Katherine Munn

Katherine is a DPhil candidate in Philosophy at Oxford University, writing about the nature of rational belief change. Before coming to Oxford she was a researcher at the Institute for Formal Ontology and Medical Information Science in Leipzig and Saarbrücken, Germany. She has given presentations in Amsterdam; Beijing; Buffalo, New York; Oxford; Cambridge; Leipzig; Innsbruck; Kirchberg, Austria; Berlin; Västerås, Sweden; Canterbury, Protaras, Cyprus; as well as at the Shalem Center’s first Bible and Philosophy conference in 2009. Her research interests include epistemology, philosophical theology, metaphysics, moral psychology, biblical narrative, decision theory, and ontology in information science.

Interactive Knowledge: Biblical Epistemology from the Ground Up
Co-authored with Michael Dormandy

The contemporary Western notion of knowledge has been subject to much philosophical debate, but most generally it designates a relation directed from the world to a passive, recipient knower: the world imposes a representation of itself onto the knower’s mind. The notion of knowledge found in the Hebrew Bible, by contrast, is richer in ways which have radical implications for epistemology, biblical hermeneutics, and even our conception of human nature.

In attempting to pinpoint the uniqueness of biblical knowledge, philosophers and theologians typically appeal to a distinction between ‘propositional’ and ‘non-propositional’ knowledge, the idea being that narrative, prophecy, and law are particularly suited to confer the latter. But this distinction is misleading, since propositions can encapsulate experiential knowledge, as in the proposition ‘Being in God’s presence is like that’, or even personal knowledge, as in ‘God is like that’, where in each instance ‘that’ refers to some phenomenology uniquely associated with the object of knowledge. Freeing ourselves from the alleged propositional/non-propositional distinction and returning to the biblical text itself provide fresh insight into the Bible’s own epistemological categories.

In this spirit, we argue that the biblical notion of knowledge encompasses the familiar world-to-mind-directed relation mentioned above, but also, importantly, an entirely different relation: one in which the knower is the agent, and the agent’s representation of the object known is the patient. That is, knowledge in the Bible is characterized by an active engagement on the part of the knower in representing the object known. Biblical knowledge is thus interactive. By citing scriptural examples we will characterize this interactive knowledge relation and draw out its implications for epistemology and human nature.

Examination of both the passive and active relations encompassed by biblical knowledge unlocks the means by which biblical genres such as narrative, prophecy, and law confer knowledge of God: As a patient, the knower is challenged by these forms of text to undergo an affective reaction which cannot be fully articulated in language. But as an agent, it is the knower who retains the power and onus to characterize, categorize, and systematize this inarticulable knowledge into something communicable by language, yielding general religious or doctrinal claims. This is also of course what happens when a non-Biblical poet, such as a folk-song writer, communicates some aspect of reality, such as the pain of social injustice (though modern Westerners may be reluctant to classify content transmitted this way as knowledge). The knower as agent is privileged to participate in creating her mental representation of the object known – even, astoundingly, when this object is God. The gift of interactive knowledge and of the means to attain it is thus a gracious condescension on God’s part to the people whom he adopts as children, not slaves (who merely believe what they are told) or automata (who are programmed to respond, not interact).

Interactive knowledge does not entail anti-realism about its objects or skepticism about our ability to make truth claims concerning them. On the contrary: such an object has the properties it does regardless of how the knower represents it to himself or others. Hence the knower retains a responsibility to the object known, to do it justice in his representation, and if he fails in this then his epistemic attitude is not knowledge but rather a mis-representation. In the case of knowledge of God conferred by the Bible, the knower’s affective reaction to the texts can be apt or non-apt: an apt reaction to poetry or a narrative portraying God’s mercy is gratitude; an apt response to a prophecy employing images to describe God is awe. The key point is that how he exercises his responsibility depends on something internal and subjective to the knower.

This responsibility inherent in interactive knowledge adds a moral dimension to knowledge, which is particularly salient when its object is God, but is equally present when its object is an aspect of creation: to deploy our epistemic agency in mis-representing is a moral, not just an epistemic, transgression, and successful representation is not just accurate but virtuous. This moral dimension of knowledge casts light on the role of the legal texts as a conduit for knowledge of God: These texts teach forms of behavior which, when followed in a spirit of desiring knowledge of God, train the agent’s affections to respond aptly and hence empower her to exercise her responsibility to God wisely. A central purpose of the law is to show us a way of life which will train our minds to know God better. Providing such guidance is another respect in which God raises his people as children.

Even so, biblical epistemology does not negate the passive dimension of knowledge. The world does impose itself on one unbidden: if one is faced with strong sensory evidence that it is raining and lacks undermining evidence, and it is raining, one cannot but know that it is. This active and passive nature of interactive knowledge imparts a lesson about the nature of the relationship between human beings and creation. The Bible emphasizes that people are stewards of creation. An essential component of stewardship is knowledge of that which one stewards; hence human nature is built to be epistemically connected with the world: to be human (and conscious) is to know things. And since stewardship carries responsibility, it stands to reason that the act of knowing does too. Thus our thesis that biblical knowledge is interactive is not only plausible in its own right when we divest ourselves of Western philosophical presuppositions and consider biblical examples, but it enjoys support from wider consideration of biblical themes.