I was a Christian for many years, and then I lost my faith. It was a difficult experience for a number of reasons. One of the biggest difficulties was coming to grips with the fact that a lot of my knowledge was false. In the months following my loss of faith, I would frequently come across familiar situations but would have to stop and think - I had to evaluate them as if for the first time. This is difficult to do. Most of what people do is routine and habit. The reason why some of my knowledge was false was because I had built it on a false assumption.
People don’t just believe any old thing to be true. We have reasons. A lemon has a sour taste >why?> I’ve tasted lemons. Two plus two equals four >why?> I’ve counted it out on my fingers as a child, and the rules of arithmetic have always held true in my experience since then. I have a heart in my chest >why?> I can feel my heartbeat, and experts tell me it is so, and I’ve seen animal hearts.
Keep asking why, keep boiling your knowledge down, and you will find that you have unfounded fundamental assumptions. Everyone does. Some people have many fundamental assumptions, some very few. These are hard to recognise.
The one that everyone tends to have is what I call “Reality is ‘Real’”.
It’s really a collection of assumptions, but it can be expressed like this: “My senses accurately represent the world some of the time.” If you deny this assumption, it’s called solipsism, and it’s equivalent to thinking you’re living inside the matrix or something.
Another foundational assumption I used to have was “God is real and the bible is true.” Much of my knowledge had grown from this assumption: concepts of sinful behaviour, eternal rewards, the importance of worship, moral authority, immortality of souls.
Some people have different foundational assumptions, like “Communism is always the best political system” or “Jim Jones is of supreme importance”. When you start with these assumptions, certain knowledge is derived from them.
I lived for years with what I identify as two main fundamental assumptions: Observable reality is real, and the bible is true. There are probably more, but I’ll leave them out for now.
(Perhaps the state of mind that most accurately understands the world is one in which your only foundational assumption is “reality is real” - everything else is derived from that.)
When I became aware of how the bible was written and formed, how prayers don’t tend to get answered, and how God acted as if he didn’t exist, it challenged my foundational assumption. After some time I couldn’t help but conclude this was a false assumption - I no longer assumed it to be true. You can’t think something is true if you don’t think it’s true.
I realised that these two assumptions had an important difference. One was sustained by “faith” - a protective bubble that says “don’t critically evaluate this! Don’t examine too closely!” The other was sustained by empirical observation, that says “Look! Touch! Smell! Listen! Find out!” It took introspection to challenge my own assumptions without being dissuaded by the fear of a compromised faith. Faith tries to defy evaluation, while empiricism embraces evaluation.
As an aside, here is an anecdote: During my questioning of Christianity, I discussed it with an intelligent friend who was a devoted christian. The friend finally conceded: “Okay, ask your questions and learn what you need to learn, but whatever you do, don’t lose your faith!” Think about that statement. This is what faith is for: to protect an assumption, even under the guise of evaluation. I did not take my friend’s advice, because I didn’t want to be committed to a conclusion from the outset - that is the opposite of inquiry. Instead, I genuinely evaluated my faith.
The interesting thing is that I had sort of “orphaned” knowledge left over. The next time the issue of homosexuality was discussed, my first reaction was “homosexuality is bad because the bible says so”, but then I had to stop and rethink it. My conclusions changed because my foundational assumptions changed. There was no longer a biblical basis for opposing homosexuality - I had to re-form my views from my remaining foundational assumptions.
Over time, my views on many subjects changed. Some ideas just became unimportant, such as planning for the afterlife, or showing weekly devotion in church. My knowledge continues to grow as I learn and experience more things.
Some extensions of this metaphor:
- Our understanding of the world grows like trees from these foundational assumptions. The foundational assumptions themselves are established when we are young children. This is why it is vital for religions to indoctrinate their children at a young age. The children need to start forming ideas with the assumption in place. Otherwise, when they are adults, they are resistant to making new assumptions. Morality is already explained! Why is a god required?
- Over our whole life, the trees of our understanding of the world keep growing. We learn more, we experience more.
- It is traumatic to have a foundational assumption attacked, or worse, removed. The whole tree of what you thought you knew has to go as well. Examples of this might be if you learned your family’s wealth was the result of terrible crime, or if you learned you were adopted, or if you learned that you are capable of terrible deeds in desperate circumstances.
- An epiphany or “Eureka” moment is when a floating bunch of knowledge connects to a tree, or when two different parts of the knowledge tree touch. Suddenly, some knowledge illuminates some other, previously unconnected knowledge. The bigger the lumps of knowledge that connect, the bigger the impact. For example, I might observe that clouds are water in the sky that is visible for some reason, and I might also spend hours learning high school physics. Then one day it just clicks and these two things connect in my mind - I suddenly realise that a cloud’s visibility is a function of air pressure, water density, and temperature that causes saturation point. You can think up your own examples. Most knowledge grows slowly, but the jarring increases in knowledge are when existing knowledge you have bump into each other.
This model is a way to explain why people sometimes talk right past each other. For example, a young earth creationist and a scientist might talk, and each will say “No, you’re just not getting it, you’re missing something fundamental!” Primarily, they’re starting with different unfounded assumptions about reality.
I also want to make the point that a skeptic will not start with a base assumption that "There is no supernatural" or something like that. It's simply that supernatural claims can't be founded in the "reality is real" assumption - there's nowhere it fits. Supernatural claims tend to be based on other assumptions.
Summary: I’ve modelled a person’s understanding of the world as based upon unfounded assumptions. Having an unfounded assumption removed causes the derived knowledge to also be removed - a “This changes everything!” moment. It can be traumatic and causes a person to re-evaluate many things they thought were true. Religions find it important to indoctrinate children with an additional unfounded assumption.