JTB

Here’s a fun one. JTB is an acronym affectionately known among philosophers as Justified True Belief. It is a theory of knowledge that claims for anyone to know anything one must believe something as true and have good justification for it. For example, I have a belief that I am writing in English. Evaluating that belief through the JTB model I conclude that I do posses knowledge of this belief: (1) I believe I am writing in English; (2) it is true, the fact that I am writing in English; and (3) I am justified since you are reading this and therefore have demonstrated the fact that I have written in English. This appears obvious and uncontroversial.

This method of knowing had a rich philosophical pedigree and appeared unassailable until Edmund Gettier, an American philosopher, challenged it in 1963. In philosophy, if one can present a valid counterexample against a proposition, then that proposition must be reevaluated for soundness. He rocked the philosophical world by demonstrating that a person could have justified true belief and yet have no knowledge. His famous counterexample was that of Jones and Smith vying for the same job. 

This is not the place or time to summarize his particular rejoinder here but consider a similar example. Sally glances at the hands on the clock indicating that it is 5:00PM; it’s been a long day and it’s time to go home. Does she have justified true belief that counts as knowledge? Our first thought might be yes. It was truly 5:00PM and the clock indicated the right time. But unbeknownst to Sally the clock broke down 12 hours prior so basically she got lucky. This may seem silly and petty but philosophers spend a lot of time and resources contemplating and writing about these kinds of thought experiments. 

I confess, a part of me enjoys getting together with friends who are way smarter than me to have conversations around challenging subjects. I do it not only to delight in fellowship but also to learn. Books do the same for me. God created us to be curious beings. He created everything and gave us responsible dominion over it. Knowledge is indispensable to proper governance of the things God has entrusted to us. But how do we acquire knowledge? 

For most of my life the method of acquiring knowledge seemed to follow the method of JTB. I was not aware of the term then but throughout my schooling rationalism1 (the epistemological view that regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge) seemed to be the unquestioned foundation and warrant for teaching and learning. I suspect this experience is true for many of us. Being rational is good. Being a rationalist is not good. Those are two different things. 

I owe James K.A. Smith a debt of gratitude for helping me understand that we are not “primarily theorizers.”2 We are more than our brain. We are not “brains on a stick” as Smith is fond of saying. He is right on this. There is another legitimate way of knowing without using the rigid matrix of JTB.

Sarah Pink is another pioneer in helping us understand another method of knowing. In her book Doing Visual Ethnography she introduces us to the world of field research and how one can legitimately collect data using photography, videos and other similar technologies. This data collection process however, does not locate its primary purpose on the artifacts being studied per se. Instead, the researcher is careful to step into the world of the people (ethno) being studied (graphe). The images an ethnographer collects is not analyzed in a rational, traditional way. Rather, with camera on hand, he or she steps in, and is invited to be part of a conversation to learn a people’s norms and behaviors. Pink rejects the idea “that the written word is essentially a superior medium of ethnographic representation.”33

Ironically, as I write this, we remember and celebrate the time when Martin Luther challenged the church about the excesses in some of her practices. While we cannot overstate the significance and importance of that momentous event as it has given rise to rich cultures and human flourishing, it improperly put a wedge between art and word. Whereas before the Reformation, images had its inherent way of communicating truth. Since then, word has been placed as master, a mediator, the only way to appreciate art. This idea of art appreciation has continued to govern our way of looking at art, especially among Christians. 

A Hollywood writer shared a story with me about the time Mel Gibson was to release The Passion to the public. He decided to preview The Passion to Evangelical leaders before releasing it to movie goers to garner feedback. After the showing ended they all praised him for his excellent work. However, that did not stop them from suggesting that he add the words of John 3:16 just before the credits rolled, as if the message was not clear enough. Gibson was wise to ignore that advice. The film went on to be a huge success, taking the title as the highest grossing rated-R movie of all time. The love of God was communicated in moving pictures and the visceral reactions of movie watchers were enough to assure us knowledge was gained.