So You Think You Know Something About That, Huh?

This is an interesting perspective. I like it:

I generally think a person has to read ten books on a particular subject before he can intelligently follow a conversation among the experts. I don’t mean ten books on history in a broad sense; what I mean is that you need to read ten books on the American War for Independence, or the Protestant Reformation, or the Crusades, before you can follow the conversation on those particular topics. By the time you have read fifty to a hundred books on a particular area, you can begin to really understand the subject. These numbers are arbitrary, but this truth is certain: Never assume that having read a book on a subject makes you an expert in that area. After reading one book, you know something, or a lot of somethings. After ten books, you begin to realize how much you don’t know. After a hundred books, you might know what it is you don’t know. – Ben House, Punic Wars and Culture Wars, pp. 139-140

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15 Responses to So You Think You Know Something About That, Huh?

  1. St. Worm says:

    Two years ago I was told by a fellow Christian that one book is sufficient to allow him to engage an opponent’s view (in this case a particular theological controversy). He dismissed my insistence that we need to be well read in a multiplicity of books on the same subject, and review the spectrum of opinions from various scholars.

    He got up in the church he was going to instruct with regards to their particular heresy (and it is heresy), but they ate him alive because he simply read a couple of internet articles and an entry from a theological dictionary. His intentions were noble, but the outcome was certain in my mind.

    Wise as serpents, gentle as doves. Wish children of the Kingdom had half the concern for accuracy and learning their secular counterparts possess.

    In Pax Christi,
    St. WOrm

  2. Laura K says:

    For a while now I have thought that the main reason for assigning research papers, especially to masters-level students, is to show them precisely this humility, and if that was not the aim, it should be. I’ve always come away from a paper, even with as many as 20 works cited, as a child of wonder, knowing I’ve barely become competent to address one small facet of a historical question. The fact that college professors give A’s on research papers is a paradox.

    • Tim Enloe says:


      That’s an excellent point. Having recently completed the classwork for my Master’s degree, and having written over the course of the program more than a dozen serious research papers, I have to agree with you about the effect it has on oneself. While I never got less than an A- on any of my papers, I truly did come away from writing them and from reading my professor’s comments on them with the sense of “I found out a lot of stuff about this subject while writing the paper, but I am still shockingly ignorant of it!” One of my professors had been teaching his subject for over 40 years, and about halfway through his class, it occurred to me that no matter what I came up with on my paper, he had no doubt already seen it many, many times over the decades, so I was certainly not going to surprise him with any brilliance or insight. It’s a very humbling experience, and I believe it helped me intellectually mature even more than I did during my undergraduate years.

  3. happyboy says:

    oddly enough

    thats how i became

    an agnostic

  4. St. Worm says:


    Why do you believe agnosticism is a necessary outcome of realizing one’s own limited knowledge?

  5. happyboy says:

    i didnt say that. i was just agreeing with the idea that the more you read the more you realize you dont know. in my case the more i studied the less certain i became about things i thought i was sure about.

    • Tim Enloe says:

      happyboy, I’m not necessarily taking issue with you, but I would also like to know what you mean by “agnostic.” The term can have two connotations – “soft” agnosticism, which says only “I do not know,” or “hard” agnosticism, which goes much farther and says “I cannot know.” I think a lot of people in our day who use the term “agnosticism” mean by it the hard variety, and particularly with respect to religious claims. How are you using it?

      • happyboy says:

        well for purposes of understanding my comment it doesnt really matter what kind of agnostic were talking about. i was only point out admittedly with elbow directed at your ribs that if the point is that reading and studying cause us to question things which results in us knowing less than we think we did then the whole business of certainty that we used to discuss on a fairly regular basis at the old discussion board could also apply to belief in god generally not just what brand of christianity might be true.

        • Tim Enloe says:

          happyboy, of course I see your point that questioning could be made to apply to more large-scale issues than “what brand of Christianity might be true.” For me, anyway, that “whole business of certainty that we used to discuss on a fairly regular basis at the old discussion board” is a waste of time – and precisely because over the last several years I have learned some (sometimes very disconcerting) things about my own limitations as a knower. I don’t feel that I have to have the sort of “certainty” that we all used to discuss over there, and in fact, I feel that that kind of “certainty” is basically an illusion. I recognize that not everyone is cut out to examine their beliefs so as to try to find out what is and is not illusion, and I recognize as well that it might be possible, via skeptical questioning, to come to a position that is inherently contradictory by way of saying something like “I am certain that I can never be certain about anything.”

          That’s why I feel that the old-style “certainty game” we all used to play is a waste of time. Outside of that game, the term “certainty” itself turns out to be a, ahem, very relative term that admits of shades of meaning in different contexts and concerning different issues. As odd as it may sound, then, I am “more certain” that the Triune God exists than I am “certain” that Presbyterianism is correct. I live as if Presbyterianism is correct, but I know that it might not be correct – so I act as if I have “certainty” even though that “certainty” is really quite a bit “less certain” than I might wish it was. Somebody else, operating in a different set of circumstances than I am in, has the same tension about a different set of beliefs. And some, in fact, push it as far as becoming “certain” that they can never be “certain” even that God exists.

          As my friend kepha has discovered in his serious wrestlings with his own faith as a Catholic, this is just the human condition under God. Sometimes it sucks, but that’s just how it is. Which is, by the way, why I really have little patience for Catholics or Orthodox who pretend that verbal recourse to an allegedly infallible Church is just the thing everyone needs to embrace. I don’t see why that can’t be questioned the same as pretty much anything else, and for them to stop their inquiries with “I just submit to the Teaching Authority of my Church” and act like they’re in any better an epistemological position than I am in when I say “I just submit to the clear teachings of Scripture,” is just a huge illusion that they have about themselves.

          That’s why in the other thread with Steve Polson, I’m making such a big deal out of developing a rational faculty combined with practical prudence. When it comes to wisdom, we human beings are utterly frail and trivial in the face of a Reality that is so far beyond our ken that the best we can ever hope for is to be able to trust in the grace of God to lead us to the truths that we need when we need them. On the other hand, since none of us are islands, since all of us are made to live in community with each other in the same public world, I do believe that there are at least some things that every one of us is accountable to quite outside our own relative states of wisdom and prudence. 2+2 cannot be made to equal 1,234 in the real empirical world of our experience, no matter what allegedly infallible “dogma” someone wants to commit himself to up front. Christianity cannot be turned into a gnostic-like flight from the empirical into an allegedly infallible mystical intuition of “the Church” without utterly changing its character as a revealed religion.

          So, in my view, once all healthy skepticism has been exhausted there are still some “bottom line” things that I think everyone can know “for sure” just by virtue of being human and living in the same world. Not all theories about what the world is and how it works are created equal, and not all rational defenses of a given view are equally respectable. At the end of the day, some people just don’t want to live in the real world, and they retreat to various fantasy worlds of their own making in order to protect themselves from having to face their own limitations. Identifying such people is, I think, quite difficult, and of course one wants to be wary of possibly being such a person oneself.

          Sorry that was so long. I hope it made some kind of sense.

  6. St. Worm says:

    Ah. I took “agnostic” in its normal usage. So you believe in God but are uncertain about so much else ??? Just trying to understand you comment.

    • happyboy says:

      all im saying is that i started out pretty convinced of any number of things. it turned out i didnt know as much as i thought i did.

  7. Tim Enloe says:

    I can sympathize with that, to be sure. And while that can be a pretty unnerving and destabilizing experience, it can also be beneficial. We start our faith as children, but we’re not commanded to remain children. And growing up is painful.

  8. happyboy says:

    >That’s why I feel that the old-style “certainty game” we all used to play is a waste of time.

    i remember thats why i mentioned it.

    >As odd as it may sound, then, I am “more certain” that the Triune God exists than I am “certain” that Presbyterianism is correct.

    why is that

    • Tim Enloe says:

      Well, briefly, the existence of God (basic monotheism) can be persuasively established (at least for me) from multiple lines of reason and evidence, including all the classical proofs – cosmological, ontological, teleological, and moral. From that point, the doctrine of the Trinity can be established persuasively (at least for me) from multiple lines of reason and evidence drawing on the Scriptures and the early Christian exegetical work. I am as certain as I can be, as a fallible knower, that the Triune God exists.

      Presbyterianism, for me, is a vastly lower belief on the scale of beliefs, and at least in terms of Reformed Presbyterianism, the arguments for it are not exactly as strong as some of the arguments for other types of government in the Church. Episcopacy has some pretty strong arguments in its favor, particularly the more it takes on a “mixed constitution” form made up of monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements. But since the mode of Church government is pretty low on the scale of beliefs for me, it matters to me far less whether Presbyterianism can be “proven” wrong and some other government “proven” right than it would matter if, say, some sort of seemingly devastating argument against the existence of God could be formulated.

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