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The butterfly and the matrix

This is the first in a four-part series on Christian epistemology titled “Radical faith meets radical doubt: a Christian epistemology for skeptics” by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

By John G. Stackhouse, Jr.


Right now I’m bored. I can’t be wrong about that. I truly am yawningly, dazedly bored. Epistemologists assure me that about my mental states, such as this present one of stupefaction, I can claim certainty. More sharply, if I am feeling pain, then I am certainly feeling pain. It might be triggered by an injury, or the phenomenon of “phantom pain” after an amputation, or the probe of a neurosurgeon in my brain, but whatever the cause, “I am feeling pain” is a statement I can make with absolute certainty.

Alas, there are precious few such statements one can make. In this so-called Information Age, in which we have more access to more data than ever before, we also live in the age of Photoshop, scams, phishing, and the lot; in a post-Sixties cloud of unknowing in which we doubt the claims of any purported authority. Surrounded by a world of knowledge, we feel less and less able to trust any of it.

Radical doubt is hardly a new problem, of course. The ancient Chinese sage Zhuang-zi wondered if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or possibly instead a butterfly dreaming he was a man. The Wachowski brothers (as they were at the time) brought us The Matrix, merely the most popular of cinematic head trips making us doubt the reality of our quotidian percepts—from Total Recall to Inception to, well, the remake of Total Recall.

Still from The Matrix
Still from The Matrix, courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment.

In between, however, we had the robust confidence of the early Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Here, at least, was a time when philosophers and scientists had the world by the tail and could confidently pronounce upon it.

Take John Locke, for example. Here, at least, we have someone who knows what he knows and sets the empiricist tradition of the Enlightenment firmly on its way to greater and greater knowledge of the world.

Except Locke, despite the textbooks, didn’t think that way about thinking. After two centuries of religious and political upheaval in Britain, in the late 1600s John Locke thought it was time to settle everyone down. The great political philosopher was also an epistemologist and epistemology came readily to the aid of his politics.

Instead of prosecuting politics with a fanatical certainty that could tolerate no alternatives, he advised his reader: bethink yourself as to just how certain you can claim to be. You will find that you are not nearly so entitled to certainty as you thought you were. In fact, legitimate certainty is rare and restricted to only one zone: one’s own mental states. You cannot be less than certain, since you cannot possibly be wrong, about what you are experiencing, whether joy or pain. (Sound familiar?) The common epistemic situation instead is to be more or less convinced by more or less convincing evidences and inferences.

The common practice to that point, to be sure, was to simply believe or not believe. Locke’s predecessors and contemporaries, he contended, had foolishly taken onboard all sorts of dubious and even pernicious ideas without submitting them to the scrutiny of critical reason. Worse, they then had elevated various versions of this mish-mash to the level of dogma, and proceeded to fight religious wars over them. In short, people had not governed their beliefs properly heretofore.

The proper attitude instead, Locke averred, is to proportion one’s assent in any given case to the strength of the evidences as adjudicated by Reason. One thus is in an epistemological position to grant that other people’s views may have at least some grounding. One might even learn something from particularly impressive alternatives. An attitude of tolerance for alternatives is thus in order, fanaticism should disappear, and political, ideological, and even religious pluralism can flourish.

Across the Channel, scientist and theologian Blaise Pascal likewise anticipated our postmodern doubts as he warned:

Man is nothing but a subject full of natural error that cannot be eradicated except through grace. Nothing shows him the truth, everything deceives him. The two principles of truth, reason and senses, are not only both not genuine, but are engaged in mutual deception. The senses deceive reason through false appearances, and, just as they trick the soul, they are tricked by it in their turn: it takes its revenge. The senses are disturbed by passions, which produce false impressions. They both compete in lies and deception.

Surely, though, we have come a long way since the seventeenth century? Surely we can have much firmer footing for our beliefs today, The Matrix notwithstanding?

One main reason for our lack of certainty is that our brains still process the world the way our ancestors did. It’s not a bad way to process the world. Quite the contrary, in fact: it is generally efficient and reliable. But it is a long way from providing us certainty about much of anything.

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman sums up much of his career in his popular book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He suggests that we typically respond to the world in something very like a reflexive mode: apprehending, comprehending, and responding to what we encounter with as little intellectual effort as possible. We therefore “process” the world along well-worn intellectual pathways, habits of apprehension, comprehension, and response (Kahneman uses the term “heuristics”) that have served us well in the past and require little effort to traverse again.

Our natural resort to such habits, of course, helps us avoid traffic dangers smoothly, return a tennis serve accurately, and greet a stranger at a party politely. But our reliance on what Kahneman calls System 1 thinking means that we often miss opportunities to apprehend, comprehend, or respond to reality as well as we might—or ought. For on the dark side of System 1 thinking is convention, bias, even prejudice, the very opposites of insightful, creative, and independent thinking.

Indeed, System 1 thinking is “a machine for jumping to conclusions,” Kahneman says. It is an awfully useful machine—indeed, we could not survive, let alone thrive, without it. But its very speed, general reliability, and relative ease-of-use means that we tend always to resort to it unless we feel we simply have to slow down and think about things in a concentrated way. Then we employ System 2, the mode of complex calculations, critical re-examination of information, and the posing of creative alternatives. Even then, however, we use System 2 only as much and for as long as we feel we need to do so. We are, Kahneman concludes, basically lazy thinkers.

Stanford business professor Chip Heath and his Aspen Institute-consultant brother Dan confirm from abundant research that the ideas that make the most immediate and lasting impact on people generally have qualities that have nothing to do with their veracity: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, a measure of credibility, emotional impact, and a vivid exemplifying narrative (Made to Stick). Thus contrary ideas that are more complex, banal, abstract, equally credible, dull, and bereft of a fascinating story cannot compete—even if they have the single quality that matters: truth.

One might assume that those we trust as authorities can rise above the habits of the mass. Journalist David H. Freedman will keep you awake at night, however, by his account (with the wonderful title, Wrong) of just how frequently experts have been wrong nonetheless.

That upsetting news is in my next post.

John G. Stackhouse Jris the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology.

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  1. [...] faith meets radical doubt: a Christian epistemology for skeptics.’   First in the series is The Butterfly and the Matrix, then Certainty and Authority. The other two are yet to come.   The series is based on his brand [...]

  2. [...] * John G. Stackhouse, Jr.: The Butterfly and the Matrix [...]

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