Monday, September 13, 2010

Intellectual Due Diligence

During a conversation with my mother when I was about 30, I proclaimed that she and Dad had made it easy for me to reject religion. Incredulous, my mother asked me what I meant by that statement. I told her that both she and Dad had inculcated in me from a young age never to believe something without thinking. Both my parents are life long journalists and therefore their MO in life has been to ask questions and to seek out facts. Sometimes those facts have lead to an uncomfortable revision of a previously held opinion. Sometimes they have reinforced an existing stand on an issue. Whatever the case, they always insisted my siblings and I think first and weigh the evidence before reaching a conclusion.

In exhorting me and my siblings to investigate and sort things out on our own, my parents never told us some areas were off limits. Therefore, from about age 11, I decided the concept of a God and religion in general were utterly silly - or worse. If, as my parents said, I ought to gather facts and evidence in all endeavours of life, then surely they were inviting me to do the same for the really BIG issues, too. And so I did.

Being a child of educated parents where dinnertime conversation frequently revolved around issues and ideas, I also learnt from a young age to cultivate good speaking skills. Respect for the opinions of others was key in my household, but so was healthy debate. If I disagreed with someone, it was acceptable to say so without belittling the other person for holding a divergent view from my own.

As readers of my blog know, I am not afraid to jump into serious issues, but I also avoid the philosophical jargon of other writers. That said, what I figured out as an adult through my own reading was the method my parents had taught me and my siblings amounted to Aristotelian epistemology. The 'e' word is a mouthful, so simply put, Mom and Dad taught us: what do you know and how do you know it? I am sure neither of them had the word epistemology in mind. Theirs was a common sense method they passed on to their kids and I am the happy recipient of that method.

I must pause here to insist I am not a professional intellectual - not by any stretch of the imagination. But I am an observer by my nature and I have always sought answers to the trickiest questions in life. Sometimes my method gets me into hot water. Some religious people have expressed dismay or anger over my lack of belief. Others cannot fathom how I could possess the audacity to challenge belief in a God when historical giants like Thomas Aquinas remained a Catholic despite his Aristotelian methods.

I can appreciate all the scorn and dismay, but my reply to those challenges is to say: people also believed in a flat earth until that notion was proven incorrect. In addition to that, a common reaction to my atheism has been: prove there isn't a God! Ah, that's a nice intellectual trick, but how does one prove the non-existence of something? Couldn't I just as easily say: prove there isn't an elephant in the room?

My intention here is not to condemn people - after all, this is a blog about valuing. My point is to illustrate that the only way I or anyone else can attain knowledge is by using our minds, sifting through relevant facts and reaching conclusions by a ruthless logical process. I often say - and this should be the epitaph on my gravestone - the facts, wherever they lead me. Sometimes facts will cause me to reject a specious set of ideas like religion or environmentalism. Other times they move me to accept unpopular ideas, such as my hard won belief in freedom and capitalism.

Many people are afraid to think or to challenge the popular wisdom of the day. I have never feared my own mind because I grasped at a young age that my greatest achievements in life will result from my ability to reason. Because of my adherence to good thinking methods, I can accept my errors without difficulty. I LIKE to be proven wrong, as long as the evidence provided squares with the facts of reality.

In thinking about thinking, I am moved to ask my readers: how do YOU arrive at conclusions? Put another way: is reality your friend or your foe?

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