Myths About the Search for KnowledgeJ. BUDZISZEWSKI
On campus you'll encounter dozens of myths about the search for truth, but most of them are variations on ones that I'm going to discuss.Hot stuff
Later he visited my office, and I found out what his problem was. He told me that he wasn't interested in truth that the only thing he cared about was what had immediate practical value for him. Searching for truth about God, it seemed, was especially impractical because if he found it, his whole world might turn upside down.
Or could it be that it would turn right side up?
On campus you'll encounter dozens of myths about the search for truth, but most of them are variations on ones that I'm going to discuss. For convenience I've divided them into general myths (the ones you might hear from almost anyone), skeptical myths (the ones you'll hear from people who despair of finding any truth at all), and relativist myths (the ones you'll hear from people who believe that we all have truth but that yours might be different from mine).
Labels like skeptic and relativist go in and out of fashion, and other labels take their place. For example someone might tell you that he's not a skeptic but a "postmodernist" or that he's not a relativist but a "multiculturalist." Don't worry about that. Listen to what people say, not to what they call themselves. Ask them to cut out the jargon and tell you in plain words what they think.
Myth Number One: Thinking you know the truth is arrogant and intolerant
Your history teacher has just finished lecturing on world religions. As you're packing up your books to leave, a classmate remarks, "I figure every road to God is as good as every other, don't you think?"
You reply, "No, I think the Bible's right when it says there's only one.
Annoyed, your classmate says, "So who made you God?"
All day long as you go about your business, you worry about whether he was right. Is it arrogant and intolerant to think you know the truth about something?
Why would anyone think it is? I happen to know that the potato salad is spoiled and the last three diners got sick just from eating it. Would you call me arrogant to warn the others? I happen to know that the public library is this direction, but the motorist who asked me for directions is headed the other way. Would you call me intolerant to suggest that he turn around? Of course not. Then how is what you said different? It sounded pretty modest to me. You didn't even claim personal authority, because you gave the credit for what you know to the Bible.
The people who call Christians intolerant have an answer to this. "We're talking about matters of opinion," they say. "Food spoilage and highway directions are matters of fact." Of course they're matters of fact. The potato salad really is spoiled, and the public library really is that direction. But that doesn't mean they aren't matters of opinion too! After all, people may have different opinions about just what the facts are.
Differences of opinion arise even in the sciences. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould is of the opinion that Darwinian evolution is a fact; biochemist Michael J. Behe is of the opinion that it's not. Each scientist says that he's right; each scientist says that the other is wrong. Does that make him arrogant or intolerant? No not so long as he offers evidence for what he thinks, listens to the evidence offered by his opponent, and doesn't try to shut him up. That's how science is supposed to work.
What gives power to the myth that says "having truth is intolerant"? It's power comes from a picture not a photograph or a painting but an image many people carry in their minds. In this picture, a man is being burned at the stake. He's there because other people, who say they have the truth, are angry with him for saying that they don't.
Yes, that's a terrible picture. I agree that what it shows should never happen. But in my mind is a different picture. In mine a man is being burned at the stake too but for a completely different reason. He's there because other people, who say there isn't any truth, are angry with him for saying that there is.
Do you see my point? Doubters can be just as intolerant as believers and if you don't believe me now, you will after you've spent a little time at college! In fact, wasn't the imaginary classmate who called you intolerant a bit intolerant himself? Did he offer evidence for what he thinks? Did he listen to your evidence? Or did he merely try to shut you up?
The apostle Peter says, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander" (1 Peter 3:15-16). Arrogance doesn't come from having convictions about the truth; it comes from having the wrong convictions about how to treat people who don't share it with you. Humility doesn't come from not having any convictions; it comes from having the right convictions about the importance of gentleness and respect.
Myth Number Two: The important thing isn't having truth but searching for it.
You're more likely to hear this particular myth from burned-out teachers than from other students. You may also confront it in books. For example, one of the most famous of living philosophers suggested that the good life is a life spent seeking the good life. I mean no disrespect to him, for I've learned from some of his work myself. But do you notice something fishy here? He's talking in circles. On one hand, he says he already knows what the good life is it's the life spent in seeking the good life. But if he already knows what the good life is, then he doesn't have to seek it. On the other hand, if he does still seek the good life, then he doesn't yet know what it is. And if he doesn't yet know what it is, he has no business telling us that he does!
Would you listen for even a moment if someone tried to tell you it was better to itch than to scratch, to be hungry than to eat, or to seek friends than to have them? No? Then why would anyone believe that it's better to seek truth than to find it? Why should this desire and search be different from any other?
Do you know what I Think? I think God has given us two different kinds of desire for truth: one for truth with a little t, and another for truth with a capital T. Truth with a little t is abstract knowledge. The desire for this kind of truth is satisfied by knowing things like what makes a great poem beautiful, what stars really are, how plants and animals are made, and how many gods there are. This truth is good knowledge, some of it even crucial knowledge but the kind you can write on a blackboard.
Now Truth with a capital T is something else altogether. It's God Himself in person. The desire for this Truth can be satisfied only by personal knowledge, living knowledge, the greatest knowledge, but the kind you can have only through relationship with Him.
Some teachers and scholars burn out because they confuse the two desires. They try to satisfy their longing for Truth with a capital T merely by piling up more and more truth with a little t. The problem is that although truth has its own satisfaction, it can't give you the satisfaction of Truth. Confusing the two desires is like trying to relieve an itch by eating a hamburger! If you keep on asking from truth what only Truth can give, eventually it can't even give you what it gave before. The only sweetness left to you is the sweetness of the memory of the longing itself. So you tell yourself, "Now I understand. The important thing in life isn't having truth but longing and searching for it."
And then you tell your students. And then you tell your friends. And then you write in your books. But it's all wrong. Have compassion for your burned-out teachers, but don't repeat their mistake.
Myth Number Three: Faith hinders the search for truth because it gets in the way of reasoning.
This myth has been around for centuries, and it's deeply ingrained in the way college people think. Some students will begin to groan as soon as they learn you're a Christian. They'll try to give you history lessons. "I thought we'd escaped from the Dark Ages," they'll chide. "Wasn't there a little thing called the Enlightenment?"
Here's the main thing to understand. To say that faith gets in the way of reasoning stands facts on their head, for reasoning itself depends on faith. Did you hear that? Reasoning itself depends on faith. Can you see why? Imagine that someone says to you, "All reasoning is baloney." He's wrong, of course, but can you prove it? Guess what? You can't. The only way to show that reasoning isn't baloney would be to reason about it. But in that case your argument would be circular and one of the rules of good reasoning is that circular arguments don't prove anything! So how do we know that reasoning isn't baloney? We take it on trust. And trust is another word for faith.
Reasoning depends on trust, on faith, in other ways too. How do you know the moon is made of rock instead of cheese? You say people have been there and found out. But did you go along to make sure? Of course not; you just trust that they were telling the truth. Faith.
If you're scientifically inclined, maybe you'll add that the moon doesn't reflect light in the same way as cheese. But have you compared the reflections from rock and cheese yourself? Of course not; you just trust that someone has. Faith.
What if I speculated that on the moon, cheese reflects light as rock does on earth and rock reflects light as cheese does on earth? Maybe you'll answer that the laws of physics don't change from place to place. But have you personally checked all the places in the universe to be sure? Of course not; you just trust that nature doesn't play tricks. Faith.
I'm not saying that all kinds of faith are true; I'm just saying that you can't do without it. The plain fact is that unless you have some faith, you can't reason even an inch. Unless you have some trust, you can't even decide what to doubt. You have to believe something in order to know anything. Even atheists have faith. They take it on trust that matter is all there is. I think that's an error but it's faith.
So whether to have faith isn't an issue. You will have faith in something if not in God, then in something else. The only real question is which kind of faith to have. The wrong kind will hinder the search for truth, but the right kind will help.1
Myth Number Four: There isn't any truth.
I'm not sure why so many students repeat this myth, because it doesn't take much to demolish it. Here's how to blow it up. When a classmate says, "There isn't any truth," just ask him, "Oh, is that true?'`
Do you see how that works? If he answers, "Sure its true; I said it, didn't I?" you say, "Then you admit that something is true. So why go on denying it?" But if instead he answers, "Of course it's not true because nothing is," then you say, "Well, if it's not true that there isn't truth, then it is true that there is truth. So why not just fess up?" Either way, you've got him. He's like one of those cartoon characters that hovers in the air for a few moments after running off the cliff because he hasn't realized yet that nothing is holding him up.
Most of the time when students say, "There isn't any truth," they don't really mean it anyway. What they're usually trying to say is that life has no meaning or purpose. Most students feel that way sometimes, especially when things are going badly. College can be a friendly and encouraging place, but it can also be a lonely and disheartening one.
Feelings shouldn't be ignored, but they can be misleading. If you feel as though life has no meaning, ask yourself, "What could give it meaning?"
You say He could?
Then how do you know He hasn't?
Didn't we just go through this? Well, here we go again. Saying that we can't find any truth is just as silly as saying there isn't any to find. If someone says, "We can't find any truth," just ask him, "Oh, is that true?" Maybe he'll answer, "Sing it, brother! That's the way it is!" In that case you say, "If you think you've found a truth, then how do you know I can't find one?" But maybe instead he'll answer, "How should l know whether what I said is true? Weren't you listening?" In that case you say, "If you don't know that truth can't be found, then maybe it can be found so why should I listen to you?" Either way you've got him. If the last guy was Wile E. Coyote, then this one is Elmer Fudd.
Just as most people don't mean it when they say there isn't any truth, most people don't mean it when they say that it might exist but can't be found. What they're usually trying to say is that it can't be found with certainty that no matter what someone thinks, someone can always doubt. That's true, but so what?
Not all doubts are reasonable, and some are downright silly. "I think I'm reading a book, but maybe I'm only hallucinating, so I won't bother to finish the chapter." Is that reasonable? "I think I have a daughter, but maybe she and I are just characters in somebody's novel, so I guess there's no point in picking her up from school." Does that make sense?
Our lives shouldn't be based on what can't be doubted but on what we have the best reasons to believe. All other ways lead to insanity.
Myth Number Six: Maybe we can find out some truth but not about the biggest and most important things.
When pressed, very few people say they can't find out any truth. For example, not many call it impossible to find out how much the newspaper costs or whether a fish is fresh. People who say we can't find out the truth are usually thinking of greater and more important truths truths like what's right and wrong or what God is like. The tiny truths they think they can find; it's only the big ones they think they can't. Now that raises an interesting question. Big elephants aren't harder to find than mice. Big lies aren't harder to find than fibs. So why should big truths be harder to find than small ones?
I don't think they are. In fact I think some of the biggest truths are the easiest to find, because God has provided help. Let's begin with the first of the two big things I just mentioned what's right and wrong. Do you remember the following story from chapter 4?
"Morals are all relative anyway," said Josh. "How do we even know that murder is wrong?" The question was a smoke screen, and Frank knew it was. Every human alive knows that murder is wrong; some just pretend they don't.Although I didn't tell you the first time you read the story, this was a real conversation. "Josh" was a student, and "Frank" was a fellow teacher. You see, "Frank" knew what Paul teaches in Romans 2:14-15: God has written the basics of the moral law on the human heart, so even if we tell ourselves we don't know them, we really do, Not many verses earlier, in Romans 1:13-20, Paul says it's the same with the second big thing I mentioned the basics of what God Himself is like. Deep down, when people look at the things God has made, they recognize His signature. When they look at the world of nature, they can't help but realize it was made by a powerful God, eternal and invisible. That's not all they need to know for salvation, but it's a mighty big hint. The problem is that they hold down their own knowledge. I remember how frustrated I was as an atheist because I was grateful for life even though I was determined to believe that there wasn't anyone to be grateful to. I held on to my atheism not because of the evidence but in spite of it.
"Wait a second," says the skeptic. "Where do you get off calling your intuitions evidence? I admit you can offer evidence about everyday issues like whether the potato salad is tainted and about scientific issues like whether Darwinian evolution is a fact we spoke about those before. But you can't offer evidence about moral or religious issues. The reason is simple: There isn't any."
There isn't, eh? Let's try that claim out. How about the moral issue of whether abortion really takes a unique human life? Unborn babies grow and develop, their DNA is different from that of their mothers and fathers, and it's human DNA, not dog or monkey DNA. I'd call that evidence of a unique human life wouldn't you?
And how about the religious issue of whether Jesus was really God? A man who says he's God is either a lunatic, a scoundrel, or God, but Jesus didn't speak or act like a lunatic or a scoundrel. I'd call that evidence for the third alternative. What other alternative is left? There's plenty of evidence about the big things. Skeptics just don't want to look.
Myths Number Seven: Truth is whatever you sincerely believe.
Can you make something true just by thinking it? What an astonishing power! If you sincerely believe you're a large Diet Coke, are you really one? If you sincerely believe the onion rings are fries, are they actually fries? In that case you must be a mighty magician. I'd like to meet you if nobody drinks you first!
Now here's something odd. Nobody outside the mental hospitals falls for the "truth-is-whatever-you-sincerely-believe" gimmick when the subject is Diet Coke or fries, yet many students fall for it when the subject turns to the big, important things we were talking about a few minutes ago. Let me tell you, if your magic doesn't work on fries or Diet Coke, you can be sure it won't work on right and wrong and God!
The fact that we aren't magicians isn't the only problem with the sincerity myth. Another is that it leads to inconsistencies. You sincerely say the window's open; I sincerely say it's not. If you're right, I'm wrong, and if I'm right, you're wrong. Sincerity can't change that. But the sincerity myth says it can. It says that since we're both sincere, we must both be right. You're right, so the window is open, but I'm right too, so it's not. Some sincerists try to get out of jams like this by using the words "for me" and "for you." Of course, saying the window is open for you but closed for me doesn't help a bit. If it's open, it's open for us both, and if it's closed, it's closed for us both. But sincerists don't waste for me and for you on little things like windows. As before, they save their myth for big things like right and wrong and God.
Here's the sort of thing I mean. Two sincerists are having lunch. The first one says, "I sincerely believe that God is my inner self," and the second replies, "I sincerely believe that God is tuna fish." The first returns, "Then 'God is tuna fish' is true for you, but 'God is my inner self' is true for me." They cheerfully agree. Later the same two sincerists are having dinner. The first one says, "I sincerely believe that infanticide is right," and the second replies, "I sincerely believe that infanticide is wrong." The first returns, "Then 'infanticide is wrong' is true for you, but 'infanticide is right' is true for me." They smile and eat their salads.
I'm being silly, but not nearly as silly as you think. True, nobody on campus thinks God is tuna fish, but many a student thinks God is his inner self and considers his sincerity enough to make it so. As to infanticide you'd be surprised how many people on campus think an unborn baby isn't human unless the mother sincerely believes he is. If the sincerity of her belief could make all that difference for unborn babies, why couldn't it for born ones too? In fact, some pro-abortion people already think this way. Biochemist James Watson sincerely believes that babies should not be considered alive for three days after they're born.2 Some people have sincerely suggested that three days are too few they want thirty.3
The problem is that sincerity doesn't make anything true, and it doesn't make anything true just for you, either. In fact, there is no truth just for you. Truth is for everyone. We just have to share it.4
Myth Number Eight: Truth is whatever people accept or whatever you can get them to swallow.
This myth wears many disguises. If you're a Christian, perhaps a fellow student will scoff at your beliefs by calling them old-fashioned, archaic, or obsolete. What he means is "People around here don't accept them anymore, and that's all it takes to make them false." Put in plain words, the claim is ridiculous. Of course, that's why he doesn't use plain words!
Your teachers may dress the myth in even fancier clothing. In political science class you might hear about "communitarianism." This is the idea that there aren't any standards of truth but the ones your community agrees to. In sociology class you might hear about the "social construction of reality." This is the idea that things are only real, or true, if your society accepts that they are. In philosophy class you may hear about the "consensus theory of truth." Consensus is agreement, so if someone says he believes the consensus theory, he too is telling you agreement makes things true.
As you can see, these are all pretty much the same idea. When people try them out on me, I like to reply: "Some people don't accept your theory that truth is agreement. But that means we don't have agreement that truth is agreement. So doesn't your theory call itself false," You might try the question yourself, just to see how it makes people squirm.
The idea that truth is whatever you can get people to swallow has a superficial appeal because there really are some cases where agreement makes a thing true. The English agree that motorists on English streets should drive on the left and so they should. The Americans agree that an American foot has twelve inches and so it does. But there are also cases where no amount of agreement can make a thing true. Vikings agreed that the earth was flat. Did that mean it was? Nazis agreed that Jews should be killed. Did that mean they should have been? People on the modern campus reply, "But we don't think that the earth is flat or that Jews should be killed." No, they don't, but they consider their agreement enough to make some equally strange things true for example, that men may have sex with men or that women may have sex with women.
The flaw in the notion that truth is whatever you can get people to swallow is so easy to spot that you may be asking, "Why doesn't everybody see it?" The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga suggests one reason:
One thing about this way of thinking: It has great possibilities when it comes to your having done something wrong. Lie about it, and if you are successful (if you get your peers to let you get away with saying that you didn't do it) then it will be true that you didn't do it and in fact you won't have done it; as an added bonus you won't even have lied about it!5
I think that's a big part of the answer. Swallowism isn't true, but for putting a troubled conscience to sleep, nothing can beat it.
Myth Number Nine: Truth is whatever works.
A number of years ago I told my brother that I'd returned from atheism to Christianity. He said, "Well, if it works for you, fine." I was puzzled by his statement then, and I'm puzzled by it now.
In the first place, whether something works for someone is merely personal, like whether he believes it sincerely. The "something" might work for him but not for me. By contrast, whether the claims of Christ are true is more than merely personal. Like "The earth is round" or "Heavy objects have more mass than lighter ones," if His claims are true for anyone, they're true for everyone.
Besides, I don't know what it means for faith in Jesus to "work for someone." Does it give him comfort? Does it get him a job? Does it make him honest? None of these things can prove a belief is true. Atheism is false, but it might give me comfort if I'm angry enough at God. Astrology is bunk, but it might get me a job with the newspaper if I know how to cast a horoscope. There aren't any fairies, but thinking there are might make me honest if I'm afraid they're watching to see if I lie.
The myth that truth is whatever works takes two forms at college: one in the classroom and another in campus social life. In the classroom it takes the form of a philosophical theory called "pragmatism." Pragmatism confuses many students, but if you keep in mind the points you've read in the last two paragraphs, you'll be okay. Just remember that what works for one person may not work for another; that what works in one way may not work in another; and most important, that no matter which way of working you have in mind, something can work and still be wrong. To ask whether a statement is true isn't to ask whether it works but whether it's accurate, whether it's factual, whether what it says is so,. Only the whiteness of snow gives truth to the statement "Snow is white"; only the lordship of Jesus gives truth to the statement "Jesus is Lord."
In campus social life the myth that truth is whatever works takes a different form the form of a conversation stopper. You may have a friend who used to have ideals but now cares for nothing but money. Is that really all that matters? "Hey, it works for me." Another friend gets smashed every weekend and has started to drink on the weekdays too. Does it really make sense that he's destroying himself? "Hey, it works for me." Still another friend has had two abortions and sleeps with every man she meets. Can this really be the way she ought to live? "Hey, it works for me." Be patient with your friends, but recognize their slogan for what it is not a way to find the truth but a wall to keep truth out.
Jesus was right: The truth shall set you free. But the myth of "whatever works" can only keep you in chains.
This chapter may have been a challenge, so let's take a quick last look at the ground we've covered.
First, thinking you know the truth isn't arrogant or intolerant; arrogance comes from having the wrong convictions about how to treat people who don't share it with you.
Second, the whole point of searching for truth is to find it; saying that the important thing in life isn't having truth but searching for it is like saying that the important thing in sickness isn't getting well but seeing doctors.
Third, reasoning depends on faith; falsely placed faith will keep you from the truth, but rightly placed faith will help you find it.
Fourth, it doesn't make sense that there is no truth because then it wouldn't even be true that there isn't.
Fifth, it doesn't make sense to claim truth can't be found because to claim anything at all is to imply that the claim is true.
Sixth, the biggest and most important truths aren't harder to find than the little ones; in fact they're easier because God has provided help.
Seventh, truth isn't whatever you sincerely believe; only a mighty magician could make something true just by thinking it.
Eighth, popular agreement doesn't make a statement true; people have been swallowing nonsense since the world began.
Ninth, the slogan that truth is whatever works isn't a pathway to the truth; it's a wall to keep it out.
Why must all this be so hard? Because you're going into war. I don't mean a war of bombs and bullets and ballistic missiles; I mean a much more fiery, deadly war of errors and sins and temptations of mind-bombs, soul-bullets, and spiritual powers at great heights. You see, according to the Bible it's not just a coincidence that the world keeps going wrong. The Prince of Deceptions launches lies against us as soldiers launch missiles, and the world finds these lies more attractive than the truth. Our eyes don't see as the angels do, but whenever someone accepts one of the Enemy's myths, it must look to them as though a warhead had exploded in his heart, strewing death and destruction in all directions.
For believers, there's nothing to be afraid of because the armor of God is stronger than the weapons of the Enemy. But you have to strap it on.
One more thing. Do you notice anything missing from Paul's description of the armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-18, He mentions the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, and the footguards of readiness to spread the gospel. Then he mentions the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Lacing everything together is prayer. But all of this armor is for your front. Paul mentions no armor for your back.
Why is that? Because God does not intend that you ever turn your back to the foe. John Bunyan explained by way of a story,
But now in this Valley of Humiliation poor Christian was hard put to it; for he had gone but a little way before he espied a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him; his name is Apollyon. Then did Christian begin to be afraid, and to cast in his mind whether to go back or to stand his ground. But he considered again that he had no armour for his back, and therefore thought that to turn the back to him might give him the greater advantage with ease to pierce him with his darts. Therefore he resolved to venture and stand his ground; for, thought he, had I no more in mine eye than the saving of my life, it would be the best way to stand.6
Wear your armor and advance when you can; stand when you must, but never retreat. Remember this and you'll always be victorious.
Order How to Stay Christian in College here.
J. Budziszewski. "Myths About the Search for Knowledge." Chapter 5 in How to Stay Christian in College (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 2004), 80-96.
How to Stay Christian in College - ISBN 1-57683-510-3. Reprinted by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved.
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