how do we know what we know is true,  politics

Today’s Personal Epistemological Crisis

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Today I’m having my own little epistemological crisis. My inspiration for these thoughts are a New York Times article talking about a theory on the recent pipe bombs sent to Democrats.  The New York Times reported on this theory:

The bombs, this theory went, were not actually part of a plot to harm Democrats, but were a “false flag” operation concocted by leftists in order to paint conservatives as violent radicals ahead of the elections next month.

The inability of people to accept the possibility that maybe, just maybe, their own political party includes some violent radicals is amazing. It boggles my mind that others can believe that somehow this is a false flag. It seems so obvious to me that it isn’t. As Andy Borowitz quipped on Facebook the headline “Suspect arrested in pipe bomb case had right wing Trump stickers all over his van” is the “LEAST SURPRISING HEADLINE EVER.”

Yet still there are people who want to convince themselves that this is not true. The person sending those bombs couldn’t have been a right-winger. It must be a false flag. The lengths people go to try to get out of believing the truth is amazing. It has always bothered me the extent to which people attempt to protect their beliefs.

This experience of losing important beliefs is disconcerting; I know that.  I’ve gone through it. I’ve had things I was absolutely convinced, and then later I realize I don’t believe them anymore and I feel stupid about having once believed it. I know that the ability to change beliefs makes me a little nervous about sharing my beliefs now – I don’t trust that I’ll hold the same beliefs forever. I wonder how I can trust my current belief system, knowing that it can change. Everything I think I know is true might not be, and I have to accept that. The discomfort that brings gives me some sense of why people might go to such lengths to try to hold onto their beliefs.

The other day I was cautioning one of my children that he has to be careful in making arguments with others. You don’t have to fight every fight you’re invited to. You don’t have to try to win. He said that’s because people are dumb, and I said even some smart people cling to false ideas. He couldn’t wrap his head around that at all. “If they’re smart, wouldn’t they know that they don’t know everything and open themselves to seeing the logic of something else?” It has been a few days but he’s still bringing that topic up as he ruminates on it.

Often people dismiss ideas they don’t like as coming from a source they don’t like. “Oh, that sounds like something they’d say on Fox News” or “that’s from a liberal rag” or “that sounds like 4chan.” We can brush off what other people say, dismissing their sources, or if that doesn’t work, the person themselves.  If people don’t like an idea, they often brush of the messenger. To my shame, I know I’ve done that at times.  The methods people use for defending their positions are often at odds with maintaining friendships.

The determination to hold onto beliefs in the face of evidence splits people apart. We can’t talk, can’t come to common ground, unless we’re willing to shift our positions a bit. Not shifting positions in the way of everyone moving to the center and pretending to believe something they don’t, or worse yet one person shifting their position in an attempt to show flexibility and compromise while the other holds the same position firmly, but a shifting of position that comes from actually listening to one another’s opinions thoughtfully.


I wrote a few days ago about my difficulties setting boundaries. Part of the challenge for me with setting boundaries is that I tend to try to look at people through rose colored glasses because I’m not confident that I can see the truth about people. Knowing that my perception of someone changes over time, I know my initial perceptions are not always true and I want to see the best in people. This often backfires on me. My rose colored glasses lead me wrong, and I end up hurt. I’m learning to be cautious on that.


So where does that leave me? It leaves me wondering whether anything I know is true. I know that:

  1. People often go long lengths to delude themselves.
  2. I’ve done that at times.
  3. I could, potentially, be doing that now.

So how do I know that what I believe now is true? I look to those around me for collaboration, but how can that reassure me when those around me are a group I selected, thus likely to be those who share possible beliefs/delusions?

This is why I think sometimes we need small town community. We need people around us we don’t agree with, that we didn’t pick but we can’t get rid of. Internet commenters can’t replace that, since they’re too easy to dismiss. We need people we can have long-term relationships with, that we can respect for some things while disagreeing with on other things. We need hard rocks on which we can brush off our own rough edges and who can ground us in reality.

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