When I was a college freshman I took Intro to Modern Western Philosophy. The first book we read was René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. You might not expect a 400 year old philosophy tome to precipitate a faith crisis. I didn’t either, but that’s exactly what I got.
The problem was that I had a pretty simplistic model of truth going into that class. Namely: I thought it was the kind of thing that one could collect, sort, and categorize like Pokémon (“gotta catch ‘em all!”). There were facts existing out there in the world and–by experience or study–you could go out and snag a few for yourself. That was knowledge: the collection of things that were true and the recognition that they were certainly true.
The problem is that Descartes’ book (sort of a 17th century inspiration for The Matrix) pretty much obliterated that naïve model. He asked simple questions: How can we really know anything? What’s completely beyond doubt? The answer, it turns out, is basically nothing. One by one, Descartes gives reasons why we can’t be sure of all the things we take for granted until, at the very end, the only thing left is that one famous observation: I think, therefore I am. Pithy, sure, but solipsism is not exactly an expansive foundation to build a worldview on.
What really disheartened me, however, is that after digging this deep dark hole of ignorance and finding a single kernel at the bottom of it, Descartes tried to grow a tree from the grain and it didn’t work. How can we trust our senses? Well if you ask Descartes, it starts with a proof of God. Good luck with that. As far as I can tell, we’re all stuck down that deep well Descartes dug with no way out.
This may seem a bit silly, but it took me literally weeks to figure out how I was going to rebuild my world. It’s sort of like the (very weird) fairy tale about the princess who can tell there’s a pea under the stack of mattresses no matter how many you pile on: Descartes’ philosophical failure–and the failure of any philosopher since then to rescue certainty from the jaws of doubt–may not matter much on a day-to-day basis. But it’s there, lurking under the surface, and now that I knew it was there I could not rest easy.
I have not rested easy ever since.
That is not to say that I am still stuck in the same place that I found myself more than 10 years ago, but I didn’t start moving forward until I finally unpacked certainty from my backpack of beliefs, set it down on the side of the road, and walked away without it.
When Micah asked me in a podcast if I had ever had a faith crisis relating to Mormonism I couldn’t say that I had. That’s not to say that I haven’t found things in our history or our theology that are troubling. I absolutely have, and I still do. But whenever I do, I think of the words of Peter: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Accept that in my head, it’s not Peter talking. It’s Descartes. And he’s saying, “Look, I can’t even be sure my body exists when I’m clutching the side of my head and staring at myself in the mirror. You want certainty in your religious beliefs? Are you kidding me?”
The world we live in is a strange, strange place. We all build mental models to simplify and predict–and a lot of them are useful–but they are all wrong. Contrast the way we think about objects around us with the scientific knowledge that, in terms of space, they are 99.999% empty space. Things like the difference between “solid” and “liquid” are basically matters of perspective and context. (Doesn’t mean you should be philosophical about running your face into a brick wall, but, it also doesn’t mean it’s not true.)
And that’s just conventional physics. Try doing some reading on the competing interpretations of quantum mechanics (Copenhagen vs. many-worlds) or, to spare yourself a headache, just cut to the chase with some quotes from leading quantum physicists
Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it. – Niels Bohr
I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. – Richard Feynman
So does the fact that quantum mechanics is shocking but true mean that I can just accept any old shocking claim–like the idea that an angel gave a backwoods kid some gold plates and so forth–without question? Quantum mechanics is weird, so now anything goes?
Of course not. But what it does mean is that I have a very relaxed and patient attitude to the fact that my religion occasionally (sometimes it feels like “frequently”) doesn’t make sense to the world I live in or to me personally. Perceptions of plausibility are conditioned on our experiences and reflect our expectations. Truth isn’t and quite possibly it won’t.
Not just my religious life, but everything I believe in has been in constant jeopardy ever since I read Descartes. It was in jeopardy before then too, but I just didn’t realize it. (If you think Descartes is bad, by the way, one day we’ll talk about David Hume…) I can’t say I’m comfortable with it, but over time I’ve come to relish it. If you’re not risking something with your faith, you’re wasting your time. If your faith can’t die, then your faith isn’t alive.
I have a new model for knowledge to replace the one that Descartes broke. I won’t describe it here because I don’t have space and also because it’s a moving target, but I’ll share a quote from Otto van Neurath that gives some idea of its essence:
We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.
Reconstruction is not a process I went through to find peace with my religion. It is my religion.