Two of the most fundamental questions with which human beings must grapple are as follows: “How should I live?” and “How do I know?”
The first question is obviously more urgent than the second, for we cannot put the business of living on hold while we try to figure out what is the best way of living. However, the urgency of the ethical question does not diminish the importance of the epistemological question. While doing what we believe is the right thing, lurking in the background is the constant challenge of justifying our actions, primarily to ourselves. That means being conscious and critical about how we know what we know.
In effect, since we tend to live in accordance with what we know and use what we know to justify how we live, the question of ethics (“How should I live?”) is inseparable from the question of knowledge (“How do I know?”).
Notice that there is an important presupposition underlying each of these questions. The first question assumes that there are good and bad ways of living; the second assumes that what we know can be true or false. When we ask the practical question — “How should I live?” — we are hoping to find an answer that will help us choose what is good and avoid what is bad. Similarly, when we ask the epistemological question — “How do I know?” — we are hoping to find an answer that will help us choose what is true and avoid what is false.
But thinking in terms of good/bad and true/false also points to a deeper presupposition, i.e., that there exists an objective standard that makes such judgments possible in the first place.
Today, some people argue that no objective standard exists that can ground our judgments of good/bad and true/false. I don’t think that they actually believe this; I think what they are really concerned about is that a great deal of exploitation and oppression in history has been legitimized by appeals to some objective standard, and that this has made them suspicious of all such claims. I share their concern and suspicion, but I don’t think that we can so easily dispense with the very concept of an objective standard. We do, however, need to proceed with great caution.
At the risk of making a circular argument, I would like to suggest that an objective standard does exist, and that it is known as “reality.” Following Charles Peirce, I would define “reality” as that which is what it is regardless of what anyone thinks or feels or believes about it. In other words, reality is what is independent of all its actual or possible representations. It is the ultimate referent of “objective.”
In principle, then, the objective standard that helps ground our judgments — both ethical and epistemological — is reality. Thus, something is good or true insofar as it is in harmony with reality; it is bad or false insofar as it conflicts with reality. This implies that the value of our judgments depend on the degree of our acquaintance with reality. In other words, both the ethical question (“How should I live?”) and the epistemological question (“How do I know?”) presuppose that the nature of reality is either known or is knowable, at least to the degree that allows us to make some tentative judgments. In effect, our ethics and epistemology are inevitably grounded in the way we answer the ontological question, i.e., “What is real?”
It is at the intersection of these three fundamental human concerns — ethics, epistemology, and ontology — that the concepts of faith and belief acquire their full significance.