memisis, inferred that memory is the distention of the soul, striving for an understanding of reality outside of time. Cognition, at least in memory, is a product of a temporal creature wrestling as the image of an atemporal Creator. Reciprocity works both ways. What if faith is not only extended knowledge, but knowledge is an extension of faith? Modernity said cogito ergo sum; premodernity said fides quaerens intellectum.

 

 

 

 

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