Epistemology’s First Task: Identifying the Source of Authority
In any worldview there is a necessary first step of establishing the source of authority. Simply put, our first step is a step of faith in determining who or what we will trust in order to answer the questions of life. This is the first task of epistemology. For Hume that source of authority is human experience through the lens of the senses. Hume trusts the sensory abilities as the only trustworthy means of determining truth. Descartes, on the other hand, argues that the senses are less than reliable, and truth must be gathered through a process of reason guided by his method. For Descartes the human apparatus of reason can be harnessed in such a way as to lead us to truth. Nietszche’s model is less reliant on either the senses or reason, and instead trusts the self as the ultimate arbiter of truth. Plato sees limitations of both experience and reason, and considers enlightened learning a better way to come to a true knowledge of reality. His divided line theory provides a model seemingly advantageous to the philosopher in arriving at truth.
These first steps of faith suggested by Plato, Descartes, Hume, and Nietzsche have been broadly received, as they ground prominent worldviews. However, they do not account for the inherent limitations of learning, reason, experience, and perspective (the latter in Nietzsche’s case). Consequently, while they each are broadly explanatory, they are not, in my estimation, satisfactorily explanatory in the quest for truth.
The Bible, on the other hand, makes sweeping claims regarding the source of authority. Solomonic epistemology, for example, is grounded on the premise that competing epistemic groundings are vanity (e.g., Ecc 1:1). The pursuit of wisdom and learning, while certainly having practical value, is ultimately futility and striving after wind (Ecc 2:12-17; 7:23-29) and even leads to grief and pain (Ecc 1:12-18). The stimulation of the senses, though temporally rewarding, is vanity, striving after wind, and unprofitable (Ecc 2:1-11). The pursuit of self is inherently limited (Ecc 3:11), cannot aid in what comes after this earthly life (Ecc 6:10-12), and ultimately is characterized more by evil and insanity (Ecc 9:3) than wellbeing and certainty.
Solomon prescribes each of these terrestrial pursuits insofar as they have value, but only if the interlocutor is first willing to acknowledge that these pursuits are not ends in themselves. He advocates pursuing wisdom and learning, but only with the understanding that God will bring every resulting act to judgment (Ecc 12:9-13). Solomon advises the use of reason for its benefits (Ecc 10:10), but acknowledges that its use is limited in comparison to the certainties God possesses (Ecc 11:5). Solomon encourages the stimulation of the senses, but only insofar as they are used in the context of remembering the Creator, because those senses will become increasingly ineffective until ultimately they are silenced in death (Ecc 12:1-8). Finally, Solomon advocates following the impulses of the heart (the self), but only with the admission that God will judge the follower for those pursuits (Ecc 11:9-10).
Solomon answers each epistemological model with the same alternative: a beyond-the-sun worldview provides certainty, whereas an under-the-sun worldview provides none. Simply put, under the sun we do not know the activity of God who makes all things (Ecc 11:5). Consequently, for us to have a worldview grounded in certainty, it must be premised on an acknowledgement of the Creator. Solomon pronounces that records of truth – wisdom and delightful words – are given by one Shepherd (Ecc 12:9-11), and in so stating reveals that God’s word is the answer to the epistemological first inquiry regarding what is the source of authority. Elsewhere, Solomon recognizes that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov 1:7), the beginning of wisdom, and that the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (9:10).
Solomon writes so that his readers will know wisdom and instruction and have discernment (Prov 1:1), to instruct them in the fear of the Lord as the source of strong confidence and refuge (Prov 14:26). Consequently he prescribes that humanity must fear God (Ecc 3:14, 5:7, 12:13). And what is the authoritative source from whence we discover the fear of the Lord? Solomon answers this all-important question directly: “Then you will discern the fear of the Lord, and discover the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding (Prov 2: 5-6). God’s word, according to Solomon, is the source of authority whereby we can have certainty.