A Brief Note on Knowing and Humility

Epistemic humility is not the same thing as epistemic relativism.

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge. To have “epistemic humility’ is to admit that our knowledge is limited because our perspective is limited. Paul says, “We know in part…we see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12). We really do know (true knowledge), even if it is only “in part” (humility).

“Epistemic relativism” however is to say that there is no unified field of knowledge–everyone’s truth claims are only true relative to the individual, so objective, universal truth does not exist–everyone only has their own personal narratives and preferences. 

Sometimes, when people try to advocate for humility in admitting the limits of our knowledge, limited by our biases, experiences, etc. other people–usually very conservative people who really care about the Bible–can think that what they are advocating is a kind relativism.

So, for example, I can say, “The issues around how to deal with immigration in America are very complicated and since I have neither read very widely on it nor have much first hand experience, I’m really not sure what’s the best option. I think it would be wise to listen to what individuals who have had first hand experience with immigration have to say about it,” that would be me exercising epistemic humility. But if an individual bent on trying to sniff out relativism heard me, he could respond: “So, you’re saying that just because you don’t have firsthand experience you can’t know what is right or wrong? You must think that all knowledge and truth claims are the by-product of our lived experience, and thus you think truth/knowledge is relative! You liberal!”

Similarly, some people–usually very progressive people who hold a very low view of the Bible–can think that any objective, universal truth claim is nothing but unmitigated arrogance.

So, for example, I can say, “I realize that I have never experienced the pain and confusion of gender dysphoria, yet God’s Word is abundantly clear that our gender ought to correspond to our biological sex.” Someone could respond, “Since you have no lived-experience of that reality, you have no right to speak on it. How could you know what it is like to be trans? Also, isn’t that just your interpretation of what the Bible says? Furthermore, since all truth is relative, your “truth” claim is really just a disclosure of your own feelings and biases, therefore your condemnation of transgenderism reveals you are motivated by hatred, bigotry, and irrational fear (phobia).”

Both of these responses–the conservative and progressive–would be a bad interpretation, confusing epistemic humility for epistemic relativism. We see dimly, but we do see.

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