“We Know in Part”: On the Limits (and Comforts) of our Way of Knowing

Human beings are knowers. That is, our mode of being—i.e., the manner in which we go about life—is that we come to know things. What things? Everything—things like people, objects, TV shows, the color of that dress, what this blog post is about, etc. But in order to know these things (and anything, really), we must interpret. No matter the person, everyone is engaged in interpretation. All of life is interpretive. For example, we are always interpreting other people (“What are they saying with that facial expression?”); we are always interpreting TV shows (“What was the ending of LOST all about?”); we are even at times interpreting the color of dresses (“Is that dress gold or blue?”); you are even interpreting this blog post (“What in the world is Matthew saying?”).

Thus, you are an interpreter. Your entire life is interpretive, and through interpretation, you come to know things. But what can you know? I believe that people can have confidence that they are able to arrive at truth about the real world. You can surely know, quite reasonably, things about other people (for example, their likes and dislikes; what makes them happy or sad). Moreover, you can know that the moon exists or that there is a computer (or smartphone) screen in front of you or that there is a chair in the middle of the room (if indeed there is one). 

But it is important to say one thing about our ability to know these things: We don’t know things completely and objectively; we don’t know things as they totally are.

Now, this might be confusing, but let me explain. Let’s suppose I have an object sitting in front of me, say, a big square box. Now, since I’m sitting on the couch across from this big square box, I wonder to myself, Can I see the box in its completeness? The answer, of course, is no: I cannot see the box in its entirety. That is, I cannot see it completely. The reason is because I am only looking at the part of the box facing me at the moment (and of course part of the sides of the box since it sits a bit diagonally across from me). But make no mistake, I cannot see it completely. Moreover, by not being able to see it completely (all of the sides, including the top and bottom at the same time), I also cannot see the box objectively (at least in the purest since of the word). That is, I can’t see the entire object, which I call “the box.” How come? Because I, as the viewing subject, am looking at the box from a certain angle, namely, from the west side of the room where I am sitting on the couch. Thus, I do not, strictly speaking, see the box objectively or completely. Echoing St. Paul, I know the box only in part (1 Cor 13:9).

A further illustration is in order. Suppose I’m standing on the northwest corner of Fifth and Main. Looking across the busy intersection, I witness two cars wreck into each other. I observe, as it were, two cars collide. But I only do so from a specific angle or vantage point, namely, the vantage point of the northwest corner of Fifth and Main. Did I see the wreck completely or objectively? No, for my encounter with the object (the wreck) was actually only partial and subjective. Make no mistake about it, though: Even though I could not see the object of my observation (i.e., the wreck) completely and objectively, it doesn’t follow that there never was an actual wreck or actual cars or actual people driving the cars. Thus, I don’t think I need to say the wreck’s happening was somehow contingent upon my observing it. (Relativism is not a necessary consequence of what I’m saying here.) At any rate, I can know there was a car wreck, just not from a God’s-eye point-of-view. Rather, I witness it from a human’s-eye point-of-view. Why? Because, well, I am a human.

I happen to think that all of interpretation is like this, for we all have angles from which we interpret, whether car wrecks or biblical texts. We each have an angled-view, or rather a worldview, from which we come to know things—all things, in fact. It’s nonsensical to suggest otherwise. But let’s suppose I do suggest otherwise. Suppose I say, “I can know the big box in the middle of the room completely and objectively. After all, I can get up off my couch and walk to the other side of the room and look thusly. If I do this for every possible angle (a tiring enterprise, I suspect), then I can see the entire box as it is—completely and objectively.”

In response to this, I concede that one could perhaps do this (given enough time and perseverance), and it would appear that as a result one could “know” something objectively and completely. However, on closer analysis I’m not so sure. For at the very moment you get off of the couch and observe the box from a decidedly different angle is to, at the same time, leave your previous point-of-view and substitute it for another. It is at this point where your view of the box is still a “point-of-view.” In fact, with each and every point-of-view, you are moving as it were through space (not to mention time) and viewing the object differently in each case. This does not do violence to the realism of the object, but it does necessitate a change in how you come to know the object and in your perception of it (perhaps you discover, for example, that the other side of the box is colored pink—thus, your horizons of knowledge about the box is enhanced and broadened. That is, you learn something new). Similarly, as you go for a walk in the park, you can only see (and hence observe, interpret, and know) that which is in front of you. Your viewpoint is always angled in this way. Even if you were to turn around and look behind you, your looking behind is, once more, angled. In short: You cannot ever know things fully and completely at the same time and same place; you cannot know things without a point of view. You are not God, after all. Your knowing is always provisional in this sense because you are a humble human.

Personally, I find this whole thing frustrating (finitude is never comfortable). But never mind that, for it is the reality of what it means to be a human—that is, a human being. And this, as a result, is part and parcel of what it means to be finite—not just in regard to mortality but also our knowability. Just as I cannot be in more than one place at one time, so also I cannot know something without knowing it from just one place in one moment of time. The German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, encouraged us to take our own historicality and finitude seriously; that is, according to him we ought to allow it to come to bear upon our knowing and understanding things. Thus, while we can know truth and the real world, we can only know it partially. This, I think, accords well with traditional religious conviction, especially of the Christian sort. If one were to insist to Paul that our knowability was infinite (i.e., “God-like”), I suspect he would respond to such a proposition with a mē genoito.

As a committed theist, not to mention a Christian, this approach is arguably the humble one, for it accounts, as I have said, for our own human finitude (a fairly important aspect of Christian doctrine). The Enlightenment encouraged us to pride ourselves on reason, with some strands of the movement going so far as to say that we can know things as they are (a strong positivism, we may call it). Ever since Descartes, we don’t like anything that whispers even a hint of uncertainty. But the Christian tradition arguably takes exception to such claims. A Christian epistemology, it seems, would imply a less proud approach to what, and how, humans know—namely, that what we know, and the way we know, is only in part. (Descartes rolls in his grave at such a suggestion, but let him roll.)

Moving on, this idea I have expounded on above has, I think, ramifications for Christian belief and praxis. Perhaps there are some pastoral implications as well. As a pastor, I find myself in constant engagement with hurting people—with death, interpersonal conflict, doubt, and questions about life and life’s difficulties. Like most pastors, I sincerely want to offer hope and help people. (Seldom, though, do I ever end the day thinking I’ve done a good job on this; there is always one more person I could have visited or called or counseled or prayed with; hurt is everywhere, at least since Eden’s gates slammed shut). That said, some of the hurts that people experience are, sadly, unanswerable. Unfortunately, there is no repository of theological-pastoral answers from which I can draw and hand them to my people for a quick and easy fix (hasten the day for when Eden’s gates fling open!) Moreover, for someone who hates overly-tried and obnoxiously-tired clichés and platitudes, I find myself using them even on myself. Unfortunately, pastors are not immune to suffering. I, often enough, go through times of hurt and pain, too. Such self-inflicted clichés take the form, more or less, of the following: “I’m not sure why there is evil and suffering in my world, but I know there is a reason.”

Ugh. Psychologically, I find such words unsatisfactory.

But I wonder if I should reconsider. I mean, even though this is psychologically unsatisfactory, could it not be philosophically reasonable? There’s nothing unreasonable, after all, about the idea that just because I do not know something completely and objectively (namely the answer to why there exists evil and suffering) that it follows there is no complete and objective answer to the question itself. Personally, again, I find my limits to what I can know frustrating; but I wonder if there is not, upon closer consideration, something comforting about these limits? Let me explain.

Just as I would not want to deny that there is a box in the middle of the room merely because I cannot see it completely and objectively, so also I do not want to deny that there is an answer to the question of evil and suffering just because I cannot, completely and objectively, know it. In some ways, I reckon it’s at least possible that precisely because I can’t discern a complete and objective answer to the question of evil and suffering, that such provisionality itself grounds the idea that there is indeed an objective and complete answer out there. In much the same way, I suspect it is not unreasonable to suggest that, precisely because I can observe a square box (however partially) from a particular angle is due to the corollary fact that there does, indeed, exist a whole object in the middle of the room. Likewise, my provisional understanding of how, and why, suffering exists is, perhaps, due to the fact that there is a larger answer somewhere out there. At the very least, I don’t think this idea is outside of the realm of possibilities.

We may question the color of the dress from person to person as to whether it is gold or blue, but it seems altogether unreasonable to question whether there is a dress at all. We know in part precisely because, perhaps, there is a whole. We may not know the whole thing, but it doesn’t follow that it isn’t known or at any rate knowable by Someone. It is not unreasonable, then, to trust in the One who knows things fully and completely—whether it be the real existence of dresses or the real existence of real answers to our own very real suffering.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

(1 Cor 13:12-13 ESV)

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