KE part 6 (Epistemological considerations regarding our sources of confidence)

Continuing on with the re-edit version of this series, before I get to evaluating connection I believe it is necessary to take into consideration some of the epistemological factors related to choosing our sources of confidence. When I set out to improve myself –– to find a valid justification for my self-confidence –– should that be a matter of learning to please God more, or somehow helping the evolutionary process to advance, or being more of an authentic individual, or promoting some form of social good? When it comes to deciding which of the four points of the compass (the transcendental, the material, the individual existential or the social) one is ultimately going to base one’s sense of value and morality on, is there really a rational way to choose?

There are plenty of people out there telling you what to believe. How do you decide which ones are right?

I pointed out last time that there is a fair amount of ethical risk involved in each of these approaches, and that all of them can be misused. But regardless of the risks involved, regardless of whether or not we can be sure about such things, we need to find some basis for proving to ourselves that we are worth something. To be truly self-actualized, as Maslow calls it, we need to have some sort of target in life that we can justifiably consider worth shooting for. So the task here is to consider how we can go about determining which source(s) of confidence are most trustworthy, sustainable, admirable and efficient in terms of actually making people happy.

To start with, we need to recognize that, if we are going to be honest with ourselves, a certain amount of uncertainty is somewhat inevitable here. As I wrote for my son years ago,

There is in fact no conclusive system for evaluating metaphysics which does not itself depend on some metaphysical presupposition. This is what philosophers refer to as tautology, also known as circular reasoning. If for instance I say that God is the ultimate source of reality, and I know this because God has shown it to me, that says nothing to an outsider. I might just as well say that I am the most important person in the world, because I say that I am, and as the most important person in the world I have the right to say so. It may be a legitimate statement of faith, but logically it proves nothing. Yet outside of starting from such assumptions there are no grounds for proving that any system is the best.

So how do we avoid sinking into the quicksand of confusion on this one? First of all we need to recognize that at some point we will have to just “dive in” in spite of our uncertainties. This is what Kierkegaard called “the leap of faith.” Since we can never have absolute certainty in advance when it comes to choosing a foundation for building our personal value on, eventually we just have to dive in and try something. If that first attempt doesn’t work out it’s likely to hurt like hell, but hopefully it will still leave you whole enough to try another alternative. The good news is that it is probably fair to say that of those who are sincerely seeking for this sort of purpose, more often actually find something that works for them than die in the frustration from searching in vain.

Of course that doesn’t mean that what works for some individual is beyond doubt the final metaphysical truth of the matter. We know that because we can see how different people actually find workable purpose and confidence for themselves at all four points of the compass I’ve laid out, and in the final metaphysical analysis obviously not all of them can be right. I’m not saying that it makes no difference which premise you base your confidence on, or that they are all equal when it comes to truth value, or that the dangers I pointed out in relation to each given foundation are not real. But rather than jumping into the process of justifying my personal preference on this matter, I want to lay out some useful rules of thumb on the matter of making such commitments.

So how do we go about deciding which foundation is “close enough” to start with? I’d suggest beginning with the following:

Consistency / Coherence
If you’ve studied a little bit of epistemology, you know that there are two primary ways of judging the truthfulness of any given proposition: the extent to which it fits together with other things which we accept as true, and the extent to which it is able to avoid self-contradiction. The former is called correspondence theory and the latter, coherence theory. Since theoretically we want to begin with an open mind here as to what foundation our starting “facts” that set the standard for the factuality of other things will come from, we should probably avoid using the correspondence theory as a starting point here. So that leaves us with coherence to look at.

You might call this Sudoku logic: if you can’t continue by the rules of the game without putting the same number twice in some row or column, you know there is a mistake in there somewhere. Likewise when some person’s ideological position leads them into self-contradiction––saying that certain things are both morally required and morally forbidden at the same time––you can pretty much tell that they’ve got something in the wrong place.

We have to be careful not to judge too quickly here though: any moral position will involve difficulties and paradoxes, and if some position seems to just fall together without any such challenges that is not so much a sign that it is true as a sign that it is superficial. Any system can be kept consistent by avoiding its application to the messy process of human experience; and if it isn’t applicable to deeper aspects of human experience, it’s unlikely to be of much value as a source of confidence. Some capacity to deal with internal tensions must be part of the value of any meta-ethical starting point. The way Kierkegaard put it, “a thinker without paradox is like a lover without passion.”

Another rule of thumb that can be applied to choosing what to believe in has to do with whose word you are willing to take on the matter. Like many decisions in life, you want to ask various people who have tried the different alternative “products” that you are considering “buying.” But you need to be careful about this, because many who will try to win you over to their own way of thinking will do so as a way of trying to get your money, for instance. Others will try to convert you to their way of thinking as part of a personal power trip they are on. If you can catch these signals they can serve as valuable warning signs. It’s always best to avoid following the recommendations of hypocrites if you can help it. But on the other hand many wonderful people can be sincerely wrong, and some real sleaze balls can randomly end up as representatives of beliefs that have a lot of value to them, so don’t take this as the final standard of what to believe.

The role of the belief in the person’s life

Grossly generalizing here, among sincere recommendations for a belief the most unreliable ones tend to be those coming from someone who has converted to the belief in question either in their late teens or early twenties. This usually means that they turned to this belief as a means of becoming an independent adult and/or as a way of drawing a line under the painful mistakes they made as adolescents. That can make any belief system look better in the eyes of the convert than it really merits. Slightly more credible than this, but still rather unreliable is the testimony of those who have remained faithful to their childhood beliefs without ever seriously questioning them –– who have never seriously considered the possibility that their parents were wrong about key issues. On other hand, the more serious a set of crises a person can get through without having to radically change his or her belief system in the process, the more it says about the genuine value that belief system has for the person.


A viable source of confidence will decrease rather than increase your need to attack others.

One final factor worth mentioning is that those who have a serious hatred towards those who believe, act or look different from themselves should not be trusted. One characteristic of a workable set of foundational beliefs is that it enables the person to act secure and civilized around those who don’t share his/her beliefs. This sort of personal confidence enables the individual with a functional belief system not to feel threatened by those who see the world differently. This is what we call tolerance. In short, the less tolerance you see among believers in a particular system, the less likely it is to have much value, and visa-versa.

All this is based on the premise that your source of confidence is something you actually choose. It’s fair to say that this is something the vast majority of people –– even well educated people –– never really stop to think about that seriously. For most people the things they pursue as sources of confidence are things that they are socialized into by their families, their schools, their religious communities, their local peer groups or some combination of the above. It might be rather idealistic to believe that any of us genuinely choose our beliefs and our career paths. But I have to agree with Kant on one basic thing here: if we’re going to have anything called “ethics” we’re going to have to postulate some basic capacity for people to choose what they do with their lives. “Ought” implies “can.” And since on that basis I’m willing to postulate that people can choose, at least somewhat, how they are going to live and what goals they are going to pursue, I would hope that they would choose carefully and wisely; and dare to admit their mistakes and revise their choices if necessary. It is the capacity to make such decisions for oneself that qualifies a person for the elite status that Maslow calls self-actualized.

In any case, though intellectuals of many sorts tend to believe that this sort of existential autonomy is the highest form of happiness, as I’ve said already, I really don’t see it that way. First of all, I don’t believe that in practice a person’s level of happiness depends so much on how intelligent she/he is or even how important she/he is seen as being. I believe there is something greater than confidence as a source of happiness: connection. This includes, but is not limited to, all of the different emotional and spiritual experiences we call “love.” Explaining what I consider that to entail will be the subject of the next (and for now probably the final) installment in this series here.


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Filed under Epistemology, Ethics, Happiness, Philosophy

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