How Do You Know?
For example, some form of the argument that one can’t know anything for certain is used all of the time in schools/colleges/universities, particularly against Christians that say they know (1) the Bible as truth and (2) Truth incarnate—Jesus Christ. The logical, sequential argument used to attack the concept of absolute truth usually unfolds like this:
Have you ever “known” something to be certain but then gained some additional knowledge that overturned your original conclusion, and you found out you were wrong? (“Yes” is the obvious answer.)
Does any human being have all knowledge?” ‘No’ is rightly concluded. “Couldn’t there be just one bit of information you don’t have right now that could overturn what you think to be true? Then couldn’t you be wrong about everything you think you know right now? (“Yes” is the mantra expected.)
“Then if you don’t know everything, you can’t know anything for certain!” they will conclude. How they conclude they can know this for certain is usually never discussed, as it is a circular argument that self-destructs upon examination. However, my experience over the years has taught me that the truth of God’s Word truly will set you free! So, if you are feeling flummoxed over this philosophical conundrum, the following true story might help you sort it out.
Worldviews in Conflict
Years ago, I was speaking at an event in British Columbia to what I assumed was a Christian audience. Glancing to my right as I finished and stepped off the platform, I guessed by the look on the man’s face approaching me that this likely wasn’t going to be an overly pleasant conversation. I wasn’t wrong.
Announcing himself as an atheist and the Professor of Philosophy at the local university, the man began aggressively informing me how ludicrous my presentation on God’s existence and the Bible being real history was. Being aware that just six months previous to this, another Christian apologist I knew had been intellectually mauled by someone with a similar attitude and credentials in this location, I suspected this was likely the same fellow. He seemed specifically annoyed by me using the Bible to confirm the Bible because of what he perceived to be a circular argument. As often happens in these “informal debate” settings, a crowd began to form around us to watch the proceedings.
Atheism’s Bedrock: The Story of Evolution
After a blistering initial salvo of scientific “proofs” of the story of evolution followed by a large volume of knowledge he’d obviously meticulously prepared to hammer the biblical creationist position, he paused briefly, seeming interested in how I would react to his challenges. Wanting to get to the heart of the matter, and because of his background as a PhD in Philosophy, I took a different tack than I usually would.
“So, you’re the professor of philosophy here, sir?” I asked. He straightened himself up with a confident smile and confirmed that he had his doctorate in philosophy. I said, “And philosophy includes the study of epistemology, of how you can know things, isn’t that correct?”. He confirmed that as well.
“Then can I ask you a question? Can you tell me one thing you know for certain and how you came to know it?” He looked at me seemingly annoyed and asked what I meant. I repeated to him I would just like him to tell me one fact or bit of knowledge that he knew for certain and how he came to know it. He said, “Well, I know I’m standing here!” so I asked him how he knew it? Putting his finger on my chest, he said, “Because I can see you, and touch you and I can feel the floor!” then tapped the ground. So, I said, “So what you’re telling me is that your five senses are informing you that you are here correct?” to which he said, “Well, of course!”
“But how do you know your senses are actually working correctly? How do you know you aren’t just some brain in a jar somewhere being fed impulses that make you think you’re really here? How do you know you aren’t in a “matrix,” and this is all just an illusion? You can’t tell me that your senses are confirming your senses because that would be a circular argument, correct? And you don’t believe in circular arguments, right, sir?” I asked. He caught on to what I was getting at and responded, “Well, actually, I can’t know anything for certain, but neither can you!”
Worldviews in Contrast
Continuing, I asked, “OK, so just to confirm, what you are saying is that in your worldview as an atheist, you have no way or mechanism of being able to know anything for certain?” He said, “Well, no ultimately,” but then again added, “But neither can you!” So, I said, “Wait a minute. I’m a Christian and believe in God. And not just any God, the God of the Bible who is all-seeing, knowing, omnipotent, exists outside of time and so on. Now if the God of the Bible exists, could he give his creatures faculties and reveal information to them [revelation] so that they could know things for certain?” “Well, I don’t believe in God,” he said waving his hand, trying to dismiss my argument. So, I said, “I know that’s what you profess, but that’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking if the God of the Bible exists, could he do that: give his creatures abilities so that they could know things for certain?” “Well, of course he could because he’s God!” he said, rolling his eyes.
“OK, so let’s get this straight. What you’re saying is that if your atheistic worldview is true, you can’t know anything for certain. But if my worldview is true as a Christian, I can know things for certain?” “Well, absolutely, but I don’t believe in your God,” he said. I looked at him and said, “Absolutely? You ‘know’ that absolutely?”
“I thought you just told me if your worldview was true that you couldn’t know anything for sure, so how do you ‘know’ that with certainty?” He looked at me and opened his mouth, reconsidered, paused again, turned, and then blustered out something about how science strongly supported evolution even if he couldn’t know it for certain. After I asked him how he knew that for certain, he muttered something about “utter skepticism” and walked away, leaving the circle of onlookers baffled by the brief exchange. I learned afterwards that apparently this man prided himself on challenging Christians whenever possible, so they were surprised when he exited the arena so quickly.
What “Must Be” to Have the Discussion
You see, logically, to be able to have an argument or discussion concerning the truth of any topic, certain conditions must be assumed by all parties prior to even beginning the process. One must assume that we exist, that logic is real, and that knowledge is attainable. But as the atheist professor confirmed, if someone doesn’t start with the idea of God’s existence, nothing can be assumed with certainty, which means knowledge is actually not possible: one cannot “know’” anything for certain!
No wonder our discussion was short. Why would someone have a discussion about what is correct with someone that doesn’t know anything? That person will be “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” as 2 Timothy 3:7–9 speaks about. How could you build knowledge “precept upon precept” as Isaiah 28:10 describes if you can never be certain about the starting assumption you began with?
Some atheists have told me that even though we can’t know things for certain, we can know things to a high degree of certainty, which makes their beliefs reasonable. My question for them is, “Do you know that you can know things to a high degree of certainty for certain, and if you do, how do you know that?” Whatever their response is commits suicide upon its pronunciation.
The “Sinking Sand” of the Atheistic Worldview
All worldviews make truth claims to support their system. The argument against atheism is not that they do not know anything—many of them know a great deal. The argument is that in an atheistic worldview they cannot account for what is known as the pre-conditions of intelligibility, or how you can know anything at all, which proves their worldview is incorrect. The mere fact that they declare certainty argues against their worldview.
The bottom line is this. In order to know anything for certain, an individual would either have to have all knowledge or be empowered by the One that has all knowledge! You would either have to be God or be created by God (either way, God would exist).
People that hold to different views of who God is may have difficulty defending their beliefs consistently, but at least they have what they claim is an ultimate being that can provide the conduit to true knowledge, but atheists cannot. This encounter confirmed to me once again that, far from what many people might think, atheism is the weakest of worldviews, which is likely why God’s Word says, “The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1).