Why I’d rather seek truth than defend an idea

Why I’d rather seek truth than defend an idea September 4, 2012

When you make a movie about hell (especially if it has a question mark at the end of the title), one thing is guaranteed: You’re going to get into a lot of debates. In fact, apart from finishing and promoting Hellbound?, that’s pretty much all I do these days—debate, debate, debate. Online, at the dinner table, in the locker room and on the road, once people find out what I’m doing, there’s no escaping it.

Not surprisingly, everyone I meet has a slightly different take on hell. But even though opinions differ, most people have at least one thing in common: they’re absolutely convinced their position is correct.

And why shouldn’t they be? If they didn’t think their opinion was the best option, why would they hold it? But there’s a big difference between believing your views might have a leg up on the competition and being absolutely certain of it.

In the first case, you hold your views with an open hand, realizing that you may have to modify or even jettison some of your beliefs in light of new information. In the second case, rather than welcome new information, you see it as a threat. New ways of looking at things—even old ways of looking at things—are deemed wrong by definition. So are the individuals who suggest such perspectives. And if you’re not careful, you find yourself making that subtle transition from “seeker of truth” to “defender of an idea.”

I can see a number of hands shooting up right now accusing me of introducing a false dichotomy. Why must we choose between seeking and defending? Isn’t defending a necessary part of the seeking process, wherein we test the relative strengths and weaknesses of a new idea?

I couldn’t agree more. The entire scientific method is premised on such a notion. It’s not enough to merely come up with a new theory. That theory must survive a rigorous peer-review process in which your colleagues try to prove it wrong. And even if a theory does pass the test, no one ever considers the matter settled for all time. They are always ready to re-open the case if new information casts their conclusions in doubt.

Furthermore, as Daniel Taylor points out in the video below, as much as we’d like to believe we are primarily rational beings, we simply are not. Emotions play a huge role in the truth-seeking and idea-defending process. Even the term we use to describe a moment of intellectual discovery—an “A-ha! Moment”—is primarily emotional in its connotations. This is nothing to be embarrassed about. We enter the science lab and the theological library as whole persons, not disembodied minds. And we need this kind of emotion to spur the tremendous effort required to coax new insights out of stubborn data and then to gain them a fair hearing.

Daniel Taylor on the “myth of rationality” from Kevin Miller on Vimeo.

Problems arise, however, when we become so emotionally attached to an idea that it no longer exists independent of our selves. We have invested so much of our lives into articulating and then defending the idea that it becomes fused with our identity. We don’t just hold an idea; we are the idea.

“I don’t just hold conservative views; I am a conservative.”

“I don’t just believe in universalism, I am a Universalist.”

If we’re not careful, we go from thinking, “My idea might be right” to “My idea can’t be wrong.” And the reason it can’t be wrong has less and less to do with the idea’s relative merits. It’s the fact you’ve ordered your entire existence around that idea, and if it’s wrong, well, you’ve wasted your life.

Rather than face that awful scenario, you fight like a caged wolverine to silence the voices of dissent. Seeking truth is so far back in the rear view mirror you don’t even recognize it anymore. Nothing else matters… except survival.

At this point, we are the most dangerous to others and ourselves. With so much on the line, we will stop at nothing to defend what we have worked so hard to create. “Truth be damned!”, so to speak. And “Damn those who disagree with me! Damn them all to hell!” By now, we are no longer seeking truth or defending an idea. We are expending all of our efforts in a vain effort to deny reality.

We’ve all seen this process in action. And we’ve all lived it on one level or another. I certainly have the scars to prove it. The question is; what can we learn from it? How does recognizing this pattern affect the way we engage with new ideas—and with those who propose them? How can we still invest our entire selves into the truth-seeking and idea-defending process without allowing it to consume and destroy us?

I don’t have a magic bullet solution. In fact, to complete the late night infomercial analogy, I don’t even have a ShamWow. But the next time you’re in a debate, perhaps it’s enough to pause ask yourself at some point whether you’re seeking truth, defending an idea or—heaven forbid—expending a Herculean effort to deny reality. If that’s the case, maybe it’s time you curled up in a Snuggie and reflected on why this idea is so important to you and whether or not life might actually be better without it.

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