We’ve all been there. You’re walking along, minding your own epistemological business, pondering what you were quite certain were ponderables, when suddenly –
“The Zen monks say that the mind itself does not exist.”
Zen monks, you think to yourself, have terrible fashion sense. Perhaps it’s true that their minds do not exist. So you keep on, wondering about the evolutionary history of the Krebs cycle or the neurological basis of the capgras delusion, when again –
“However, I believe in the existence of reality independent of our perception of it. I have no evidence for or against that reality exists ‘out there’, not just in my head. I clearly don’t believe this as a result of evidence, but rather by faith.”
And you ask yourself: what is it about people who accidentally took the service elevator to the utility closet on floor 3 1/2 of the logical building are so evangelical about their lack of certainty?
Here’s the thing: the idea of evidence and proof relies on the existence of a logically consistent external reality. The word “evidence” is defined as:
Noun: The available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.
So of COURSE you have evidence that reality exists. All evidence is evidence that reality exists. It’s only when you redefine evidence according to some impossible standard that no actual evidence could ever meet – where you ask for proof that isn’t a result of raw data and logical inference – that you end up with the bizarre idea that you can never have evidence that reality exists.
In the same way that evidence is primary and imagination is secondary, reason is primary and faith is secondary. Faith means a method of coming to a conclusion that does not involve real data or logical inference. What could it possibly mean to have faith in reality? The concept has been stolen away from its logical foundation, and all that results – all that can ever result from this brand of self-refuting epistemology – is a thin, meager, and bland word soup, where the echoes of the original ingredients are all there, but it’s been cooked too long and turned to mush.
How is it that a person who settles on an epistemology that holds that nothing can ever be known so rarely concludes the obvious: they have failed, and need to try again? Yet instead, they conclude that they have found the truth that the truth can never be found! The mind boggles.
I encountered one of this sort just the other day. Holding my giant sign proclaiming that “There is no god – so relax and be happy!” as I often do, I was approached by a portly young, mustachioed man, who, making no effort to hide his smug sense of gotcha, declared that I was holding a faith-based position, as I could not prove there was no god.
“Who said I have to?” I inquired. “I’m merely informing people that the evidence supports the null hypothesis.”
“But that’s not what your sign says! Your sign isn’t very nuanced.”
“It’s…a sign. I am quite certain that it is accurate.”
“You can’t know anything for certain. You have faith!”
I looked at him with bemusement. “You sound quite certain about that.”
“That’s the thing!” he replied, giddily, “I can’t even know for certain that I can’t know anything for certain!”
“So of the two of us, I’m the only one who believes I can discern truth from falsehood. Yet you’re telling me I must be wrong to think so. Please go away and learn more.”