Why you believe what you do…


Epistemology: why you believe what you believe

(And how to game beliefs to work for you.)

My son

When my son was four, he announced that Santa wasn’t coming to our house.
This was not because we don’t celebrate Christmas and Santa. We do. He knew exactly what Christmas is about. But, somewhere around December 23, 2010, in front of stockings and a noble fir in the living room, he announced that Santa wasn’t coming.
The most bewildering part of this was his flat affect. He just said it like it was a fact – and not one about which he was worried or concerned.
It took a bit of pondering to figure out how he came to the conclusion that Santa wasn’t coming. But I figured it out! (His flat, accepting tone was what tipped me off.)
It was what he knew!
Let me explain…. Every Christmas movie he had seen (Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Elf, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Olive the Other Reindeer), had the same basic story line repeated:

  • Santa is scheduled like normal.
  • Something goes awry.
  • Christmas is on the verge of being cancelled.
  • Resolution happens.
  • Santa comes.

So, of course that’s what he thought because that’s what he had been taught.


Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with how we know what we know. And as the above story about my son points out, we know only what we have experienced.
The Allegory of Plato’s Caves is the classic story of epistemology. It’s one of my favorite wisdom_biscuits to teach. Here is my very shortened and modern retelling:
<click this link <https://oldrotb.wpengine.com/platos-caves/>to find out when I am going to present a retelling of this story live on the Internet.>
Some people, immediately following their birth, are strapped into seats in a movie theater. They can only see the screen in front of them, and they are never allowed to leave their chairs. (Don’t ask logical questions about how or why. This is not a true story; it’s a truth story.)
These people consequently believe that the flat pictures in front of them are the totality of reality. They have never seen anything else.
Then, one day, one of these people is taken from the theater and they experience the three-dimensional life that you and I call reality. Consequently, this person spends a considerable amount of time surprised, suspicious, and incredulous.
Eventually, the reality outside the cave is understood to be “true” reality. (And everything that was previously known to be true is seen as the “illusion” that it was.)
Succinctly, as St. Paul <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_of_Tarsus> wrote, ” When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”


How do I know that I am Jewish? I know it only because when I was a child, I was told I was Jewish. I believed the people who told me. And, I believed the world, which did not contradict them, that I am a Jew.
Nothing wrong with the label. I’m just making a point – that we are what we believe to be true.
How do any of us know what we know except that it is what we know? We are the sum of the experiences and memories that we have.
I know nothing more than I have ever known. I can’t.

The downside

A few years ago, I found myself talking to the president of the high school at which I was teaching. I found myself telling him only good things about the school and omitting from my report anything that might have seemed bad. (I was amazed by my behavior. What compelled me to do this, I didn’t know.) I wondered (and continue to wonder today), does everyone do this to him? If so, how does he ever get a sense of how things really are going?
This is a problem. If everyone reflecting reality back to you or me is distorting what they report, how can we know what is true?

The upside

There is an upside to epistemology.
If you have 10 experiences in a day and categorize six as positive and four as negative, you might conclude that you have had a better than average day.
After all, who besides you serves as the auditor for what makes a good or bad day?
I’m going to suggest we can use this and thereby “game” epistemology for our own purpose.
We can accentuate the positive. I’m not suggesting that we pretend that the negative doesn’t happen. I am suggesting that as long as we are the foremost accountants of our daily experiences, we can get into bed and think about all the good things that have happened. We can make a conscious effort to keep track of more neutral or positive moments than negative ones. In doing so, oughtn’t we have a better than average experience?

This week’s #wisdom_biscuit: Know that you can only know what you know. (And accentuate the positive.)

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