The Limitations of Knowledge

The Limitations of Knowledge
The desire of non-believers to carefully define themselves continues to baffle me. Of course, this desire isn’t limited to the non-theist community. Just describing your political leanings could become a full-time job: liberal Democrat, moderate Democrat, conservative Democrat, left of center moderate, right of center moderate, liberal Republican, moderate Republican, conservative Republican, libertarian Republican/Democrat, Libertarian…the list goes on indefinitely. And that’s just for those who consider political affiliation to be a linear continuum. There’s a wonderful quiz available called The World’s Smallest Political Quiz that shapes the political spectrum as a diamond, which is far more satisfying.

Perhaps I’m just a simple guy, but I’m more attuned to living my life than defining it. That wasn’t always the case, and this could just be a function of age (with age comes wisdom?), but it seems like it should be more important to go forth and enjoy what time you have than sit around deciding if you’re an APW, an IDF, a CGN, or a ZUK (all acronyms are made up!!).

Of course, defining one’s beliefs is important if one wants to debate others with different beliefs, with debate being defined to include formal argument, informal discussion, informal argument, and basically any other format in which one sets up her reasons for believing as she does and the other side does the same.

As non-theists, one of the questions we get is how do we know that we’re correct? A bumper sticker sums up the general feeling of the question well – if you’re living like there’s no Hell, you’d better be right!

How do we know we’re right? After all, reason has been identified on this site as the building block of humanity, and reason is simply a way for humans to use and even create knowledge. It all takes place in our brains, and our brains are not all equally up to the task of reasoning (just as all brains are not equally up to any task you care to name. Some people are just simply better at sports, art, music, literature, science, math, public speaking, etc. than others.) Just read through a restatement of David Hume’s rebuttal to John Locke’s ideas about inductive reasoning, and you’ll get a sense of how impossible it really is to know that we know anything.

To an honest non-theist, it’s literally impossible to state with certainty that we know there is no god. Is it any wonder that the religious aren’t swayed by our arguments? They seek certainty, and religion gives them a god that promises that everything will be all right, gives them a community that affirms that faith in that god, and gives them formulas for living and worshipping that promise to keep them on the right side of that god. Some even provide for eternal rewards if you play the game on earth correctly, i.e., by the religion’s rules.

Giving ourselves wonderful defining labels may make us appear to be more definite and certain in our approach to non-theism, but the fact is we are limited by the limits of human ability, and part of our job as non-theists is to become okay with that. To admit it, to embrace it, and explore it. Because the same exact problem confronts the theists as well – they can no more know there is a god than we can know that there isn’t one. And that more than levels the intellectual playing field.

Because, if it’s certainty you seek, you will fail. All life has to offer us is the chance to learn, to grow our personal knowledge as well as the world’s knowledge, and share that with each other. And the rational, scientific method-based approach that a non-theist necessarily must take in order to survive and thrive is the approach best suited to the world in which we live.*(see below)

The great physicist Richard Feynman once wrote “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong…I don’t feel frightened by being lost in a universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”

An interesting life. Not a bad aspiration.

* (The degree to which any one person consciously uses this approach varies widely, of course. We can delve into this at more length in the forum, and I’m sure I’ll come back to this idea multiple times in the months to come.)

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