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L&FP, 58a: Dallas Willard, on knowledge and its significance: “knowledge authorizes one to act, to direct action, to develop and supervise policy, and to teach”


In his posthumous book (completed by colleagues), Willard makes a key observation on knowledge, one that challenges a power-obsessed, agenda driven era that is dismissive of objectivity rooted in good warrant:

To have knowledge . . . is to be able to represent something as it is on an adequate basis of thought or experience, not to exclude communications from qualified sources (“authority”) . . . . knowledge authorizes one to act, to direct action, to develop and supervise policy, and to teach. It does so because, as everyone assumes, it enables us to deal more successfully with reality: with what we can count on, have to deal with, or are apt to have bruising encounters with. Knowledge involves assured truth . . . [pp. 19, 20 and 4, Dallas Willard & Literary Heirs, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, Routledge|Taylor& Francis Group, 2018. ]

Obviously, to have the aura of knowledge confers power, legitimate power. So, in an age where the inferior substitute, skepticism has been put in the place of prudence (a cardinal virtue pivoting on balanced, well grounded soundly informed moderation), it is easy for knowledge to become captive to institutional power agendas, celebrity and cynical selective hyperskepticism.

When one hears, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” for example, one should note that that is little more than a cynical policy of suspicion of the despised other. Clearly, all that is reasonably required is adequate and responsible evidence . . . including, the frank acknowledgement of limitations of knowledge. To know where one does not know can be most important, albeit negative, knowledge. (Beyond the known unknowns of course, as we are now well aware — thanks to Donald Rumsfeld — lurk the unknown unknowns.)

Now, Willard’s statement is closely related to the weak form definition rooted in common usage, knowledge is warranted, credibly true (so, reliable) belief. The adequate base of thought and experience is of course, adequate warrant and good reliability. The significance of authority, starting with the dictionary and one’s teachers, is that as C S Lewis rightly observed, 99% of practical argument relies on authority. This includes Science, few of us have reproduced for ourselves the bodies of experimental, observational and analytical chains in the the fields of science we learn and practice. We must therefore recognise the pessimistic induction, thus that scientific theories do not attain to moral certainty of truth; though, their empirical reliability in a given range may well be morally certain. The sting in the tail, here, being that many known false models have similar reliability. (If you want a key case in point, ponder Newtonian Dynamics in a quantum and relativistic world.)

There is a further claim by Willard that I would adjust or at least moderate: “[k]nowledge involves assured truth.”

Once we see that the common use of knowledge — with science as key case — involves both confidence in reliability and possibility of correction, that may go or at least suggest a step too far. If what is implied is that an established body of truth on the whole is credibly more true than in need of onward correction, perhaps. But, it must be open to such correction otherwise we can fall into closed minded adherence to error.

Perhaps, we can soften to, knowledge involves well founded credibility and confident belief in that credibility. Hence, credibly true (and so reliable) belief. Obviously, for cause, that credibility can be withdrawn, but stands as the case today.

This brings us back to the point in L&FP, 58; announced in its headline: “[k]nowledge (including scientific knowledge) is not a simple concept.” END