There isn’t anything down there, you know.

In mathematics, you don’t get anything without making an assumption. Math doesn’t tell you what’s “true,” it only tells you what follows from the assumptions. It’s derivations are only as believable as the axioms that form the base of the structure.

The same is true about the whole of epistemology. In an earlier post I discussed the fractal that describes a person’s knowledge, and neglected any mention of its root. Well,

At root is pure assumption.

As Richard Feynman said once, “you have to allow something to be true.”(1) These things go down to the bone marrow of our worldview. I sometimes think that very often political discussions fail completely to sway anyone, like religious discussions, because we are never really getting to the root assumptions that people are basing their positions on.

I have invoked the “materialistic principle” here a number of times. Alternatively, one might assume object permanence(2), or the similar notion of conservation laws. Religious folks will take their texts, contradiction be damned.

But there is no safe ground. There is absolutely nothing that can be beyond doubt. There isn’t anything down there. William James(3):

Most of you are devoted for good or ill to the reflective life. Many of you are students of philosophy, and have already felt in your own persons the skepticism and unreality that too much grubbing in the abstract roots of things will breed….Too much questioning and too little active responsibility lead, almost as often as too much sensualism does, to the edge of the slope, at the bottom of which lie pessimism and the nightmare or suicidal view of life.

I don’t agree with James about the end result of this rooting around; he can only speak for himself. Sarte found existentialism down there, and in a way my own view is similar to his, though I am motivated by a desire to understand nature, and am not interested in hypotheses that separate human beings as agents that supersede nature’s principles or pretend them to be anything other than a consequence of same.

A choice must be made of where to “hook in” on the side of this epistemological mountain, and the choice must necessarily be arbitrary. I’m not sure anything can even be articulated without this. This entire post presupposes that the mind can examine itself in a rigorous way, and I’ve preloaded it with a lifetime of inferences.

A good part of my teenage years were spent rooting around and ruminating on largely useless questions like this, searching around in religious texts and philosophy for some sound basis (4). If you have not yet done this for yourself, I encourage you to take a few years off, with “too little active responsibility,” and engaging in “too much questioning.” It will be very enriching if you are the kind of person who survives staring into the abyss.

  1. He was talking about magnets in that context. We don’t get to know why opposite charges attract and like charges repel…we must assume it.
  2. Try playing peekaboo with Ted Cruz. Enjoy this.
  3. I am of course not a diest, but strongly urge anyone who hasn’t to read “Is life worth living?” William James is one of my favorites.
  4. No, not even for morality will you find a sound basis. Common atheist claims of a rational basis for this ring false to me. For no good reason really, I just reject solipsism: I observe that there are what appear to be other people and creatures with thoughts, feelings and experiences of their own. I suffer and experience happiness and I therefore assume by their appearance that they too exist and so does their suffering. It satisfies me to alleviate even some small part of this suffering. Let this motivate my action.