Knowledge and Conversion: A Philosophical  Comparison 


     In both gaining knowledge and having a full conversion there are several necessary characteristics that these processes must have. If a person’s conversion or quest for knowledge does not contain these characteristics then neither the gaining of knowledge nor a complete conversion can occur. Both knowledge and a complete conversion require an initial experience, an openness to this experience referred to as receptivity, and a coming to oneself.

     Knowledge refers to the conscious receiving of an object as it is through the cognitive act. The cognitive act is the process in which an object speaks to a knower; and then the knower can respond. A person cannot gain knowledge with out being receptive. The knower is not forming the object, but instead allowing the object to form him, letting the object unfold itself to him. In receiving knowledge the object speaks to the knower through a kind of philosophical seeing. There are two kinds of seeing that together result in knowledge, empirical and intellectual seeing. Empirical seeing consists of the senses: touch, taste, and sight. Intellectual seeing is seeing with the eye of the mind; it is something that a person sees when his mind and heart are open to receiving.

     For example, 2+2=4. There is no complete way of explaining 2+2=4 through the senses, because numbers preexist things. It is a foundational truth that cannot ultimately be explained in terms of something else as the learner must eventually simply see, through the eye of the mind, that 2+2=4. A person can explain 2+2=4 by showing people two apples then adding two more to the pile thus making four, but these four apples only simply represent the number four they are not the number four in itself. Through receiving empirical and intellectual seeing the knower gains inferential knowledge, which is how the knower responds to these two kinds of seeing. Thus, to gain knowledge the knower must be open to receiving empirical and intellectual seeing and respond in order to gain inferential knowledge.

     Conversion is an intentional turning toward some object that, like knowledge, requires receptivity. In “An Introduction to the Love of Wisdom” written by James A. Harold it is explained that the word metanoia is used to describe this turning and when translated into English it means conversion. This term was then applied to the Christian religious sense, but it did not receive it’s origin in religion. Conversion is an intentional act as it is directed toward some object or situation. It is also an encounter just as knowledge is an encounter. In gaining knowledge one must be open and receptive to empirical and intellectual seeing.

     Harold states that “conversion requires an encounter with some transcendent object…” A person cannot have an encounter without being receptive. For example if a person is not open to receiving another person as a friend he will never be able to encounter that person. Without intentionality and receptivity conversion would be impossible.

     Even if a person is receptive it is possible to have a desire for conversion but not a full and pure motivation, thus conversion is a threefold process that is not simply intellectual but also affective. Harold states that spiritual affectivity is when one not only intellectually see truths, but one must also will that these truths become manifest in one’s own life and love them from the heart. It is the idea that one must do more than simply receive truths or encounter situations intellectually, but instead involve their whole person; body, mind, and heart.

     Encounters alone cannot lead to conversion, just as receptivity alone cannot lead to knowledge. The knowledge is fully gained in the response. Similarly, an encounter is necessary for conversion but the full conversion relies on grace and the response of the soul. This preludes to the three primary powers of the soul that are necessary for conversion; the intellect, the will, and spiritual affectivity or the heart. Without these three powers a conversion will not be strong enough to withstand the temptations to fall back into one’s pre-conversion state.

     There is one part of conversation that is experiences before these three powers of the soul are converted. Harold states that “initial conversion is frequently experienced at first only affectively.” This affective experience can also be a valid moment. As defined by Harold, a valid moment is “an experience of some truth or value that is of sufficient power to penetrate the habitual and superficial layers of a person’s self-definition.” One example of a valid moment is an atheist being overwhelmed by the beauty of creation, maybe a breathtaking sunset, and in this moment of captivation by creation the atheist realizes that all of this exquisite creation could not exist without a creator. This realization, valid moment, motivates a conversion to begin. Motivation is “an invitation to our freedom.”

     As illustrated through this example, a valid moment also connects to knowledge insofar as it is a receptive experience. People need to be open and receptive to what is being reviled to them in the moment. If the atheist had been completely closed off from the world and not open to experiencing its beauty the valid moment would have never occurred. Harold confirms the necessity of receptivity when he says, “the valid moment cannot be caused by the will, it is consciously experienced by the person as a transcendent…” Dr. Ronda Chervin, a contemporary philosopher discussed by Harold also states that “the valid moment comes to us as a gift.” This receptivity is synonymous to the receptivity of knowledge, because in knowledge a person must receive through empirical and intellectual seeing before he can gain knowledge. Thus, the first step to conversion, the valid moment, requires a receptivity just as knowledge requires a receptivity.

     After a person experiences and accepts a valid moment he is intellectually converted but the intellect needs to see the further implications of this conversion. This conversion, as Harold states, can occur in two ways. The first is from one’s own experiences. One example that Harold gives of such a conversion is Socrates. He states that “one of Socrates greatest insights was that moral goods constitute the greatest good and moral evils constitute the greatest evil for the person.” Harold goes on to say that this idea was not present in Greek philosophy before Socrates, thus Socrates must have discovered this insight “through reflection on his lived experience.” After discovering this insight, which occurred through a valid moment because a human being cannot simply create an idea out of nothing, Socrates was convicted of this and turned himself toward this insight.

     A person can also have a conversion of the intellect through help from someone else. Harold discusses three ways in which a person can receive help from others in conversion. The first of these ways is through the religious beliefs of a prophet. One example of this is a belief of a Christian. Harold compares Socrates’ belief of “It is better for a man to suffer injustice than to commit it” to a Christian’s belief of “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he loses his soul?” In Socrates’ case this idea came from his own intellect. In contrast, the Christian’s belief was given to them by Christ, a prophet and teacher. If a person had come to conclude this idea without knowledge of Christ’s teaching that person would have experienced a conversion of the intellect due to his lived experiences not through the revelation of a prophet.

     The second way in which a conversion of the intellect can take place through the help of another is through a “philosophical ‘seeing’ with the help of some teacher.” This type of conversion is occurring in any well taught philosophy class. Socrates states that “the best kind of teacher is one who does not simply give students pre-digested answers, but helps the students come to see for themselves…” Thus, Harold explains, Socrates would “ask his interlocutor leading questions, bring up objections, [and] follow consequences…”

     A good teacher should do the same. If a teacher wants his students to understand knowledge he must bring up objections and make the students question material so they may come to the conclusion on their own. “Philosophical ‘seeing’ with the help of religious faith is the final way one can receive help from others in an intellectual conversion.” An example of this given by Harold is Christ’s teaching of the idea “what does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?” If someone does not understand this teaching it is probably due to some vice or love of material, but, Harold explains, if this person begins to experience a conversion, his character can be transformed and he will be able to understand the teaching of the prophet. Someone else’s insight and teaching can also lead a receptive person to a conversion.

     After the conversion of the intellect occurs the will must be converted. This conversion of the will leads back to the receptivity of knowledge. As previously discussed, a person cannot gain knowledge without first opening himself up to empirical and intellectual seeing. A receiving occurs through this seeing and a person’s response leads to knowledge. Similarly, Harold states that in order to have a conversion of the will the will must be directed to a transcendent object, referring to an object beyond oneself, of a moral or religious nature and in order to do this “I must first open myself up to the good before I can fully know it.” Thus the will must be open and receptive in order to be changed.

     For example, an unjust man would never act justly, unless his character was changed. A person’s character cannot be changed without him willing it to change, but also a person must be given a reason to change. This type of character change will only occur if the person is open to, receptive of, outside situations changing him. Once a person sees the fault in his ways, through a valid moment, he must will the change to occur within himself, the conversion. If someone desires to be morally good but still commits immoral acts due to his weak character he is falling into what Harold refers to as “double-mindedness,” which is desiring “to be morally good, while allowing him the liberty to commit those immoral acts corresponding to the weakness of his character.” If this occurs there is no conversion because the persons is not willing a turning of character.

     To experience a conversion to its fullest, after experiencing a conversion of the intellect and the will, a person must convert his heart. This conversion of the heart is not the same as a valid moment. A valid moment is an arousal of the heart that requires a response in order to move further than just simply a fleeting moment. A conversion of the heart occurs when a person responds to the valid moment and the heart becomes settled. This conversion of the heart is necessary because it is possible for a person to experience a valid moment, allow this moment to pierce the intellect, and even will that a conversion occur, but if a person is not convicted in the heart these previous conversions may fail.

     The similarity between knowledge and conversion can be seen in the characteristics necessary for each process. Without receptivity neither that gaining of knowledge nor a complete conversion can occur. Even if receptivity is present people must also accept and actualize what they received and allow it to change their heart. Only after a person completes the necessary process with the necessary characteristics present can a complete conversion or a full gaining of knowledge occur.

By Sarah Agnes