A body of psychological research testifies that human beings are susceptible to various cognitive influences other than “just the facts” in assessment of information. These include perceptual illusions, self-justifying cognitive distortions, emotional state, peer opinion and the influence of authority. I suggest that this is applies to various kinds of knowledge, and that knowledge can be categorised usefully into three kinds: historico-legal knowledge, scientific knowledge and personal bias.
In order to obtain historico-legal knowledge, historical and forensic processes rely on reliable witnesses. Assessing which witnesses are the most reliable, and discerning the motivations behind personal testimony is critical in this process. Courts have long history of trying to persuade witnesses to commit to tell the truth – they routinely employ a threat of punishment for perjury and seek to induce a spiritual dilemma for those who break the witness oath (“I swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God” – sworn with one’s hand on one’s sacred scriptures.) Historians, when trying to piece together the past, rely on the witness statements in the form of historical documents. The historico-legal method also employs logic to draw conclusions from the available evidence.
However, the historico-legal method of seeking truth is limited in these ways: the personal motivation of witnesses can never be known with certainty, and the threat of punishment (even up to actual torture) cannot guarantee absence of lying, personal bias or mistakes in testimonies.
In order to obtain scientific knowledge, the scientific community seeks to combat error in knowledge firstly, by limiting itself to the observable world, secondly, by relying on replication of observation by independent experimenters, and thirdly, requiring a peer review process to check facts and the logic of suggested interpretations prior to publication.
The weaknesses in scientific research for knowledge is primarily its disinterest in spiritual realities, since it is from the spiritual rather than from the material that human beings gain faith, hope and love. In addition, in the question of origins, evolutionary scientists move away from two of science’s main protections against error. That is, they concerns themselves with a unique event which is not open to replication and observation (namely, in Biblical terms, Creation), and secondly, they narrow the community of peer reviewers to those already biased toward the Evolutionary view. Scientists don’t necessarily understand – or want to understand – the limitations of science or of the role and limitations of personal bias (see below) and see here.
In order to obtain personal knowledge, we may use the former two methods along with logical thinking – but in the personal realm we are also very free to rely on our own biases and fancies. We are all naturally shaped in our understandings by the understandings and biases in our social environment, which is to say we are not only free to choose new biases, but we actually have to work hard to recognise and properly comprehend the biases we were indoctrinated into in childhood or by our peer group. In my view, this gives knowledge and knowing spiritual (and moral) dimensions.
The moral and hidden dimensions
Jesus repeatedly flagged to His listeners in clear terms that our biases and fancies can be problematic for our spiritual development. He made it clear that there is a moral dimension in coming to a knowledge of the truth. My position – and I believe Jesus’ position also – is that what keeps us from discovering God is our own personal biases. Of course the current degree of ignorance of the almighty, ever-loving God would still not be possible except that God actually deliberately hides from us. He hides precisely so that we might seek Him and find Him. Essential in the process of seeking and finding God is our recognition of our biases against Him, and of coming to a point of being willing to address them. I regard this our fundamental task in our earthly life.
Jesus, in His approach to sharing the truth with us, does not attempt to force us into truth (like law courts do). Nor does He let us exclude important personal and spiritual realities from the field of reference (like historians and scientists might be content to do). Nor does He need to appeal to flawed popular review processes, since God is able to show Himself to us one at a time. Rather, Jesus’ approach to knowing the truth is about awakening our desire for Him and about opening our minds to our moral issues so that we may come to realise that “every good and perfect gift is from above” and so choose to seek Him and, in finding Him, experience the unsurpassed joy of a life lived in communion with Him.