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Our Failure to Penetrate Reality: The Role of the Examined Life

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 18, 2015

When I explored the nature and sources of meaning in our lives (see What is ‘meaning’ and where does it come from?), I emphasized that the answers were largely self-evident. But if that is so, why do the men and women of our age have so much trouble embracing them?

Part of the answer is found in the way science and technology have undermined confidence in our native mode of human knowing. Already in the second installment (Opening Ourselves to Meaning and Purpose), I noted that it is one thing to focus on material measurement as a specialized mode of knowing, but it is quite another to reject knowledge that cannot be physically measured. Every child of the modern West has grown up wearing blinders. But how did things get this way? Why have we come to see “science”, among a great variety of specialized ways of knowing, as the only trustworthy source?

A Crisis of Knowing

Truth is not a measurement but the mind’s conformity with reality. Historically, the crisis in our normal mode of apprehending truth is relatively easy to trace. Beginning with a medieval worldview which was supremely informed by the Catholic Faith, the modern West was first disturbed by the rediscovery of the pagan classical vision of man during the Renaissance; next, it was upset by the Protestant Revolt and the consequent inability of even Christians to agree about Christianity; and shortly thereafter it discovered vast new worlds in which people lived in very different ways and with very different assumptions about the cosmos.

These surprises piled very rapidly one on top of the other. By the seventeenth century, they had contributed to a growing skepticism about the West’s traditional philosophical and religious approach to truth. This uncertainty dovetailed nicely with the rise of a prosperous middle class which found many advantages in greater independence from the Church and the old order. The so-called Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, in the eighteenth century largely rejected Revelation as a coherent source of meaning, and instead placed enormous trust in pure reason.

The enormous success of science in the next century, including all the improvements made by technology to our material lives, seemed to many to be a kind of proof of the validity of a new rational spirit. But as time went on, philosophers and theologians became more aware of how human culture shaped our perceptions, inducing a sort of relativism. Either way, Christianity slowly eroded in the Western mind, and the shell of Western respectability—a vestige of Christian values no longer personally held—gradually eroded with it. By the mid-twentieth century, the last vestiges of a Christian public order began to be systematically swept away. Relativism gained ground; even authentic education languished.

As it turned out, confidence in reason rapidly followed confidence in faith out the door. People simply no longer “knew” the world in the same way. Now, as new worldviews and ideologies rise and fall in a vacuum of ultimate meaning, it scarcely seems possible to assert anything at all about the real meaning of life, or at least anything that goes beyond the imperative fashions of the moment.

You Can’t Go Home Again

My own temptation has always been to throw another argument at such confusion, almost like lobbing a hand grenade. But in discussing the problem with my son the philosopher (Christopher Mirus, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dallas), I found that he was able to add a singularly important piece to the puzzle: No matter how we got ourselves into this fix, we have all become aware of so many different world views, held by so many different persons and cultures, that we simply can never return to the kind of take-it-for-granted certainty of our distant forebears.

In primitive cultures, argued Mirus the Younger, people do not spend much time thinking outside the box. But as culture becomes more sophisticated in its awareness and acknowledgement of all that has gone before and is going on elsewhere, we become acutely aware of how many different boxes there are, and we become reluctant to claim that any one box contains all the right answers. We should recognize, of course, that there are ways to overcome our problematic awareness of human diversity. We can even recognize that, in another sense, we moderns still have no trouble uncritically accepting whatever our cultural elites want us to believe. But as a description of the root of our contemporary metaphysical paralysis, this cannot be far off.

Christopher Mirus also noted that once we are aware of the vagaries of human thought and culture, we really cannot become unaware of them. For good or evil, that awareness remains. Unless it is carefully unpacked and analyzed, such pluralism is likely to induce a metaphysical paranoia bordering on despair. We really can’t go home again.

The first part of the Christopher Mirus solution is to recognize that our human way of knowing is limited in various ways. We really cannot prove our principles to everyone’s satisfaction; we cannot fully answer every objection, even to ourselves. We may see a conclusion as well-warranted or even self-evident, but this will not stop someone else from seeing it otherwise, or from not being willing to admit that he sees at all, or from being attracted to an alternative explanation.

In describing our human way of knowing throughout this series I have always recognized the problem of human fallibility. I noted that eventually we would have to discuss that issue. Perhaps the time has come.

The Examined Life

An excellent way to deal with our own fallibility is found in the second part of the Christopher Mirus solution. This goes back to Plato: We cannot allow our awareness of the pitfalls to destroy our confidence in our ability to know. Our human fallibility does indeed have many causes, but this proves only two things: We must proceed with care and we will never understand everything perfectly. Just as we have no choice but to “know” according to our human estate, so too must we delve into reality as best we can, starting from the culture in which we find ourselves and with the assumptions we have inherited. The best of all arguments for this is that nothing else is possible.

But what is so often forgotten in our own day is that we must be not only world-aware but also self-aware. If we are truly self-aware, then the only possible posture before reality is humility. We must purify both our motives and our methods. We must learn to recognize all the influences (both interior and exterior) that can cause us to go wrong.

Each of us who thinks must constantly examine not only his ideas but everything about his life that influences his ideas. The greatest component of our knowledge consists in our conclusions about the nature, ends and purposes of things—from the operations of an atom, through the distinction between natural processes and miracles of grace, to the meaning of the universe—and this means that the greatest component of our knowledge is a fundamentally spiritual recognition of order. There are many ways to increase our certitude—as anyone can attest who has witnessed an obtuse mind guided by passion. But there is only one way to increase our mind’s conformity with reality: Patient study coupled with sincere self-examination.

Plato insisted on such self-examination even before Jesus Christ made it the moral cornerstone of human progress. This need for self-examination, including examination of the ideas we cherish, ought to be self-evident to anyone who has ever realized he was foolish enough to be wrong. Christopher Mirus proposes that we should beware of worldviews and ideologies which do not encourage and encompass serious self-examination. Finally, he suggests that among all the “systems” on offer for coming to know reality, Christianity has an enormously powerful cognitive claim to fame.

What is this claim? Simple: Christianity is the poster child for the examined life.


Previous in series: What is ‘meaning’ and where does it come from?
Next in series: Christianity, Poster Child for the Examined Life?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Thomas429 - Mar. 20, 2015 10:17 PM ET USA

    Those of us who believe in the practices of humility, self examination, and striving for self correction need to start being less shy about trumpeting the benefits of these practices. We must not allow ourselves to be silenced about the benefits we receive.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 19, 2015 5:25 PM ET USA

    To bruno.cicconi7491: Your comment is well-taken. It is not part of my argument that what we are facing today is unprecedented. Our metaphysical paralysis does have points of similarity with that of the Romans, who themselves had been profoundly affected by diversity. But I am trying to trace different aspects of the crisis of meaning in our own time, not in theirs. Also, a Church now filled with culture-bound Christians, rather than converts from the world, has to struggle harder to project its own certainties!

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Mar. 19, 2015 8:57 AM ET USA

    I'm following you Dr. Mirus. Yet I must disclaim that, as it seems to me, the modern situation may not be as unprecedented as it seems. If it is new in relation to our Medieval past, it is not so as regards Antiquity: "The Book of Law of Different Countries" by Bardesanes evidences how cultural diversity was not only unknown to Christians but actually, it was part of the world where they came to be.