I will make a confession: I hate libraries. Yes, I am a master’s student who has worked in libraries for 6 years; yet I hate them. I don’t hate them for their tranquil silence; for the inconsistent temperature the John Richard Allison library always seems to have; or even for the heretical, destructive, damaging, horrible, and disgusting books that are destroying Christ’s churches. I hate them because of the epistemological skepticism that surges to the surface of my conscious, threatening to submerse me in despair, every time I behold the thousands of volumes related to each topic of study I am presently considering. I am confronted not only with my own inadequacies but with the impossible situation that the present model of academic study presses upon me, my peers, and the future generations that will learn from us. Let me try to explain.
The Perpetual motion machine, subject of science fiction and fraud, is perhaps a fitting image of the present trajectory in academic studies. Such a machine is, after all, the source of boundless hope and triumph, yet ultimately a failure and even disaster. The principle of a perpetual motion machine is to have greater energy output than input, allowing such a machine once started to continue forever without stopping. Problems emerge immediately, though, because perfect efficiency is impossible in this world: every operation loses energy in action. Such a machine is thus impossible and an endless source of energy is required to maintain functionality. In the short term, for a regular machine, this is all well and good—unless the energy source runs dry. Despite its impossibility, perpetual motion machines appear here and there in legend and on the internet, but are shown to be hoaxes when their energy source fails.
Academia, in the modern and the post-modern era has, I reckon, set itself up as a perpetual motion machine and, like every other hoax, will sooner or later face the consequences of the second law of thermodynamics. What do I mean? Academia paints a rather utopian vision: as knowledge increases, the bounds of human potential will be explored and surpassed. We will meet some hiccups along the way, of course, but we will perpetually grow in understanding. I believe this ignores, like every perpetual motion machine, the input necessary to continue operations. Contemporary academia presents a situation where the growth in necessary input (individual man hours) for the required output (knowledge) is growing exponentially so that the available stock for input (the sum total of individual and corporately considered man hours) will soon be insufficient, grinding output to a halt (to use a different picture: the bill keeps increasing and the bank account will soon run dry).
To show this, we must first consider what I mean by “academia.” By “academia” I mean institutionalized western scholarship—its theory and practice. By institutionalized I mean that scholarship practiced in the school system (of all levels) and its affiliated societies and associations; by western, I limit the scope to the common vision shared by western society (though it spreads abroad); and by scholarship I mean rigorous study in pursuit of knowledge according to institutionalized standards. Academic study is practiced in every possible field, so it is comprehensive in scope, and sets itself to attain either objective (Modernism) or relatively concrete understanding (Post-modernism). The canons of academia demand—even where the possibility of knowledge is denied—rigorous study for the attainment of knowledge. We can summarize a few principles that will help illustrate the inherent dangers in the model:
- Ad fontes: one must root claims of knowing in the original sources.
- Contextual interpretation: right understanding involves not just knowledge of something, but that something’s contemporary milieu, significance, and historical genesis. Together: all knowledge claims based on secondary experience (i.e., non-empirical) must honor ad fontes to be credible and exhaustive contextual interpretation must be practiced to understand these sources.
- Interdisciplinary study: it is not sufficient to exhaust a narrow band of research, but one must factor in the ways in which other fields of study impinge upon the present endeavor.
- And contemporaneity: ad fontes alone is not sufficient; to say that one knows an original source, one must be in dialogue with its contemporary and historical interpretation.
This does not exhaust “academia” and its standards, but gives enough of a picture to realize the epistemic dilemma. We all need to know something: knowledge lays at the root of our decisions and actions. We cannot practically live without knowledge, and for Christians, knowledge of God and His ways is a vital necessity. The existence and success of the Church depends on knowledge and its availability; in the secular world, the legal system relies on accessible useable knowledge. We need knowledge, yet we are subtly cutting ourselves off from the possibility of knowledge: our proliferation in understanding is leading us ever closer to the edge of skepticism.
We need knowledge, yet knowledge requires the input of finite man hours. At its worst, the above principles lead to academic individualism—I can only work with someone once I have vetted their work on the above principles. Yet even if we allow corporate work (the ability to trust someone’s expertise in an area (though here we have subverted ad fontes), the required input is growing exponentially to the point where it will soon be greater than available input—making access to knowledge impossible. That is, though there is theoretically a finite amount of historical knowledge, archaeology reveals more every day. Thus, the amount of sources necessary in a field grows yearly. Furthermore, the secondary literature, which the principle of contemporaneity requires one to employ, likewise grows every year on the new and old primary sources. To compound this, the secondary literature on this secondary literature grows every year as well. Lastly, the principle of interdisciplinary study means that at every stage, one is also facing the same proliferation in every other field that is necessarily related to one’s own. Thus, a scholar up-to-date in his own field is quickly beyond his capacity. A new scholar has no hope to catch up. This situation is often acknowledged, but the epistemic ramifications are rarely considered.
One popular response is to go hyper-disciplinary—so restrict the field of study that one is not at risk of this exponential explosion in material. Yet doing so violates all the principles of academics that got us in trouble in the first place: one may be a statue of David scholar, but if he do not avail himself of historical, biblical, art philosophical, and history of statue making scholarship, then his observations are hardly worth anything.
Therefore, the problem is, on the current principle of academics, the input required has outgrown the available input; this is already the case, and it will only get worse. Therefore, “knowledge” produced cannot be knowledge according to the original standards: it is deficient, partial, near sighted knowledge. It is, therefore, impossible in this current epistemic milieu to know anything that is considered by academic study–which is literally everything (even self and personal existence). We live in denial of course, but this is a fundamental epistemic inconsistency.
Consider biblical studies: a pastor has maybe 20 hours a week to write a sermon in which he confidently proclaims a passage of Scripture as God’s word with an application. What is involved here? Theology, the study the God of whom he speaks and the Scriptures from which he reads, provides inexhaustible amounts of study; Hermeneutics, thousands of hours in essays and books; homiletical guides, hundreds of hours of study in preaching presentation and sermon formation; psychology, biology, sociology, and culture studies (necessary for application), provide near unto infinite hours of study. Then there is the Scriptures themselves: languages and translation (nigh unto infinite); text criticism (a few hundred hours); commentaries, essays, and monographs (a few hundred hours). This is just a sampling, yet already a pastor’s 20 hours a week have been consumed. Two options are available, on this model of knowledge: preach what he has, knowing that he may very well be wrong (uncertainty which destroys his very task), or give up all together. Or is there another option? If this dilemma is real, then we need to seriously reconsider the epistemic situation presented by contemporary academia.