Stated more generally:

Are there entities whose claims—by the nature of their existence—are outside the scope of rational inquiry?

Consider the example of the Abrahamic God, the relevant matter not that he's omnipotent or omniscient but that he exists on a whole different level than mere humans. Does his position make him unquestionable using normal methods of inquiry?

If he were to make a claim, i.e. "The Sun is hotter than 6000 kelvin." Are we, as humans, in a position to verify the truth of that claim?

Michael Dorfman suggested below that the nature of an entity (being all-powerful, outside the scope of time, etc.) does not alter the validity of our epistemological approach. Using the example above, whether it were a human or God doesn't seem to matter when we attempt to verify whether the Sun is hotter than 6000 kevlin or not.

However, I remain not quite satisfied with this answer. A new question thus arises, related to but slightly different than the original: Are there some claims that could be made which would be unverifiable when posited by a God rather than a human? In other words:

Is there a connection between the truth value of a statement and the entity which poses it?

Continuing from a previous question I asked regarding whether we could determine if an omnipotent entity is lying or not, a question occurred to me which is best understood through example:

In order to judge whether or not I should believe something, it is important to determine the accuracy of God-spoken scriptures, events, records etc. Fundamentally, the full conclusion should also depend on whether God has lied or not, which I feel many do not consider this.

Example, if we establish that:

  1. Record shows "X says Y is evil."
  2. But Y is, in fact, not evil.

The possible explanations for this thus are:

  • X lied
  • X told the truth but was not knowledgeable
  • The Record was falsified and is not actually the word of X

How would we determine which of the 3 occurred? Perhaps more relevant: Does the fact that we are dealing with an omnipotent, omniscient entity alter how we would go about this process?

  • Disproving "a god-spoken scripture" does not require the assumption that any god spoke it, or indeed that any gods exist to have spoken it. One may try to disprove the claims in, or about, any piece of literature; there is nothing special about the "god-spoken" case. Nov 5 '11 at 13:41
  • @NieldeBeaudrap I think you misunderstood my question. For example, if some divine book says "God says Satan is evil". There seems to be no way of asserting that fact. further, if we later prove that Satan is not evil, it only means it is factually wrong but does not mean it is not accurate by God's words. hence the full conclusion about involving the book, Satan and God has to depend on whether it was a lie.
    – Jake
    Nov 5 '11 at 14:02
  • Decent question concept, not sure why it was downvoted so much; the way it's stated could be improved but it's a good start. I feel like you could improve this question a lot by injecting some of what you've learned from your discussion with Michael below and you might get some additional useful answers.
    – stoicfury
    Nov 5 '11 at 17:04
  • @stoicfury Thanks! Finally someone who thinks I makes some sense. Unfortunately, from the discussion with Micheal, I realised that my initial problem is not unique to beings beyond this world, as it would be equally physically impossible to verify the color of his underwear given the time limitation! The difference though is that at least I know in which circumstance this method (looking at his underwear) will work. In the case "beyond this world" I cannot know with absolute certainty that the color, for example, will not change just by me observing it.
    – Jake
    Nov 6 '11 at 7:26
  • 1
    This question has evolved a lot in the past few days. I have tried to remedy it for you, but it appears that you (after your reformations) altered your question such that you are asking two distinct questions within the same post. Please go ahead and create a separate question for the one after the dividing line if you think my edit is accurate. Feel free to rollback/modify if you think I misunderstood what you were trying to ask. After you do that I'll reopen this for you. :)
    – stoicfury
    Nov 7 '11 at 20:41

The same exact way we determine if anyone is being truthful; the fact that the beings are "not bounded by this world, but can come to this world" is completely irrelevant.


Since the question has been reframed, I'll elaborate on my answer.

As you have seen, there are a lot of different epistemologies out there; one that I find very useful for these purposes is a theory dating back to medieval India, to the Nyāya school. They posit four different ways of gaining reliable knowledge, which they call pramāṇa-s.

The first pramāṇa is direct perception. As you have already noticed, this is a very useful way to evaluate the truthfulness of claims; if I say that the sun is shining, you can stick your head out the window and see for yourself if I am telling the truth or not. As you have also noticed, there are a couple of problems with this, as well: one is that perception is not always reliable (as evidenced by optical illusions); another is that there are many claims made about things which cannot be easily perceived (i.e., what color of underwear I am wearing here in Norway.)

The second pramāṇa is inference. If every time I have perceived smoke, I have also perceived a concomitant fire, I can use this knowledge to infer that the smoke rising from the chimney across the street is due to a fire, despite the fact that I cannot directly perceive the fire at the moment. Naturally, inference is not infallible: it is possible (albeit unlikely) that the smoke is coming from some non-fire-related source that I am unaware of.

The third pramāṇa is analogy; here we can use previous experience to allow us to reason that something is similar to something we already know (i.e., to argue from the known to the unknown.) Again, this is not infallible, as the analogy may be deficient.

Finally, the fourth pramāṇa is authority; here we take the word of someone we have determined to be trustworthy by other means. For example, very little of my knowledge of physics comes from direct perception of experiments; rather, I take the word of relevant authorities (professors and textbook authors, etc.)

Now, according to the Nyāya, all reliable knowledge comes from one or more of these pramāṇa-s. Thus, if I were to tell you that I am wearing blue underwear, since you are unable to confirm this via direct perception, you need to rely on other means; you can use your knowledge (via previous perception) that blue underwear is commonly sold in stores, and you can rely (if you wish) upon me as an authority concerning my own clothing choices. If, on the other hand, I said that I was wearing underwear made from blue unicorn hide, you would likely not accept my testimony, as this conflicts with other knowledge you have reliably built up (that unicorns do not, in fact, exist.)

Note that in both cases, it is still a matter of judgment; we are still talking about what you are willing to believe, not about what has been proven beyond conceivable doubt. And, since all four pramāṇa-s have been shown to be fallible, one can reasonably ask whether it is possible to ever prove anything beyond conceivable doubt. (There are differing opinions on this, but that's a matter for another day.)

So, to return to your question: when faced with truth-claims from any source (including those from entities not bounded by this world) one must use the aforementioned methods to evaluate the coherence of those claims with other knowledge previously found to be reliable by those same aforementioned methods.

  • So how would you do it? We can use brain scans, lie detectors and eye witnesses in our world. But for beings who are beyond this world, we can argue that these devices may not work against them or they have the power to manipulate the results.
    – Jake
    Nov 5 '11 at 14:08
  • 3
    We generally do not use brain scans or lie detectors in our world to judge the truthfulness of statements; in fact, I've never operated a lie detector or a brain imaging machine in my life, and I judge the truthfulness of things being told to me every day. I suggest you think a little bit about epistemology, and refine your question accordingly. Nov 5 '11 at 14:36
  • Sorry, I am not an expert. I simply do not see how we can do it using conventional means. I see no easy way to test the premises or come up with justifications. Can you please state specifically how epistemology can apply to "beings beyond this world" with examples? Or in response to my comment to Neil?
    – Jake
    Nov 5 '11 at 16:10
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    "Whatever method you would use to ascertain this" -- If you told me you are wearing blue underwear right now. There is no way for me to ascertain this belief because the only reliable method is to see it for myself. But there are no physically viable means to do that "right now"... ok I concur... I think I need to rephrase my question.
    – Jake
    Nov 5 '11 at 16:27
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    @Micheal Thanks for your detailed explanation. Now that you confirm that all abovementioned methods are indeed fallible. Then I can accept that it makes no difference whether. Please also see my comment to Mitch and Joseph for my understanding of your answer. I am leaving this unanswered for a few days first to see if anymore people thinks "it's interesting" and chip in a few more. Thanks again.
    – Jake
    Nov 7 '11 at 4:40

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