Is Truth Worth Seeking? What if the Experts Disagree?
Every once in a while I run across a paragraph that leaps off the page and causes me to think (if not utter aloud) “I wish I had said that!” Often the paragraph encapsulates an idea I have been wrestling with, an idea rolling around in my mind, that I have not quite figured out how to put into words. Said another way: What I’m talking about here is an idea that I would, if I could, carve into stone and put at the entrance to every school in the world because it is so fundamental and, if believed, so curative of a disease of the popular mind.
What disease of the popular mind?
Over the years of teaching, interacting with people about ideas, communicating, reading, observing popular culture, involvement in higher education, I have noticed a creeping tendency on the parts of many people, even perhaps the majority, to believe that if an idea is contested by experts (which almost all are) it cannot be considered either true or false. Since almost all truth-claims are contested by people considered experts…truth itself, even the earnest and exhausting search for truth, is being relegated to the dustbin of history by the popular mind.
Notice this in popular culture. Every “talk show” on television news channels has (at times) at least four talking heads debating an idea. It doesn’t matter what idea it is. It might be the idea that cannibalism is bad. The producer of the talk show can always find someone who will argue, contrary to the main and first guest, that cannibalism is not really bad but good. Then he or she finds someone who will argue that we cannot know whether cannibalism is good or bad and a fourth person who will argue that cannibalism doesn’t exist.
Many people draw from this common occurrence in popular culture, in which almost nothing can be taken for granted because there are “experts” who hold radically different views, that truth itself cannot be had. If truth is truly “out there” it isn’t available to us. What we are left with is opinions and choices.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Here is what I read: “The failure of theorists to reach a common answer to a question or problem does not itself indicate the failure of theory as cognition. … Thinking in its efficacy is not undermined simply by diversity of opinion or by fact or possibility of error. Diversity as well as conformity in theory should indeed be taken to be incidental to the rigorous process of pursuing the truth through the rejection of untenable notions and the adducing of valid arguments in support of one precise view.” (William Augustus Banner, The Path of St. Augustine [Rowman & Littlefield, 1996, p. 19) (Italic added for emphasis.)
Again, if I could, I would carve that in stone and put the stone at the entrance to every school in the world and make every would-be student not only read it but study it.
I cannot say how many times (often) people have said to me something like this: “Well, since there are so many different views of that, and some people believe the earth is flat, well, maybe there is no such thing as ‘truth itself’.” The tone and context and implication of that is usually something like “So what’s the point of being told anything is true? Let’s just learn about opinions and don’t bother to tell me such-and-such is true or argue for it as true.”
This really hits home to me as a theologian. Most people who have been around in religious circles long enough know there are equally intelligent and seemingly sincere and devout “experts” whose beliefs vary radically from each other—about almost everything. We have a plethora of denominations within Christianity and a world full of radically diverse religions and religious-spiritual philosophies. From that many people deduce that it is not really possible to pursue truth in religion and expect to make any real progress; it’s all just personal opinion.
But I point out to such people that this could be said about every pursuit of truth. There is no discipline or science in which there is complete consensus about even the most important ideas among the “experts.” Of course, this can seem not to be the case because who is and who is not an expert can be determined by some professional society. But if you look above and beyond and around it, you can always find somebody outside that professional society who is a maverick but has strong intellectual credentials who radically disagrees—reasonably (!)—with the recognized experts.
Many years ago I audited a course in philosophy at a liberal arts college. I simply wanted to boost my knowledge of philosophy as I was going through seminary. The seminary I was attending sort of expected everyone to have basic knowledge of philosophy and my undergraduate course in philosophy was weak. I had read a lot of philosophy on my own, but I wanted to know if I had gotten any of it right. So I registered for and audited the course. One professor in the department was a strong believer in the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky. He also believed in the theories of Erich von Däniken. His office door was covered with posters and articles and book covers by and about these two radical, maverick cosmologists. My philosophy professor told me in private that he and others in the department were embarrassed by this but could do nothing about it since the professor in question had tenure. He also had impeccable credentials! What to make of it?
Well, that just illustrates my point. Much, much more than many people know or are aware of, there are “experts” out there, even within the academic world, who hold radically non-traditional views. But when that dawns on them, as it usually does eventually, if nothing else from watching television news talk shows (especially daytime ones for some reason), they often jump to the allegedly postmodern idea that “truth itself” is not a worthy goal because it is a waste of time. Why bother thinking hard about anything if the experts themselves who have studied the matter for many years cannot come to consensus?
The result of this very common attitude is skepticism toward all truth claims and even a tendency to think making truth claims is evidence of hubris if not ignorance.
The only cure for this all too common attitude is to point out the inevitable consequences of everyone thinking this way. And those consequences are already upon us. Belief in “alternative facts” and “truthiness” rather than truth. I have even heard the term “false facts” bandied about. So what? Well, in theology this has the effect of reducing religion to folk religion, subjective spirituality without any cognitive content. Folk religion, as we know, has little to no public influence. Even within churches themselves it results in the religion becoming compatible with anything and everything. We are all becoming Unitarians.
In science and politics it has the effect of causing people to believe in sheer nonsense and turn deaf ears to the facts of science about, for example, human-caused global warming (or “climate change”) which is alleged by many to be a myth promoted by left wing politicians to undermine business and lead us into socialism. The result is, it is difficult to get any traction for any effort to minimize the damage to the earth we may be doing through run-away industrialization and deforestation.
To begin to turn this situation around we need to carve the paragraph above into stone and make students and everyone study it and think it through and recognize the consequences of denying it.
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).