Monday, 9 June 2014

Book Review: Longing to Know

As a pretty convinced atheist, I am not the target audience for Longing to Know, by Esther Lightcap Meek, which seeks to explain a view of knowledge in general, but in particular of how we might come to know God. When it was nominated for discussion by my philosophy reading group, I hoped that I would at least get some interesting discussion of epistemology out of it, and to an extent I did, but my experience of the book could be more broadly characterised by frustration and a Longing to Go (away and do something else).

My exasperation is not necessarily the fault of the author. We could not expect most theists to enjoy reading The God Delusion, so it is not surprising that I found the book to be rather unsuited to me. I can at least praise Meek's clear language and pleasant, welcoming attitude. I get the sense that if I were to have a conversation with her I would find her a charming and intelligent person. Though she would certainly disagree with me on almost everything I suspect she would do so in a thoughtful and friendly manner.

To begin with, the author devotes a few chapters to establishing points I actually do agree with. The question of whether God exists is an important one that should concern every thoughtful person. Truth is not relative - truth claims are usually either correct or incorrect and we are not all entitled to our own reality. Knowledge does not require certainty, indeed it is unreasonable to be certain of pretty much anything (Am I sure about that? No!).

However, in attacking certainty, the author thinks she is illustrating a problem with the more traditional Platonic conception of knowledge as justified true belief (JTB). Justified truth, we are to understand, implies that nothing is known unless we are certain. While Meek does give examples, such as Descartes's attempt to build up his worldview from the certainty of the statement "I think, therefore I am", this is not my understanding of JTB at all. Justification does not have to eradicate all doubt, it merely has to establish a high probability of a certain belief being true. Likewise, though knowledge does have to be true, this does not mean that we must be certain of its truth. We can therefore know without being certain that our knowledge is actually knowledge. As such, while I agree that certainty is a red herring, I see no major problem with JTB in this regard.

This is not the only issue Meek has with JTB. She also argues that JTB is too dry, reducing human experience to a meaningless set of linguistic statements. When we learn to play the piano, we are not acquiring justified true beliefs, but we are acquiring the knowledge of how to play. When we come to know a person well, this knowledge cannot ever be fully captured in a set of sentences. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then lived experience is worth much more.

In my view, Meek is equivocating. There are at least three types of knowledge, it seems to me, and it is an accident of history that these are given the same name in English. In my view, factual knowledge, familiarity and skill know-how are different things. Factual knowledge and familiarity in particular are identified by distinct terms in most languages in my experience, e.g. savoir and connaître in French. JTB is about factual knowledge (savoir). Getting to know a person or a place is familiarity (connaître). Learning to play the piano is acquiring skill know-how. By explaining how JTB fails to capture familiarity or skill acquisition, Meek is criticising it for failing to do a job it was never intended for.

Coming to know God has aspects that can be understood in the context of each type of knowledge. For truth claims about God, such as that He exists, that He loves us, that He created the world and so on, JTB is in my view just fine. Can we know God in this way? I would say no, because I don't think such claims can be justified and as such I doubt that they are true.

Can we know God as we know a person? Perhaps we could if He existed. Even if He does not, if God is an illusion, then perhaps it makes sense to say that He can be a familiar illusion. In this case, what you come to know is an aspect of your own mind, not something in the external world. I'm not sure that this is what Meek means, of course.

What of the acquisition of skills? For skills such as piano playing or juggling, we get objective feedback on our errors allowing us to correct our mistakes and make progress towards an ideal of mastery. When it comes to skills such as biblical exegesis or perceiving the signs of God around us, I worry that the only external feedback comes from a community of believers all too eager to perpetuate what may be false beliefs. A believer well-practiced in the process of believing may be seeing a truth to which I am blind, but it seems more probable to my prejudiced viewpoint that they have become expert self-deceivers. Pareidolia is an all too real psychological phenomenon, and it could be that believers such as Meek are cultivating nothing more than the ability to pick out faces in the clouds.

Since I do not accept the premise that God exists, much less that the Bible is a reliable guide to knowing anything at all (except for some mythology and dubious history) much of the book is irrelevant to me, and what remains is, frankly, boring.

Meek explains at length, with many anecdotes and allusions to Star Wars and The Hunt For Red October, various aspects of what it is to know people, learn truths and acquire skills. It is explained at length that we can have doubts, beliefs, sudden realisations or a more gradual growth of confidence. We are reminded that we have a responsibility to seek truth, that knowledge rewards us, that knowledge is refined or discarded as we improve our understanding. Sometimes we are misled or come to believe what we want to be true instead of what is true. We often need to be guided towards the truth by teachers or the written word.

In my view, these observations are not exactly revelatory. They are part of the ordinary experience of knowing, and the fact that Meek devotes a chapter each to pretty much all of these familiar aspects of knowing (and more!) makes reading the book a tedious, monotonous chore for me. If we removed all the anecdotes, allusions to popular culture and metaphors from the book, it seems to me that every important detail of Meek's thesis would fill only a couple of pages. Whatever good ideas there may be are too heavily diluted with unnecessary examples to make reading the book worth the effort.

Throughout the book, Meek uses the allegory of her automechanic Jeff to expound on how these ideas apply to coming to know a person, and by extension to knowing God. This approach is not particularly helpful for me. I already know what it is to know a person, so Meek's extensive examples and anecdotes tell me nothing new. It might be worth the trouble if there were a payoff, but unfortunately I don't think that the allegory works. Jeff is a physical person who Meek has met and interacted with on multiple occasions, but Meek only knows of God through study of an ancient text of doubtful authenticity and through unconvincing inferences from her observations of the world around her. So, though Meek has explained to me (at length!) how it is that she knows Jeff the automechanic, I remain entirely unconvinced that knowing God is the same thing or even possible.

The few arguments Meek presents to support the claim that God exists or that the Bible is accurate are nothing new and often circular.

God must exist, we are told, because there could be no other possible explanation of the sense of human morality. She doesn't bother to address the view that morality has its roots in our evolutionary history as social primates and thousands of years of civilisation and philosophical development.

The Bible must be the word of God because it is so incredibly accurate in describing the human condition, in particular because we are 'bent' with original sin. There is no mention of the rather obvious point that whatever the Bible gets right in this regard could be put down to ad hoc just-so storytelling based on direct observation of human folly and weakness. No miraculous insight is required.

The Bible is frequently quoted in support of some point or other, which may be persuasive to her Christian readers but not, I suspect, to anyone else.

Though it was not an enlightening read for me, the book certainly has its admirers. If you are a Christian, and particularly if you have faith in the Bible and if you have never given a moment's thought to your experience of knowing, you might find much of value in this book. I find it unlikely that any agnostics will be swayed. If you are an atheist (and perhaps even if you are a thoughtful Christian) I doubt this book has much to offer you.


  1. I think this is why I generally avoid reading groups. I respect your commitment to finishing it.

    Justified true belief has always seemed like a good enough definition of knowledge to me, Gettier notwithstanding. Of course, people will argue over what is and is not justification. I tend to think there are various levels of justification. It's not a clear line between belief and knowledge. That said, I'm skeptical of calling something knowledge that isn't supported by empirical evidence. History hasn't shown other types of justification to be reliable in the sense of being unlikely to be overturned.

    1. I've been in the group for a while and this is the first time I have actually bothered reading the book! Philosophy is a broad subject, and unfortunately my interests rarely coincide with the others in the group. The conversation is usually interesting though, so I'm quite looking forward to the conversation we will have now that I have actually read it!

      I think you're right about jusitification and empirical evidence. Though I feel about as certain of the MUH as I can be about anything, I feel disinclined to say I know the MUH is true and more like saying I believe it to be true.

      Although I would make the addendum that I think we can say we know mathematical or logical truths without empirical justification.

    2. I'm actually a bit jealous that you live somewhere where such a group exists. Most of the reading groups in my environment are for science fiction or horror books.

      I understand your passion for the MUH and respect your intellectual honesty about not claiming knowledge on it. As I get older, I'm finding that the number of things we can really justify as knowledge are more limited than I could have once imagined.

      I think you're right about mathematical and logical truths. I have to admit to being a bit puzzled by how pure mathematics and logic conclusions can stand the test of time, but history shows that they do, and of course we end up confirming many of them as patterns in nature. Unfortunately, people often have trouble separating the reliability of these abstract truths from their attempts to apply them to real world entities.

    3. Sadly I no longer live near the group. They are based in Nottingham where I lived previously. I join their reading group meetings over Skype now which is a bit unsatisfactory because the one laptop in the room doesn't really have a microphone which is up to the task of letting me hear everything clearly, and I often also have difficulty making myself heard.

    4. Nottingham like in the Robin Hood tales? Wow, it still boggles my mind that I'm interacting with people who live or lived in places like Nottingham. A pretty exotic location for those of us in south Louisiana.

    5. You mean south Louisiana with jambalaya, crawfish pie, fillet gumbo? The home of Jazz, Gambit and American Voodoo? Mardi Gras, creole music and all that?

      Wow, pretty exotic!

      (Yup, that Nottingham!)

    6. Jambalaya, crawfish, and gumbo for sure. I'm not in New Orleans so I'm only tangentially looped into the Jazz stuff, and not at all on voodoo. Gambit does excite us down here; there aren't many superheroes from Louisiana.

      I guess everyone's home is exotic to someone far away!