Chris Jepson: What do we know? How do we know it?

Chris Jepson

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Philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in his 1989 classic, “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity” that, “About two hundred years ago, the idea that a truth was made rather than found began to take hold of the imagination of Europe.” What a grand opening to a book, that truth is a human construct rather than found or revealed in sacred texts (see: Bible, Koran, Torah, Book of Mormon, etc.).

I credit my father for not burdening his children with religious dogma fundamentally at odds with what it means to be a fulfilled human being. Father chafed at the idea of a religious hierarchy, one espousing “received” (found) wisdom, laughably from a jealous god. The idea of being born with original sin was dismissed as ludicrous. We are born animals in need of a harness that hitches individual initiative with civic responsibility, rather than saddled with any guilt of having been created sinful.

That human beings are “religious” surprises no one. I get that. For the past 10,000 or so years, explanations have been offered to understand the inexplicable. Whether it is thunder, drought, pestilence or the violence we humans so horrifically inflict upon one another, a god or gods have had a hand in it all. So it is claimed. The enigmatic, existential questions of where did we come from and where do we go upon death and why is there anything, well, religions filled the “explanation vacuum” that only man’s reasoning the past 250 years has meaningfully challenged and successfully repudiated.

Unfortunately, yet understandably, the “churched” consider any challenge to their belief system as an attack on them personally. I do not care one iota, one whit what anyone personally believes or practices. That is the absolute beauty (freedom) of America. That doesn’t mean I suspend judgment. I can go to a public meeting and if someone wants to get up and invoke their deity — that those so gathered do good civic work — hey, I stand up, yet may privately reflect on the vibrant red-bottomed Christian Louboutins an aisle over or investment possibilities or what my middle child is doing.

That’s right, we shouldn’t care what dogma, creed, superstition or principle activates our fellow citizen except when “their” belief system impinges on the rights of the individual and/or of society to collectively create and implement sound public policy.

Two essential questions of our times are, “What do we know and how do we know it?” If public policy — dealing with how we address individual rights as well as how best to structure society — is to be effectively formulated, then addressing these two questions is paramount.

When invoking your sacred religious text as justification for curtailing individual rights or thwarting reasoned public policy (see: reproductive rights, Hobby Lobby implications, climate change, our economic system, etc.), then be prepared to have your personal beliefs challenged by those seeking answers to: “What do we know and how do we know it?” Just the facts, Ma’am. And, of course, the context. And what next.

Rather than claiming the truth (from a specific scared text), let’s pursue what works. Pragmatism (see: John Dewey and Richard Rorty) is America’s Git-R-Done Philosophy of, in this application, governance. It isn’t so much interested in what you personally believe as how best can we create a culture that reasonably balances individual creativity (initiative) with, as Rorty puts it, the “public project of human solidarity.” That is our challenge and it is difficult enough without the “truth” getting in the way.