Articles of Reason A manifesto of sorts

Full disclo­sure: I don’t get it. The thrill of the chase, the rush of adren­a­line, the excite­ment of action. My tempera­ment has always been better suited to a vita contem­pla­tiva than to a life of Sturm und Drang. I would rather lead an uneventful life than an uncon­sid­ered one. Still, even those inclined towards contem­pla­tion cannot entirely escape an event or two. And when they cross your path, choices must be made. But how?

We’ve all felt at times like play­things of fate and chance, reluc­tant pellets in the great pinball machine of the universe. But life is more than the sum of the events that befall us. What makes you you and me me is how we process these occur­rences, how we think and feel about them, how we respond.

A human life is a series of events and choices; you can’t always control the events, but you do have a say about what choices you make.

The Big Questions

In prac­tice, some of our choices will be guided by impulse and happen­stance. But we are not random beings: in a broader sense, there is consis­tency and conti­nuity in how we steer our lives. There is a virtuous—or, depending on your point of view, vicious—circle in which a person’s char­acter drives the choices they make and in which their choices define their char­acter. How we choose to live depends in large part on how we answer some of life’s big ques­tions. Who am I? What is the nature of reality? What commu­ni­ties do I belong to? How can I tell truth from false­hood? What are the right things to do?

There are those who would look for the answers to such ques­tions in arti­cles of faith: tenets or creeds that have been handed down from antiq­uity or estab­lished by authority. It would seem to be an attrac­tive propo­si­tion. Why pursue the solu­tions to life’s chal­lenges on your own and from scratch if you can get those answers from someone else and simply accept them on faith? It seems like a done deal: one path appears to offer ambi­guity, uncer­tainty and doubt, while the other promises comfort, certainty and reas­sur­ance.

And yet I choose the former path.

The notion that certain ideas can claim to be univer­sally and eter­nally valid without being subject to the burden of proof comes at a price: you are no longer allowed to change your mind about them. I prefer to embrace the notion that every­thing I know may turn out to be wrong and resolve to abandon any convic­tion if presented with compelling and persua­sive evidence to the contrary. Articles of faith are nice—but to me, “arti­cles of reason” are better.

Caveat

If you choose to live by arti­cles of reason, the entire contents of your brain come with a disclaimer, a caveat notice that says: I might be mistaken. My infor­ma­tion could be incor­rect or incom­plete. My conclu­sions may be unwar­ranted or illog­ical. My choices could be misguided, my actions might just back­fire.

In aban­doning the view that certain things must be true, must be right, must be real, you enter into a mental land­scape in which ideas have to pay a price of admis­sion to be included in your world view. And that price is: evidence. There is no special treat­ment for ideas that happen to appeal to you because they are familiar or make you feel good. Instead, you embark upon a life­long journey to discover what actu­ally is true and right and real.

To be sure, some­times you’ll change your mind as you go along. And at times you’ll have to accept that there are some things we simply don’t know yet. But most of the time, you will build upon what you know and deepen your under­standing as you progress. At every step, rational thought is the light that guides the inquiry and reality is the touch­stone that helps you tell fact from fancy. You partake in equal measure in the priv­i­lege of standing on the shoul­ders of giants, and the humility of knowing that the collec­tive wisdom of science, philos­ophy and art avail­able to you is but a step­ping stone: one moment in the great march of humanity that will even­tu­ally continue on without you.

Going Forward

Finding your way in life without instant “just add faith” answers isn’t always easy. Doubt is my stead­fast travel companion and I am grateful for its company. I make no claims to any absolute truths; I have stum­bled and erred and will surely do so again. But I have also learned a few valu­able lessons along the way, and will use them as I continue to try to make sense of the many shades of gray that popu­late my mind.

I choose to go forward under the convic­tion that an unbi­ased explo­ration of our world and our humanity is a worthy endeavor, and that one can do worse than to be guided by a mental compass whose working parts include kind­ness, curiosity, humility, respect, generosity, a sense of humor, an open mind and, yes, arti­cles of reason.

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Image credit: Caspar David Friedrich (adapted from: source)

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