Book Review: How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology, Second Edition, James K. Dew and Mark W. Foreman, 2020

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Think Apologetics. Tabernacle of David considers this resource trustworthy and Biblically sound.


I love epistemology! I remember how excited I was to take an epistemology class when I was in seminary. Questions about knowledge, truth, and types of certainty were on my mind. It was also during this period when I was in the midst of doing campus ministry. Hence, the majority of my discussions with students are always centered around questions or comments like:

1.“I don’t think we can know God exists”
2.“I don’t think we can be certain about the claim that Jesus rose from the dead”
3.“As a Christian, you can’t make any knowledge claims about what you believe.”

Therefore, I do think a book like How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology, Second Edition, by James K. Dew and Mark W. Foreman is an extremely helpful introduction for the Christian.

In the Introduction of the book, the authors say that the reason we need epistemology is that we as humans long for knowledge and depend on it in all aspects of life. So by not asking epistemological questions, we deprive ourselves of natural and intellectual growth.

The authors give some simple illustrations such as when a child asks us some hard questions as “How did God make us” or “What happens when we die” all entail we will need to know how our beliefs are true and what kind of steps we need to take to respond with knowledge claims. Likewise, when we enforce he legal system, we rely on epistemological assumptions, such as whether we can trust eyewitness testimony, circumstantial evidence, etc.

Chapter 2 and 3 discuss the nature of knowledge and where it comes from. Knowledge entails belief: a person must have a particular belief about something; Justification: Because beliefs can be wrong, we should want to know if a given belief is true before we can claim to have knowledge of it. The authors note that justification can come in a variety of forms, depending on the object under consideration when making a claim to knowledge. Most importantly, the presence of justification doesn’t make a belief true. Therefore, to say we have knowledge, we must not only have belief and justification, but truth as well. The authors then tackle the challenges with the entire JTB (Justified True Belief) model and the Gettier problem. While the authors discuss the defeasibility condition and the challenge it presents, they note that the Gettier problem does not destroy a JTB understanding of knowledge. In the end, the challenge may lie in the quest for absolute certainty in our quest for knowledge.

As far as where knowledge comes from, the authors discuss the various options at our disposal to gain knowledge such as reason, experience, testimony, revelation, and faith. Thinkers such as Decarte , Hume, Locke, Kant are mentioned. Epicureanism is discussed as well. Testimony is a part of the bedrock of our existence. We rely on it every day. The authors do provide a needed correction in the church in how Christians define faith. They say “For many religious people, especially Christians, faith is often spoken of as a source of knowledge. For example, when asked how they know God exists, believers might say “by faith.” Or, when believers are asked how we know Jesus is the Son of God, we might respond by saying “I know by faith.” The authors note that this is a misunderstanding about what faith is. When we understand faith, it is not a source of knowledge. It doesn’t convey any new additional information or knowledge. Rather, faith is a response to the knowledge or information we receive from God via divine revelation.

Chapter 4 discusses the various definitions of truth-pragmatism, coherentism, and the correspondence theory of truth. Both coherentism and pragmatism are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the truth. This is an area I have thought about quite a bit. Almost all college students are pragmatic in their thinking. The question becomes whether false beliefs can actually yield fruitful results. The authors give an example of this: Peter believes in an imaginary big brother who sleeps in his room every night. This helps Peter deal with his fear of darkness. Hence, we have a fictional figure that helps Peter cope with reality. By a pragmatic definition of truth, this would count as a true belief. The authors also point out that some aspects of science need to have pragmatic results. When predictions come true (such as Newton’s theories on the laws of motion), we make progress- we can develop weapons, make aircrafts, etc.

Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the use of inferences and perception. An intro to the use of deductive and inductive inferences is given. Humans make inferences all the time. Furthermore, inferences are used by scientists and historians. I have lost track of the number of times college students say to me “science proves things” and it leads to some kind of absolute certainty.  I generally respond with “no, science makes inferences.” Science relies on inferential reasoning. Inferential reasoning is drawing a conclusion or making a logical judgment based on indirect observation rather than based on direct observation. No scientist observed the start of the universe, or the beginnings of planet earth or how the first cell started. Much of history and science is based making inductive or abductive inferences. The goal is not absolute certainty. Induction is only based on probabilities and is always open to revision. The authors do point out that the inferences we make can be tainted by education, background, biases, friends, and upbringing.

Regarding perception, an overview is given of direct and indirect realism or representationalism. In the end, the authors mentioning of critical realism aligns with where I am at on this topic. Critical realism has gained he respect of philosophers, theologians, sociologists, and scientists. This method allows for knowledge of the external world but also allows for perceptual and cognitive error. In other words, we can apprehend the external world itself (following the intuitions of direct realism) but can also be misled by both internal and external factors (indirect realism).

Chapters 7 and 8 discuss whether we need justification for our beliefs. An overview of externalism and internalism is given. The authors rightfully ask if it’s possible to find a balance between both positions. This is something I have given some thought to as well. Having good reasons and evidence (internalism) may not be necessary at the start of the outset of one’s beliefs But they will play factor as one moves forward in spiritual maturity.

Chapter 9 discusses Virtue Epistemology which is something that allows us to form intellectual virtues. In turn, these virtues will play a role in helping us to have courage and humility in the belief forming process. We can be wrong and we need to have the courage and humility to admit this. This goes for everyone! The intellectual virtues are offered by different virtue epistemologists, but the list includes Virtues such as studiousness, humility, honesty, autonomy, courage, firmness, generosity, and prudence.

Chapter 8 is the new addition to the book. This chapter called “Can We Be Objective in Our View of the World?” is a relevant topic. The authors define “objectivity” and “subjectivity.” By objectivity, they refer to “the assumption that we apprehend the world as it really is without any interference from our own biases, experiences, assumptions, or the kinds of epistemic distortions. By contrast, subjectivity refers to the assumption that we never apprehend the world without lenses that result from our biases, experiences, assumptions, and other epistemic distortions, such that we never apprehend reality as it really is.”- pg 118-119. The authors trace the history of the quest for objectivity and the post modern responses. The authors conclude with the following comments: “Should the observations of later modernity about the way people think and formulate theory give rise to some epistemic humility? Yes. Is having epistemic humility the same as being “radically subjective”? No. The truth is we are widely successful as human knowers in understanding our world. We do get it wrong sometimes, but we often get it right too. Therefore, we need epistemic humility, not postmodern epistemic despair.”- pg 104.

Chapter 9 discusses the role of religious revelation. This is a topic that is extremely important. The authors summarize the difference between general and special revelation. If God has revealed something of Himself to man, we can have knowledge of God. While general and special revelation don’t give us absolute certainty, we can have good reasons for thinking God has given us a revelation.

Chapter 10 discusses the role of certainty in our beliefs. Most importantly, the nature of the object determines how we come to know it and how well it can be known. Since God can’t be verified with our five senses, we should rely on something different here. Hence, I think the point is we should expect a revelation from Him to humanity. Also, the highest level of certainty is logical or absolute certainty. The next level is probabilistic certainty. The third level is sufficient certainty. This is where we have very good evidence for a belief and know of no significant defeaters for the belief .

Overall, I think this is an excellent introduction to epistemology. I highly recommend it!

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