The Weakest Link in the Epistemological Blockchain is the Fallen Human Heart: Reflections on Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge

by Dec 29, 2021Books, Worldview4 comments

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, by Jonathan Rauch (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2021).

I have such mixed feelings about this book. I so much want so much of it to be true and right. I hold a minority worldview in my society; classical liberalism’s values of free speech and freedom of conscience work for me and mine. They also feel familiar—though less sturdy than they did in the past. I also happen to share a lot of Rauch’s political opinions: a lot of his read of Donald Trump’s mendaciousness, of the Capitol insurrection, of the cancel cultures on left and right, of the value of civility and listening to the other side. I’m grateful for much of this book.

But I’ve read too much Stanley Fish to trust liberal proceduralism and the scientific method as he does (many times throughout the book I thought of the image from Fish’s famous essay of the moderator at liberalism’s table), and I’ve read too much Bible to trust the human heart not to twist whatever systems people come up with—by God’s great common grace—to find and protect the truth. This doesn’t mean I scorn Rauch’s faith in the “reality-based community.” There is a great deal of wisdom in his prescriptions, his encomiums for a sort of epistemological blockchain (what he’s about to call a “hive” in the quote two lines down).

But what is a believing Christian such as myself supposed to do with statements in Rauch’s book like these?

[There are] two rules on which the modern liberal epistemic order—what I call “liberal science”—is founded: no final say and no personal authority. I argued that wherever people adhere to those rules, they will form a community of error-seeking inquirers accountable to each other but never to any particular authority, and knowledge will arise from their hive-like, largely self-organizing activities.

I’ve founded my life on the Final Say, and on a tri-personal Authority—to whom shall I go? And when the claims descend and the floods come and beat upon my epistemic stability, I expect for my Authority’s words to bear me up. Where that Authority does not speak with specificity, I actually do look pretty much to the reality-based community for wisdom. But where he does speak, he outranks them all.

This, then, means I also happen to hold some of the views that Rauch inveighs against. I take the view of homosexual acts that the authors of Scripture did. I believe that the miracles of the Bible actually happened. I take the view of Moses, the author of Genesis, on the nature and timing of creation.

Let’s talk about that one for a minute. Creation. At no point am I more aware—and I’ve been aware since childhood—of the great gulf fixed between my views and those of the “reality-based community,” of what in this case I’d simply call “the world.” They believe the universe is 13.8 billion years old and that life came from non-life, mind from non-mind. I have to account somehow for the fact that lots and lots of very smart people think my young-earth creationism is nuts. I have to account for the fact that, to them, my view sounds like Holocaust denial does to me. So the entire field of biology is colluding to promote belief in macro-evolutionary theories that are all simply wrong?

No and yes. I do not say that they are self-consciously refusing to say what they all know to be true—that, again, they are involved in some kind of conspiracy. No, people are a lot more complicated than that. They are able to suppress truth without really knowing they’re doing it. This is what I say:

The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:18–21 ESV)

What does it mean that tons of people, like Rauch, share my disdain for and dismay at Donald Trump’s mendacity—but in their heart of hearts, suppress the evident truth that God created the world? It means that the connection to reality in that community is a gift of their creator. He can revoke it at any point, at any time. He can give them over to reprobate minds, as Paul shortly says. Thinking is a moral activity; knowledge is an ethical category. I do not claim to know better than Rauch on many issues (I truly came to like and respect him through his book); by God’s grace, however, I claim to know more obediently—obediently to the one who is the way, the truth, and the life.

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  1. Dr. Priscilla Turner

    The interpretation of the Old Testament including the Primeval History must always be governed by that of the New. ‘Young-earth creationism’, or more accurately young-universe creationism, is taught nowhere, and was never believed by anyone till the mid-C19. Augustine among others warned prophetically against believers’ pretending to knowledge which they did not have. When we read Gen. 1 as schematic, phenomenological and carefully listing as it does the whole catalogue of ancient objects of worship, we will understand it as the carefully crafted opening salvo in the running battle against idolatry. “They worshipped the created rather than the Creator” in St. Paul’s summary then makes perfect sense.

    See this of mine: Nicene Creed II: for a start.

  2. Aaron Blumer

    Thanks for this. A huge door for learning and growth opens when we consciously reject the idea that there are only “the people/groups who are right about everything” and “the people and groups who are wrong about everything” and, instead, take the view that wisdom cries out in the marketplace and the street corners and lots of other seemingly unlikely places. The same book can be profoundly wrong on some things and powerfully insightful about other things.

    • Mark Ward

      I love this; that image of wisdom crying out in unlikely places—so apt!

  3. J.D. Coleman

    “Wherever people adhere to those rules, they will form a community of error-seeking inquirers accountable to each other but never to any particular authority, and knowledge will arise from their hive-like, largely self-organizing activities.”

    This was the old-liberal vision for academia that has largely failed. It turns out that in the absence of “particular authority” scholarly “hives” are subject to groupthink masked in scholarly terms such that no-one is willing to challenge the authority of the dogma. Ironically, I believe they are one of the reasons for the anti-truth insurgency. You’re exactly right that human reasoning cannot escape from human depravity. Perhaps the best thinking can take place in a community anchored by an external reference point (the Bible). Even then, Christian communities of thought must constantly be seeking truth outside of themselves and comparing it with that reference point.