Examiner: Out on a limb

I was mining an old blog for this, but added enough content to consider it worth posting.


No one knows anything. At least that’s my belief. (It obviously can’t be known.) I’ve been building a case that we human types can’t attain absolute certainty in anything. This is a form of skepticism that has always been with us. My basic assertion is that I believe in ultimate Truth, but doubt our ability to apprehend and interpret it perfectly. That is: there are facts out there, and we intuitively feel that we know them… Stuff like the weather, the color of things, how old we are, etc. When I say that I doubt our ability to apprehend these sorts of things I’m not saying that I think all our assumptions are untrue, or that the chances are high that we are wrong. No. I think that when it looks and feels like it’s raining, it really is raining. I’m only leaving the door open for the possibility that we are all wrong. But just because the chances are low that we are wrong does not mean we should shut that door and pretend that our senses are absolute and unquestionable.

But why? What does it buy us to keep that skeptical door open? Doesn’t that just make everything overly complicated? We certainly don’t come in soaking wet from a rainstorm and announce that there is a high probability that it’s raining. Instead, we just say it’s raining. There are philosophical schools that contrive their language to account for possibilities of inaccurate perception such as Jainism. But our culture is not accommodating to the subtleties it advocates. Since I believe that I could be wrong about anything, yet need to live a normal life and communicate well, I simply live in two different intellectual realms. The immediate, obvious, perceived world of the senses is the world most people agree on. We all live and work here. And we usually don’t argue about the existence of the observable physical matter around us. Liberals, conservative, atheists and Christians all agree that standing in the rain will make us wet.

The other world I live in is the world of uncertainties, probabilities, and nuances that would sink a brain attempting to account for them all. I want to be clear that I’m not attacking the world of the senses or saying that the more ultimate world of probabilities is where we all ought to hang out. And I’m not advocating a type of Buddhist maya illusion world. But I am saying that we shouldn’t pretend that the sensory world is the only world worth living in and thinking about.

It may be convenient to assume that our senses are perfect receptors for information, but it’s simply not rationally tenable to do so. Here is a brief summery of the problem from Wikipedia’s Philosophical Skepticism page:

“the perceptions of each individual sense seemingly have nothing in common with the other senses: i.e., the color "red" has little to do with the feeling of touching a red object. This is manifest when our senses "disagree" with each other: for example, a mirage presents certain visible features, but is not responsive to any other kind of sense. In that case, our other senses defeat the impressions of sight. But we may also be lacking enough powers of sense to understand the world in its entirety: if we had an extra sense, then we might know of things in a way that the present five senses are unable to advise us of. Given that our senses can be shown to be unreliable by appealing to other senses, and so our senses may be incomplete (relative to some more perfect sense that we lack), then it follows that all of our senses may be unreliable. (Empiricus:58)” (emphasis mine)

Again, I’m not fighting common sense and saying we have to question all sensory input equally. Obviously, in order to function in day-to-day living we simply rely on our senses and that process usually works out just fine. But sometimes it doesn’t. And that fact is what requires us to use a more nuanced system than “common sense” for comprehending the reality we inhabit. In the case of trusting our senses I believe “common sense” means “let’s do what’s simple and easy to understand and works most of the time.”

This illustration may help explain the system I’m using.

Here is a picture of two trees that represent the ways we justify our beliefs.

When someone asks us why we believe X to be true, we will justify that belief by placing weight one or both of these branches to a mixed degree. The idea is that there are truth-claim categories such as Physical, Psychological, Religious, etc. and all of them can be placed on a continuum of consensus. By consensus I mean the broad agreement of all people in all time. For example, I think approximately 99.999% of people throughout history have agreed that humans exist in a physical world. Whereas about .00001% of people who have ever lived agree that Joseph Smith was a prophet that God spoke perfect revelation to. I'm choosing to keep my definition of Consensus as broad as possible to try to avoid the particularities of our time and place.

I chose Consensus as one of two gauges that we use for justifying our beliefs. The other is Trust. What that Trust is placed in, is of course highly variable. And I've argued before that previous to trust in any sort of authority comes trust in yourself to choose that authority. But none of that is relevant to this discussion. The point is that the further you travel out onto the limb of Consensus, the flimsier it becomes (as fewer and fewer people agree with you.) and the more weight you must place on the limb of Trust. It could be trust in a religious worldview, a humanist ideology, a motivational guru, the network news, your own intelligence, or whatever.

When you and I are trying to justify a particular belief, we will use one of these two limbs to base the argument on. "Look, everyone knows that you can't breathe underwater!" (Consensus) Or, "I've seen some powerful evidence that planets expand over time." (Trust that Neal Adams is correct.) "I don't think anyone can move objects with their mind." (Consensus) Or, "Jesus is God." (Trust in a theological tradition and specific interpretive historical analysis.) These examples are near the 1s and the 10s of the scale on my chart. Very much one or the other. Consensus OR Trust. But most truth-claims lie in-between, relying on Consensus AND Trust. I'll show this with the examples listed on the illustration.

1. I exist. Most people in most cultures in most times accept this idea without hesitation or thought. Descartes famously declared proof for this statement in his pithy, "I think, therefore I am." Hardcore Buddhism denies that individual selves exist, but I think that very few Buddhists actually live according to that precept. While there is almost universal consensus on the issue, I still think there is the slightest possibility that "I" could be wrong about it. So I think it requires an ever-so-slight amount of Trust to accept it. As you can see on the diagram, "I exist" sits on the thickest part of the Consensus limb and the thinnest part of the Trust limb because most people agree with me.

2. There is a physical universe. Again, while denied by some religious and philosophical traditions, the vast majority of people agree with this. It takes very little Trust in anything but your senses that a physical world exists. Very few of us walk off cliffs or jump into fires because we 'know' they exist and would affect us in a negative way.

3. Our senses give us accurate information. Now, emerging research over the past hundred years or so has been eroding this foundational precept. Such as Gestalt psychology and various quantum physics theories. BUT, and this is a big but: in our day-to-day lives, we all operate under the assumption that everyone sees the same red stoplight that we do, (But there are exceptions.) and if we smell smoke, there is probably a fire. (But there are exceptions.) So while we need to have some trust that our senses are accurately reflecting our world, the experience of living with other beings that confirm our senses can lull us into a false sense of security. So we tend to rely on them even in cases where they should be doubted. (Optical illusions, mirages, hallucinations, and a variety of Gestalt principals that can lead to bigoted attitudes.)

4. Moral claims. This is where things start to get really nuanced. Because there are many, many moral claims that have a very broad consensus, such as 'Don't kill.', 'Don't steal.', etc. But this should not fool us into assuming that ALL moral claims are universally accepted. Being in a time and a place where women have rights, and slavery is considered evil, should illustrate this well. We modern First World inhabitants are in the minority on these issues. If a time-traveler from 500 A.D. visited us, they would be shocked by our crazy moralistic attitudes on these things. And we would demand that they follow our moral code. Many modern Muslims find our entire societal structure to be highly immoral. Our economic style, governmental structure, dietary customs, etc. This is why I put this category near the middle. Some moral claims are nearly universal, but many are very culturally specific.

5. Aesthetic claims. Honestly, I don't know if this should be before or after moral claims on the Consensus limb. There are definitely some very observable, repeatable human reactions to specific aesthetic stimuli. The Golden Ratio shows that appreciation for specific proportions are nearly universal. But culture plays such a HUGE part in determining an individual's aesthetic sensibilities. Most people in my generation and country can't stand opera. But that is an artform that countless generations in many nations developed to an extremely high degree. So much work and cultural capitol went into cultivating opera that it's a real shame so many modern people actually find it horrible. And I'm sure most opera aficionados would recoil even more so at listening to my favorite music. So making a claim such as, "Opera is the most beautiful form of expression!" has to rely on Trust (in the superiority of your –and your culture's- aesthetic sense) more than on Consensus. I think the current modern art culture actually operates on the assumption that broad public Consensus is bad, and Trust in the taste of their subculture is the primary measure of justification.

6. Political claims. How people ought to organize ourselves and build our culture is a question with as many answers as there are people. Every nuance has some reason in the individual's mind. Because every political premise is based on multiple assertions that can be answered multiple ways. Are all humans equal? In what way? Does equality mean they should have equal rights? Should the smartest be the leaders? Or the most popular? How should religion and government interact? What should the state do, and what is the citizen's responsibility? And there are a million more questions, and all have a million possible answers. So when someone says "The Democrats have it all wrong and the Republicans have it all right.", or "Communism is the only fair system!" You know there is a lack of thought going on. The reason that I didn't put political claims further out on the limb of Consensus is because we have a long, detailed history of how citizens have fared under different government types. So there is some hard data that can be pointed to and used as an example of what has worked and what has failed. The problem being that there are a trillion factors at work in any society, and the government is only part of those factors. So just because Communism has lead to drastic failures and human rights violations in every place it's been tried, some other factors were surly involved, so you can't completely blame the states.

7. Religious claims. There are about 10 major religions currently in existence, and many thousands of minor ones. Take history into account and the number is much higher. How can anyone claim universal Consensus on a religious claim? Clearly, Trust is the major source of justification for all religious claims. "I know Jesus is God because He said so and I believe it!" or “God is dead.”

8. Personal revelation (or Reason). Every prophet and most leaders have to justify their claims based on their own private interpretation of something. Whether it's a voice in their head, a hunch, or a reading of the stock market, Trusting their ability to interpret something is key. Only time can tell whether a personal revelation is accurate or not. And one's track record is used to add further credence, or Trust, to their claim. Please don’t let the religious connotations of the word revelation distract you. Whether we are talking about a mystic or a politician: both are using their reasoning to interpret input and then output something else.

The main thing I want to point out is that words get more nebulous the further you go out on the Consensus limb. They become vaguer and more open to interpretation. When we talk about morality or politics, and say "the greatest good for the greatest number" one has to ask how 'good' is defined. When one is in the field of art criticism, and reads descriptive words like 'transcendent' or 'mundane', these can be interpreted many different ways to mean many different specific things. Most people 'get' what is being said in a general sense, but that does not mean the words couldn't carry different connotations or nuance than what was read into them.

Then, further out there we have a religious claim, which is pretty much a giant ball of nebulous words. "There is no god but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet." Can mean about one million things depending on how you interpret each of those words. What is a god? What is Allah? Who was Mohammad? What is a prophet? How are we to respond to a prophet's message? Is this claim backed up by anything further down the branch of Consensus such as historic evidence?
How about "All is One."? All what? Matter, space, time, something beyond these things? One what? Is 'all' a bunch of parts of One? And on it can go.

It’s this… messiness, I think, that causes materialists to throw the baby out with the bathwater. They just get uncomfortable going very far out on the Consensus limb. And the error they make is to pretend that stuff like sensory perception and morality is much closer to the base of the Consensus limb than it really is. Many religious people also find this arrangement frighteningly messy. Their solution is to wall themselves off from the wider world of consensus, and live inside a little cultural ghetto of like-minded believers. Inside that microcosm they can claim their religious doctrine is further up the Consensus limb. They can say everyone (who counts... by being in my subculture) agrees that one must be baptized by full immersion in water or go to hell. But that’s only because they have radically distorted the pool by selective consensus. The classic big-fish-in-a-small-pond syndrome. I’ve noticed that a lot of atheists do this as well. They set their boundaries determining who is intelligent, mature, etc.: (people who don’t believe in God) then say that everyone who is intelligent, mature, etc. is an atheist.

So while it’s nice to have a place we can all come together and agree about most things, there is a much larger dimension of human existence that most of us care about a whole lot more. It’s the world of ideas, passions, relationships and such. Those are the things that give meaning to the physical stuff that we experience. Because this realm is so important to us we spend a lot of mental energy contemplating such things. Art, politics, and religion have very little consensus, but no one can argue that they are immaterial to our daily lives. Imagine a world without these things and one is left with humans as mere animals. Technology disappears, society disintegrates, and everyone but the very powerful has a pretty awful life. This is why I think it is so vital to understand that Trust is an acceptable form Justification for belief and action. And it is not only acceptable, but mandatory. (Unless you want to go back to living in caves.) The materialists are right about the arrogance of using Trust in a religious system to manipulate or justify evil. But to then say that everything far out on the Consensus limb is bad is simply untenable. Notice the furthest thing out on that limb? Personal Revelation (or Reason). We have no problem bashing the concept when we are talking about at cult leader or a dictator. But to be fair, we have to realize that our entire world-view is directed by our own personal revelation, or reason, or logic. Our desires become our own little dictator.

How I hope this limb analogy will affect you

To the religious: Please recognize that your religious subculture can make you feel like your claims are more ‘obvious’ than they really are. Just look at all the other people in different religions saying the same thing as you with different words. You need to understand that no matter how big and well established your religion is you are still in a minority when it comes to universal Consensus. While this definitely doesn’t automatically make you wrong, it should give you some humility in asserting your rightness. The religious fundamentalists in my analogy are monkeys bouncing around on the Trust limb without a care in the world, thinking all the other monkeys are morons for not piling on the branch with them. Building tree houses that their branches can’t possibly support.

To the materialist: Your reliance on Consensus is false. The universal consensus is that there is far more to the world than the physical. And your ultimate Trust in your own interpretive faculties is predicated on a position that is illogical. (The complete reliance on senses that are verifiably inaccurate, and a mind that is imperfect.) The idea that only the physical exists depends on a process of personal reason that is contradicted by the vast majority of humanity. Your idea that you and your fellow materialists are the smart ones is arrogant in the extreme. If you recognize that most of the things you really value in life are not material, and are out there on the limb of Consensus you could join the rest of the world in the creaking, swaying reality of life in all its uncertainties. In fact, you are out here, you just don’t have any justification for it if you follow the premises of your philosophy. I see the materialist as the most careful monkey in these trees of Justification. Clinging to the trunk of the Consensus tree while desperately stretching their hand out to grab the fruit of art, politics, love, and such without venturing out there. Then they cry sour grapes about the fruit they can’t touch.

To everyone: Yes, someone is right and someone is wrong about the existence of a God or gods. Both sides think it’s painfully obvious that it’s one or the other. Both sides have plenty of very intelligent, moral, good looking people. So clearly, it’s not as obvious as you think it is. We all live in a mixture of two worlds. The obvious, clear, consensus-filled world of the senses, and the nuanced, tangled, thorny world of beliefs, art, love, religion, philosophy, politics and passions. And we should all remember that our internal organizing mechanism for sorting all this mess out (our mind and its reason.) is the furthest thing out on the limb of Consensus.


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