Can We Find Truth? Should We Want To?
Anyone who wants to understand the world should be open to new facts and new arguments, even on subjects where his or her views are very well established.
-Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape
I enjoy reading works crafted by intelligent people from any era or nation. I enjoy listening to intelligent people talk, particularly when several of them are called together to debate the great questions and issues of our times. I am constantly on the lookout for brilliant insights and unconventional perspectives that might cause my own paradigms to shift. I am never satisfied with whatever level of knowledge I might think I possess. There is always someone out there who is far more experienced than I am, and I want to know what that person thinks, and why he or she thinks it. This ongoing quest for knowledge and meaning has been a source of great intellectual stimulation over the years, but it has also caused periods of frustration and disillusionment when confronted by situations that prove difficult to assimilate, or cause brief emotional imbalance. I work diligently to keep myself in the present moment, practicing mindfulness meditation and other techniques to stay balanced. All the same, there have been circumstances that have tested that balance to its limits. There are times when the frustration becomes so acute that I begin to question my chosen life path, wondering if there is a better way to use the skills I do have to better the lives of others and make more of a difference in the world. As writing is one of the means I employ to process the challenges I face in my life, I offer this testament in the hope that others here will find it useful.
One of the intelligent individuals I enjoy reading and listening to is the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, whose quote opened and set the stage for this article. I have no doubt that many readers of this article are familiar with Harris and his work. Some may love him, some hate him. Though he does not particularly approve of the term himself, Harris is an atheist, and a very outspoken one. One does not have to be an atheist to find many of his (not all of his) ideas stimulating and capable of provoking introspection. He is a great writer, and an exceptionally brave presenter who is willing to orally debate prominent individuals who disagree with his views on provocative issues such as the existence of God and the possibility of life after death. I admit that when reading his work or listening to him, I have to go back and reread or listen to him again, thinking “Wow, there were a lot of words there that I, as an English teacher, didn’t grasp that time.” I don’t have his level of education, and am still grappling with many of the issues he raises. Though I do not agree with everything he says, I still enjoy reading his work, as well as the work of his detractors. He isn’t perfect–none of us are. He makes mistakes–all of us do. I may soon come across the writer/thinker that is far superior to him that will make me change my views (I totally welcome suggestions on that front). I am not defending any of his specific views here, but using him as a vehicle to discuss some issues that I see him facing, and that we all face from time to time. He often makes great points, and at times, great points are made against him. At least he is willing to engage in the conversation. Analyzing how different people explore the issues keeps the discussion going. It motivates me to keep digging. I have a lot left to read and learn about the issues he raises, and am not ready (and hope I never am) to pronounce some final judgment on them, closing my mind to new interpretations. As a public figure who is not afraid to tackle very tough and controversial issues, Harris faces his fair share of criticism, and has had his life threatened on more than one occasion for giving voice to his opinions. There are two issues that Sam Harris has to deal with on a regular basis that I too struggle against, and I am sure that the readers of this article have also faced them on more than one occasion.
The first involves encountering others who believe that they have nothing left to learn; that their quests have ended, and that they have all the answers. Harris debates such people on many occasions. When he challenges their positions with very logical arguments, they employ any number of rhetorically evasive maneuvers to change the subject, claim he just doesn’t “get it,” or that he is simply lying or wrong. Harris himself admits that he could count on two hands the number of times when his arguments have caused an opponent to genuinely pause and concede that he might, in fact, have a point, and that they might have to re-evaluate their positions in light of a new perspective he helped them to see. Harris himself, by contrast, asks his audiences to present arguments superior to his own at every turn, truly wanting to hear from them. Sometimes they do. He has, on occasion, admitted that certain arguments have given him pause, though he has yet to hear any that fundamentally alter his beliefs. The key here is that he is open to such arguments being out there, and even looks for them. He is a scientist by profession, and scientists are the first to admit that any conclusion they reach is a tentative one, always subject to revision or outright rejection once the evidence necessary to do so is found. Scientists don’t know everything, and do not claim to, whereas there are those who claim to know even the mind of God.
Socrates was once quoted as saying, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” I believe that this premise should be the starting point for a spiritual path, and should influence our approaches to other aspects of our lives as well. There is so much we do not know or fully understand about life, our world, and the universe. This truth should drive our spiritual journey as we seek to grow just a little less ignorant every day about something.
I have 46 years of life experience behind me, and as a result, I feel I know a few things. At the same time, when I apply a degree of Socratic wisdom to that statement, I realize that what I think I know, at least for me, is fluid and susceptible to change once confronted with the evidence capable of changing it. My worldviews and current perspectives are the collective aggregations of decades of study and experience, but there is always the wiser, more experienced thinker out there (and many of them write for the Spiritual Naturalist Society and frequent this society’s forum) that has the necessary gravitas of mind to alter my paradigms. Sam Harris is such a person, and there have been many others and will be more to come, because my journey is (I hope) far from over. Perhaps I am wrong in that respect, and my journey could end tomorrow. We have only the present moment, and we must make the most of it.
I cannot, and do not wish to, conceive of a worldview wherein all questions have been answered and there is nothing left to learn; where one is not permitted to question and must simply accept what one is told based on “faith.” Where is the challenge, the joy…the rest of the journey? To express an opinion as an unassailable and incontrovertible fact smacks of narcissism and self-righteousness. By all means, express what you currently feel you know, and support it with the strongest evidence you can assemble. Dare the world to change your mind. At the same time, approach that conversation with a humility and open-mindedness that invites the possibility of paradigm shift should you encounter the argument more ironclad than your own—because someday you will, if your journey is still underway. Respect those who may disagree with you, and engage their ideas with yours. While you are doing so, listen. Listen very carefully. Work to understand the viewpoints and perspectives of others. As Marcus Aurelius tells us in his Meditations: “Accustom yourself to give careful attention to what others are saying, and try your best to enter into the mind of the speaker” (104). If, after allowing those whose ideas differ from your own to speak, you see flaws in their reasoning, point those flaws out to them, respectfully and earnestly. You will likely fail to change their mind at that moment, but it is very possible that you just might plant the seed that might blossom into a new perspective for them. At the same time, by respectfully listening, you may find that your own perspectives are the ones in need of adjustment. In that case, humbly thank your detractors for helping expand your own worldview and change your paradigm.
It is vital that we discuss the issues that are confronting us, particularly the volatile and sensitive ones. What is even more vital is how that discussion proceeds. Never attack the one who disagrees with you, but always question ideas that you perceive to be wrong or harmful. Stand up for your beliefs as they are currently held, knowing that even as you do so you might learn something that expands or even reverses them. Spiritual Naturalism is a belief system that is perfectly suited to this Socratic mindset. We do not believe in anything if there is insufficient evidence to support it, yet we remain in respectful awe of the mystery that surrounds us, and understand that peak experiences and transcendent wonder, sensations that in others could be construed as feeling the presence of God, exist and can be nurtured.
I work with young adult learners every day, and one of the most important things I hope I am able to pass along to them is the desire to question everything. I don’t want them to accept anything they read or hear as “true” without subjecting it to the most rigorous examination possible. Young people today live in an age where information about anything they might wish to explore is at their literal fingertips. Though this can prove beneficial, it also has its drawbacks. How are they to know if the information they are accessing is valid and reliable? What sources can they trust? With access to vast quantities of information must come the skills to sift through it and discern the legitimate from the fabricated. These young people are the targets of misinformation and indoctrination from multiple sources, and as they are our future, they must learn to question everything and accept nothing at face value. There are powerful forces that would have them remain uninformed and ignorant; modern “bread and circuses” such as video games, “reality” TV, “smart” phones, and junk food serving to distract them from the more difficult, and more necessary task of truly engaging with the issues facing the world they will inherit. I do what I can, using vehicles such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to help set the stage for discussions of what needs to happen—and what must never be allowed to happen.
The second issue I wish to raise here is the phenomenon known as “misrepresentation.” This occurs when a person who disagrees with you willfully, and often maliciously, distorts your views or takes something you said out of context with the intent to discredit you. This represents the height of intellectual cowardice. Sam Harris has faced this on many occasions, and is often forced to engage in “damage control” in an attempt to set the record straight. As he often addresses issues from the standpoint of someone in a philosophy seminar, using hypothetical examples to illustrate his points, his detractors are often able to spin something he says to make it appear that he meant something that in actuality is the exact opposite of what he really said. He works exhaustively to counter these attempts at misrepresentation on his blog and in afterwords to new editions of his books. He admits that he doesn’t think it helps much. Some of his supporters think that he would be better off just ignoring those who try to discredit him, as those who listen to him with an open mind are not taken in by the rhetorical gymnastics of his foes. However, I salute Harris and his efforts to set the record straight.
We absolutely cannot allow the enemies of reason to distort or malign the conclusions of logic and the scientific community. Vigorous debate is welcome, in fact encouraged and necessary, but rarely if ever is genuine debate what is sought by those who are threatened by the razor’s edge of reason. They will distort, loudly and repeatedly, any conclusions that do not serve their greater agendas. As Spiritual Naturalists, we must work to encourage an environment of skepticism coupled with honesty and open-mindedness wherever we go. We must listen carefully and respectfully to those with whom we interact, repeat back to them what we believe we heard them say and wait for confirmation that we heard them correctly, and then question the ideas when appropriate and necessary, conceding to excellent points whenever they arise. Without the ability, or willingness, to engage in rigorous, honest, respectful debate, we as a people may find our most cherished values and institutions undermined by those who will unscrupulously undermine what is best for all of us in the name of what is best for them as individuals.
Socrates would have abhorred the sentiment behind the comment “Let’s just agree to disagree.” He would have seen that as a cop-out intended to avoid the discussion. It seems to concede that all viewpoints on a given issue are equally valid, and we should not pursue the quest for the solution that is the most reasonable lest someone be offended along the way. I disagree. The issues capable of offending those who are discussing them are the ones we most need to be talking about, and those discussions must be pursued until solutions based on reason, and not emotional bias, are reached. Why should anyone be offended when his or her viewpoints are challenged? I have always seen that as an indication of doubt hovering beneath the surface. Defensiveness looks to me to be a way of indirectly saying, “No! If I keep listening to you, you just might make me change my mind, and I don’t want to go there! The cognitive dissonance hurts too much! Stop it!” If someone you are discussing a controversial issue with is secure in his or her position, it should be unassailable, and they will just sigh, pity you, and move on. Are they angry because they cannot “convert” you, or that you are too stupid to see the obvious as they interpret it? Why is it that we are unable to truly listen to one another as these issues are discussed, and genuinely come to an agreement that benefits the most people? At the very least, such discussions should lead us to a better understanding of one another’s mindsets, paving the way for future conversations as the “truth” is continuously pursued. I am reminded of a passage from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius that addresses this issue:
How barbarous, to deny men the privilege of pursuing what they imagine to be their proper concerns and interests! Yet, in a sense, this is just what you are doing when you allow your indignation to rise at their wrongdoing; for after all, they are only following their own apparent concerns and interests. You say they are mistaken? Why, then, tell them so, and explain it to them, instead of becoming indignant” (97).
Why should the differences of opinion we have with others disturb us? Everyone has followed a different path and been on a different journey through life; people have different perspectives on what constitutes truth, freedom, justice, and other concepts. If we disagree, we have to be able to sit down and talk respectfully about our differing perspectives, working to learn from one another, understand one another, and work toward solutions to our common problems. This can be a long and difficult process, particularly if those involved are unwilling to alter their perspectives under any circumstances. At the same time, it is worth taking the time and enduring the frustrations inherent in such discussions, because only then is genuine progress possible. The alternative is polarization and continued misunderstanding.
My students also deal with misrepresentation on a daily basis. In their world, it mostly manifests as gossip told about them behind their backs, but they often bring misrepresented ideas to class discussions as well, taking the first sound byte they come across as factual research they can offer. A great deal of the work I do is to keep them from becoming (or continuing on as) “cherry pickers” of research and evidence. When one is facing an issue of controversy, the best way to approach it is to formulate a research question, survey the available sources that address that question, and formulate a defensible thesis statement that is best supported by the evidence surveyed. Unfortunately, that is not how many of them work. They consider the issue, reach a conclusion that matches their own established worldview, and then seek out evidence that affirms what they already believe, ignoring or misrepresenting the opposing side of the issue. This approach merely serves to perpetuate the ongoing polarization that stifles genuine inquiry and critical thinking. This has to stop.
The young people in our culture represent its future, and it is precisely when they are young that they are most susceptible to manipulation and coercion. We need to be stimulating their curiosity, encouraging them to be skeptics and to question everything they see, read, and are told. As Socrates did, we should guide them with questions, continually working to encourage them to explore their world and the challenges facing it with open-minded and tireless speculation. Nothing grieves me more than to see narrow-minded adults working to stifle the inherent curiosity all children have in the name of conforming to some ideology that could not stand up to rational inquiry. By the time such children reach an age where they are capable of thinking for themselves, the damage has been done. They have been conditioned for so long to accept without question the distortions and falsehoods surrounding them that breaking free of that mindset becomes unthinkable. They have been surrounded by a community of like-minded “thinkers” and possess a sense of belonging. Why would they give that up without a more appealing alternative to which they can turn? We need to offer reason-based, logic-grounded alternatives that also provide a supportive sense of community to counter the narrow-minded and intolerant worldviews that are corrupting the minds of our kids, and we need to do it now.
I would like to offer a list of “Socratic suggestions” for pursuing a spiritual path such as our own, and for navigating interactions with those we encounter whose worldviews may differ from those we hold. I have touched on some of these earlier in the article, but I wish to present them in a concise list so that they can be viewed “at a glance.” These suggestions come from my own experiences, and I welcome additions and enhancements from those whose experiences run even deeper and more diverse than my own.
- Question everything. Never accept something you read or hear as being “true” without first giving it a rigorous examination using every tool in your mental toolbox. Once you accept something as being true for you at the moment, defend it, but don’t get so attached to it that you will be loath to let it go once you encounter an even more reasonable or well-defended perspective. In fact, openly seek that new perspective while defending what you currently hold as true.
- Genuinely listen to those who disagree with you. People believe what they do for reasons that seem valid to them. They may not seem valid to you at first glance, but it is important that when engaging in discussions with those whose perspectives differ from your own that you work to really understand what has given rise to their beliefs. You may discover validity where you first saw none, or maybe not. At least, having listened closely to someone who disagrees with you, you can discuss his or her ideas honestly without fear of misrepresenting them. At the very least, you will come away understanding why they believe what they do, even if you still disagree with them in the end (be careful on their being an ultimate “end” though).
- Be open minded and willing to admit you are, or could be, wrong. This can be difficult to do, as it can be misinterpreted as your being “weak” or uninformed should you concede a point to someone who disagrees with you. All of us are “uninformed” about something; we are not experts on everything we discuss or encounter. There is always someone out there who knows more than we do, and we need to be seeking these people and their viewpoints out as we continue on our journeys.
- Stand up for your beliefs. Where we need to be open-minded to potential paradigm shifts, we must also defend our current beliefs and perspectives from ill-conceived arguments and misrepresentations. Not all ideas are equally valid or defensible; some are outright fallacious. Don’t surrender your worldviews lightly.
We are living in precarious times. Individuals and groups, each claiming to adhere to the one “real” truth, surround us and relentlessly barrage us with reasons why what they hold to be true trumps all other perspectives. The same people actively misrepresent the views of those who disagree with them in an effort to discredit their opponents in dishonest ways. Drawing on ancient wisdom, open-mindedness, strong listening skills, and the willingness to call out fallacious reasoning, we can position ourselves to continue the quest for a rich and meaningful spiritual life while working with others of differing perspectives to address the many challenges ahead of us. We can be confident in our positions while nurturing our curiosities. One day, we may yet live in a world where everyone’s quest for truth is an ongoing, open-minded one, and we can respectfully sail the same seas while still journeying to different destinations. I welcome discussion of these ideas, and look forward to having my worldview expanded by the minds drawn to contemplating them!
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Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Trans. Maxwell Staniforth. New York: Penguin Books, 1964. Print.
Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press, 2010. Print.