How we think, believe and know: My journey through life – Part V

I’ve spilled my guts to you because sharing life is the best way any of us grow and learn.

In my late teenage years and into my early 20s, I thought ideas could change people; that if I just crafted the perfect, irrefutable argument supporting something I believed, then you would inevitably become convinced I was correct.

I know, cute, right?  Ah, to be young and naive again…

As hopefully becomes more obvious to all of us as we age and mature, people are complex.  Likely owing to the intense self-scrutiny that resulted from the panic episodes I’ve shared with you over the past few posts, one of my interests has been in researching just what, exactly, makes us tick.

I’ve studied psychology; I’ve studied neuroscience; I’ve studied ethics; I’ve studied philosophy; I’ve studied theology and world religions.

What is it that makes me a Christian, that guy over there a Muslim, that lady over there an atheist?

Unfortunately it isn’t easy to decipher, because it’s not a single thing.  It’s not just ideas.  It’s also life experience.  It’s also (and we hate to hear this) emotion.

As children of Western culture, this philosophical thing beginning in the 1700s dubbed the Enlightenment continues to have a drastic impact on how we think.

At that time, it was becoming abundantly clear just how powerful science was – advances were mounting on top of each other, and the precursors to the Industrial Revolution were being laid.  This impacted philosophy tremendously, especially a dude named Renes Descartes.

The tangible power of science as a way of knowing something (I hypothesize “x,” I test “x” repeatedly in the real world, lo and behold, “x” seems to correspond to reality) called into question just what knowledge in general actually is: what does it mean to truly know something?  What is knowledge?

And, well, we’ve been wondering that ever since.  There is no universally agreed upon answer.  Descartes, God bless him, got this idea in his head that, for something to truly count as being known, it meant there could be no room for doubt whatsoever – you and I would have to be certain of something to know it is true.

For Descartes, this led to the somewhat famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am,” because he concluded that the only thing he could be certain of was his own existence in some form, and only because he knew with certainty that there was something he defined as himself that was actively going about thinking.  He knew he thought, therefore he knew he existed.

A German philosopher named Immanuel Kant came along not long after and expanded on Descartes’ thinking.  Whereas Descartes used the certainty of his own existence to therefore justify knowledge in other areas, Kant said, hey, well, wait just a second there.  Let’s grant I know “I” exist like you say, Descartes, but do we really know with certainty anything else?

Nope!  Let’s bring in contemporary pop culture.  The Matrix is basically Kant for modern masses.  Go ahead and prove that your everyday life is not a dream.  Prove it!  Ha, you can’t.  Not really.  How can you prove that other people exist and aren’t just figments of your imagination?  You can’t!  How do you know that your sensations of smell, taste, touch, hearing, seeing are reliably telling you accurate information?  Also can’t!  Not without doubt, you can’t.

Well, crap.

I’ll forego exploring how philosophy branched in a million different directions from this point forward, but, it’s worth noting that nihilism (a philosophy that life is meaningless); relativism (a philosophy that there is no such thing as ultimate truth, just truth relative to individuals); and the damning philosophies of Nietzsche that triumphed the individual’s power of will and arguably resulted in fascism and Nazism all came about as results.

The devastation of two world wars called our views of life and knowledge even more into question.  How could we know after so much death, destruction and evil that we truly knew what we were doing?  The philosophical school known as postmodernism developed as a result.

Supposedly, we are still living in the postmodern moment, though some philosophers contend we’ve moved beyond into a sort of post-postmodernism (OK, whatever).  Regardless, postmodernism did us the favor of recognizing and calling out that each of us live our lives according to a story, a narrative.

Basically, we’re told by some form of an institution (be that your family, your church, your state, or something else) how you fit into life, what you’re supposed to believe about yourself and the world around you.  And, well, true!

This story, this narrative, that overall governs your life is called a metanarrative – a controlling story.  Myself as an example – my metanarrative is Christianity because, by Christian belief, I interpret myself and the world around me: when I make a moral mistake, I view it as sin because that’s what the Church has told me to believe; when something good happens to me, I view it as a blessing because that’s what the Church has told me to believe.

Postmodernists call all these different metanarratives out and basically shout VIVA LA REVOLUCION!! in response.  Down with the metanarratives!  They’re all created by people and institutions who are trying to control you, to exert power over you!  Recognize how you’re trying to be duped and call shenanigans on it!

And in some instances, true enough!  Nation-states throughout human history have surely fed their people lines of crap to get them to comply to their desires, and the Church has been as guilty of doing the same as anyone.

But, peer closely at the rhetoric of postmodernists and you note a peculiarity – the claim that all metanarratives are out to get you is, itself……a metanarrative.  So…let’s pull back a little bit on the pitchforks and torches, perhaps, and note that we as humans just by nature tend to understand our place in the world according to whatever kind of story we construct.

And, in a hyper-individualistic society as the post-industrial West, it’s indeed correct to note that it is typically “I,” and not an institution, who is now constructing that controlling narrative.  We make up our own way more often than not.  And I’d question the wisdom in that, overall, because I sure as hell know I can be an idiot by myself – I need the help and wisdom of other people.

But it feels “nicer,” doesn’t it, to decide for yourself what you want to do?  You feel empowered and can do what you want and choose to believe in the consequences (or not) that you think may follow.  But, well, there’s a problem with that, and that problem is – what if you’re wrong?  What if the cumulative thought of the last 300 years has led us to rely too much on just our individualism and we’ve lost our way?

Because, here’s the truth: while we definitely use our brains to think about things, what we choose to believe as true about the world is NOT just an intellectual exercise.  I don’t think it’s even PRIMARILY an intellectual exercise.  I think it’s more often than not a result of how we’ve been wounded – we’re emotional creatures.

What the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind justifies.

My entire blog began largely around this premise (I quoted it near the very beginning five years ago).

To quote more in-depth the thought behind this line of reasoning, here’s Dr. Ashley Null:

What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.  The mind doesn’t direct the will.  The mind is actually captive to what the will wants, and the will itself, in turn, is captive to what the heart wants.  The trouble with human nature is that we are born with a heart that loves ourselves over and above everything else in this world, including God.  In short, we are born slaves to the lust for self-gratification…That’s why, if left to ourselves, we will always love those things that make us feel good about ourselves, even as we depart more and more from God and his ways.  Therefore, God must intervene in our lives in order to bring salvation.

Obviously, that’s a Christian quote and thought process.  But, remove “God” from that whole train of thought, and it’s right regardless, isn’t it?  We do lust after self-gratification.  It’s our freaking natural religion.

So, just how in the world do we know what to believe about truth, about life, about everything?  Because we can’t trust our brain to unbiasedly go about picking out what’s true because our heart and our will (directly impacted by our [likely damaged and traumatized] emotions) are probably going to throw us off.

Man, I wrestled with this for years.  I’m not going to pretend that I have a perfect answer for you, because life is complicated and hard, and people disagree for myriad reasons.

But my next post is going to share with you how Jesus saved me from myself, my own brokenness I wrote about in depth in the previous several posts.  And there are legitimate reasons you could call into question whether it was actually Jesus who saved me or just good psychology.  There’s also no reason that both answers can’t be true.

Because a lot of the things that saved me are indeed a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, a way of retraining the brain how to think, and also a use of narrative therapy, a psychological practice that analyzes the metanarrative you’ve chosen to believe and replaces it with a healthier version.

But there’s also been prayer.  There’s also been spiritual experiences that defy easy, cookie-cutter explanations.  And there are other historical and philosophical reasons I accept Christianity as true I’ve already written about elsewhere that I won’t rehash.

There is some truth to individualism, and one of those truths is this: it’s up to you how you’re going to choose to interpret reality, no matter what I or anyone else say or do.  I can only share my heart and mind with you and, from my perspective, pray that God starts doing for you some of the things he’s done (and, good God, still need doing) in me.  And also try to express to you, whomever you are, that I truly believe you are worth loving.  I really do.

I’m going to close this post up with the wise words of Lesslie Newbigin in his (for me) life-changing book Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship.  Here, Newbigin lays out the implications of much of the philosophical questioning about truth and knowledge discussed above.  I’ll forego using block quotes here for aesthetic reasons, and emphases in all instances are mine.  Take it away, Bishop Newbigin:

“…loss of any sense of meaning in a culture that so recently believed itself to be the bearer of civilization for the world has been dramatic in its suddenness…one does not speak of truth but of ‘what is true for me,’ or perhaps, ‘what is meaningful for me.’  The sense that there is a world beyond the self and that it is possible and also necessary to know this world beyond self becomes dim.  Attention is concentrated on the self.  Who am I? becomes an absorbing question, one that would never occur to a person who takes for granted the existence of a real world by which one can orient oneself…Thus the inward journey becomes much more fascinating than the exploration of an external world, and psychiatry becomes a dominant element in society.

“This development must surely be recognized as a sign of impending death.  Even the lowliest of animals survive only insofar as they are able to explore their environment and to discover where danger lies and where safety can be found.  There is a real world to be explored and coped with, and one can be right or wrong about it.  Survival depends on being right…If we are to survive, we are compelled to recognize that there is a difference between truth and falsehood in the statements we make about the world which is our environment.  But our habits of thought do, in the long term, affect our ways of behaving, and this collapse into relativism and subjectivism must in the end disable us for survival…

All efforts to know must begin with something given.  This given includes what we normally call the data, the facts that form part of the foundation from which our reason works.  It also includes…the tradition of knowing which has been developed in a human community and which includes the language and all the conceptual tools used in that tradition.  All of these constitute the given elements that are the precondition for any rational thought.  And all of this can be the object of critical questioning.  It is not self-evident truth.  Specifically, Christian thinking stands in the tradition of discipleship…stemming from the acts of God, these acts being the substance of the good news communicated by the church.  In a society that has accepted another creed…and that – moreover – does not recognize it as a creed but thinks that it is a religiously neutral account of the facts, confident affirmation of the Christian faith as public truth is regarded as sectarian and dogmatic.  And this charge comes precisely from those who have accepted the reigning dogma of their society without question.

The dependence of all systematic thought upon assumptions that are accepted by faith has been well documented in the work of the American philosopher Roy Clouser.  In his book The Myth of Religious Neutrality (1991), he examines major theories in the areas of mathematics, physics, and psychology and shows how all such theories involve a prior decision as to what is fundamental in the area studied…It follows that there can be no knowing without personal commitment.  We must believe in order to know.

“…knowing is a form of activity.  Like all activity, it involves the interaction of the person with a world beyond him or her.  It is an activity which involves the whole person in a passionate commitment to make contact with reality.  Knowing is not something that happens to us; it is something we seek to achieve.  As with all activities, there is always the possibility of failure. ‘The possibility of error is a necessary element of any belief bearing on reality, and to withhold belief on the grounds of such a hazard is to break off all contact with reality’ (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 315).

“The certainty that Descartes sought and claimed to have achieved is thus available only within a mental world that is not in contact with a reality beyond itself.  His ‘I think, therefore I am’ may be indubitable, but it makes no contact with anything beyond his own mind…

“A story cannot provide the kind of indubitable certainty which was the ideal of Descartes…The Bible claims to be a true interpretation of universal history.  Since we are not yet at the end of history and since it may yet contain many surprises, we cannot have indubitable certainty.  The only possible responses to the claims that the Bible makes are belief or unbelief.  There can be no indubitable proofs…

“But this, of course, is what the Age of Reason rejected.  It saw reason and revelation as mutually opposed and called upon human beings to be bold enough to use their reason, to put away a childish dependence on divine revelation, and to use the God-given gift of reason to establish the facts for themselves.  The question to be asked is, What do we mean by ‘the facts’?…Facts are supposed to be objective; interpretations of them, in contrast, are held to be subjective…[But] Facts are not entities that simply implant themselves in a vacant mind; they are grasped by a mind trained in a particular culture to grasp them. The same realities presented to a child of three and to a trained scientist will not be the same sort of facts to both of them.

“…The eternal truths of reason are in fact products of particular histories…The self-evident truths of the Enlightenment are, we now see, not self-evident at all but only appear self-evident to a society which has been shaped by a particular story.

“Now it is obviously true that all our eternal truths and all our metanarratives are products of particular human histories…But it is another matter if the conclusion [is] drawn that none of them are true or that their competing claims to account for reality are all equally true or…equally false. That conclusion is unwarranted. It rests on the unstated assumption that truth must be something accessible apart from particular human languages, concepts, and models.

“…the church shares the postmodernists’ replacement of eternal truths with a story. But there is a profound difference between the two. For the postmodernists, there are many stories, but no overarching truth by which they can be assessed. They are simply stories. The church’s affirmation is that the story it tells, embodies, and enacts is the true story and that others are to be evaluated by reference to it.

“If [life] has any purpose…the only way we can know that purpose is by a disclosure from the one whose purpose it is, a disclosure which we would have to take on trust. There is no escape from this necessity. The modern antithesis of observation and reason on the one hand versus revelation and faith on the other is only tenable on the basis of a prior decision that the whole cosmic and human story has no purpose and therefore no meaning. It is possible to make this assumption, but it is not necessary. The question whether the cosmos and human life within it have any purpose other than the individual purposes we seek to impose on things is one that cannot be decided by observation. If we live with a prior assumption that human life has no purpose; then we shall act accordingly, and there will be no possibility whatsoever of discovering its purpose…There is no possibility of keeping an open mind. We have to act in order to live, and our actions will be determined by whether we believe the universe embodies a purpose other than our own or do not so believe. There is no third possibility…

“The central conviction of the Enlightenment was that human reason, once liberated from the shackles of tradition, superstition, and religion, was capable of coming to the knowledge of the truth…[it] assumed that we are so made that we know what it is that we are seeking and that we shall recognize it when we find it. Here we have to come to that part of the whole Christian tradition against which the Age of Reason most strenuously took up arms…It is reported that [Jesus] said, ‘If you continue in my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’…Truth is not a fruit of freedom; it is the precondition for freedom…His hearers rightly perceived that he was telling them that they were not, as they believed, free. They were in bondage to sin, and only the truth could set them free. And he, Jesus, was the one whose word was truth and who could therefore set them free. Here we have the most radical attack possible on the assumptions of modernity…the world which does not acknowledge Jesus…is not free as it thinks it is. We are not honest inquirers seeking the truth…We are by nature idolaters, constructing images of truth shaped by our own desires. This was demonstrated once and for all when Truth became incarnate, present to us in the actual being and life of the man Jesus, and when our response to this Truth incarnate, a response including all the representatives of the best of human culture at that time and place, was to seek to destroy it.

“…It is possible…to face and acknowledge the terrible reality exposed in the crucifixion of Jesus. This is evidenced by the fact that there are those who have been brought through the death and burial of the old self, that self which was confident in its own power to know the truth, and who have been incorporated into the life of him who is the truth and who is able to lead us into the truth…The confession of the truth will be part of a continual indebtedness to grace. It will never be the kind of certainty which supposed that I can become a possessor of the truth by the exercise of my own natural powers. It will mean that my understanding of the truth must be constantly open to revision and correction, but…only and always within the irreversible commitment to Jesus Christ. If that commitment is questioned, then I am once again a clueless wanderer in the darkness, bamboozled by the products of my own imagination.”

4 thoughts on “How we think, believe and know: My journey through life – Part V

  1. Thirst is for water, appetite for food, and inquiry for truth (paraphrasing the Great Divorce here). I agree with everything that is said. Most of the people who hold to scientism for their world-view really do not even understand the scientific method, which must be grounded on untested assumptions. We choose (sometimes while not fully in control) what to believe, and we reject what is cognitively dissonant. The sad thing is that the belief in other-worldly things, and the act of revelation of truth by a power greater than us, is something that only Western society struggles to cope with. I suspect it’s not just wounding or philosophy, but our great wealth and prosperity that has led to a sort of blindness and willful ignorance of things. I do see lots of people who reject God because of personal trauma history, but that same sort of story and wounds are also seen in people from South America, Asia, and Africa, who know in their bones that there is something beyond what is merely visible.

    The observable universe is cold, dangerous, and largely lifeless, save for the tiny precariously floating speck that we live on… and yet religion after religion, prophet after prophet, society after society, largely argues for the existence of benevolence and intelligence behind the darkness. If we think it is simply because people in ancient times were fools and we are wiser, then we are condemned by our own pride. These people were aware of the physical laws and the workings of the world, without necessarily being taught science, because they had their hand in the earth, so to speak. And here we are, children who often don’t even realize where that frozen chicken nugget comes from, thinking that we are wiser than these people who believed in beings beyond what was visible, thinking that they were merely “wishful thinkers” and invented gods and fairies to comfort themselves.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, San, you’re right on. Having thought a decent bit about it, I tend to lean towards the first two World Wars and the subsequent cultural (specifically philosophical) impact they had on the West as being the primary reasons for the West’s uniqueness; but, then again, Nietzsche predates the World Wars and was influential in much of the nihilism that came about consequentially, so there was something afoot beforehand, too. There is and always has been an awful lot of self-condemnation going around when it comes to pride, though, and we’re no less guilty than anyone.

  3. I am a postmodernist and an atheist. And whilst I neither believe there is an accessible objective truth nor that life has any inherent meaning, I still enjoyed reading this post.

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