A secret fear that afflicts most human beings is the fear of being wrong in what they believe. Late at night, they stare at the ceiling and wonder, if maybe, just maybe, the people on the other side, those who believe in ways different from them—what if they are right? What if I’m wrong? What if everything I’ve ever thought, everything I’ve ever believed, everything I’ve ever hoped for is all crazy?
My wife once confessed to being in a room with her friends, looking around, and wondering in her head, “what if these people really despise me, and they’re just putting up with me? How do I know they’re really my friends? Maybe when I’m not here they complain to one another about what an awful person I am, how boring, how stupid, how annoying? What if they wish I’d go away and never come back?”
“Darn,” I commented. “The secret is out.”
So she punched me.
Doubting, questioning, being skeptical of authority and what we’ve been taught is generally not a bad thing. It is important, as Socrates argued, that we know ourselves: that we know what we believe and why and have some good reasons for our beliefs. But of course, sometimes, like my wife’s thoughts about her friends, such fears are quite irrational. If our certainty is sometimes questionable, how much more should we question our skepticism?
One will occasionally run across people who express that they have no doubts about what they believe. None at all! They pound the table. They know with absolute certainty that they have the truth.
If you’re like me, you probably worry a bit about these people and wonder how long it will be before they wind up flying airplanes into buildings while mumbling “God is great!”
And yet, if we are honest, we each have to admit that we have core beliefs, things that we feel are certain, or if we remain honest with ourselves during this line of reasoning, are at least pretty sure are certain.
So what can we rely on? Is there anything over which we can pound a table about?
If we’ve seen the movie The Matrix, we are familiar with an old conundrum that shows up in most philosophy courses, the sort of thing Freshmen stay up late pondering as they drink too many beers: how do we know what we know? How do we know reality is really there? The philosopher Rene Descartes, like that movie, suggested that reality might be an illusion, since all we know of reality is mediated by our senses. And how do we know our senses are not being tricked? After all, optical illusions do a fine job of making confetti of our perceptions. Perhaps we’re really just brains in a vat, with some mad scientist sending signals to them, creating this world for us, perhaps a separate world for each individual. How could we know it isn’t that way? Is there a red pill we can take? And if we took it, how would we know what we then perceive is any more real than the world we’ve been yanked out of?
Like I said, we can easily wind up doubting our most core beliefs. So what do we do? We must simply assume some things. As members of Western civilization we have some unproved and unprovable core beliefs, the beliefs upon which we build our entire lives, everything we think, everything we know.
First, we assume that the world out there is actually out there. We assume we’re not living in the Matrix. And although we can’t prove it, it seems a relatively safe bet. Second, we assume that the world around us operates in a cause and effect sort of way. Like, if you hit your finger with a hammer, it’s going to hurt. A lot. If you throw a ball through a window, it’s going to break. If you cheat on your taxes, the IRS will find out eventually. And third, we assume logic and math are part of the basic structure of the universe. That means we believe that something can’t be both an apple and a peach at the same time. It means we believe that contradictions are proof of something being wrong. When the miscreant says he was home watching the football game, but we have ten witnesses, his DNA and fingerprints on the knife, and a video of him stabbing the hapless clerk, we think it’s reasonable to assume he’s lying.
It is on such things we build the rest of our civilization. Is it all true? It seems our assumptions have been making a world that functions pretty well, most of the time. At least my car started without much trouble this morning and at the moment my computer reaches the Internet. So probably we can sleep soundly tonight.