Sorting Apples

Suppose I give you a basket full of apples and ask you to sort them. How would you do it? Would you sort them by weight? By color? Would you put the good apples over here and the bad apples over there? How would you distinguish a good apple from a bad one?

Now suppose I give you a list of beliefs and ask you to sort them. How would you do it? Would you sort them by category? Suppose you wanted to sort them by truth value. So you draw a line down the middle of a paper and you go about writing the true beliefs on the right side and the false beliefs on the left. But how do you decide which beliefs should go in which column?

Now suppose the list is populated with your own personal beliefs. Much of the list is already sorted, isn’t it? We already have a very long list of statements written in either column. Most of us can scarcely remember a time when we suspended judgement about anything. Even as children we were often foolish enough to form a belief in matters about which we knew very little. And now our mental lives are a mess of beliefs, both true and false. And as J. P. Moreland has rightly pointed out,

“Reality is what you bump up against when your beliefs are false.”

All at once the task becomes inexorably relevant. It is much more, but not less, than self-preservation to distinguish between one’s own true beliefs and false ones. For while true beliefs will allow us to live in harmony with reality, false beliefs will punch us squarely in the throat.

Now suppose that a pop quiz is coming, on a day unknown to you, and from that moment on your entire future well-being will be based on the accuracy of one of those beliefs, but you don’t know which one. Now there is an unprecedented urgency in sorting your beliefs. You would spend your days sorting your beliefs as efficiently as possible, fact-checking and researching until you can confidently accept some beliefs, and confidently reject others. But before long, you’ll have a third pile. A list of beliefs about which you don’t have enough information to be confident either way.

But what if the key belief is in that third pile? You may ignore that pile for a while, but sooner or later you’ll realize that you cannot withhold judgement forever. You must sort the pile. So you find yourself sorting it with a less-than-stellar confidence. You start with the ones you’re only 80% confident about and you put them on the true list. You work your way down to 70%, 60%, until you get to the really tough ones. By this point, you are surprised to learn that you’re actually quite willing to put a belief that you hold with a confidence of 51% on the true list. This is perfectly rational. If it must be either true or false, it certainly doesn’t go on the false list, so it must be held as true.

Now suppose that you’ve finally sorted the list. (Let us assume that the set of all possible propositions is finite.) You get to the very last one, and you start to write it down. But then you stop yourself and realize what you’ve done. In all the urgency of getting the list sorted, you’ve failed to answer the original question: How do you decide which beliefs are actually true and which beliefs are actually false?

Life is quite like that for many people. We go about our days forming beliefs, holding beliefs, even espousing beliefs, without ever considering whether or not there is a method for distinguishing true beliefs from false ones. Trial and error has done much of the sorting for us, and the older we get the more trial and error we experience. But what if there really is one belief that will be the key to all your future well-being?

In fact, that’s exactly what Christianity entails. There is a particular $64 billion dollar question, and if you answer it correctly, you win at life. Some people have stumbled into a particular answer because of their parents, their life habits, or their own disposition. Others have struggled toward the answer through years of meticulous study and reflection. Still others have had the answer thrust upon them through sensory experiences that push them toward a particular verdict. But each person, Christian or otherwise, is faced with the same question of epistemology, the one that Roderick Chisholm called: The Problem of the Criterion.

There are basically three options: 1) In order to claim to know something, you have to know how you can know it, 2) you can simply claim to know things, somewhat willy nilly, or 3) you can’t really know anything.

The trouble with option 1, called methodism, is that there’s not really a method of showing it to be true. Under the terms of methodism, you are required to have a method of showing something to be true before you can take it as an item of knowledge. So methodism itself cannot be taken as an item of knowledge. Methodism unravels itself fairly quickly.

The trouble with option 2, called particularism, is that there no real way to show that particularism is true. Of course, the particularist does not require of himself that he prove his particularism before he takes it as an item of knowledge. He just gets to plant his epistemological flag, declare his independence, and start writing out a list of beliefs.

The trouble with option 3, called skepticism, is similar to the trouble with methodism. Skepticism wants to say that you can’t know anything. Now, when you ask a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic how she knows that skepticism is true, she’ll say she doesn’t really know it’s true; she just thinks it’s true. The trouble with that is that no skeptic actually lives that way. Every skeptic I’ve ever known lives with strongly-held views about morality, politics, pain, pleasure, and purpose. Ask them enough questions, and they’ll eventually come to something that they believe is true. At the very least they usually believe that they think that they think that skepticism is true.

For myself, I choose particularism. Not because I enjoy choosing beliefs willy nilly, but because I don’t see a better option. Methodism and skepticism fall apart far too quickly, and the only weakness I find in particularism is that you might hold beliefs that are false. That’s not much fun, but as J. P. Moreland has said,

“You can be harmed every bit as much by failing to believe something that is true as you can by believing something that is false.”

When a 2×4 is falling on your head, failing to believe that wood is solid is just as harmful as believing your head is made of silly putty. In a world of objective reality, the criteria by which you sort your beliefs matters quite a bit. But in order to know which criteria are the correct ones, that is, which set of criteria will produce a list of beliefs which correspond to reality and allow you to dodge a blow to the head, you have to address this fundamental epistemological question. In my own journey, I’ve grown fairly confident that anyone who addresses the question for long enough will eventually become a particularist, whether they admit it or not. And it seems to me fairly obvious that anyone who refuses to address it is just a particularist anyway.

Now, how about them apples?

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