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Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush

November 20th, 2005 | 3 min read

By Tex

In my seemingly endless (perhaps only circular) search for knowledge about knowledge, I have come to realize that one question more than any other continues to present itself. I think the answer to this question may turn out to be the one key that will unlock the doors to a multitude of hitherto inaccessible mysteries that keep me up all night and have been the source of a nearly perpetual ache in my soul.

My question is this,

What are the foundational (and therefore unassailable) principles and criteria by which an individual may set forth to distinguish Truth from Error? How are these principles and criteria truly and justifiably known?

When I raise this question with friends, the answer I most often get has something to do with sensory experience and knowledge about the material world. It as though they were concerned I was on the verge of plummeting into a world of idealism, and thus never being able to enjoy the simple pleasures of life--pleasures like sitting in a chair without being plagued with anxiety over whether or not it is real enough to support my very substantial weight.

Perhaps this answer is the necessary first step towards uncovering criteria which allow for knowledge about the more interesting and life-threatening issues that are found in an individual's worldview. If so, please help me see the connection.

While questions about the existence of the material world are interesting in there own way, the sorts of questions that exacerbate the ever-present ache in my soul are concerned with more intangible things. Questions about the nature of man, the purpose of life, the essence and existence of beings other than myself, and both my current and the proper relationship to those other beings--questions that are supposed to be answered by my worldview. These issues are intensely personal because they boil down to questions about my identity, my purpose, the world I live in, and the moral responsibilities that may be incumbent on me. These issues are also universal (at least I imagine they would be) since they are intensely personal to beings other than myself.

My current dilemma is not so much with the details of my worldview, as much as with what justifies me in holding it and how to go about tweaking it. Once certain foundational principles and criteria are accepted, the rest more or less flows out of them as they are applied to various topics. Rather, I fail to see what allows individuals to accept certain principles and criteria as foundational in the first place; especially because it seems that different people can have very different criteria.

It seems that we don't have the leisure of choosing our foundational principles at all. Rather, from the moment our feet hit the floor, we are off and running. We make decisions about what counts as evidence long before we examine if our decision-making process was sound. We can only come at the world through our particular lenses, our interpretive grid if you will, and never have the opportunity to stand outside of it and decide if it is adequate, effective, or more importantly, correct. Each individual has his own grid, and even if he wanted to change it, it could only be done within the context of the current grid, thereby limiting him from objectively knowing the merits of the new proposition.

In a way, this dilemma seems to be a problem of interpretation. Only instead of arguing about literary theories and the best way to understand Moby Dick, I'm looking for a larger theory that will get at the best way (the correct way) to understand God, myself, and the world. All the problems that show up in literary theory (authorial intent, separation of the audience and the author from the text, subconscious and/or unnoticed effects due to society, ethnicity or psychological make-up, locus of meaning, final authority, etc.), show up in an attempt to interpret the world and our selves. Worse, I don't see how to separate myself from these problems in the way that I can separate myself from literature--the "God's-eye view" seems currently unavailable.

The next-best-thing and its justification still flummox me. You?