My first exposure to philosophy was in high school. I thought it would be a cool class to take, but it proved to be far above my head. When we took a whole class contemplating how we know the color red is really red, I left feeling like philosophy was for kooks. My answer was to quit navel-gazing and just accept it, red is red!
That was a simpler time. I surely didn’t see the implications of knowing how we know things. If we cannot be certain how we know, how can we be certain that we know God? This has been a question that many skeptics have since asked me in conversation.
Fast-forward more years than I’d like to share with you, to my pastor’s study. I was having a conversation with his son, Greg. He was telling me about his fall courses at Geneva College, and he thought I would like a book that his philosophy professor wrote, Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People.
First of all, let me just tell you that it stinks to borrow a book from your pastor’s study—especially on philosophy. It’s torture giving me a book like this because I can’t write in it. I decided to mark it up with little, colorful sticky tabs. But I would have done both.
I loved this book.
Esther Lightcap Meek not only understands knowledge, but she can teach. I’m sure Greg knows how it enriching it is for him to be in her class. The book is full of excellent illustrations to better impart the ideas she introduces. I thought my mind was a perpetual factory of metaphors, but I’ve got nothing on Meek. For this reason, it seems a bit juvenile to reduce the points of her book into a piddly review. It’s like giving someone strawberry-shortcake flavored gum to describe the real thing. But I will give you some of the premises of the book and highly recommend you read it for yourself.
As I began to read, I was very attracted to the quote under Part 1’s heading:
Knowing is the responsible human struggle to rely on clues to focus on a coherent pattern and submit to its reality.
I didn’t realize that the whole book would be breaking down this definition. All five parts of the book begin with that quote, with a different line emphasized. Meek explains in a brief history of philosophy that we have been too terse with our ideas about what knowledge is. It is not merely a success word or an independent propositional statement of certainty. In fact, Meek makes a pretty bold analogy to explain how we can even know God:
I want you to think with me about the epistemic act of knowing my auto mechanic. I want to suggest in this book that knowing God is like knowing your auto mechanic.
To put it more generally, knowing God involves an epistemic act that has the same basic features that our ordinary, workaday, epistemic acts do. And, contra the skeptics, we do have ordinary, workaday, epistemic acts (39).
This is the premise of the book. And it makes complete, rational sense.
I knew I would love Meek early on when she uses Magic Eye pictures to explain how we struggle to find clues, focus on the coherent pattern, and then vector, or “lay out” through the clues to unlock the reality behind them. I recently used the same Magic Eye analogy in an article, wondering if anyone would catch my drift. Well, it turns out that Meek is much more articulate than me in showing just how great this metaphor is. And it is. You have to read the book.
There is just so much about this book that will have me reflecting and changing my thinking. (I will be sharing a reflection in another article.) In many ways, Meek is just conveying what we already do on a regular basis. I love how she emphasizes our responsibility to learn, or know. In this, knowledge is not just some fact that we arrive at, but the whole act of wrestling, searching, gathering the clues, finding the patterns, and risk-taking that it involves in seeking. When we come to truth, we find another picture of the world of reality. Submitting to this truth is likened to having the right key, unlocking the door, and entering that world. But it does not mean that we can always be certain. That’s part of the dance involved in our fallen, epistemic acts. This gives us the courage to make integrations of the patterns we find and sharpen one another. All of us long to know, we were made that way.
Each chapter brilliantly ends with the comparison of knowing your auto mechanic and knowing God. Meek hits each point with this ordinary, identifiable illustration. She is careful to address her intended general audience of ordinary people, but the thoughts in this book are challenging enough for the 300 level college course. I find myself longing to read her next book.