Sara didn’t like to talk about it, because she knew most people wouldn’t believe her.
She was a college student and going through a difficult semester. Her finals were about to start and she was spending all of her time studying. But she suddenly knew that something terrible had happened.
Sara had no idea what was wrong, but she associated it with her family, who lived a couple hundred miles away. She called her mother and asked if there was anything wrong, but her mother told her all was well.
In her heart, Sara was certain something was wrong, even if there was no rational reason to believe so. She went back to studying and made it through finals, but she never could shake the certainty that something was wrong.
After her last final, she drove home. When she arrived, her mother had some bad news. Her grandmother had died. The family had kept the news from her to avoid ruining her performance on finals. It turns out that the grandmother had died on the same day that Sara knew something was wrong and had called to ask about it.
But she has no idea how she knew something was wrong.
How do we sometimes know things that we have no rational way of knowing?
You’ve probably experienced it. Even if you don’t have a story as dramatic as Sara’s, it happens to you, too. There are times when you simply know something is true — even if the rational part of your brain says you’re crazy.
Sometimes it’s tiny things.
Something tells me to check on Steve today.
I don’t need to turn here today. I need to go the other way.
Even though this job sounds great, my gut tells me to take the other one.
I don’t know this woman, but something tells me that I should pursue her.
It can take a million different forms. Sometimes we absent-mindedly listen to those little whispers in our gut. Other times we ignore them. Sometimes they’re specific. Sometimes they’re fairly vague.
As long as there’s no real price to be paid, we typically follow our instincts. It won’t hurt anything to call Steve. It won’t hurt anything to turn here. But there are times when our gut instincts and our rational judgment collide. What do we do then?
I like to see myself as a rational person. A lot of the people I’ve known have considered me too rational and too willing to allow known data to make decisions for me. But there are times when I am willing to ignore everything I rationally know — when I’m willing to bet my life on wisps of intuition.
I can’t tell you why. I can’t justify my actions when I make such decisions. I can’t explain why I sometimes believe things which seem to totally contradict the known facts. I admit all of that. I simply know that there are times when I just know something in my gut — so I jump off a cliff and hope there’s a net — when my intuition is certain.
I used to be close friends with a woman who had a phrase for this. She used to say, “Sometimes you just know that you know that you know…” It didn’t quite make sense, but I understood it. I experience that at times. And there are times when it causes me conflict — when what I know conflicts with what I rationally believe.
I grew up believing that facts and rationality should rule everything, including what we believed about God and nature. When I was young, I heard a preacher argue — based on specific Hebrew scripture which I don’t recall anymore — that the Bible teaches us that truth is known to all of us through nature. He argued that we had access to all truth in our hearts — through nature — if we just listened.
I thought this was outrageous. I wanted my theology to be completely rational. I wanted a clear, systematic theology that could be deduced from specific rules and principles. (This is why I eagerly embraced the philosophy of theologian Francis Schaeffer when I discovered him during college.) I wanted my theology to be more like physics or geometry, so I rejected the preacher’s argument.
I now think he was right and I was wrong.
I’ve come to realize that if I were to live completely alone and if I had never had access to any religious scripture of any kind, I would have come to conclusions that are very similar to what I believe today. That’s because what I believe is based on what my heart and mind have experienced in the natural world.
I know God is there. I know certain things about that God. A lot of the specifics are fuzzy. I know certain things about the nature of reality — things that I have absolutely no rational way of knowing. I simply know that I know that I know.
The things we know are a bit like the objects around us when we’re walking through a heavy fog. A few nights ago, I took the photo above after midnight on a very foggy night. I couldn’t see far ahead of myself.
I could see the trees up close to me with certainty. There were other things that were too covered with fog for me to see at all. But some things were in a middle ground. They were shrouded in fog, but were still clear enough for me to know what they were.
My knowledge of the world seems similar. There are some things which I know with enough certainty to say they’re facts. Other things are completely covered with fog and I simply have no idea. But there are some things which I somehow perceive through the heavy fog of perception — and I have to decide for myself whether I really know this truth or if my mind is playing tricks on me.
There are things which I know are true — in my gut — but which I’m not going to tell you. I don’t want to look like a fool. I’m still afraid that I might be wrong. I’m even scared at times that I’m fooling myself because of wishful thinking or some trick my mind is playing on me because of less-than-perfect emotional health.
At times, I fight with myself over those things. There are things which I know are true, but which my rational mind says are nonsense. Those are the times which leave me frustrated, especially when the choice can change the direction of my life — and when other people will think I’m being foolish.
There are times, though, when we have to be willing to be foolish and stupid — by other people’s standards — if we are going to be what we were created to be. As the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things.”
But it’s hard not to worry that others are going to think I’m foolish and stupid.
I’ve been having a serious inner conflict for months now because my intuitive knowing telling me something entirely different than my rational judgment about something which really matters. Some days, I drag myself toward acting as I rationally believe I should about this issue. Other days, some irrational intuitive force pulls me toward something which defies all reason.
I’m a big believer in the ideas of the Enlightenment. The broad set of ideas and philosophies which came out of that great move forward set humanity up for progress which often seems to have known no bounds.
There are some things I simply know. Even if I can’t explain them. Even if I can’t justify them. There are some times when I simply know that I know that I know.
When that happens, I have little choice but to trust my perception of what I’m dimly seeing through the heavy fog of metaphysical reality.