Posted by: Kenn Hermann | March 9, 2006

Reformational Insights into the Meaning of Belief, Certainty, and Proof

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While running some errands this afternoon, I caught snatches of Neal Conan’s “Talk of the Nation” topic on “What We Believe But Cannot Prove.” It was not the content that was so intriguing (it was quite shop-worn); it was the assumption that everyone agreed on the meanings of the key terms and concepts being used. Just look at the hidden assumptions the title itself betrays. Of course, Neal and his guests assumed that ‘science’ provided the essential epistemic clarity.

I was reminded throughout the conversation how much it, and so many others of its kind, would benefit from Dooyeweerd’s insight into understanding the distinct analogical moments of its key terms. Let’s look at just three: “believe,” “certainty,” and “prove.” The movement of thought since the Renaissance could be written simply through an analysis of the profound shift in meanings and connotations these concepts have acquired. The history of thought, not dictionaries, is what is needed to clarify matters here. We need to continually ask: what kind of ‘belief,’ ‘certainty,’ and ‘proof’ are you seeking? Although we may not reflect on the analogies in these concepts, we still recognize them in our speech. We intuitively understand the difference between ‘proving’ a theorem mathematically, ‘proving’ one’s love for a spouse or the Lord through consistent patterns of conduct, ‘proving’ a hypothesis about peer group pressure, and ‘proving’ one knows how to play golf by consistently making pars. Prior to the 17th century it was common to speak of ‘moral certainty’ as the level of ‘certainty’ one should seek in the practical affairs of life; after the 17th century the meaning of ‘certainty’ shifted to reflect the dominance of its mathematical and physical connotation. Similar shifts of meaning have happened with ‘belief.’

What would be more fitting terms to capture the analogical moments in these concepts?

(Of course, Richard Dawkins made a brief appearance with his ‘belief’ that, if life was present anywhere else in the universe, it must have arisen by Darwinian evolution. Too bad he didn’t talk about his many other ‘beliefs’ strewn throughout his writings.)

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