In addition, we all make many important decisions, for example, those dealing with trying to survive, to help our families survive (whatever we consider to be the extent of our “families”), to uphold and promote our values, and so on. I doubt that I’d get much argument if I claimed, also, that one of our most important decisions is how to obtain knowledge about the nature of the reality external to our minds.
But I may cause some controversy with the claim (argued below) that everyone’s most important assumption is one’s decision about how to gain such knowledge.
In philosophical terms, my claim is that epistemology (the study of the grounds and nature of knowledge, itself – from the Greek word for ‘knowledge’, epistēmē) trumps all other branches of philosophy, such as logic, ethics, aesthetics, ontology (existence theory), and so on, including the philosophies of science, religion, politics, law, etc. In all other branches of philosophy, epistemology is fundamental, since it addresses the basic question: How does one “know” what one claims to know?
There’s no doubt that we all possess substantial knowledge: our abilities to keep our hearts beating and to digest food, our innate sense of morality, etc. Yet in general, we don’t need to use our analytical capabilities to make decisions dealing with such innate (or instinctive) knowledge. After a billion-or-so years of experimentation, Nature “programmed” such knowledge in our DNA. As examples, if a projectile is coming at your head, don’t think about it, duck! Similarly, if you see a child in danger, you’ll immediately try to save the child. Those species that didn’t pass on such knowledge to their offspring (to help themselves and their “families” to survive) are extinct. Much of ethics, therefore, is instinctive.
Much of esthetics, too, seems to be instinctive; it may even be inherent in the “nature of nature”, that is, derived from fundamental symmetries contained within reality, itself. But I don’t want to go into that, now. It’s a complicated subject at the frontiers of modern physics and the bases of “the standard model” of elementary particles and of string theory.
In contrast to our possessing such innate and maybe even inherent knowledge, to gain new knowledge about the reality external to our minds we must make a fundamental decision: How is such knowledge gained? Exploring possible answers to that question leads to what I consider to be everyone’s most important assumption. To begin to see why I consider it so important, consider options chosen by people in two different groups.
Theists, those who adopt the premiss that various “supernatural entities” exist in the reality external to their minds, thereby and subsequently decide that knowledge about reality can be gained by “listening to their hearts”, by “just having faith”, or similar. All such “methods” are various versions of the “proof-by-pleasure logical fallacy” (viz., if it feels good, it’s “true”). If theists have enough faith (so it’s claimed), they can move mountains – and if they’re unsuccessful, it demonstrates only that they don’t yet have sufficient “faith”!
Scientific humanists, in contrast, adopt the fundamental premiss that knowledge about reality can best be obtained – or even, can only be obtained – by the scientific method: “guess, test, and reassess.” They learn by experimenting. Oh, they might try the theists’ technique of moving mountains by “thought control” (aka telekinesis), but when that doesn’t work, scientific humanists (aka “practical people”!) use dynamite and earthmovers!
The fundamental mistake made by all religious people is to succumb to wishful thinking. That’s consistent with one meaning of the word ‘belief’, which with ‘lief’ the Anglo-Saxon root word meaning ‘wish’, then one meaning of ‘belief’ is “wish to be”. The farther theists fall into their fundamental error, the more “fundamentalist” they become. In the limit, in the depth of their depraved “thinking”, such fools fly hijacked airplanes loaded with passengers into skyscrapers, convinced in their fantasy that they’ll be instantly transported to a fictitious paradise, where they’ll live eternally with 72 perpetual virgins available to competently relieve them of their sexual frustrations. They “believe” it so – they wish it so – so (so they claim), they “know” it’s so.
Scientific humanists, in contrast, decide to try to gain knowledge about reality not from wishful thinking but via the scientific method – not because it “feels good”, not because they’ve been indoctrinated in the method since childhood (although they have applied it, by themselves, ever since they were babies!), but solely because it seems to work. If it stops working, if it’s found to have fundamental flaws (but it hasn’t yet, as far as I know), then they’ll abandon it – for whatever works better! Using the scientific method (“guess, test, and reassess”), ancient hunters made bows and arrows, ancient farmers planted seeds and domesticated animals, ancient engineers built irrigation canals and developed wheels, ancient doctors learned techniques of healing, and so on it has gone, out to an including building airplanes, skyscrapers, and the internet – which Muslim maniacs use to kill people.
I use the contrast between the behaviors of scientific humanists and theists (aka unscientific antihumans) to defend my claim that everyone’s most important premiss is one’s decision about how to gain knowledge about reality. My reason for this claim is that (as I’ll briefly illustrate below) one’s choice about how to gain such knowledge is more important than one’s choice of worldview, goals, values, principles, policies, plans, practices, etc., because one’s choice of how to gain knowledge dictates the rest.
Ayn Rand wrote something similar in her book Philosophy: Who Needs It?
Are you in a universe which is ruled by natural laws and, therefore, is stable, firm, absolute – and knowable? Or are you in an incomprehensible chaos, a realm of inexplicable miracles, an unpredictable, unknowable flux, which your mind is impotent to grasp? The nature of your actions – and of your ambition – will be different, according to which set of answers you come to accept. [Italics added]
In fact, if the scientific method of gaining knowledge is adopted, then it can be used even to test our other basic premisses, such as that our thoughts exist, that we exist, and that the universe is entirely natural. Thereby, ontology (the theory of existence) can be seen to be rather silly: existence isn’t a theory to be proven but a hypothesis to be tested – by application of the scientific method.
To illustrate why I consider our most important decision (our most important premiss) to be how to gain knowledge about reality, I’ll list the following abbreviated statements. I go into details elsewhere.
- Whereas one’s claim of knowledge about reality leads directly to one’s worldview, therefore, how one chooses to seek knowledge defines one’s worldview. Thus, on the one hand, if you decide that knowledge about reality can be obtained only via the scientific method, you’ll conclude that the universe is entirely natural, thereby defining your worldview. On the other hand, if you decide that knowledge about reality can be obtained by wishful thinking (by just “believing”), then similar to all theists, you’ll conclude that the universe is filled with “supernatural entities” (from the “sacred spirits” of the shamans to the resulting gods and ghosts and goblins of “modern” mystics, from astrologers to clerics).
- Whereas one’s worldview dictates the purpose (or purposes) one chooses to pursue in life, therefore one’s purpose follows from one’s choice of how to gain knowledge about reality. Thus, if your worldview is that the universe (including all life) is entirely natural, you’ll likely adopt the premiss that a prime purpose is “merely” to help intelligent life to continue (e.g., by attempting to expand knowledge). On the other hand, if you conclude that the universe is populated, for example, with one or more omnipotent and omniscient gods, you’ll likely adopt the premiss that your prime purpose is whatever some sufficiently skilled con-artist cleric dictates to be the god’s (or gods’) desires (e.g., “go forth and multiply”, “kill the unbelievers”, and similar stupidity).
- Whereas values can be measured only against some purpose, then once one’s purposes are adopted, then one’s values can be established; therefore, values also follow from one’s epistemological choice. If, for example, you adopt the purpose to help intelligent life to continue by attempting to expand knowledge, then you would place substantial value on learning as much as you can and on sharing your knowledge. On the other hand, if you adopt the purpose to do as some alleged god desires (as dictated by some con-artist clerics), then you’ll place substantial value on doing whatever your clerics recommend (e.g., giving alms, paying tithes, having more children, etc., out to, in some cases, flying jetliners into skyscrapers).
In his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris summarized well the stupid, fundamental assumption of all theists:
We live in an age in which most people believe that mere words – “Jesus,” “Allah,” “Ram” – can mean the difference between eternal torment and bliss everlasting. Considering the stakes here, it is not surprising that many of us occasionally find it necessary to murder other human beings for using the wrong magic words, or the right ones for the wrong reasons. How can any person presume to know that this is the way the universe works? Because it says so in our holy books. How do we know that our holy books are free from error? Because the books themselves say so. Epistemological black holes of this sort are fast draining the light from our world.
As far as I know (based on the scientific method, i.e., relying on experience), the only way to stop the light of the world from draining into such “epistemological black holes” is to do one’s best to enlighten others, not only to help them see that everyone’s most important premiss is how to gain knowledge about reality but also to see that the only sensible ways to gain such knowledge is via the scientific method. And thus this blog and my associated book.