Thursday, September 09, 2004

The Doxastic/Epistemic Primacy of the Individual

Is thinking for oneself the way to truth? Sometimes, but not always. Is accepting authority the way to truth? Sometimes, but not always. One cannot unqualifiedly recommend either course.

When should one think for oneself, and when submit to authority? Here again, neither thinking for oneself, nor accepting authority, provide a good answer. Good judgment is needed – discernment – for which there is no formula or algorithm. At the end of the day, however, it takes the good judgment of the individual to know when to trust one’s own judgment and when to put one’s trust in an authority.

So there is a certain primacy of the individual in matters of belief and knowledge. In every case of submission to authority, it is the individual who freely submits and must take responsibility for this submission. In every case of self-reliance, too, it is the individual who freely relies on his own resources and must take responsibility for this self-reliance.

In the special case of theistic religious belief, the believer places his trust in God on the basis of clear insight into his own impotence. Seeing that he cannot secure himself, he seeks security in God. But there is an ineradicable element of self-securing: the believer alone can secure his insight into his inability to secure himself.

We touch here upon the mystery of human freedom. In one’s innermost interiority, one cannot be forced into either self-reliance or other-reliance. In the very act of relinquishing control, one remains in control of his act of relinquishing. One cannot relinquish one’s freedom. As a Frenchman once said, “We are condemned to be free.” In terms more sober and less French, what is of our essence is not something within our power to alter.