At the recommendation of some friends, I have been doing some reading on the philosophy of knowledge. One of the most profound (and accessible) books I’m currently reading is Dallas Willard’s Knowing Christ Today. I will post a more thorough review of it when I am finished. But some of Willard’s insights are so penetrating and profound that I feel compelled to share them as I read for the benefit of others.
[An illustration of the loss of moral knowledge]
Although it remains true that no one really knows what electricity is in any ultimate sense, there is a vast body of knowledge about how it is produced and used. At one time that body of knowledge did not exist, and then, over a period of time, it came into existence and is still growing. That knowledge is now publicly available through recognized institutions of knowledge in our societies.
Because it is so available as a public resource, those who wish to acquire and use knowledge of electricity can do so. It can be taught, shared, tested for. On the basis of sharing it, people can work together in applying it, for example, to the wiring of a house, to an industrial operation, or in the invention of new technologies… People can be qualified or disqualified for positions according to their knowledge of electricity. A social and economic order of vast proportions grows up around it. The outcome is a level of well-being, freedom, and comfort for individuals and society at large that is inconceivable apart from the shared, available knowledge – not just opinions, feelings, or traditions – about the production and use of electricity.
Now, one can easily draw up a scenario in which the knowledge of electricity ‘disappeared,’ that is, where the requisite knowledge institutions ceased to exist or function in making it publicly available to a wide range of people… Electricity and those knowing how to set it up and use it would disappear from society.
Now… consider the original situation in which there was a – far from perfect, but still substantial – body of knowledge about moral good and evil, right and wrong. This knowledge was available to the public through the institutions of society recognized as sources of knowledge, primarily, of course, churches and schools (of all the various levels). Then, over a period of time, less than a century, the knowledge institutions of our society ceased, for various causes and reasons, to represent traditionally recognized moral values and principles as constituting a body of knowledge. They took it to be an area in which knowledge was not possible or not possible to the extent it could be taught as knowledge. This is the disappearance of moral knowledge that has actually occurred in our recent past.