To know is often metaphorically described as “seeing,” as in “I see the truth” or “I see what you mean.” Sight is felt in experience as an immediate act, a feeling that is undiminished regardless of an increased understanding of how optics work and how the brain filters and fills in information. To speak of engaging with sight is an odd phrase precisely because sight is as indelible to our usual experience as breathing and the maintenance of a heart beat. We do not consciously choose to see, we simply do it. The same goes for beliefs. Attempt for a day to act without any beliefs, for that matter even a mere minute, and the sheer overwhelming demand of projecting our understanding upon the world as beliefs will become glaringly obvious. To know or believe is basic to human experience, an inevitable compulsion resulting in what is commonly referred to as a worldview.
Weeks ago I came across an article titled “5 Ways to Be a Better Atheist.” Honestly, I no longer refer to myself as an atheist, not having suddenly reconverted to a theistic paradigm but because I think the term is without any intrinsic meaning, much in the same way that I think the term “god” is lacking in intrinsic meaning. Still, as the article was written by a Christian believer, I was intrigued as to whether the same tired arguments and bad stereotypes would be trotted out. I was immediately struck by the author’s distinction between “evidence” and whether such “warrants” a particular conclusion. The difference is commonly missed by the layman or internet philosopher.
Evidence Does Not Lead to Conclusions, A Worldview Does
The reason for this misstep or conflation between particular points of evidence and a conclusion is not merely due to philosophical ignorance, but a, likely non-deliberate, strategy. If a particular set of data can be inevitably bound to a particular conclusion then the strength of that conclusion increases in perceived legitimacy, making, as it does, any questions about the evidence and how such a conclusion was reached null and void. Essentially this is the root of fundamentalism, whether it manifests in religious, political or social ideological systems.
Unfortunately for those who would like their conclusions to be the one and only for all eternity, evidence doesn’t demand a particular ideology to accompany it, though quite obviously it usually does. Further, facts do not necessitate particular conclusions, though obviously people who hold to them will declare that they do. What all too often happens, and what the author of the article laments, is the existence of a caricature of theists being insane, mentally disturbed, anti-rational, anti-science, people who utterly lack any evidence and believe anyway. This depiction is great as a dehumanizing tactic, but dismisses the very real difference between evidence/facts and conclusions and utterly lacks any nuance concerning the means by which people determine what is and is not knowledge or beliefs.
There is evidence for the resurrection of the Christian Christ, but as even the author of the original article contends this doesn’t mean that such evidence warrants a particular conclusion. Historical documentation, supposed eye-witness accounts, personal experiences, etc. all are evidence. Is there other evidence to consider? Absolutely. Is there multiple means of coalescing the data into different conclusions based on different analysis? Very much! But that doesn’t mean the theist is an idiot or against rationality. At one time in our lives we’ve all believed something that wasn’t true, only to find out that the evidence we thought led to a particular conclusion did not in fact do so. History is replete with examples of learned people, even scientifically literate people, who came to what eventually was deemed a false conclusion. The evidence didn’t go away, it just got re-analyzed, expanded upon and a new ideological structure was provided to make a new picture out of them.
Just what is knowing all about?
Knowing or believing is an extension of our automatic interaction with life. The means by which someone personally justifies their beliefs is as much about providing a secure foundation for their worldview as it is about getting to “Truth.” A person’s central desire is a world and their place in it that makes sense to them, where desires and demands can be met. This worldview is put into practice by each person’s identity, a self capable of moving forward in life and meeting the ebb and flow of living. Knowledge and beliefs are bound to this frame, they are the substance of the worldview that the person is using.
We cannot help but hold beliefs, many of them constrained by our socio-cultural upbringing. Let’s face it, none of us started with a blank slate and consciously worked through each and every belief we hold. The point of contention comes up when a person needs to personally justify themselves in the face of inquiry. For the sake of brevity we can isolate paths of knowledge to three: faith, authority and rationality. These epistemic systems are the quick and dirty answer to “how do you know?”
The worldview of an identity determines which method of personal justification is going to be useful. There is no singular choice here, no overarching method to put in place. Take the path of authority. Everyone uses it to varying degrees. Existence and all the subjects of study involved are simply too big for any single person to study, choosing an authority to trust is not only inevitable it’s logical. Does this mean that the authority is “Truth”? Clearly not, but then that’s not the end goal for anyone all the time and often not even any of the time. What is at issue here is how the authority is chosen, which brings us back to worldview and a person’s identity. The selection of an authority figure is an extension of the person, it’s why when such a figure is attacked, figuratively or otherwise, it is felt as a personal affront. In all the ways that count, it most certainly is personal, their worldview and sense of self has been harmed.
So then what about faith and rationality? As a general term this whole process of utilizing a path of knowledge to establish the substance of a worldview and therefore of one’s identity, can be referred to as “reasoning.” As “reasoning” is an inevitable enterprise of the human person, calling it a moral good seems about as absurd as calling perspiration a moral good. Unfortunately, in the modern social debate between secularists and religious believers, “reason” has been marginalized as belonging to a particular group, setting up the tactic of declaring anybody who disagrees as being contrary to or opposed to “reason.” The result is a particularly absurd gang-like verbal warfare between self-proclaimed “rationalists” and what are derogatorily referred to as “faith-ists.”
No person always uses only one path for personal justification. The most informed of us will always be ignorant of something and when faced with that absence of knowledge, will rely on the authority of someone else. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this as a general rule, it saves time and quite often holds no negative consequences. Further, authority is not the flip-side of faith anymore than it is of rationality. The same goes for faith and rationality, they are not the opposites to authority or to each other. They are all paths for personal justification. They are all tied to the demands and desires of an identity struggling within a worldview.
There is a difference between the path of faith and that of rationality and authority. The difference is found in the purity with which it is felt to be tied to one’s identity. Authority and rationality have a public or external component, they rely on more than the internal desire of the person, the felt demand to hold one’s beliefs as accurate. What faith is, is justification via personal identity, it is the felt sense that one simply knows because to deny it would be to deny one’s very self.
We Use Many Ways to Justify Our Beliefs
The fact is, we all use faith as personal justification, just as we all use rationality and authority. None of us use any of them all the time, we’re simply not capable of it. Caricaturing someone else as doing so is not only false, it is belittling to their humanity. Declaring that one does so is simply gross delusion. The only difference between people is the subjects and the substance of those areas that the paths of knowledge are utilized. Often a person will use one or more in the same area. What person claiming faith won’t refer to their holy book (authority) or attempt the construction of an argument (rationality)? What person claiming rationality won’t quote an expert (authority) or when cornered on a point of ignorance simply declare they know themselves to be right (faith)?
The reality of our lives is that we as human beings are not calculating rational machines. Our interests guide our behavior and our worldviews provide structure for our identities to interact with others. These interests and worldviews are bound to the relationships we form with the people we trust and the ideas that provide meaning. There are plenty of places to meet in open generative dialogue because we are all human. A person may come to a false conclusion based one path of knowledge only to come to a true conclusion based on another or even the same one. We won’t ever know better how the result happened or what could be found helpful along a path if the only response is dismissal.
© David Teachout
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