I used to be a knowledge optimist. To know, one just needed a right understanding of how to go about it. The problem—with other people, naturally—was that they didn’t have the correct framework for knowledge. They were skeptics, or they let themselves be caught up in misleading philosophies that skewed their perception. By contrast, once someone properly understood how to interpret the world, then truth would inevitably ensue.
But these days, in 2021, optimism is hard to maintain. Let me illustrate by asking three questions:
- Did Biden win the election?
- Should people get vaccinated?
- Is the United States racist?
Now, I could ask many similar questions, and I don’t intend here to answer any of them. My point, instead, is to highlight an aspect of even trying to answer questions like these. It is a fact of which we are all acutely aware: Wherever you are on the spectrum of possible answers, you have most likely seen people to the right or the left of you and been deeply dismayed. Their positions seem crazy.
If I were content to see these people as “them,” in contrast to the rational “us,” this craziness might not raise a problem about knowledge. But here is where I must admit the lines are not so neat. Some of the people I disagree with are people I know, either personally or by reputation. They include people whom I respect and love. If I’m honest, I know I can’t turn our disagreement into an issue of us and them, the good and the bad, the Bible believers and the world, the virtuous [insert political preference] and the evil [contrary political position]. It is really a case of persons and persons. One of those persons may even be you. In answering questions like those above, you and I may very well disagree. I may be your crazy person, and you may be mine.
There are various reasons for why someone who disagrees with me may appear crazy. The internet certainly doesn’t help, given the way it ramps up emotional reactions and downplays empathetic understanding. But when it comes to thinking about the epistemological issues involved—how the nature of knowledge comes into play—we see others as crazy because the disagreements do not simply concern facts. If we could just cite evidence and come to an agreement, there would be no problem. Evidence does not go very far, however, because the deeper disagreements are over its sources and the frameworks used to interpret the evidence. In attempting to convince others, all sides throw around authorities as sources of evidence—the government, trusted friends, scientists, dissenting voices, first-hand experience, a favorite Bible teacher, this news outlet versus that one—but this does not get very far because we do not agree on which authorities to trust. This makes things hard because the reasons for trusting a source are deep and complicated, ultimately involving our whole framework for interpreting the world. Even if authorities are not being invoked, those frameworks still shape the way we see the evidence. A statistic about hospitalizations or about wealth inequalities between racial groups does not mean the same thing to us, because we see it differently. And when people see the world differently from me, it is easy to think them crazy.
This situation leads to the problem on which I want to focus: In my more sympathetic moments, those times when I recognize “them” as persons, I must admit they are not crazy in an “Elvis speaks to me through my dog” sort of way. When I can hear them out, I can see that they have many reasons for their position, some of them quite decent. It is true that these reasons only support their conclusion because of a host of other pieces within their conceptual framework—ones that differ from mine—but they are still rational beings striving to make sense of the world.
Let me put this issue this way. You, I, the craziest “them” out there—we all see our own position as not just true but as obvious. It just fits so well with everything we know and experience. By contrast, some positions seem obvious to others but clash so badly with my experience and knowledge that they seem ridiculous to believe. So, how can knowledge be possible when rational, respectable people embrace obvious-to-them ideas that to me seem deeply, obviously false?
Before attempting to untie this knot, however, I want to pull it tighter. We can’t simply dismiss this sort of obviousness as an obstacle to knowing, because it is also an essential part of it. Take, for example, your knowledge that two plus two equals four. How do you know this? As an adult who is experienced with numbers, when you think about adding two and two, you just see that it must be four. How could it be otherwise? It is obvious.
This sort of knowledge-by-obviousness is the crucial foundation of everything we know. All logical proofs rest upon premises that are obvious. All scientific experimentation relies on observations about things in the world that we find obvious. And much of what we know is neither proven nor the result of scientific enquiry: It is obvious to you that you are now in whatever location you are, reading these words. (And it should be.)
We need, then, to incorporate obviousness into our account of knowledge, but doing so is tricky. I want to consider here two different epistemological approaches to this problem.
The first is to say that there are two different kinds of obviousness—one good, one bad—and that we can tell the difference. This is the approach of René Descartes, a seventeenth-century philosopher who made it his mission to rid his mind of falsehood. To accomplish this goal, he differentiates two ways that something can seem obvious, or in his terminology, two ways that he might believe something by nature. They are (1) when he is “driven by a spontaneous impulse to believe” the thing and (2) when “some light of nature is showing [him] that it is true.” In his view, only the latter is an infallible guide to the truth.
For whatever is shown to me by this light of nature… cannot in any way be doubtful. This is owing to the fact that there can be no other faculty that I can trust as much as this light…. But as far as natural impulses are concerned, in the past I have often judged myself to have been driven by them to make the poorer choice when it was a question of choosing a good; and I fail to see why I should place any greater faith in them [when it comes to] other matters.
In other words, sometimes I automatically believe something—find it obvious—because something within me just leads me to believe it, whether or not I have actually seen its truth. Descartes has in mind beliefs that are hardwired into me; for example, when I feel the sensation of heat, I automatically believe that this sensation is generated by a hot object outside of myself. He could say the same things, however, about beliefs I pick up through habit or imbibe from my culture. If I encounter a new animal and automatically think of it as a creation of God or as a product of evolution, this is often because it is what I have always heard. Because the spontaneity of these beliefs is not based in reason, Descartes argues that I don’t know whether they are true until I can give additional reasons beyond their obviousness. On the other hand, some beliefs are obvious to me because I see that they must be true and could not be otherwise (such as two plus two equaling four). The light of nature simply illumines my intellect. In this latter case, Descartes says, the obviousness of a belief is due to its truth, so I can’t be wrong about it.
If Descartes is right, this could solve the problem I raised. We just need to determine which beliefs are obvious in the sense of being necessary, handed to us by the light of nature. Unfortunately, even if it is helpful to distinguish in theory between two kinds of obviousness—an arbitrary kind and a truth-guaranteeing kind—the distinction does not help us practically. Descartes’s own practice illustrates this, for even when he appeals to the light of nature in his arguments, he still finds some things obvious that other people find questionable.
For example, he builds one of his proofs for the existence of God on the belief that “the idea of a being more perfect than me necessarily proceeds from a being that really is more perfect.” A lot could be said about such a premise, but suffice it to say that many people have questioned whether this is true, let alone necessarily true and as obvious as math. (I count myself as one of them.) A good argument can even be made that Descartes believes this premise due to the medieval metaphysics he was immersed in—that is, that its obviousness is a result not of the light of reason but of his culture. For another, more concrete example, Descartes also declares it to be certain that outer space must be filled with fluid and not be a vacuum, a conclusion “deduced in an unbroken chain from the first and simplest principles of human knowledge.” That is, Descartes starts with what he sees as obvious, builds on it via steps that are obvious, and he arrives at a conclusion that is false.
Given Descartes’s failure, we could instead consider a second epistemological answer to the problem of obviousness and competing frameworks: relativism. This could even be seen as the opposite of Descartes’s view, since rather than seeking a specific criterion to find the narrow truth, relativism says that all frameworks are equal. It acknowledges that I see things differently from another person but denies that either viewpoint is better. Any judgment between the two is impossible, for it would just be making use of its own framework to make the ruling. One can say that under relativism, there is no “God’s-eye” viewpoint, no perspective-free place from which to evaluate frameworks. When it comes, then, to what I find obvious within my conceptual framework, relativism accepts all obviousness as true.
Due to the way that our frameworks shape what we see and influence what we find obvious, it can seem like relativism is inescapable. However, while it is right to note this influence, relativism goes further than it needs to, and there is good reason not to go along with it. Importantly, there is a difference between there being no correct perspective and us not being able to discern what the correct perspective is.
Suppose that there were a sealed box and inside it was a slip of paper with a number written by Jane Austen. Everyone would like to know what the number is, but there are two problems. First, for some mysterious reason the seal and the box are impossible to break. Second, Austen is dead and she never told anyone the number. Also suppose that many scholars had dedicated their careers to determining what the number is, either by studying the box itself or by examining Austen’s life. In this case, we have a situation where there are many perspectives, and it is impossible to discern which is the correct one. But we also recognize that some of those perspectives are wrong, because there is an answer as to which number is in the box, even if we don’t know what it is. We accept that there is an answer because of two facts: The piece of paper has something written on it (that is, reality is a certain way), and Jane Austen saw it (there is a perspective that correctly perceived that reality).
This is an arbitrary, contrived situation, and one could object that in real life we don’t have the guarantee of a correct perspective, as we do here with Austen. Except, if God exists, we do. If there is a God, there is also a God’s-eye view. As the author of the reality we are trying to know, God’s perspective is better than ours. In fact, this divine perspective is even more important to consider than Austen’s in the thought experiment. In the end, nothing much changes if we know what number she wrote. It matters greatly, however, if we are living our lives in accordance with reality. And there is great benefit to us in living this way rather than suffering the consequences of misjudging reality and scraping our knees on it—such great benefit that the existence of a God’s-eye view matters even if we cannot ascertain for certain what God sees. It is a goal worth striving for in any case.
Someone might even suggest that we can see as God does, since He has provided us with the Bible. This person would be right to bring the Bible into the discussion. We should be seeking to conform the framework through which we see reality to what the Bible says. However, this appeal to the Bible does not solve the problem of obviousness but merely shifts it. Because, unfortunately, just as I interpret the world through a certain framework, I also use that framework to interpret the Bible. It is true that when interpreting the Bible, there is a smaller amount of data to deal with than when looking at the whole world; I am limited by the text that is there. At the same time, however, I still read that text through my conceptual framework. Sometimes the text’s meaning is obvious to me, and nevertheless I might be wrong about what it means. Just as rational, respectable people come to different views of reality, rational, respectable people can arrive at different interpretations of the Bible.
As with the relativism discussion above, this does not deny there is a meaning in the Bible I should be seeking. The Bible is crucial to our understanding, and pictures of the world that ignore it will have flaws. Also, I can have a high degree of clarity about some core truths in the Bible: God exists; we are sinners; God is good and saves sinners. But still, I may have a lot wrong in my interpretation, not to mention my application, and these falsehoods may appear to me obviously true.
There is much more that could be said about interpretation, knowledge, and the nature of mental frameworks. This discussion of obviousness is, obviously, incomplete. My goals have been to understand a bit more about why the very idea of knowledge seems problematic in this era of heightened disagreements and to point out that, unfortunately, there is no clear solution to the problem. But before ending, let me mention two things I can do when I acknowledge how hard it is to see my own framework.
First, I can cultivate friendships that provide a diversity of perspectives. By seeking the views of other people who see things differently, I create more opportunities to encounter resistance to my own framework, with the hope that this will reveal its holes. Seeking diversity is different from relativism because I’m not saying that everyone is right. I’m just acknowledging that the other people are rational, even if I end up deciding they are wrong. This works best when the people with opposing views are friends, people with whom I interact in real life. It is easy to dismiss a piece of text on the internet as obviously irrational. It is harder to do this to my friend.
Finally, I should pray for wisdom. God sees reality, even when I can’t, and I need God to protect me from my own blindness. I also need wisdom to know how to navigate this crazy world, a world where, when it comes to so many important things, so many people see their own positions as obvious, yet these positions are diametrically opposed. My needs—our needs—are obvious, and fortunately we can know that God cares for those who turn to Him in their needs.
 René Descartes, Meditation Three in Meditations on First Philosophy, third ed., trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), 26, emphasis added.
 Ibid., 26-27.
 Ibid., 32.
 René Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, Part Four, section 206, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. 1, trans. John Cottingham et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p.290.