Tearing Down the Temple

Reactions to reading the book of Romans

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Friday, August 12, 2005

Romans 1:1,2—The presuppositions of unbelief

Unbelief is not passive. It is not the agnostic suspension of judgment in the face of insufficient facts that we all like to imagine it is. Unbelief is active. It takes a definite position, whether we like it or not.

For many years, I formally took an agnostic position, primarily because it seemed to me to be the easiest to defend. The defensibility of agnosticism was important to me first of all because of my training as a mathematician. Many years of practice as an applied analyst in the computer industry had predisposed me to a mindset that ranked knowledge according to levels of certainty, viz.:

  • provable (in the mathematical, axiomatic sense);
  • demonstrable (observable, measurable, and repeatable);
  • inferential (reliably derived from one or both of the above);
  • factual (perceived and reliably reported);
  • probabilistic (any but the first, subject to random disturbance);
  • opinion (possibly derived from first principles but incapable of being rigorously established);
  • rumor, unfounded belief, fantasy, divine revelation, and wishful thinking (in no particular order).

My life was not in fact organized in accordance with such pristine intellectual categories. The categories of truth content given above reflect what my vanity demanded. The defense of my views, apart from its application in my professional life, was conceived very much along the lines of a coffeehouse debate. In other words, the role of my beliefs concerning truth centered on prevailing in argument, to the credit of my vanity.

Only a small amount of thinking along those lines suffices to convince one that the positions one holds are not only correctly evaluated but that the analysis supporting the evaluation is unassailable. (That feeds the ego quite nicely.) This works, of course, even when the system is in fact flawed. It may even be, as it was in my case, utterly unsound. That makes no difference to the vanity until that flawed system collides violently with reality.

The trouble with this kind of truth-categorical thinking is that we routinely expose our ideas only to those tests and test cases that we are comfortable with. This testing goes on in the isolation of our minds, which is not a very objective setting. And of course, it is important stuff we are dealing with here, the worldview and intellectual organization that we bring to bear in consideration of practical problems, moral and intellectual. Unless we take some pains to test our principles outside the comfort and safety of our minds, our ideas may be (and remain) way out of balance or even preposterous.

Another difficulty with this scheme is that it is entirely centered in self—-nothing can be admitted to exist that does not match one of these categories. Quite naturally, this closely matches the intellectual spirit of this age, a fact that my education had utterly failed to equip me for dealing with or critiquing.

I suspect that these patterns of belief and unbelief are quite common. They rest on presuppositions that result from deep cultural indoctrination, and these presuppositions can be acquired quite unconsciously. The presuppositions are not easy to express, but the list below summarizes their basic drift:

  • I am not dependent; my surrounding environment is dependent on my recognition of it;
  • I am not contingent; other people are;
  • the problem I face is the rearrangement of my environment to suit the desires I choose to seek satisfaction for;
  • God, if He exists, can only do so meaningfully if I believe in Him; if I ignore Him, He will recede into insignificance; He is in fact a reflection of my own state of mind;
  • the world only has meaning as I project meaning onto it;
  • though the world may have an independent reality, it is not possible to distinguish between an objectively extant world and a Potemkin village (a mere front);
  • the only conceivable models for life are anarchy and fatalism (which are by no means mutually exclusive);
  • my personal epistemology is the result and domain of my own private choices.

Now, if you do not recognize at least a couple of those, you have forgotten what it means to be young in our world.

Simply growing up cures some of this. As a child, one’s world is small and limited, bounded by an unreachable and mysterious exterior. As one grows, the bounds expand along various axes: one learns about time, about the extent of thought, the depth of feelings, the reach of loyalty, the price of work, and the cost of failure. These things give structure to one’s expanding worldview, resulting in the discarding of primitive models adopted during development-—at the conscious, intellectual level. But on an unconscious, suppositional level, those principles may persist and still be hard at work, filtering one’s views of existence and discarding some ideas and belief systems before they have been fairly evaluated on the cognitive plane.



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