Justification is basic to our humanity. We’re formed by our modern culture to justify ourselves in particular ways. Why do we do what we do, think what we think, believe what we believe? In addition, we require justification. Scientific justification, economic justification, philosophical justification, political justification (majority rule), all play significant roles in our coming to believe certain things. Justification plays THE significant role in the believability of anything. It’s strange then, to consider justification in and of itself. Often, it turns out that, upon our reflection of the justification of this or that idea which we hold dear, in the grand scheme of things, our justification is rather arbitrary. It finds its home in some non-universal rationality (that is, usually in some scheme of justification that isn’t shared by everyone, but is unique to particular groups), to the detriment of what may be better ideas, relegating them to the margins.

For example, we’re used to thinking of experts as the only people who are qualified to speak on particular topics with any sort of accuracy, or plain ole knowledge. Indeed, doctors fall into this category. We trust them with our lives. But we do so in a pragmatic sort of way (it just works and has served us well so far) without taking into account the very nature of the scientific enterprise modern medicine is built upon-a foundation that is at best questionable in many of its presuppositions and methodologies, and lacking the answers to a great deal of significant questions. For example, in brain science, for all practical purposes, “no one is home”-that is, for the past three hundred years or so, we’ve been searching for the seat of the soul. It continues to be clear that reductionistic theories which posit that thinking, thoughts, and emotions are merely chemical reactions don’t cut it. Such theories are still adhered to, but they haven’t gotten us anywhere. So for all their expertise, those in the medical field have in a sense really only studied medicine more than the average Joe-in the end, their list of questions is as long as our own. Should we quit listening to doctors? No-they really are helpful. But expertise has its limits. Justification cannot be sustained on expertise alone.

Another example might be the exulted role of “experience.” The boomer generation, at least from my personal observations, places significant stock in experience. Just in terms of more years of life as opposed to say, well, anyone younger than themselves, puts them at an advantage. And if they have kids as opposed to the persons they might be comparing themselves to-suddenly their experience is exponentially larger. For boomers, the justification for thinking, acting, or believing a certain way is “experience.” Yet, it strikes me that the role of experience in the boomer generation is not treated as something like the wisdom, say, of a thoughtful elderly person, or like it might be treated in cultures which value traditions, the voices of their ancestors, etc. That would be a healthy respect for what knowledge has been gained by experience. Rather, for the boomers, experience tends to be merely lorded over those who are younger, as if those who have reached such years (their 40s or early 50s) are entitled to some sort of respect and unquestionable authority in any such matter upon which they desire to pontificate (who are you to question me?-I’ve lived longer than you [and raised a few kids to boot!]). This is not to say that those who are older may not have a thing to two to teach the younger folks (truly, there are so many of my elders whose wisdom and experience I respect), but for many of the boomers who tend to exhibit this kind of sensibility, it seems as if they also believe that those who are younger than themselves have little to no possibility of having anything to offer-wisdom, experience of a different sort, contrasting interpretations, or (dare I say it) better thinking without having had the experience or the reaching the “critical age”. Is there any possibility of learning via vicarious experience? Is there any possibility that having all the experience in the world might still leave a person foolish rather than wise? The assumption is that experience ineluctably leads to wisdom. That’s an assumption that can be debated. Justification cannot be sustained (nor maybe even attained) based on experience alone.

A third example might be the idea I alluded to in the first paragraph, political justification, or in other words, justification by majority rule. Now, if any of these examples given so far could be easily considered arbitrary, this one is the prime candidate. Since when does a bunch of people who can scream louder than every other group make them the arbiter of truth? Truth after all, is what justification is all about. Admittedly, mobs of people fill the role of arbiters of truth daily. Frankly, it doesn’t have to be a mob; just throw a couple of experts together who agree on something and boom, truth materializes before our eyes. But again, if we reflect on this phenomenon, how exactly is it that if a crowd of people, which just so happens to be bigger than every other crowd, agrees on something, that something is either true, or acceptable, or legitimate, etc? All we need is an example to reveal how ludicrous this idea is (even though it’s one under which we live moment by moment). Take a utilitarian view of life: the greatest good for the greatest number would say that we kill off those members of society who are a burden in any way to the majority (financially, socially, etc) such that people with debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s or the unwanted unborn fall into this category. Now, if a vote was taken to ratify such a concept, a simple majority would make way for a new world order. Keep in mind that none of the extraneous, but (really seem to be the most) vitally important issues were taken up in consideration of whether or not such a utilitarian point of view was even a “good” idea. That’s because we already think like utilitarians most of the time-oh wait, you weren’t around for that vote?

In all these examples, the common result is the marginalization of good ideas, thinking, or beliefs. Systems of justification which are dominant in our culture allow for this hegemony, while at the same time actively disallowing the possibility of competing voices, alternatives, or creative ideas to be heard. For example, there has been a counter-Enlightenment movement ever since the beginning of the Enlightenment. Oh, you didn’t know? That’s because the hegemonic ideals of the Enlightenment are not just what we’re living under, or being oppressed by (‘oppressed’ might be a little strong, depending on the situation-trust me, the Enlightenment had many good ideas), but in fact, in a way in which we are unaware, the ideals of the Enlightenment are what we think with. How do we break out of this oppressive trap? Question and critique the systems of justification. How do we do that?-do like Socrates: examine our lives-question our own presuppositions; ask ourselves why we believe, think, and act as we do. Socrates said “an unexamined life isn’t worth living.” I agree. So examine the systems of justification you live by. Are there any good ideas; creative or alternative ones that you are marginalizing? As an example, are there certain authors you won’t read, just because you heard someone who is “smarter” than you dismiss that author? Is that really a good justification?

No doubt, such questioning of our systems of justification might lead to a new system of justification. But that’s no problem.  Any new system won’t be beyond the same kind of questioning or critique. And so life goes… Somehow, it seems most of us share a desire to understand life and our world better-here is a way of living that might allow for just that. It was Socrates’ advice roughly 2500 years ago-with that kind of tenacious perdurance, there might be something to it.