Adequacy to Quotidian Life is the Fundamental Epistemological Threshold

Is your philosophy asking you to understand some common aspect of human experience as illusory? If so, it is almost certainly false.

We engage in theory so as to understand experience. When it turns out that a logical consequence of some theory is the impossibility of some common aspect of experience, it is probably because the theory is too simple. Parsimony is all well and good, but it is not the only good. Adequacy is a prior desideratum.


  • The Eleatics – Parmenides and Zeno – ask us to believe that change is impossible.
  • Spinoza says that what seem to be lots of things are really only one thing.
  • Buddhism says that nothing exists.
  • Scientism says that consciousness, free will, meaning, intention, purpose, etc., do not actually exist. Also brown, the feeling of arrival at musical resolution, and the taste of nutmeg; those don’t exist, either.
  • Behaviorism says that what we experience as conscious agency is not agency at all.
  • Physicalism says that we don’t actually exist.
  • Determinism says that there is no such thing as agency.
  • Bishop Berkeley says that there is no such thing as stuff, only ideas.
  • Materialism says that there is no such thing as ideas, only stuff.
  • Existentialism says that nothing is given, so that everything whatsoever is whatever you make of it.
  • Moral relativism says that there is no such thing as right and wrong, just different self-interested perspectives.
  • Atheism says existence is ultimately devoid of meaning or significance; and, therefore, in the final analysis, of intelligibility.
  • Nihilism says nothing matters.
  • Post-modernism says that you can’t speak the simple truth.
  • Kant says that you can’t know anything about the world as it is; that all your experience is inherently whacked.
  • Liberalism says nobody is any better than anyone else in any way that matters.
  • Leibniz asks us to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that we don’t really experience other entities at all, but only God.
  • Hume asks us to believe that there is no way to make sense of the world, even though we have no alternative but to pretend that we can.
  • Liberal Christianity asks us to believe that nothing is essentially sinful, apart from the judgement that some things are sinful.
  • Machiavellian Realpolitik asks us to believe that the pursuit of the Good has no place in politics.
  • Feminism asks us to believe that sex doesn’t matter, but gender does. It asks us to believe that it is perfectly OK for the species to stop reproducing.
  • Communism asks us to believe that familiar loyalties are wrong.
  • Darwinism asks us to believe that nature never seeks goals, and doesn’t value anything.
  • Manichaeism insists that good and evil are equally powerful, and therefore equally good.
  • Zoroastrianism asserts that good and evil are coeval, and thus that neither can ever triumph – or, therefore, ought to.
  • Gnosticism argues that life on Earth is perverted and wicked ab initio.
  • Nominalism says that our terms and categories – and, thus all the notions they express – are all merely conventional, and have nothing to do with reality.
  • Hinduism says that life is basically suffering.
  • Paganism says that, however beautiful it is, life is basically hopeless.
  • Process theology says there is nothing reliable at the root of reality.
  • Islam says that God transcends logic, so that the ultimate reality is fundamentally irrational.

I’m over-simplifying, but you get the point: one shouldn’t over-simplify! All these theories get at a piece of the truth and then apply it indiscriminately, with the result that they almost always end by insisting that some important aspect of the way ordinary folks live, and want to live, and understand their lives, and thus order their decisions about how to live, is wicked, illusory, or just non-existent.

Why does this so often happen? The twin dangers of over-simplification and over-generalization – which are really just two sides of the same Babelonian error – inherently beset any attempt to comprehend reality. Of any real, there are infinitely many true statements. Any finite set of statements about a common subject, then, necessarily fails to account for all the factors of that subject. Thus any attempt at philosophical system must sooner or later arrive at some aspect of experience that it cannot comprehend. And because any system that is good enough to have got started in the mind of the brilliant sort of men who devise philosophical systems must be good enough to work almost all the time, men end up cherishing their systems as they do any favored, effective tool. They want their tool to keep working. So they insist that nothing exists except such things as are amenable to treatment with their tool.

Does your philosophy rule out some basic aspect of your own experience of life, and of what is important? It is almost certainly wrong, as incomplete; and you should drop it. Such theories cannot long endure, because they contravene reality, and promote lethal decisions. They lead to disaster.

Even if you manage to avoid such errors, it is not as though you can ever hope to complete your understanding. That’s the fascination of the quest, no? And the joy of it?

So you want to stay on the high road, the road that leads on to adventure. You don’t want to fall off into the abyssal depths that loom on either side of it.

How then can you tell if you are on the right theoretical track? If a bad theory tells you that there is less to life than you had gathered, a good one will show you how there is far more to it than you had ever imagined. A good theory tells you that the world is even more like you thought it was than you had originally suspected. It has lots of room, not just for every aspect of life as we actually encounter it, but for more than we had ever hoped. A bad theory will argue that some part of you does not exist; a good one will show you how it does – and, indeed, will show you how angels might exist, too. Bad theories empty the world of reality; good theories fill it with enchantment.

30 thoughts on “Adequacy to Quotidian Life is the Fundamental Epistemological Threshold

  1. Dear Kristor,

    Buddhism doesn’t say nothing exists, it is an oversimplification.
    Actually I would agree with you, with the following constraint: this adequacy criteria is only for philosophies in the narrowest sense, i.e. purely theoretical ones that do not introduce new experience or new modes of experience.

    Buddhisms rests on meditation as a radically transformative method of experience, in whose light normal experience is realized as illusory and dreamlike. It this experience and not a theory that makes it so, and the theory is actually not even that important. The primary purpose to Buddhism theory is to simply convince people to stop theorizing that much and focus on the transformative experience.

    It is a central concept in Buddhism that the true nature of reality is beyond words, this is perhaps closest to a Burkean “focus on practice” epistemological skepticism in a western context.

    Anyway the best closest summary is not “nothing exists” but “existence is empty”. What does that mean? Roughly this: e.g. this apple exists as an empirical experience, but does not exist as _as_ an apple, doesn’t have “applehood”, doesn’t have own-existence, identity or essence. Or in other words, that this “apple exists” is a practical truth but not an ultimate truth.

    This gets interesting when it is about our own existence. This is where it actually matters. Of course “I do not exist” would be crazy, because then who is saying it, I exist in the practical sense, but don’t have any kind of ultimate selfhood, essence, identity or suchlike.

    This is very cool for overcoming passions. For example desire is trying to put parts of our world into our self, hatred and fear are trying to remove, avoid or destroy parts of the world that feel to be dangerous to our self, laziness is something similar, a desire to separate the self from the world, and avoiding interacting with it, so all this can be treated by a good dose of not taking ourselves as something ultimate real.

    Note – from Scruton to Chesterton to João Carlos Espada many Christian writers said something along the lines of the importance of self-irony or “taking our duties seriously but not taking ourselves seriously”. I think Buddhism and Christianity is on the same page here, but B. is more radical.

    • Let’s see … Buddhism asserts that one’s own self does not exist; Buddhism asserts that one’s own experience of a world external to one’s self (which doesn’t exiet to have experiences, in any event) is an illusion concerning that which does not exist. That sure sounds to me as though Buddhism asserts that nothing exists.

      • I think a little intellectual charity is appropriate here. Buddhism hasn’t survived and grown over the last 2500 years without being able to give credible and well thought doctrinal positions; the same is true for Christianity. It would be uncharitable of me to insist that the doctrine of the Trinity means Christians are Tri-Theists, and I find it also uncharitable for non-Buddhists to tell me that the doctrine of Anatman means that Buddhists believe that nothing exists. If you want an honest discussion, be willing to put the time in to do your homework.

      • Nilakantha: the Buddhist analysis of phenomena is profound. And so far as I can tell, the doctrine that there is no permanent substantial human self with a particular unchanging essence is not straightforwardly absurd, nor can I see that it leads straightforwardly to absurd consequences. But the doctrine that there is by the same token no eternal self seems to me to forestall existence as such. To contingency per se there must be an eternal forecondition; and so any such contingency as may come to pass must happen in eternity, and thus effectually to it; so that eternity forms the subject of contingent events (this being the basis of the Christian doctrine of divine omniscience). If then there be no such eternal subject and context for contingency per se, then there can be no contingency at all, and nothing at all may then occur. The doctrine of anatman seems to me therefore to lead to acosmism.

        I may of course be sadly misled in my understanding of the doctrine – indeed, I rather hope that I am. If so, any guidance you can provide would be appreciated.

        In any case, even if I am misinterpreting anatman, the Buddhist denial of the existence of the self does at least seem prima facie to refute a basic aspect of common human experience. It seems to explain to us that, while there may be a life, we do not exist to have it, so that it is not really ours, even though it sure seems to us that we do exist to have what certainly seem to be our very own lives. As with the denial of the reality of consciousness proposed by eliminativist materialism, this notion has a tough row to hoe. If it is true, then it is hard for me to see how anyone could truly understand it as true – there being, according to the doctrine, no such ones to understand anything. Thus the doctrine seems to be, not an explanation, but an argument that there is really no such thing as explanation.

      • Assertation is “pure theory” while this is about reevaluating experience in the light of a different mode of experience (meditation).

        I think you are a bit stuck in the binary Aristotelean logic, A or not-A, which is understandable if you stick to the Western tradition, but this cannot be understood thinking strictly inside this box.

        Rather, please try this: different levels of existence, instead of a binary yes or no:

        – Something can exist in the sense that our statements regarding that thing bring practical value: “Where is my book?” “On the table.” – i.e. the statement has use in finding said book. On this level, a verbal statement is _pointing towards_ experience. After the desired experience is reached (finding the book), the statement is no longer of use. This is something a bit akin to how modern operationalism or epistemological skepticism says “truth means predicting experience”, but not exactly the same. Verbal statements taken as merely pointers or clues to experiences. Strict map-terrain separation. Logical reasoning always moderated with reality checks etc. etc.

        – Something can exist as on a higher level as selfhood, identity or Aristotelean essence. On this level a verbal statement that a thing exists or an adjective, statement of property or quality about it is a kind of a literal truth, on this level verban truths can be 100% true, so on this level a thing exists **as verbally itself**. So a book exists as a book, expressing bookhood, a programmer would say as a specific instance of a book class, or a dog as a specific instance of the class or species of dogs. On this level there is no strict map-terrain separation.

        The self and everything else in B. exists on the first level, just no on the second one. There is something, just not an essence.

        Illusion, illusory: I don’t like this term because suggests on a binary true – not true approach, where an illusion is “not true”. A better term is “dreamlike”. A dream is real while we are dreaming, as we cannot tell it in that state from a non-dream. It gets unreal only from the perspective of an awake mode of experience. What I mean is, that a dreaming person is not wrong and not in error, mistaking untruth for reality, but he is simply in a specific mode of experience, which mode makes sense as long as one is in it, and we cannot prove to a dreaming person logically that it is “not true” or “convince him of error” – in the dreaming state of mind the dream world is perfectly logical and makes sense.

      • Kristor: You have unknowingly landed in the middle of the most controversial topic in Mahayana Buddhist scholastic debate: “Is there an eternal ontological ground of contingent existence?” The vast majority of Indian and Chinese thought says yes. The most important outlier is the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism to which the Dalai Lama belongs. If I may indulge in a little cross-cultural explanation, I’ll bring in Aristotle and Plotinus here. Ultimate reality may be known as Nirvava, because it is free of becoming, or the Cosmic Body of the Buddha, because it contains all good qualities. This functions as the final cause of Buddhist practice. The Dharma, which is also eternal, is the collection of all formal causes. As in Plotinus, the material cause is non-existence, while efficient causes lie only in the karmically determined trajectory of conscious. Hope this helps.

      • Nilakantha: that was indeed amazingly helpful. Your mapping of Buddhist metaphysics onto those of Classical West has given me a whole new way to think about it. I shall read now with a different perspective, and very much look forward to my next book on Buddhism. Thank you.

      • Nilakantha108: are you talking about the Great Middle Way (Nagarjuna) approach that is very skeptical vs. the Mind-Only, Cittamatra / Yoga-practitioner / red-hat / Mahamudra / Maha Ati school approach that sees the mind as a something real and as a real basis of existence? A bit of a phenomena neither exist nor don’t exist nor neither nor both vs. phenomena are expressions of the mind and as such they can be said to exist?

      • Shenpen: I work within a very traditional framework, relying on the Abhidharmakosha, the beginning of any systematic Mahayana education in philosophy, and the Five Dharmas of Maitreya. Of course I also study the works of Vasubandhu and Asanga, as well as those in their tradition such as Dharmakirti and Sthiramati. I distrust Tantrism and the new Buddhisms that developed in Japan beginning in the 13th century; they’ve tended to prove that religion based primarily on experience quickly devolves into antinomianism. I must say that the great doctors of the Mahayana Church would be horrified if Buddhism were to be thought of as intellectually unable to dialogue and argue with other philosophies and religions. Take a dip into Sangharakshita’s Tattvasamgraha to see the importance that is put on the hard work of philosophical argumentation.

  2. Of course almost any philosophy is false when turned into a cartoon version of itself. Eg, “Materialism says that there is no such thing as ideas, only stuff.” — this is not what (most) materialists believe, rather, they hold that ideas are made up of or grounded in “stuff”, not that they don’t exist.

    A bad theory will argue that some part of you does not exist; a good one will show you how it does. — That’s very good. So eliminative materialism is bad, but the saner forms of materialism seek to provide naturalistic explanations for mental phenomena.

    • (most) materialists believe, rather, [that] ideas are made up of or grounded in “stuff”, not that they don’t exist.

      Right: they believe that ideas are really just stuff, and that there is nothing other than stuff. Like I said. Face it: eliminativist materialism is the only consistent form of materialism. Non-eliminativist materialism is not materialism at all, really; it is materialism with a little hylemorphism and teleology smuggled in by the back door and called “emergence” or “strange attraction,” or some such. In other words, it is a stub of Aristotelianism, an Aristotelianism that dares not say its name. If you find eliminativism impossible to take on board, then you are not, in your heart of hearts, a materialist at all.

      • Having spent a good deal of time around materialists, I can quite confidently say you don’t know what you are talking about.

        It strikes me how parallel the form of your argument is to the kind Dawkins and the other New Atheists use against religion. They like to collapse all of religion into a kind of fundamentalist biblical literalism, because that is easy to mock, and deny that there could be any subtler or sophisticated forms of religious belief. And you are trying to collapse all forms of materialism into an extreme form which is easy to reject, but it doesn’t correspond to what most actual materialists believe.

      • Rather, what he is doing is asserting that only the extremist form makes any kind of sense. The other forms help themselves to equivocations and question-begging by the bucket-load. The fact that materialists are willing to say “X is immoral” does not establish that they have good grounds for saying “X is immoral.”

      • So are you saying, onecertain, that materialists do not consider consciousness, will, and agency to be mere epiphenomena of matter? How else could they possibly explain them?! Except to deny they exist at all (which is even more absurd).

      • Materialists consider “consciousness, will, and agency” to have a material basis. Saying they are “mere” or “epiphenomenal” is a value judgement that some materialists might buy into, but by no means all.

      • (Thank God I’m nearly done with Feser’s Philosophy of Mind)

        Onecertain, “consciousness, will, and agency” are either purely material phenomena, or they are not. If you think they are, then you are an eliminative materialist. If they are not, then you’re quite clearly not a materialist. As Jerry Fodor wrote, “If aboutness (intentionality, the other-directedness of thought) is real, it must be really something else.”

    • As a practical programmer I find it weird that ideas can be made of or grounded in stuff – an algorithm or any information as 0100101010111 is the same algorithm or information regardless of whether it is put on paper, put on a screen or carved in wood.

      IMHO this is the greatest weakness of the modern materialistic – scientistic worldview, the inability to realize information can be encoded in any kind of matter and is imaginable even without being encoded in any.

      Von Neumann proved that numbers for example are resting on emptiness: 0 is the number of elements in the empty set, 1 is the number of the elements of a set that contains the empty set, 2 is the number of elements of a set that contains both etc. again for a programmer it is easy: this Set = [ [ [] ], [ ] ]; thisSet.Length returns 2.

      Matter and information is plain simply a different category of things, and I even think the difficulties the older generation suffers with using computers are precisely that they are used to matter, not information. They are used to a button always closing the same circuit and doing the same thing. They find it hard to comprehend that a button is just the visual representation of an idea and could do in theory anything.

      In material devices function is linked with visual form, so it is a bit hard to explain to my father that something that looks like as search result could be anything from advertisement to malware…

  3. I submit Mule’s Lather for Occam’s Razor:

    In any proposition which contains the word ‘merely’, such as “Emotions are merely chemical reactions in the brain”, you can be certain something essential is being overlooked, usually purposefully.

    I.e, Occam’s Razor is biting too deeply.

    • This reminds me of Konrad Lorenz on nothing-buttery: it is true that humans are animals and organic processes are chemical-physical processes, but it is not true that humans are nothing but animals and organic processes are nothing but chemical-physical processes: why would we have a separate name for them if there would be nothing else? What is missing is precisely those unique stuff that makes humans more than other animals and makes organic processes more than other chemical-physical processes.

  4. The most interesting thing about this list, simplified though it is, is that the errors made by the significant religions are so much more profound, interesting, and oriented towards the truth than are the errors made by modern dingbat philosophers.

    How does one respond to Berkeley, for example? “Hush, now: grownups are talking.”

    • I am not sure I understand you – for that matter I don’t understand Chesterton either when he praises Aquinas for the common-sensicalness of his philosophy: why is philosophy supposed to be common-sensical, isn’t it supposed to be esoteric?

      I’ll tell you why it matters to me. When I was a typical Modernist, believed that life, politics should be guided by theoretical considerations like Liberalism. Then I became a Burkean – Oakeshottian conservative skeptic, who generally thinks practice should be guided by common sense, not theoretical speculation. A strongly anti-intellectual position as far as life, practice, politics goes. I don’t know how to deal with the Neo-Scholastics that say life should be guided by intellectual theory, but it should be commonsensical.

      Commonsensical philosophy sounds like a contradiction in itself to me, like kindergarten level quantum physics or a virgin prostitute would – I mean philosophy is supposed to be esoteric, hidden, and hard, shouldn’t it? Not just a commentary on general life?

      Perhaps this plays a role in why I am so attracted to Eastern kinds of thought, the Western Platonic-Aristotelean tradition begins with the investigation of man _in society_, and this automatically sounds too everyday and plain to me, because it investigates man as he is in everyday life.

      • Common sense vs esoteric is not how I would describe the difference. Berkeley isn’t esoteric. Berkeley is an obnoxious seven-year-old. Hume, too. (Unless you take them as sly, esoteric reductios on the project of modern philosophy, of course. Do you?). What is esoteric in modern analytic philosophy? It seems quite exoteric to me. If we are going to bring common sense in as a distinguishing feature, I would say that Scholasticism is not generally offensive to common sense, whereas modern philosophy is. This is more a product of the latter’s falsity and the former’s potential truth than it is the product of the former being based on common sense.

        I join you, though, in disliking the “Scholasticism is the philosophy of common sense” slogan. It seems false and unappealing. Is “rocks have a final cause” common sense? “Rocks have a final cause” had better be a hard teaching because, well, it looks weird. It’s that Scholasticism is not offensive to common sense. It is generally consonant with common sense where the two overlap. A practical person can react to “rocks have a final cause” with “could be, I guess.” A practical person cannot react to “there are no minds” with “could be, I guess.” Etc.

        It’s perhaps like the reduction of temperature to mean molecular motion. If you claim “temperature reduces to mean molecular motion,” I am not bothered, and I am kind of interested. If you claim, “there is no temperature,” I wish you would shut up. Not because you are threatening to me, intellectually, but because it’s annoying when dogs try to mate with my leg.

        As for the hardness, abstractness, and otherworldliness of Scholasticism: you don’t find the five ways hard arguments? You don’t find the deduction of God’s nature once his existence is proved to involve hard arguments? You don’t find the deduction of the content of natural law to involve hard arguments? The Trinity? There is nothing inspiring in the sheer scope of this intellectual project, for you? St Thomas himself was led from Scholasticism into mystical contemplation. I don’t discount the possibility that you see something I don’t (I’ve been wrong too often to be sure I’m right), but, like, I don’t.

  5. I have never seen Zoroastrianism defined this way before. Zoroastrianism teaches that while Ahura Mazda and Ahriman are coeval and equally powerful, Ahura Mazda will ultimately triumph because he is the god of good. However Mazda needs the help of man to do good deeds and good will in the world to fight the daevas that personify every evil in the world; putting heavy emphasis on the need of each person to fight evil. It was this emphasis on the power of individual will to change the world around one’s self that attracted Nietzsche to Zarathustra.

    • Wow. You’re right. I checked it out on Wikipedia – which, of course, I should have done before I included Zoroastrianism on this list – and it contradicted everything I have ever read on the religion. Which wasn’t much; what I read convinced me that it wasn’t worth reading more. Mea culpa.

      I’m still not sure how two coeval equal powers make sense. But I’m going to read some more Zoroastrian theology before I open my mouth about it again. Dollars to doughnuts, they have an extremely sophisticated theology, to which Wikipedia cannot do justice.

  6. OT: May I request that Orthosphere provide a printable option to its content? I would like to be able to print the entries minus the comments or the material in the sidebar, especially. Thank you.

  7. Pingback: The Pragmatic Argument from Verisimilitude | The Orthosphere

  8. It’s astonishing to read what’s missing because I grew up in an America where non-whites and “white” liberals alike spoke and still speak of an all-encompassing “white supremacy” that LITERALLY permeates nearly every entity in some manner or another. Is this not a philosophy in your mind, Kristor. Have the radical liberals REALLY discredited “white supremacy?” It just baffles the mind that Orthosphereans are either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that 90+% of the American population believes “white supremacy” to be in full operating effect while <10 % or so only "see" radical liberalism as the dominant paradigm.

  9. Pingback: How I Got Religion – The Orthosphere


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