Knowledge, Original Sin, and Partisanship

There are no political parties in heaven. The fires of faction didn’t rage in the pre-fall minds of Adam and Eve. There were no “hit pieces” distributed in the Garden of Eden.

We have political parties because of original sin. As a result of sin, we are incapable of proceeding flawlessly towards the truth. We can only clumsily reach for the truth amidst the darkness that fills this world and our own minds.

At best, political parties serve a Socratic function and help society decide the tough cases. At worst, political parties stunt the functioning of our intellect and prevent us from attaining knowledge. Partisans of the respective parties argue over beliefs because sin prevents us from knowing everything about the world.

In Knowledge and Christian Belief, Dr. Alvin Plantinga describes the process for arriving at “warranted belief,” which is something like what is commonly called knowledge.

Put in a nutshell, then, a belief has warrant for a person S only if that belief is produced in S by cognitive faculties functioning properly (subject to no dysfunction) in a cognitive environment that is appropriate for S’s kind of cognitive faculties, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at truth.

Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief 28 (2015).

Consider this rudimentary example. I know that there is fire in my fireplace because I can see and feel the fire, my senses are functioning properly, and I don’t have any reason to doubt my senses. At the same time, my wife, who is sitting in another room, may believe that there is a fire, but she does not yet have knowledge of the fire because she cannot see or feel it. Her belief that there is a fire will transform into knowledge of the fire if she is capable of considering the evidence and proceeding in a rational way aimed at truth.

Her reasoning may proceed like this:

  1. Tyler told me that he would make a fire after dinner,
  2. I have no reason to believe that Tyler was lying,
  3. Dinner is over,
  4. Tyler is in the room with the fireplace, and
  5. Tyler is staying in the room for a prolonged period of time.

By the time my wife considers point number 5, she has a “warranted belief” or knowledge of the fire.

Now, consider an alternative scenario. In this scenario, my wife is a prominent member of a fun and entertaining friend group. The friend group is formed around shared beliefs. These shared beliefs become an important aspect of each individual’s identity. The friend group tends to react irrationally when a shared belief is threatened.  One such shared belief is that there is no fire in the fireplace. We will call this group the “no fire party.”

Given my wife’s membership in the “no fire party,” how much evidence would be necessary to convince her that there is indeed fire in the fireplace? The five pieces of evidence that I have listed would surely be insufficient. Weaker adherents to the “no fire party” platform may be convinced after step 5, but my wife happens to be a donor to the party. She is not going to give in so easily. This is the consequence of partisanship.

If every human was capable of proceeding rationally to the conclusion that there is fire, then there would be no debating the point. When we allow partisanship to stunt the functioning of our intellect, we are the “no fire party.”

Antebellum southern Democrats made grand claims about the sub-human nature of Africans. These beliefs were unwarranted and were objectively false. The southern Democrats’ partisanship stunted the functioning of their intellects. Today, the antebellum southern Democrats look as silly as the “no fire party.”

The cautionary tale here is that we should always pursue knowledge and keep a safe distance from the enthusiastic partisans. Let the debates play out, be attentive to all the evidence, and avoid intra-party purity tests on emerging issues. There are no political parties in heaven—only partisans of the truth.

3 thoughts on “Knowledge, Original Sin, and Partisanship

  1. Is not governance by man a function of mankind’s original sin. With out sin what would the function of a government be?


    1. Yes! There would be no need to have human government. We would all gladly submit to the lordship of Christ.

      Government uses force to resolve disputes. If our knowledge was perfect, we would have no disputes.


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