I’ve been wanting to write on this topic for several months now, and only just now have I had the time to do so. I feel the conversation around truth to be an especially important one right now, given the current schism in the political sphere over what otherwise seems like a pretty straight forward concept. It is also particularly relevant for me in the way I relate with people of religious faith, who, percentage-wise, are quite abundant in my social circles, and whose worldviews (or particular aspects of their worldviews) I find myself increasingly at odds with. What this entire issue really comes down to is epistemology, which is just a fancy word for the study of how we know things. It’s not that disagreements arise over truth solely as a result of one side misinterpreting the evidence (although that’s certainly part of it), but perhaps even more so due to the fact that Side A doesn’t even respect Side B’s evidence as being at all relevant to the conversation. The result is each side arguing past the other as they both appeal to their own respective epistemological frameworks, all the while missing the fact that neither side shares or respects the other’s epistemological lens. This is simply due to the fact that humans are prone to biases, irrationality, and general limitations and imperfections. With that in mind, I’m going to share with you my own answer to the following question: how can we know things to be true?
When I observe, say, a person, whether it’s by sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste (gross…), what I’m really observing is the effect that person is having on my brain. I am experiencing the processing of information as electrical signals in my brain which arise as a result of the eye, ear, sensory nerves in my skin, olfactory neurons in the nose, and taste buds on the tongue all reacting to physical phenomena and converting the information contained within that phenomena into electrical signals that get sent to my brain.  So what seems to me as a pretty profound insight, and one certainly worth pondering, is the fact that the only thing we truly observe directly is observation itself; the only thing we are conscious of is consciousness itself.
To get technical, that’s all assuming our understanding of the brain is fairly accurate, which is an assumption based on a lot of other assumptions. But regardless, even if we begin with as few assumptions as possible, here’s what I do know: there “exists” (in some sense of the word) a “thing” that is “me.” This is the one observation that cannot be an illusion. Even if all other aspects of life are simulated or I’m a “brain in a vat,” there is yet some sort of a first-person experience here that I consider to be “me.”
Yet in making that assumption, and in making any assumption, I must first assume that reason and logic are tools that exist and that can be trusted. This is a given. If one cannot begin with reason and logic, one cannot get anywhere or do anything. If you want to challenge the validity of reason and logic, be my guest, but you can’t use reason and logic to do so.
So I would start with two axioms that I think are universal to human epistemology:
Epistemology Axiom #1: Reason is a thing
Reason/logic exists and is a tool that can be trusted to discern truth (and by truth, I simply mean facts about reality). If we don’t have reason, we don’t have anything to go off of.
Epistemology Axiom #2: Observation is a thing
For all intents and purposes, my experience of reality is for the most part trustworthy in terms of my five senses. At least for the time being, it is not helpful to presume otherwise. If we can’t make this assumption, we can’t really do anything in life. It’s an assumption made out of pragmatism and necessity.
Also recognize that these two axioms cannot exist independently of each other. We need to trust experience (or observation) in order to justify that reason/logic can be trusted, but we also must use reason and logic to justify trusting observation. Removing one destroys the entire foundation.
The goal is to derive everything from just these two axioms, seeing as they’re the only tools we have at the most fundamental level. If we try to add axioms onto these that are independent of the first two, then we’re making assumptions not based on either observation or reason, and I don’t think it’s hard to see why this would be a fallacious approach to truth. But more on that to come.
So how can we effectively use reason and observation to gain knowledge? That’s where science comes into play. The scientific method exists just at the junction between reason and observation, observation providing the data, and reason guiding the observation and justifying the scientific processing of that data.
There is certainly no question that the scientific revolution has given the human species amazing insights at an unprecedented and exponential rate. And yet many are uncomfortable stopping here in their epistemological foundation. What if there exist truths outside the reach of science, as there almost inevitably do, given the limits of scientific inquiry? How then can we come to know these truths?
There seem to be two ways in which a given phenomenon can fall outside the realm of science: if it is either not observable in any sense, or if it is observable but not falsifiable. In the first case, if something cannot be observed whatsoever, then what business do we have asserting any claims about its existence, much less its nature, unless we can derive its necessary existence purely from mathematics (or reason)? If in the second case we supposedly observe something, but are left with no way to test the reality of the object of our observation, then it seems we are left with insufficient reason to trust our observation.
Nevertheless, many theologians have proposed the concept of “special revelation,” which is in contrast to “general revelation,” a term used interchangeably with science. General revelation gives us knowledge of general truths revealed to us about nature by nature, while special revelation deals with special truths about both the natural and supernatural (beyond natural) revealed to a single person or group of people by a supernatural intelligence.
So how would special revelation fit into our little epistemological pyramid? Perhaps like this?
This is assuming that special revelation is grounded in both observation and reason. But is it?
Every experience we have in life falls into one of two categories: verifiable experience or non-verifiable experience. A verifiable experience lands under the category of general revelation. It’s an experience that leaves a trail of evidence that, in principle, anyone can look at to verify the reality of the experience. On the other hand, a non-verifiable experience falls under the category of special revelation. There is no way for any other person to verify this claim, nor is there any means by which I myself can even test the reality of such an experience. It is outside the reaches of science.
For instance, if I tell you about the time I went to a coffee shop and wrote these words for this blog post, I’m telling you about a verifiable experience I had. Given the relatively low-stakes nature of my claim, you’ll probably believe me right off the bat that I indeed had such an experience, but I could also further provide details of the exact time and location of my experience, descriptions of people I saw at the coffee shop, and the clothes I was wearing and what I had to drink, and we could both pretty easily cross-reference my experience against what we know about reality. Does this coffee shop exist in the location I claim it to? Were there any witnesses to my whereabouts at that time? Is there a record of my credit card purchase made there? You get the idea.
On the other hand, if I explain to you that the creator of the universe told me to drop out of school and join the Army, this is not an experience of mine that can be verified. I can’t readily convince God to bear witness on my behalf, and there is no tangible trail of evidence to confirm the reality of my experience. This doesn’t disprove its reality, but nonetheless gives you no reason to believe its reality apart from my own testimony.
(For the record, I’ve never considered joining the Army, much less heard a heavenly voice tell me to do so.) Given this perspective, it’s not hard to see how unreasonable a basis for truth special revelation is. If there is no way to verify or make testable predictions from special revelation, then it would be utterly unreasonable to accept any extraordinary claim on that basis. If there were some way to test a special revelation, then we’d back within the realm of science and would no longer need special revelation as an extra epistemological building block. It would all fit into the category of science, even if that included observations made through supernatural revelation.
So all this being said, if special revelation were to be included in our epistemological pyramid, overall I think it would look something like this:
Special revelation is an epistemological building block based in the unfalsifiable observations of a select few, and is thus not grounded in reason. Therefore it cannot support itself, which puts us back with the original picture:
So wait a second. Is that it then? Is this what a reasonable epistemological framework looks like?
It seems so cold; too cookie-cutter; purely left-brained. Isn’t there a more nuanced element to truth, one that’s more well-rounded and human? After all, we aren’t purely rational creatures. And you don’t have to be a genius to observe the fact that most of humanity does not approach truth using the epistemological pyramid shown above. In fact, according to recent studies, over 80% of the world’s population identifies with some sort of religious belief. So is most of humanity made up of fools then, adhering blindly to religious belief that is unsupported by science?
Well… yes, to put it not lightly. But it’s not just the 80% that are the fools. We’re all fools. Indeed, we are not purely rational creatures. In fact, we’re hardly rational creatures at all. Being 100% rational was never required of us in our evolutionary history, so it’s completely expected that our beliefs are not going to perfectly align with reason. However, this doesn’t mean our approach to truth should become any less rational than the one I’ve outlined in this post thus far. Our irrationality is something to be overcome in our search for truth, not pandered to.
There seem to be two main paths along which our irrationality seems to thrive. I’ll call them our Paths of Lazy Truth Discernment for short.
Path of Lazy Truth Discernment #1: What we want to be true = true
Let’s imagine a scenario in which I tell you there is a large hunk of gold buried in the woods behind my house. Now, this may spark your interest and prompt you to ask how I know that, but if I then explain that I “just know,” and fail to provide you with any substantial evidence for my claim, then you will probably not be convinced of the truth of my claim. If you still trust my sincerity at this point, you may press further and ask what led me to initially suppose there was gold buried behind my house. I respond by explaining that if my claim turns out to be true, then it is definitely worth investigating, considering how much money is at stake. Thus, I try to convince you to pick up a shovel and join me in my search, even promising you a share of the gold. But you are a reasonable person and you still want to know what evidence I have for my claim before you risk wasting your precious time scouring the forest behind my house for some likely-non-existent buried treasure. I then lament to you that I could not bear to live in a world where there wasn’t a chunk of gold behind my house, and that this belief, although not substantiated, provides me with comfort and a sense of purpose in my life as I seek to find this gold. Naturally, this response will probably be a cause for concern for you if you care at all about my well-being. Surely you want me to have a sense of purpose in my life and to take comfort in certain things, but you have every right to be concerned with my delusional beliefs.
I admit this analogy is a bit of a facetious jab at the religious faith mindset, but I use it because I think it does a good job at exposing the irrationality and intellectual laziness of that mindset. And let me be clear that it is indeed the mindset that I’m critiquing here, not the people who hold these mindsets. It may very well be that I am truly convinced that there is gold buried in my backyard, in which case I am being completely honest and genuine in asking you to help me uncover this gold, which is commendable of me. In this case, the root of the problem is not one of honesty or sincerity, but of credulity. However this idea of buried treasure arose in my brain, it is obvious that I completely failed to evaluate it critically and skeptically. Given my lack of skeptical filtering, the idea easily took hold as a particular wiring pattern in my brain. And this is really no fault of my own. If I had never been given the tools to view claims and ideas with a critical eye, then it’s no wonder that I fell into the common trap of wishful thinking based on bad evidence.
Granted, it is still a possibility that my claim could be true. You haven’t scoured every cubic inch of dirt behind my house to be sure that I’m wrong about my claim, but the fact that I have not provided you with any reason to believe my claim naturally leads you to be skeptical. And furthermore, my strong emotional attachment to my belief is additional cause for skepticism, because you realize how much I want my claim to be true, leading me to stay strong in my conviction regardless of the lack of empirical evidence to support it. Surely, you reason, my desire for the validity of my claim has absolutely no bearing on the reality of the situation.
It is certainly not easy or fun to be the skeptic. The most inspiring stories are the ones in which the protagonist believes against all odds and ends up being right in the end, and so naturally this inspiration leads us to value the kind of faith mentality that lies at the heart of those stories. But this is nothing more than an unfortunate consequence of how our longings and emotions interfere with an honest approach to truth. In reality, the truth cares nothing for our desires and dreams, and so it makes no sense to turn to these things in pursuit of truth. Don’t get me wrong, our desires and emotions are invaluable to who we are, and certainly have their place in life, but not when it comes to discerning facts about reality.
And I get it. That sucks. Life would be so much more amazing if the opposite were the case. But it is only in accepting this reality that we will come closer to the truth. This is the wall that all of humanity must scale in order to gain clarity in the midst of so much complexity and confusion. And on the bright side of things, it is still ultimately up to us what we make of the truth we do find in the world, however dismal it may first appear to us.
Path of Lazy Truth Discernment #2: Poorly defined truth claims
Perhaps the primary issue with religious faith is that it is necessarily poorly defined in its claims. If we have a hypothesis about how the world works, then in order to confirm the truth of our hypothesis we have to be able to make well-defined predictions regarding our hypothesis that we can then test for. If instead we keep our hypothetical predictions broad and poorly defined, then we allow room for all measure of error and uncertainty in whatever sort of experimentation we can make of such an imprecise idea.
Take prayer as an example. If prayer were well-defined, then science would be able to demonstrate it as either effective or not. We would have a control group consisting of hospital patients that we didn’t pray for, and another group of patients that we did pray for (without the patient’s’ knowledge), all patients having identical diseases or conditions to start. If it could be shown that those prayed for were statistically more likely to recover, or to recover faster from their condition than those who weren’t prayed for, then we could determine that prayer was indeed effective. Notably, such studies have actually been done, but with rather disappointing results. 
Like many other claims in religion, prayer is very poorly defined, such that every unanswered prayer is nearly always accompanied by a myriad of excuses along the lines of “God acts in mysterious ways,” while the ones that are supposedly answered are followed by acts of praise to God. Furthermore, theologians cannot even agree that this depiction of prayer is even remotely the function of prayer at all, with many asserting that prayer is not about asking God for things, but rather about communing with God and allowing that to change the one doing the praying. But this too is such an ill-defined hypothesis regarding prayer that we are still at a loss to falsify any such claims.
And it is precisely this poor definition that allows for such widespread belief. The convenient reality of having poorly defined beliefs is that you never need have your beliefs confronted. The moment someone or something comes along to challenge your beliefs, you simply work a bit of interpretational gymnastics and you’re on your merry way.
My observation of Christianity has been that the malleable nature of scriptural interpretation is enough to allow for the formulation of a theologically consistent worldview that doesn’t explicitly contradict scientific understanding. Many well-educated and intelligent Christians are thus able to conclude that Christianity and science are not at odds with each other. I must emphasize that this pursuit of reconciling one’s faith with scientific understanding is of utmost importance, and I applaud those who take this issue seriously. However, I think this issue is pretty much never pursued far enough by people of faith, because if it were, they wouldn’t be people of faith, simply put. There are a multitude of worldviews that I could invent right now that wouldn’t necessarily contradict a scientific understanding of the world, but that still wouldn’t mean you would have any reason to subscribe to such worldviews. For instance, I could quite easily claim that the big bang was brought about by a giant non-physical, universe-farting unicorn. Nothing about such a claim necessarily conflicts with any current scientific viewpoint, but that doesn’t mean anyone has any reason to believe such a ridiculous claim. This is a serious problem at the heart of most people’s approach to truth.
So to get to what is probably the main point behind this entire post, my argument is that it is not sufficient that science simply allow room for our worldview. If what we are really after is truth, and our goal is to be 100% intellectually honest and rational in our pursuit of truth, then science should ultimately be the thing to exclusively determine our worldview.
And I realize this is quite a radical proposition to most, even to the non-religious. However, I think it is simply in line with an intellectually honest approach to truth, which would dictate that when one is left with insufficient data by which to make a worthwhile claim regarding truth, then one ought to suspend judgement regarding that truth. When observation and reason through science are not at the helm of the ship, then all we are left with is a wide-open, ill-defined landscape to which we bring our presupposed intuitions and biases, with no means whatsoever by which to challenge or test these intuitions and biases.
Now, all this isn’t to say that personal revelation or wild guesses at truth cannot, through sheer luck, turn out to be true, but it would indeed be an accident. If we cannot thoroughly test a hypothesis about the nature of reality, then what reason do we have to believe our hypothesis, much less be entirely convicted of its truth, as in the case of religion? Personally, I have far more respect for those willing to admit they don’t have an answer to something than for those who claim to know that which they have no basis for knowing. There certainly ought not to be anything shameful about an honest admission of ignorance, whereas if one is going to claim something as true and proceed to revolve their life around its truth, then such a claim has to be based on sufficient evidence, or else they will inevitably be found guilty of intellectual dishonesty fueled by what I can only imagine is some combination of comfort-seeking, fear, pride, and sheer ignorance.
But what constitutes sufficient evidence? I know many religious people, including even a few professional scientists of various sorts, who actually do see their religious beliefs as being based on sufficient evidence, while skeptics like myself are left flabbergasted when witnessing such levels of credulity. Is “sufficient” just a matter of personal whim and opinion then? Are we left then with a sort of subjective epistemology that’s based on the individual’s personal gullibility level? Or is there a way to determine objectively at what level of evidence it becomes sufficient enough to believe a given claim?
There’s no easy answer to this. Given the broad scope of claims we find in the world, objectively evaluating the sufficiency of a likewise broad scope of evidence across all these claims seems to be an impossible task. It seems inevitable that when presented with the same evidence, different people will come to drastically different conclusions, due to their varying levels of skepticism in the face of certain claims. However, I believe my argument would still hold nonetheless. The less credulous as a species we become on average, and the more we recognize and overcome our own biases and unfounded intuitions, the more likely we are to have our worldview accurately reflecting the truth.
All this is terribly important, because the further we stray into unverifiable territory with regard to our beliefs, the less certain we can be as to the truth of our beliefs, and therefore the more potential we have for miscalculations that lead to destruction and disaster.
All that being said, even science does not breed absolute certainty. With any epistemology, one cannot be both intellectually honest and 100% certain at the same time. As I stated from the beginning, everything we experience is quite literally in our heads. The question is if what’s in our heads is an accurate reflection of what’s out there, if out there is even a thing. So my final (and perhaps most important) point is this:
It is always an invaluable reminder to stay humble in one’s search for truth. After all, we are but Primates on a speck of dust, amidst an expanse of unfathomable majesty. So may we always be wary of the arrogance of man, and incessantly strive to see past it in light of this perspective.
I want to end this post with one of my all-time favorite quotes from the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who I could quite literally quote all day long:
“The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find… that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given.”
I got inspired to include visuals in my blog posts after becoming pretty obsessed with Tim Urban’s blog Wait But Why. Everyone should read his stuff. Hopefully my visuals give your brain another helpful way to process the information in this post. ↩
I use the term “science” here in its broadest possible sense, which, notably, involves more than just mixing chemicals in a lab. ↩