If you are like me, you like to question things and really find reason, deeper meaning or truth in our world.
The ability to question information or opinions that are presented to us is undoubtedly an important part of operating in today’s world. Every day we are presented with an overload of information and we need some way to filter the “correct” information from the incorrect. In this light, everyone is a questioner or even a skeptic to some extent. Nobody blindly accepts everything they hear in person, social media, or even in passing without holding it up to some intellectual scrutiny.
However, there are levels as to how far people are willing to question. The vast majority of people are only willing to question things that are within their well-protected worldview. A fundamentalist religious person questioning the purpose or meaning of a specific ritual is most likely looking for an answer that conforms to their theological view. In other words, this person probably wants an answer along the lines of: “God commanded this ritual for X reason”, rather than: “this ritual was borne out of an ancient belief, social purpose, or political reason X.” Even if the second answer is much more reasonable and rational than the first answer, most people asking this question are even unwilling to entertain notions that contradict their beliefs.
But what happens when a person is willing to put everything on the line and climb down the rabbit hole of true epistemology? What if you are really willing to question everything in your life in search for the Truth and answers for life’s most difficult questions?
This is a topic that I have devoted much thought to over the past few years and therefore, before I begin, some preliminary thoughts are in order. To start off I think that this topic really deserves two (or even more) posts, as I feel that there are really two different ways that this topic needs to be approached, namely: intellectually and emotionally. Now it is obvious that these two sides often bounce off of each other and a full separation of these terms is not only unnecessary, but also wrong. However, for the purpose of clarity, I will be writing this post from a primarily intellectual point of view, and leave the emotional side for my next post.
When one begins to question everything around them, what may start off as an interesting intellectual endeavor or even a search for a greater understanding of the universe, can very quickly turn into a slippery slope. One unanswerable question leads to another, and eventually the power of the unanswerable questions add up, eventually culminating in the uprooting of any foundational belief. Now, while this phenomenon is certainly not limited to religion, religion is probably the clearest example. Seemingly benign questions can quickly uproot even the strongest of religious conviction, when one (especially those raised in a fundamentalist environment) realizes that he is on extremely shaky epistemological footing.
If you feel that I am being vague with my description, you are correct. I thought about giving more concrete examples but I felt that it would be unnecessary. Those of you that have been through some example of a crisis of faith will fully understand what I am trying to say and that is enough. This article in not about focusing on the negative, but rather it is about how we reclaim our intellectual selves from the existential despair that accompanies a crisis of faith.
What is one to do when they realize that the Truth is unattainable and elusive? That the true meaning of life is one that cannot be learned through any book or person?
What I want to argue is that every person in this situation must draw for themselves an Epistemological line as soon as possible. As will be explained below, you must create premises for yourself that are not based on pure logic and ration, but are actually accepted on (for lack of a better term) faith. Drawing an epistemological line is extremely important in the construction of any reasonable worldview, and there is no one right answer, however – as we will see below – there may be wrong ones.
When one begins to probe into the mystery of the universe they soon realize that at the base of any comprehensive doctrine, or complete worldview, there is a Kierkegaardian leap of faith holding it up. Any group, individual, or even philosopher creates premises for themselves and only once they have set their premise in place can they actually use logic and ration to build up a system of thought. This is true of every religion, governmental system, or any other group that is advocating for virtually anything in the world. In order for a person to intellectually move on from a crisis of faith or existential crisis, they too are going to have to create their own premises that are the basis for their worldview.
If we take America as an example (only because I recently re-listened to the Hamilton soundtrack), we, at least in 2017, believe that all are created equal and therefore deserve equal protection under our legal system. This is an immutable premise accepted by our democratic system but it is not based on any sort of pure logic or ration. If one wants to bring a fellow American to court, they need to implicitly accept this idea. It would do very little to call this premise into question and advocate that a person X or Y was actually not created equal so they do not deserve equal legal treatment. This belief, along with others, that America has adopted enables America to function without constant chaos and crisis. In other words, in order to function – America has drawn an Epistemological Line at “people being created equal” and refuses to question or reconsider this premise.
It is extremely important to understand the nuance that this discussion demands. I am not entering into a post-modernist or cultural relativist mode of thinking. I am not arguing that since all worldviews need “faith” at its foundation that they are all equal. There are two strong arguments or differences between what I am describing and a pure post-modernist philosophy.
To start I do think that some worldviews are more rational and reasonable than others. In other words, there is a difference between having “belief” at the base of your philosophy and being purely dogmatic or just simply unreasonable. To have, what I would deem a reasonable belief, you cannot be directly contradicting obvious facts that the truth of which can be figured out by pure empiricism. While one can attempt to argue against the acceptance of empirical evidence as an epistemologically sound way of thinking, it seems that if a person enters into this mindset and truly believes it, they would go insane. Everyone in the world accepts empirical evidence, whether knowingly or not, and it has an effect on the decisions they make and their reactions to the world.
Once it is established that we are willing to accept that empirical evidence is a (not The) way to gain information about the world, then it is clear that some worldviews make more sense than others. To give a ridiculous example, one can imagine reincarnating an entire medieval village (or even talking to some religious fundamentalists) and listen to their leaders talk about how they all believe that illness and disease are caused by evil spirits and the only way to cure someone is by appealing to magic or God. This would undoubtedly be an extremely less rational and reasonable way of thinking than our western medicine. The reason why this worldview would be less reasonable, is that it directly contradicts empirical facts. Now this same critique can be applied to most cases of religious fundamentalism, where their dogma directly contradicts empirical facts that are usually just ignored or explained away in a humorous fashion. This list can include issues like the age of the universe, evolution, the acceptance of archaeology and history, etc. It is simply not reasonable for people to draw their epistemological line at a claim such as: Book X is from God and therefore every world in it is absolutely true without question.
Along with an acceptance of empirical evidence, in order to adopt reasonable premises, they must loosely conform to Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor is basically a logical rule that says the simplest explanation, or the one that requires the least assumptions, is generally the correct one. One could theoretically conceive of a person who believes that gravity doesn’t actually exist, not in the Einsteinian sense, but rather in the sense that there are invisible beings that always try and push objects of mass towards each other. While this premise does not disagree with empirical evidence (it may actually be born out of empirical observation), it absolutely fails the test of Occam’s Razor. However, I said that a view must loosely conform to Occam’s Razor because I do not think that it is the be all end all to all of logical philosophy. As vague as this sounds, I think that as long as a worldview does not break Occam’s Razor by a longshot, it still has the potential to be a good one.
The next important point that is crucial to understand about drawing our epistemological line, and support for the fact that not all lines are equally reasonable, is the effect that our premises may have on ourselves and society. If I adopt the worldview that I am actually the only being in the universe with consciousness and that everyone else is a zombie – it may not contradict any empirical evidence or Occam’s Razor – but it also will not allow me to be able to function in the world or society as a reasonable person. I will never be able to fully form interpersonal relationships, get married and really care for a spouse, or even truly love another human being. Therefore, the line that you must draw should, at least somewhat, conform to a pragmatistic way of thinking. If beyond your line you adopt the premise that human life is sacred and you should value it, you are going to be in much better pragmatistic standing than if you adopt the premise that all human life is evil and must be destroyed – even if from a logical standpoint these beliefs are equal.
Personally, I have drawn my epistemological line at the fact that God exists, morality is real, and therefore we have an obligation to help others. I do not believe these things for purely rational or logical reasons, and fully accept that I am accepting these premises off of faith. From these premises I then try and build up a reasonable and logically consistent way of thinking about the world. I feel that this is a reasonable line to draw for a few reasons. There is no direct empirical evidence to the contrary. One can argue that empirical evidence has contradicted certain claims about God, but I do not claim to know anything about God – I simply accept God’s existence. Furthermore, these beliefs allow me to both function and improve society in a way that I would be unable to do so if I demanded that all of my beliefs be based on purely empirical thinking. I do not, however, view people that have drawn different lines as stupid or immoral in any way. As long as the line that someone has drawn passes both the empirical and pragmatic criteria that I have explained above, I think that their worldview is just as “good” as my own. Thus, someone can deny God or deny that there is some objective reality to Morality, and as long as those beliefs to do not cause them to actively harm others (which breaks the pragmatic rule) then again these worldviews are just as “good”.
In conclusion, the need to adopt premises and draw an epistemological line based off of faith is not a sign of intellectual or emotional weakness, it is rather a necessity in our enigmatic world. If I spend every day trying to rationally prove certain things, like the fact that life is valuable, I am certain that I would go crazy. Of course, every once in a while it is important to peek over your line and make sure that your premises still make sense according to the two different rules that I have delineated above – however this need not be on too frequent of a basis. Drawing an epistemological line is the closest thing to a rational way to thinking about the world, even when pure ration is an elusive goal.
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