Knowledge by Acquaintance and the Object of Faith

One my favorite topics introduced to me in the last year is knowledge by acquaintance. Just what is knowledge by acquaintance? That’s hard to say, but it is the sort of thing that should be filed away under the heading “know it when I see it.” Like any principle in epistemology worth discussing it can refer to itself to explain itself, but going this route isn’t very helpful to the uninitiated. Better to have fun with thought experiments instead…

Consider Mary who lives in a black and white world where she is educated through black and white textbooks and a black and white TV. So educated is Mary that she knows all the ‘physical facts’ about the world. That is, she has exhausted all the propositional content there is to know about the world and committed it to memory. The day comes when she is let out of her black and white classroom and she sees a ripe red tomato for the first time. At last, she learns what the color red looks like. Yet this seems to be a clear instance of knowledge about a property that is not derived from the possession of all the propositional (or physical) information there is to know about that property. She comes to know the property of redness itself, not additional propositions about redness that transcend her black and white education. Thus, Mary’s new knowledge of redness coincides with her new experience of redness. Earl Conee explains, “A simple acquaintance hypothesis about what Mary learns is that learning what an experience is like is identical to becoming acquainted with the experience.”

This is not to say that knowledge by acquaintance is identical with experience. Suppose by some deficit of attention Mary failed to note the peculiarity of the tomato’s redness. Perhaps she was so distracted by her knowledge of the tomato’s DNA structure she failed to notice its red property and moved along oblivious to the tomato’s color. Mary becomes acquainted with the color if and only if she experiences the color and takes note of the experience. Conee writes, “Momentary peripheral awareness of some new shade of colour is not sufficient really to know that shade. The one thing more that is required in order to know an experienced quality is to notice the quality as it is being experienced.”

Why do I find this interesting? Well, this is the sort of thing that has been at the bottom of why I believe in God. Yes, there are all sorts of arguments for the existence of God, Jesus, the Bible, and various doctrines of Christian theology. And there are a bunch to the contrary. Even if I know these in their fullest form, the best I can do is show that there are reasons that justify believing in God. But that does not mean I know God. I know God because I have experienced God and taken note of that experience. Thus, when the propositional content of my belief system is challenged by a defeater I do not have to forsake everything. That would be like Mary denying she had seen the color red after experiencing it. Rather I am allowed to go back to the drawing board and let my faith seek understanding as my faith is has my knowledge of God derived from acquaintance with God as its object.

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