Jul 4 2008

How do you know?

As I’ve mentioned in past posts, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about belief paradigms and epistemology (kind of the same thing). To someone who hasn’t spent years questioning things, it probably seems like a silly thing to think about.  However, how we know what we think we know, and what we think we can know, is essential to a number of issues, including such apparently diverse topics as faith, science and even romance.

Think for a moment, those of you who are lucky enough to have someone love them. How do you know that you are loved? What is your criteria? Do you even need criteria? Is it just a feeling, or is your belief based on some rational analysis? What do you mean when you say that you love someone?

For at least 200 years we in the Western world have lived within a modern worldview. Modernism is essentially the result of the Enlightenment, when men suddenly realized that reason and logic were, well, reasonable and logical, and surpassed any other basis for knowledge. The ultimate reliance upon reason, combined with the questionable belief in progress (that is, the belief that change is ultimately for the better, and what is new is better than that which is old), is modernism in a nutshell. Modernists believe that science and technology improve the quality of life. Every problem is addressed in a reasonable fashion, and they take Aristotelian logic for granted.

Now, I love logic as much as the next guy, and sometimes even more. It’s a great tool. However, as I’ve studied a bit of history here and there, I’ve realized that not all cultures have thought the way that we do. For example, our concept of cause and effect, that doing this will always result in that, is a modern concept. Moderns see time as progressive – that is, like a time-line, moving from the past into the future. Ancient cultures tended to see time in a circular fashion, which is why the seasons took on the importance that they did.

Being modern, we presume that those illogical ancient cultures were wrong. After all, we know so much more now, and we have medicine and indoor plumbing.  We don’t worship the sun (well, some of us still do), and we don’t chant and wave dead chickens around. Instead, we do things like play the lottery or go to casinos even though we know (there’s that word again) that the odds are against us. And, we have indoor plumbing.

I’ve heard stories about modern missionaries encountering so-called primitive cultures, and being laughed at when they try to explain things in modern terms. To non-modern cultures, our cause-and-effect thinking is laughable, because they believe – and according to them, know – that things aren’t always what they seem. Quantum theories have also challenged some of that cause and effect thinking, especially when they do experiments that seem to show that the effect sometimes occurs before the cause, or that different effects exist simultaneously, up until the point they are observed.

So here’s the question: how do we know that modern logic is the best way – or even a good way – to think? The catch here is, of course, that we can’t use modern logic to comment on itself. How, then, do we know what we know?

Isn’t this fun?