Lately I’ve been thinking about epistemology (the study of knowledge); and more specifically, how we build on presuppositions in order to form our beliefs. I came up with a basic list of what I call ‘pragmatic beliefs’; those presuppositions necessary for a person to live with any form of sanity. Here is the basic outline I came up with. Each presupposition builds on the previous one:
1) I exist.
I have yet to decide whether I believe this to be a presupposition, or an absolute truth. Frankly, I don’t think it matters in any practical sense. No one seriously doubts their own existence; and I can’t imagine what anyone would do with such a useless skepticism if they did. Although I do consider myself very skeptical of any sort of Cartesian/Platonic dualism; that is a separate matter. Our own existence, whether purely physical or partially metaphysical, is about as close to an absolute truth as humans can affirm.
2) There is an external reality independent of my existence.
This is where a philosophy known as solipsism diverges from contemporary thought. The solipsist makes the argument that it is impossible to know if reality is not an illusion created by the self; from there they might argue something like “I am the only mind which exists,” or “My mental states are the only mental states.” What makes this tricky is that people who hallucinate are experiencing illusory sensory experiences; which means that it is possible for even our senses to be deceived. It’s a kind of Matrix-style take on the problem of perception. This makes solipsist beliefs pretty much unfalsifiable.
There are two problems I see with solipsism. First, I don’t know how one could attempt to positively prove that there is no external reality, and secondly, the belief seems to have no practical benefit, and could lead to strong forms of nihilism or egoism if taken to it’s logical conclusion. After all, if no one else exists, no one else matters but yourself. However, I don’t presume solipsists necessarily embrace nihilism or egoism.
It seems to me that all a solipsist can do is point out that there is no way to positively prove that there is an external reality. I think it’s safe to say that presupposing an external reality independent of our existence is a beneficial and natural belief.
3) My sensory inputs supply me with reliable information (empirical data) about reality.
Another aspect of the problem of perception is that we can’t know for certain that our sensory inputs are relaying accurate information to our brains. This means that empirical evidence can, in theory, be misleading.
Accurate information is information that corresponds with, or helps us understand reality. Every human assumes that their senses are reliable until proven unreliable. A good example of this is when, after a mental episode, a patient in a mental hospital recognizes that his or her senses were misleading (as in the case of a schizophrenic.) In that case, the patient uses reason to infer that his or her brain was not accurately translating the empirical data; but this can only be realized after the fact. This is not an instance where the sensory data itself was inaccurate, but rather the data was not being interpreted correctly by the brain. I suspect this is the usual cause of illusory sense perception; but there may be ways in which the senses themselves are dysfunctional.
4) My mind uses reason to form reliable hypotheses and theories of reality based on the empirical data obtained from my sensory inputs. These allow me to make probability-based predictions that have pragmatic value.
This is where much of the battle lies. I am convinced that a person cannot disconnect reason from responsible belief. Yet anti-intellectualists, and some religious leaders, encourage people to ignore reason; usually to believe a specific proposition being promoted. There is a strong current of this in some strains of Christianity.
Insanity is defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as: “something that is very foolish or unreasonable.” Notice that “unreasonable” is a part of the informal definition of insanity. Reason is a sign of intelligence, and a part of being a responsible human. Abandoning it would literally be insane.
To quote the 18th century Quaker/philosopher William Penn:
Truth never lost Ground by Enquiry, because she is, most of all. Reasonable.
Nor can that need another Authority, that is Self-evident.
If my own Reason be on the Side of a Principle, with what can I Dispute or withstand it?
Reason, like the Sun, is Common to All ; And ’tis for want of examining all by the same Light and Measure, that we are not all of the same Mind : For all have it to that End, though all do not use it So.
It is worth noting that it is circular to validate reason by using reason. But it is a self-evident truth if there are any, that being reasonable and logical is beneficial to humanity. It could be viewed as the truthmaker, fully beyond scrutiny, as it is the sole mechanism that scrutinizes.
Diagramming Pragmatic Belief
I put together a basic diagram of this concept here:
As you can see, self-existence is the first foundational presupposition, followed by belief in an external reality. After that, we presuppose the reliability of our sensory receptors to convey empirical data, and we could add our brain’s reliability in interpreting it. Last we have reason, which organizes all of the empirical data and forms probability-based hypotheses and theories about reality that enable us to make better predictions. This skill of making probability-based predictions helps us make wise choices.
If we are to make good choices, it would help to have reliable beliefs. If we believed for example, that all people want to kill us, we would perhaps never leave our home, or move to the wilderness. This sort of belief would be considered irrational, and unbeneficial. Yet, someone who believes this may feel they have an intuitional basis for such a belief; and for that reason it is justified. This brings us to our next consideration and the sticky issues that accompany it.
Incorporating Intuitional Beliefs
Intuition is a controversial concept in philosophy. What exactly is intuition? I will refer to Merriam-Webster’s again for the definition:
: a natural ability or power that makes it possible to know something without any proof or evidence : a feeling that guides a person to act a certain way without fully understanding why
The person who believed intuitively that all people wanted to kill him is an extreme example of intuition disconnected from reality. This alone shouldn’t make us distrust intuition entirely. There is certainly a case to be made for intuitive thinking in the proper contexts. We are not emotionless, purely rational beings; we rely on intuition more than we would like to think.
That being said, every belief can and should be scrutinized appropriately. We don’t live our lives assuming that gut feelings are fully reliable. Intuition should be considered as evidence, but be wary of trusting it in situations that demand accuracy. Imagine if you were on a jury and someone said ‘I just believe he’s guilty,’ or ‘I have faith in the defendant’s innocence,’ and then proceeded to act as if the case were closed without examining the evidence. Surely that would be foolish, irrational, and irresponsible to the highest degree. If your intuition is not supported by evidence, reason should make the final call after weighing all the different factors.
Now reasoning can be done poorly, regardless of how strongly we believe it to be correct. Poor reasoning is often intuition in disguise. This is why many unjustifiable beliefs are popular. What appears to be a well-reasoned argument may be built on one or two tendentious presuppositions that the hearer has failed to identify. A highly skilled orator can sell almost anything if it serves to confirm the biases of an audience. A skilled logician can make a case with substance, but when the biases of an audience are exploited, reason almost inevitable takes a back seat.
And that’s the problem with intuition. Intuition looks just like bias. When intuition is presented in the absence of evidence, the probability of deception is significantly greater. Intuition could be correct, but there is no objective way to know.
Critical thinking has been described by some as a defense mechanism. It is a way we can protect ourselves from intellectual exploitation by raising our standards for what constitutes a good argument. If there are no good arguments for a belief, it is likely a product of bias or propaganda.
Learning the difference between intuition and reason is important. Here are a couple of very interesting articles about intuitive thinking if you want to do some further reading on the subject:
Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
My name is Zach Van Houten and I am a secular Humanist with progressive values who enjoys good discussions with intelligent people. I was a passionate conservative Christian from childhood until I found intellectual freedom in November of 2014. I take an interest in Humanism, general philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, eastern religious philosophy, atheism, politics, Biblical studies, and most importantly, the life cycle of sea turtles. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to offer tips on how I can make myself less boring or start up a convo about the weather.
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