Leaning Into My Presuppostions

Atheism, Communities of Unbelief, Critique of Apologetics, Humanism, Naturalism, Philosophy, Secular Grace

Conversely inspired by presuppositional apologetics and continuing my Watershed Presuppositions series I thought it time to write down what my presuppositions are.

Presuppositions are truths you accept without justification. They are accepted a prori and may or may not have evidence to prove them. They are your starting point and the basis upon which everything you believe in is built.

It is important to note that everyone has presuppositions whether they are aware of them or not. Much of the difficulty in having a dialog with those you disagree with is the unstated incongruous presuppositions that you and your interlocutor hold.

My Presuppositions

Ontological and Epistemological

  • The universe exists and has patterns which are to varying degrees discoverable.
  • Conscious minds are a product of the patterns of the universe.
  • Logic and mathematics abstracted from the discoverable patterns of the universe by conscious minds are sound and reliable.
  • The scientific method which uses logic, mathematics and observation is a reliable method for discovering the patterns of the universe.
  • Truth is that which can be tested and verified to conform to reality.

Moral

  • Human beings have value and inalienable rights.
  • Human beings are fallible.
  • Human beings are meaning makers.

These are the truths that I hold axiomatically. Some, even most, can be justified, meaning they have evidence. But, for our purposes here, what are the implications of these statements when held true?

You may find yourself saying, “but I don’t believe one or more of these.” No problem. These are my presuppositions not yours. The reason they are useful is for you to understand how I come to certain conclusions and not others. If you can accept them purely for the sake of argument you can begin to understand my worldview. If you cannot accept them even solely for the sake of argument then we have nothing further to discuss.

The universe exists

This one seems pretty obvious. If it seems as obvious to you as it does to me, you have probably never hung out with philosophers.

The purpose of this axiom is to do away with the interesting yet tiresome arguments of solipsism, that the only thing that can be proven to exist is our consciousness. Do we live in a hologram or a matrix? Are we just brains in a vat? So boldly and arrogantly I assert, the universe exists!

photo of galaxy

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Even more boldly I assert that at least to some extent it has patterns which are discoverable. These patters are observable and ultimately knowable to varying degrees of certainty. The old trite saying, “as surely as the sun will rise in the East and set in the West,” is an example of observing a pattern of the universe and gaining certainty that it is true.

Conscious minds are a product of the patterns of the universe

This one is more of an assertion. Fewer people may agree with me here. But I take this as a given. Consciousness is not made of a mysterious non-natural substance. We may not understand consciousness in its entirety … yet. Therefore,  I assert consciousness is a product of the patterns of the universe we find ourselves conscious in.

This axiom is important to do away with the idea that consciousness is something other than natural. The idea of a soul dies hard.

Logic and mathematics are sound

Again, if you find this one obvious, you have not spent much time with either philosophers or presuppositional apologists.

Logic and mathematics are abstractions from the patterns of the universe by conscious minds. There are a few hidden assertions in here that I will point out.

Logic and mathematics do not exist in the platonic sense. We have discussed dualism in this series before it is a difficult one to escape. What I am saying here is logic and math do not have their own existence they are the product of human intellect based on observed patterns in the universe: abstractions. In philosophic language this is an epistemological claim not an ontological claim.

We as conscious human beings observe the patterns of the universe and we abstract “rules” that describe those patters. If I have two sheep and then I get two more I have four sheep. It does not matter if “sheep” are woolly mammals who chew the cud or blocks, or rocks, or anything. We have abstracted the rule 2 + 2 = 4 by observation and human intellect. From basic arithmetic to number theory we have abstracted rules from these patterns.

person holding a chalk in front of the chalk board

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The most important assertion here is that logic and mathematics are sound and reliable. It is a feature of logical and mathematical proofs that each step taken relies on the proofs that came before it. If one of the foundational mathematics axioms were not true the proofs built upon it would not “work” as they do.

Don’t believe this one? Then throw out the magic device in your pocket that gives you access to the near sum total of human knowledge. That device, the network it uses and literally the information itself is all built on logic and mathematics.

Mathematics is the language of the universe.

— Neil Degrasse Tyson

The scientific method is a reliable method to gain knowledge

The scientific method is simply a process by which an idea is tested by gathering evidence. If there is strong evidence more credence is given to the idea, if there is little evidence credence goes down and if there is contradictory evidence the idea may be abandoned altogether.

My assertion here is that this is a reasonable and reliable epistemological method, a way to gain knowledge.

The scientific method leads toward truth in major part by discarding bad ideas. Finding true ideas is hard. Validating that an idea is true is just as hard. But by discarding false ideas the options are narrowed down toward true ones.

Science is self-correcting. If tomorrow credible evidence is discovered contracting any of the deeply held scientific theories credence in that theory would drop. Not only that the discoverer of the contradicting evidence would be lauded.

Science tends to assume naturalistic metaphysics. If that bothers you, then you need to account for science’s unreasonable, wild and fantastic success. The entirety of the modern age depends upon the successes of science from medicine to space exploration to binge watching your favorite TV series on demand.

Truth is that which can be tested and verified to conform to reality

Adding to the common definition of truth as that which conforms to reality and adding a bit of the scientific method. I assert that truth is that which can be tested and verified to conform to reality where reality is the product of the patterns of the universe. We should have more credence in something that has been tested and has evidence than something that has neither.

Evidence, testing and validation are important because these are the only tools to convince the skeptic. Einstein was famously not a fan of quantum theory in the early days. But he was won over by the evidence.

Critical thinking begins with the assumption that our beliefs could be in error, and if they are, that we will revise them accordingly.

— Peter Boghossian

If I make a claim, you can believe me or not. But if I make a claim and tell you how to test for yourself and that test validates my claim it is harder to ignore.

I expect the accusations of scientism, materialism and empiricism. Fine. It is certainly true that there are vast areas where science just doesn’t know. And in fact this is a feature: to humbly acknowledge all that we don’t know.

Focusing on the gaps in knowledge misses the point, keep in mind all that we do know. Evolutionary theory explains the vast complexity of life on planet Earth. Theories within cosmology can model the universe back to fractions of a second after the big bang. Gravity waves just recently verified were predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The baffling quantum field theory explains nature’s behavior at the microscopic level which turns out to be deeply counter intuitive.

Even for those things which we cannot measure directly we use inference. We have inferred dark matter and dark energy. These two account for 96% of the material in the universe and yet we cannot detect them directly.

Human beings have value and inalienable rights

This is the basis of my morality: human beings have value and inalienable rights. I assert it thus, and then try to live out the implications. As sentient beings we recognize each other’s great value in the otherwise empty vastness of the universe we find ourselves in. We are not alone. We have each other.

I am a humanist as I have written before. This simply means that people are more important than ideologies of any kind. We ought to treat each other with Secular Grace.

woman carrying baby at beach during sunset

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I appreciate the need to expand this concept to conscious creatures. This has vast implications on how we treat animals and potential artificial intelligences. However, as recent political history has shown we are not very good at treating each other with respect and valuing each other’s rights. So human beings are my focus.

Human beings are fallible

Just as important as recognizing the value human beings pose we must also acknowledge human fallibility. Although, I reject the concept of sin it would be foolishness not to recognize people can be destructive to themselves and others.

Human beings are neither all good nor all bad. If those terms are too loaded, they are neither completely selfish nor completely altruistic. Our motivations are complex and varied and they very rarely reduce to simple identifiable sources.

We are very good at fooling ourselves. We are susceptible to a vast array of cognitive biases. In fact, much of the process of the scientific method is to avoid human fallibility and our ability to find what we want to be true.

However, just because human beings are fallible or imperfect does not mean we are not of great value. Sentience being an exceedingly rare commodity in the universe we find ourselves in, we need to love each other.

Human beings are meaning makers

We humans are the conscious observers who abstract the patterns of the universe. We experience awe and mystery and give them meaning. We define human morality  I assert there may not be inherent meaning in the universe but we humans make meaning.

We are the universe aware of itself.

— Carl Sagan, Julian Huxley, Neil Degrasse Tyson all have said some variation on this quote.

I tend to agree with Hume that you cannot get an aught from an is. Rather than exhausting ourselves looking for external objective truth, morality and meaning we should take it upon ourselves to work together toward greater understanding of human truth, morality and meaning. Though all human moral systems are incomplete, taken together they point toward respect for human value.