Examiner: The Continnum
To me the secret of a full thought life that is open to new information is this: a fundamental shift in expectations. Away from expecting certainty and proof, towards accepting contingent probabilities. Rather than pretending that my worldview is a bastion of perfect reasoning based on perfect Truth I see it as a work in progress. Every belief I have is contingent because the evidences or premises for them could be faulty. So how does one construct a logical worldview if every idea is suspect? Simple: you organize ideas based on HOW likely they appear to be. My basic, foundational presuppositions are the things that I think have the most evidence or explanatory power. Presuppositions like: I exist, other humans exist, there is a physical world we inhabit together, our senses give us relatively accurate data. (Compared to political, aesthetic or theological specificities.)
Another large contingent belief that most of my worldview is based upon is the idea that a personal God exists. I’m not going to defend that belief in this article, I’m just saying it is one of those very basic premises that shapes and directs thoughts, attitudes, and worldview. While I can’t be as sure about God as I can be about my own existence, its ramifications are so extreme that it really has to be near the bottom of the foundation of any worldview because so many other ideas about life are dependent on how it’s answered.
But just because a presupposition like God’s existence or the reality of my body is foundational to one’s worldview, that does not mean it is unquestionable or that it must be True. It simply means that one is convinced that it is True. I want to discuss how a person can accept the fact that they can’t Know any of their foundational philosophical principals without devolving into apathetic nihilism.
Let me first clear up a technical issue. If there is universal Truth, (Which I believe there is.) a person CAN know things. But a person can’t KNOW that they know things. What this means is that if your belief lines up with Truth, than you can be said to know it. Like correctly guessing the number of jelly-beans in a jar. The problem is that any confirmation you may have that any belief is True comes from potentially faulty sources such as your senses, mind, reasoning, peer group and such. Imagine the judges of the jelly-bean counting contest are a mule, a toddler and an octogenarian with Alzheimer’s. You simply can't trust the reliability of the judges we've been given. Even if God speaks directly to you, your “knowledge” that He did so would be predicated on the accuracy of your sensory input and trust in your interpretive abilities. Here’s another example. Say you have studied for a test and have the answers down perfectly. On the way to the classroom a schoolmate calls into question your answers. Suddenly you have doubt about your knowledge. You go in, take the test and fill out every question correctly, but you don’t KNOW they are correct. In that case you can know the answers without knowing that you know. This is why I capitalize the word Know and Knowledge within the context of our ability to Know that we have Truth. I capitalize Truth to designate it as universal Truth - what actually is - as separate from our existential perceptions or group consensus.)
So while I believe there are people who are right about certain Truths, and people who are wrong about certain beliefs, I can’t pretend that there are any Truths that I can cling to as immutable and unquestionable, due to my human imperfections. Like everybody, I really think MY belief is the closest to reality, otherwise I would believe something else. But I have to be sober and recognize that I’m hardly the best judge of reality. Like everyone else I have biases and desires for some things to be true and others false; and those cloud my judgment. So in that sense, everything is up in the air. But here is what I do to ameliorate that uncomfortable dilemma. I change my perception of reality from the falsely-simple on/off, binary view to the more accurate view that a continuum gives us.
In a binary mode you have stuff you “know” is true, stuff you “know” is false, and everything else is somewhere in the unknown. In the continuum, True and False are not on the chart. There is only more compelling, believed, or convincing, and less. The concept is simple but applying it consistently is difficult. The first problem people find when considering this shift in thinking is that if everything is up in the air then everything is equally up there, or equally dubious. “You mean I can’t trust my own existence more than God’s existence?” This is due to a binary thought mode. But if you allow for the subtlety and nuance of a continuum, then you can see that many things are more certain than others. There is stuff that I consider 99.999% certain. And those are the things one would want to use to start to build a cogent philosophical base with. I listed some examples already such as our existence and the existence of a physical world. It would be silly to hold those concepts as being equally uncertain as this or that religious prophet’s words or the accuracy of the historical accounts of Plato.
Obviously, stuff that we have firsthand experience with will be more certain to us than stuff we’ve heard or read from others. But when we say we are certain of a thing (with the implication that we are 100% certain) we have slipped back into the binary mode of interpreting reality. What I try to do is use the concept of functional certainty or knowledge. (Here is a short explanation of the concept as it relates to science by Sam Harris.) That is: when a piece of information has never failed us it can be said to be functionally certain. I “know” that I have a right hand. Relying on that information has never let me down. Every time I need to use my right hand I do. So that is one of those bits of data that I don’t spend a lot of time analyzing. But it’s still possible that “I” don’t exist, that the world is an illusion, or that I’m a brain in a jar dreaming this life.
Here’s an example of something that is somewhere in the middle of my continuum of belief. I’m a pretty agile guy despite my ‘huskiness’. I’ve always been able to take a fall pretty well. I actually enjoy tumbling down stairs for the rush, humor and shock value. And I’ve never hurt myself doing it. Here’s some video proof if you’re skeptical.
But I haven’t done this in several years. I’m pretty sure I’d be fine if I tried it again. But then, maybe something has changed in my body or brain that affects my agility. Maybe if I jumped down a flight of stairs one more time I’d break my neck and die. So I’m less certain of my safety doing this activity than I am sure that my right hand exists.
As you travel further down the continuum of belief you will find yourself in the realm of possibilities, conjecture, and speculation. My main point is that while few people acknowledge it, this limbo of certainty is where most of our thought life occurs. We don’t spend much, if any time pondering the existence of our body, our ability to speak or the existence of our family members. The more we believe a thing the less time we think about it. To us the matter is settled. Then there’s the stuff that is just outlandish to us. Like: maybe you are a direct descendant of Julius Caesar. Or perhaps there is an underground race of crab people secretly manipulating the media. Maybe our universe is floating along on a speck of dust in a giant’s vacuum cleaner. It’s not that these things are impossible. They are simply so unlikely that we don’t spend our precious thought time on them.
So each end of the continuum is rarely used. Instead we spend our thought life playing in the interesting in-between. Some of us like to contemplate alien sightings, cryptozoology, and out of body experiences. Some of us like to contemplate the future, technological innovations, and political changes. Some of us like to contemplate relational stuff like he-said-she-said, does-she-like-me, and how-can-I-piss-off-my-parents. Some of us like to contemplate God or gods and what they could be like and how that would impact our lives. All this stuff is dealing with possibilities, conjecture and speculation. None of it can be as certain as things like the existence of my right hand. And that is exactly why they command our attention. Uncertainty is the spice of life. It’s what gives our interests and our passion the dirt they need to grow in.
At this point I need to clarify. Many of these interesting unknowns do have ultimate binary True/False states. For example: There either is or is not a creator God. We will or will not end our species in a nuclear holocaust. A meteor will or will not destroy our planet. Those are binary. But due to the symbolic nature of our language and concepts, most of these in-between ideas can’t simply be True or False. For instance: Is there sentient life on other planets? Maybe there is life that displays some traits that we consider sentience, but lacks others. What then? Is there a binary True/False we can apply to the question? Or in the area of relationships: Does my cat love me? It all depends on how you define love. How it manifests in pet/human relations, the mood of the cat, etc. So is there a True/False answer to this question? Not really. There are only over-simplified answers that can make us content, but don’t actually speak to the true complexity of reality.
What I’m trying to point out here is that the continuum of belief is a continuum of belief, not reality or Truthiness. It is a way of interpreting our interpretation of ideas. And I think it accommodates the data better than a binary system that chops the continuum into three segments. Everything on this side is True, and everything on that side is False, and everything in the middle is unknown. No. That can’t be true of beings that lack perfect knowledge and perfection of senses for every facet of reality. For us humans, EVERYTHING is unknown. Some of it is has more evidence, and thus is more likely to be True, and some of it less. When people disagree on a fundamental level it is usually because they have categorized one or more ideas as True-beyond-the-shadow-of-a-doubt.
If you are a Christian the thought that there might not be a God is so ridiculous that you probably don’t spend a lot of time contemplating it. If you are liberal democrat you probably don’t spend a ton of time poring over the words of right wing radio hosts and looking into their assertions. Every human dismisses a host of ideas out-of-hand because it is simply impossible to thoroughly examine every issue that has relevance in our lives. So we develop heuristics for parsing through all the data we are constantly bombarded with. I think it’s obvious that we build these rules based on our desires and proclivities. And it is a constant emotional and intellectual battle to overcome that process that wants to simply dump the stuff we don’t like and soak in the stuff that we do.
The first step in that battle is to recognize the continuum. Admit that your most deeply held convictions could be wrong because we are all flawed. Seek out the best arguments against your darlings. This can only happen if you desire Truth above comfort. I admit that in this view of reality one can never Know it once they have discovered Truth. But one can be convinced; and keeping those two ideas separate is a constant reminder how much we need to be open to the wisdom that others might have.