Tag Archives: epistemology

Wisdom of the unknown, or Why doesn’t Santa bring me a Lexus?

2013_12_01_mh (8)_cropReading the previous post  a day later, I realize that I’m being intense about — I’m taking very seriously — my desire to remove magic from my life. It’s not real, so why deal with it?

But as I was emailing a friend this morning, I thought of another angle here: why is there no Santa for adults? I mean, why shouldn’t there be? And I’m not saying that there should be some group of humans who go around fulfilling adults’ wishes, leaving us new cars in our driveways (I always wonder when I see those holiday car ads  where a new Lexus, or whatever, is wrapped in a bow: who the fuck gets a NEW LUXURY CAR for Christmas? Maybe they’re not new cars — maybe they’re, per the patois, “gently used.” I guess this could happen somewhere, but not in my ZIP code.), although that actually would be pretty cool.

But it’s an interesting, if daydreamy, question to ask: Why isn’t there magic? I know some people like to describe certain things — like winning the lottery, or recovering from a serious illness — as “miraculous,” which is very similar to magic. But, as the saying goes, the Lord works in mysterious ways. But why be so mysterious, Lord? Why shouldn’t I walk outside tomorrow morning or, OK, Christmas morning (it’d be acceptable for me if God, like Santa, delivered miracles only once a year), and find a new hundred-thousand-dollar car in my driveway? Or what if God actually solved real problems, like curing addiction or preventing poverty or ending child abuse?

This brings us to the problem of evil, for which of course, there are no good answers. And one could also argue that if God, or Santa, really did things for us, we’d get lazy or something. On the other hand, we’re such dependent creatures, anyway. I mean, we can’t go more than a few minutes without needing some oxygen from the world — why should being so dependent on oxygen be well and good, but being hooked on nicotine be unhealthy?

I’m not trying to be entirely facetious here, either (a little facetious, but not entirely so). I’ve long thought that certain things are our birthright as humans: oxygen, for one, but also water and food. Of course, in a world of lots of people and limited resources, not everyone would agree that having clean water and healthy food should be human rights. We humans were born here, in a world where there exist the things we need to survive, and yet, we find ourselves at times having to face challenges to our survival, such as threats (lions, tigers, bears, the Marburg virus, etc.) and competition (from other humans).

So we learn — as individuals, and as a species — ways to live in the world, ways to get what we need, and even what we want. The things we learn, we call rules, ideas, laws of science, etc., and we feel that this knowledge can tell us how to act, so that we can be not merely passive, not helpless (even if we sometimes still are powerless, as when there’s an earthquake or a tornado, and even if what we do makes things worse — global warming, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, etc.). We who live in cultures that give science and rationality the authority to determine what’s real don’t accept any explanation that requires God (or magic, or Santa, or ghosts, etc.). Relying on science discourages us from burning witches and following leaders who do what their dreams command, but it also gives us a worldview in which some things are easily knowable (for instance, acceleration due to gravity) and other things (such as why moms and dogs die) completely unknowable.

So I know why Santa won’t bring me a Lexus — science says there is no Santa, and there has to be a set of physical (and paperwork) steps for a Lexus to come to me and be my own. It’s not impossible that humans would conspire to bring about my Lexus (hint, hint?), but there’s no evidence for God or Santa there. If God and Santa work completely through the acts of others (of people or of nature), well, then we could subtract God and Santa and still have the same people and nature, without losing anything but the empty ideas of “God” and “Santa.”

Of course, I’ll grant that it can be fun to mislead children — I am a teacher, after all. But instead of asserting that people should have unjustifiable faith in the particular idea that magic, including Santa, and our humanly defined God, are real, we can instead know that there is an unknown, wherein we can be humble about, and even hopeful in, what we do not know. To assert knowledge about the limits of the possible is perhaps as faulty as asserting knowledge about the physically impossible. I don’t have to ask God to change the physical world for my betterment, and also, I don’t have to think that such change is impossible. Whether Santa brings me a Lexus, or my wife does, I still would have a Lexus. (I don’t have a Lexus.) Also, what’s more beautiful than having a Lexus is, of course, realizing that I don’t need to have a Lexus at all, that having a Lexus doesn’t make me smarter or write more goodly.

I often find a refuge in the unknown, in thinking that I don’t need to know the answers. I take as existing what seems to exist, and I generally feel pretty good in my own existence without postulating divine, magical beings. I can make and find my own meanings, without needing to get those meanings from, or ground them in, some unknowable supernatural entity.

So who am I to complain about the concept of Santa? In some ways, it’s pretty wonderful to be a child and to believe that some dude you don’t even have to thank is gonna bring you some pretty terrific loud-and-shiny stuff. Just because adults don’t get to believe that doesn’t mean that adults really know the world, either. (It’s actually kinda interesting to consider how adults made up such a as simple entity as Santa. It’s as if someone took human capabilities — generosity, material wealth, sleigh-driving — and just magnified or distorted those — giving gifts to all houses in a night, driving a flying sleigh — to create some kind of magnified super-person — a superhero, as it were. I sometimes wonder why we humans have such small-bore imaginations: instead of coming up with beings who are us, but a little bit more, why not imagine heroes who are unlike us, beings whose realms are beyond comprehension. Even when we try to describe God as being all-powerful and all-creating, we end up in logical cul-de-sacs such as this one. If instead we just say, “there are things beyond comprehension,” we at least allow ourselves to be wise in our silence.)

When argument can’t compete with belief

As a liberal arts (specifically philosophy) major, I was taught the power of argument — of using rational statements, logic, and evidence, to substantiate, attack, or defend the beliefs of oneself or others.

But as I’ve observed in recent years, argument doesn’t seem to be a mode of communication agreed to by everyone, and in a way, arguing is like a game, in that everybody has to agree to play by the rules. These rules include acknowledging that attacking the person rather than the person’s ideas, oversimplifying or misstating the counterargument, and/or simply talking over one’s opponent, are behaviors in violation of the rules.

Examples of people in political realms violating the rules above are numerous, and I won’t point to them now. But this is a problem, because rational argument is about the only rhetorical mode by which people with different background values and beliefs may communicate.

Andrew Sullivan makes this point well in a recent post asserting that many contemporary societies around the world are split into secular and religious camps, and that these divisions seem to be solidifying. Sullivan writes:

The real question, however, is how societies can retain their coherence and unity when they are caught between the reassuring certainties of fundamentalism and the exhilarating disorientation of modernity. The worldviews are from such different places – and are now penetrating cultures which, before the globalization of information, were able to keep them at bay. And so a mutilated woman in Saudi Arabia can see unfathomable sexual pornography with a click of a mouse. And young, hip Tehran youth look on in disbelief as the crudest forms of religious frenzy guide an economy toward the rocks. If you go from the central cities of these countries and venture further and further into the rural heartlands, you will find not only that the blue parts of these countries are getting bluer, but that, in response, many of the red parts are getting redder. Soon, both parties create a different set of facts, as well as beliefs, about their world. Until they are barely able to communicate with each other at all.

and the problem of division becomes a significant issue in agreeing on what can be (and is) known:

All of this is an epic struggle for meaning – and the possibility of meaning in any communal sense. That’s why it’s so intractable. That’s why it is tearing countries and cultures apart. That’s why reasoned debate, however vital, is so disarmed right now. Because pride, honor and identity are at stake. The ressentiment in the rural heartland is echoed by the bigotry of liberal, urban Americans when they discuss their fellow citizens in the redder, fundamentalist states.

I’m not sure there can be a political resolution to this in the short term.

And in another recent article, a young woman who was raised in a strict “Christian apologetic” household described how obedience was valued by her parents:

Obedience was paramount — if we did not respond immediately to being called, we were spanked ten to fifteen times with a strip of leather cut from the stuff they used to make shoe soles. Bad attitudes, lying, or slow obedience usually warranted the same — the slogan was “All the way, right away, and with a happy spirit.” We were extremely well-behaved children, and my dad would sometimes show us off to people he met in public by issuing commands that we automatically rushed to obey. The training was not just external; God commanded that our feelings and thoughts be pure, and this resulted in high self-discipline.

I was not raised this way, and, with my background in philosophical inquiry (with the “question everything” Socratic method), I was struck by how much certainty was valued:

Atheists frequently wonder how an otherwise rational Christian can live and die without seeing the light of science, and I believe the answer to this is usually environment. If every friend, authority figure, and informational source in your life constantly repeat the same ideas, it is difficult not to believe they’re onto something. My world was built of “reasonable” Christians — the ones who thought, who questioned, who knew that what they believed was true. In the face of this strength, my own doubts seemed petty.

and

I had trouble coping with the fact that my entire childhood education now essentially meant nothing — I had been schooled in a sham. I had to start from scratch in entering and learning about this secular world. Uncertainty was not something I was accustomed to feeling.

As a thinker and creative artist, I feel the need to question all of the things I feel certain about — that’s perhaps one way to define creativity. The writer above says that same about science:

I’ve been educating myself in science, a world far more uncertain than the one I left, but also far more honest.

and that what she values the most now is freedom:

Someone once asked me if I would trade in my childhood for another, if I had the chance, and my answer was no, not for anything.
 My reason is that, without that childhood, I wouldn’t understand what freedom truly is — freedom from a life centered around obedience and submission, freedom to think anything, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from the perpetual heavy obligation to keep every thought pure. Nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life has been so breathtakingly beautiful.

Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.

This writer also says her father trained her to think logically, to argue, and perhaps it’s that training (along with her curiosity) that led to her “deconversion,” as she calls it.

I hadn’t really heard of “Christian apologetics” before, but I guess I don’t understand the mission of those who would, as Wikipedia states, “present a rational basis for the Christian faith”. Faith would seem to be something that would be emotional and subjective — that is, personal, individual — and thus would not be able to be founded in rationality — faith and rationality seem fundamentally opposed.

This is not to say that faith and rationality aren’t both valid ways of knowing, but are valid when used within their own proper applications — just as we wouldn’t value an artwork just because of its weight (all marble sculptures would be more beautiful by the pound than almost all paintings!), we shouldn’t measure the reality of the physical world by subjective means. I wouldn’t want my guilt or innocence judged by whether someone found my face handsome or ugly — I would want my guilt to be proven, and likewise, if we’re gonna talk to each other, it’s gotta be in objective (publicly visible) ways. The rhetoric of faith cannot be the public rhetoric of a world of diverse faiths and personal experiences.

And so, to have a successful society, we need to be able to listen to each other, rationally, and make arguments (and not just unsupported assertions) to each other. In the previous post, I said that I did not confront someone who made assertions I didn’t agree with — and perhaps we don’t need to take every chance to argue with someone. (Frankly, I was a little afraid of getting punched — but this is why, to refer to my earlier point, argument is a game. We can’t be talking if one party uses physicality rather than words.) But I’d assert that we must be open to debate our views and beliefs if we are to reach beyond our mere subjectivity, our limited personal experiences.

P.S.: I also wanted to link in this idea, from a discussion about Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolph Eichmann:

That evil, Arendt argued, originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. It is the meaning Eichmann finds as part of the Nazi movement that leads him to do anything and sacrifice everything. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world. [bold-emphasis is mine.]

A machine is lying, or I’m boiling alive

This is what I saw while driving past on my way home today:

Byron IL Middle School, 1 May 2013

Byron IL Middle School, 1 May 2013

I was just driving home, minding my own business, when an epistemological quandary in the shape of an unhealthily high temperature flashed at me: Do I accept the meaning of these symbols, or do I instead choose the differing message I’m interpreting from what my senses tell me, thereby regarding the printed symbols as empty of meaning? (And while I ponder, I’ll stay inside my air-conditioned car, just in case.) Ah, I’m always having to decide what is my reality. And the symbols with which we or others used to describe reality may not be describing reality at all. This afternoon, this public school’s message board started publishing fiction.

Nonfic: Unreliable narrators: When we talk, we say things

blog_snowconfusionWe make sounds that correspond to certain patterns we recognize as words and then we might be able to interpret from these words a meaning, and so we communicate. (Same goes for writing, only we go from visuals to meanings.)  But these meanings don’t necessarily have any connection to, well, anything, including reality. I find it useful (and I find usefulness a better standard for evaluating a statement than truth) to consider statements not as true or false, but simply the product of the statement-maker’s mind at the time the statement was made. As such, the statements characterize the statement-maker, but the statements themselves can be held by audience members without being evaluated; this way the audience member keeps an open mind and does not mistakenly privilege a statement as a “true” statement.

I’ve been thinking about this since Thursday when I was in a coffeeshop and two neighboring couples started making statements — assertions about and characterizations of and predictions for  reality. At the time I overheard (and recorded — there’s something wonderful about turning real life speech into symbols on paper) some of their statements, I understood these statements as political, in that they were discussing government policies, programs, and operations.

But today I’m thinking of their conversations as a philosophical one. These people were making assertions about reality (“The culture’s headed to where we want to take care of everybody…”). They were also characterizing — making metaphors and similes, drawing analogies, comparing — real things (“She’d dress like a street person” and “That’s what happened in Germany”), and they were also making predictions based on their assertions and characterizations (“They could shut the government down and you wouldn’t even know it”).

The content of their conversation may have been philosophical — metaphysical (pertaining to ultimate truth/reality), in particular — but the conduct of the conversation was not what I’d call philosophical, in that there was very little disagreement among them, and very few arguments were made to support assertions. Perhaps these people shared many premises and values so that they could deliver their assertions in brief. This also means, of course, that nobody was really learning much from each other; there was a “preaching to the choir” aspect there.

As a teacher, or as a philosopher, or as a busybody (or all three), I felt tempted to interrupt their discussion to challenge their assertions (as not being based on even so much evidence as poll results), their characterizations (which metaphors, analogies, and comparisons are not really statements that can be judged true or false, since these things are, by definition, not literally true. However, the comparisons seemed to be supporting their assertions by means of negative connotation.), and their predictions (as being pure bullsh!t, since, as Wendell Berry pointed out in “The Unsettling of America”, the future does not exist).

I did not jump in, which interruption likely would not have been welcomed and which would have likely upset the calm of the social situation. Everyone is entitled to one’s own beliefs, of course. But if we are not at least willing to entertain some philosophical skepticism about our own beliefs and assertions about reality, we risk becoming “unreliable narrators” of our own lives, people whose statements are always asterisked, in the sense of: “Well, Matt* complained about the party — (*but you know how he tends to be).”

I don’t want my statements to be predictable, and I don’t want my statements to be qualified with an asterisk. (I originally used the plural “we” in that sentence, but I ought to speak only for myself. How can I possibly speak authentically for others?) Yet, a way to avoiding being predictably biased seems to be to consider all statements I hear and read, as well as all statements I make, to be already-asterisked (with a different asterisk, one that indicates the statement is merely a statement, truth value unknown), and to not judge any statement as true or false too quickly.

Post Script: This post was partly inspired by A.M.B.’s post about reality in fiction. While I agree that statements in fiction works ought not to be taken as true, I’d also suggest that this skepticism be applied to nonfiction works, too. While a writer shouldn’t knowingly lie in any work labeled “nonfiction,” the writer’s statements aren’t really true, either. After all, we construct the stories we tell, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction; it’s not like we can go around picking stories we find lying around. Nonfiction assertions about “what really happened” are the products of a mind describing experience, which experience doesn’t really happen in words, anyway. Just as storytellers tend to naturally, unconsciously, compress time in their narratives and relate the events in sequence, so do storytellers label particular sensory experiences (like hearing a particular sound) with generally known terms (“a bell tolled”). Research suggests this storytelling may happen even at the subconscious level, as our brains coordinate sensory inputs in ways that make the world knowable to us.

So, it may be unsettling to live in a world of (mild) skepticism toward assertions about reality, but it can perhaps keep us from falling into believing wrong ideas, having a limited concept of reality. This skepticism reminds me of the epistemologically beautiful thing about science: any scientific idea must be liable to be revised or replaced — or else science isn’t science!