The Epidemic of Unexamined Assumptions

Given I’m a fan of popular culture, and a student of it’s influence on, and reflection of, the worldview of the people in that culture, I was very eager to read a piece titled Questioning the Gods: How TV’s Tackling Belief and Religion. The article perfectly captures a certain epistemology that is at the heart of how people understand the world in our secular, post-modern relativist culture.

When Keeping Your Kids Christian gets published, you will see that I’m a big fan of identifying assumptions within the culture, in discussions with others, and in our own thinking. Unexamined assumptions are an epidemic today. While everyone knows what assumptions are, most people don’t think they have any! Many Christians think this way too. But once we learn to question assumptions, many things become clear that once seemed opaque. As we uncover hidden assumptions we clarify thoughts and arguments to see if the logic holds up under scrutiny.

This skill helped me as I read the first paragraph. I instantly went on assumption alert!

What we believe, regardless of its validity, is often more powerful than reality itself. In most cases, belief is powerful means to a net-positive end: you can believe in yourself, the goodness in other people, and in the work you’re doing to improve the world. But when it comes to absolute belief above reason or outside context? That’s when you get into sticky territory. Systems of belief are deeply personal and therefore hard to talk about without bias or feelings getting in the way—and in a time when fervor around them drives so much of the social and political conversation (either as an undercurrent or more explicitly), it makes sense our television shows would take a stab at upending the power of belief and questioning its true power.

The author seems to believe in a “reality” that exists apart from what we believe, which is a Christian and Classical notion. Unfortunately, she undercuts this with everything else in the piece. She also uses the word “truth,” but almost as an afterthought. It has no real content, at least in any religious or metaphysical sense. She is, as I argued in my last post, like most Americans a disciple of Descartes: if something can’t be known with absolutely certainty, it can’t be known. It can only be “believed.”

The problem is that she seems to reify belief. Reification is a concept where some immaterial idea is transformed into something that has material like qualities, as if it were a concrete thing. So she ends up undercutting the implication of her first sentence, that there is such a thing as reality apart from belief. What gives it away is the very post-modern concept that belief is “deeply personal.”

I don’t know what she would say that means, but in our current cultural moment people tend to think their religious beliefs are true merely on the basis of holding those beliefs. To counter this, I’ve always told my kids that truth isn’t personal. Truth, or the nature of things as they exist objectively outside of us, is there for us to discover. We may be wrong or right, but as long as we don’t insist that our views or beliefs are reality, we can in humility have discussions with people of any and every view. I think Paul was getting at this when he said:

Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.

Thus we come back to epistemology. It always comes back to epistemology. Can we actually know things? Paul is not saying that we can’t, only that we must take a humble, and loving, attitude in our knowing. The context makes this clear:

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.

We are not doomed to agnosticism because knowing doesn’t depend on absolute certainty. If such certainty were required for knowledg, life would become a matter of competing beliefs, and thus questions of ultimate meaning mere preferences, like our taste in ice cream or music. This is the reason most people are uncomfortable discussing ultimate issues. You like vanilla, I like chocolate, you say tamaato, I say tomato. Yes, beliefs can prove more powerful than reality, for a time. But reality will always have the last laugh; God made it that way.