09/01/2011 08:55 am ET Updated Nov 01, 2011

Standards for Philosophies and Religions?

In the realms of the philosophies, religions and philosophies of life, just about anything can be said without proof or justification -- and has been said. Certainly there is no stopping this. But that isn't to say we can't ponder what might make for some reasonable standards for a philosophy, religion or philosophy of life. I think the following seven standards make a good start by which to judge the reasonableness -- and by extension, the legitimacy -- of any belief system.

  1. There should be some clear distinctions made between "what is" and "what ought to be." It is one thing to observe that something exists -- say, a human penchant for violence, for lying, for adornment or for gift giving. It is another thing to leap to the conclusion that man ought not to be violent, ought not to lie, ought not adorn himself or ought not give gifts valued at more than 50 dollars. The getting from "what is" to "what ought to be" really needs some explaining -- and that is hard enough to do! -- but even before that explaining can begin, the core distinction between "what is" and "what ought to be" needs to be recognized and honored.
  2. There should be some clear distinctions made between what purports to be known and what purports to be unknown. It is not unusual in a philosophy or religion for something to be called a mystery in one breath (for example, what god wants) and perfectly clear in the next breath (for example, that you are obliged to keep two sets of dishes). Is what god wants known or unknown? And if it's somehow "a little of both," what exactly does that mean?
  3. There should be honest declarations that you are guessing when you are guessing. It seems reasonable that we should be told whether what's being presented purports to be factual or whether it is akin to a guess, an intuition, a "leap of faith" and so on. In science, you make a guess (called a hypothesis) and then you test it. In philosophies and religions guesses are rarely acknowledged; rather, pronouncements are made. Is "all is illusion," or "I think, therefore I am" a fact, a guess, a hunch, a hypothesis, an opinion, a position or what? Better to say that you are making your best guess about something if what you are doing is guessing.
  4. There should be some clear distinctions as to whether your philosophy or religion applies to some people (and if so, which) or to all people. As a rule, philosophies and religions purport to apply to everyone. We know why -- this gives them the greatest reach and influence. But what if there are competing philosophies of life, some of which better suit one segment of the population and some of which better suit another? If you claim that your philosophy or religion applies to everyone, you probably need to explain why -- without resorting to "Because I say so."
  5. There should be some clarity as to what counts as evidence in support of your philosophy or religion and what counts as evidence to discredit it. If, for example, you announce that detaching is better than attaching, what evidence supports your contention? Would the self-reports of the detached that they are calmer, happier or freer serve as good evidence? And if they claim to be happy, and to us they look sad, does that discredit your claim? In the philosophy of science, this idea is known as "falsifiability." If you construct your philosophy or religion in such a way that no evidence can count against it, you have created a bulletproof sham.
  6. There should be some effort made to avoid reliance on fuzzy "It could mean just about anything" language. If you base your philosophy of life on "the way," for instance, or on "as above, so below," what actually have you said? We do not expect the language of philosophy or religion to work with any precision, but to use language with profligate looseness should amount to something of a disqualifier.
  7. There should be some clarity about what you count as values and what you are using as criteria of evaluation to rank order your values. Think of an organ transplant program: should the youngest sufferer get the organ, the wealthiest, the person most useful to society or should it be run by lottery? To arrive at such decisions requires that we articulate and rank order our values. An honest philosophy or religion will both articulate its values and let us know which of those values it thinks ought to prevail at crunch time.

Are these seven standards impossible standards, somehow not suitable for our most important endeavor: how we live? Should we significantly lower the bar and allow philosophies and religions the incoherence and inconsistency they seem to need and want? Let's hope not. And let's hope that a new philosophy like noimetics, which I am proposing and which can take into account the errors and pitfalls of previous philosophies and religions, can do a better job than has been previously done of laying out its evidence, articulating its premises and explaining why it's worth your attention.

Eric Maisel is the author of 40 books. You can learn more about noimetics (and watch an interview with Dr. Maisel) at the Academy for Optimal Living.