Madame Procurator, members of the Pontius Pilate Society of Post-Everything State University: I’m honored to have been invited to speak to such a distinguished student organization.
Looking up, I see that you’ve placed my podium beneath a banner bearing your motto, Governor Pilate’s famous query, “What is truth?” It was a great question. I hope you will not be angry with me if I say that he did himself no credit by asking it. Not everyone who asks “What is truth?” wants to know the answer. Governor Pilate asked the question not to begin a conversation, but to end one. Perhaps he thought that it had no answer. It was the last sentence he addressed to his prisoner, Jesus of Nazareth, before walking out to the waiting crowd.
I propose not to end a conversation, but to begin one. That requires several things. One is that we desire the truth; the other is that we honor the truth we have. If we desire the truth, then we must reject the obstacles to its attainment. If we honor the truth we have, then we must be honest with each other about the obstacles that arise.
That is why I plan to speak tonight about three false beliefs which hinder the search for truth. I call them myths. These myths, along with many others, are so entrenched in Post-Everything University that they could almost be considered part of the curriculum. Although they hinder the search for every kind of truth, I will be giving special attention to how they hinder the search for truth about God.
I do not imagine that in a single brief talk I can persuade you to accept everything I say. My hope is more modest: perhaps I can “connect the dots” between my claims and some other things that you probably believe already. I also hope to provide points on which I might be challenged.
Myth No. 1 is the idea that thinking you know the truth is arrogant and intolerant.
Is it really so arrogant and intolerant to think you know the truth? Let’s start with simple cases. I happen to know that the potato salad is spoiled, and the last three diners got sick just from eating it. Would it be arrogant for me to warn the others? You happen to know that the public library is this way, but the motorist who asked me for directions is headed that way. Would it be intolerant for you to suggest that he turn around, and tell him why?
Of course no one takes this line about potato salads or highways. On the other hand, people do take this line about who God is and how to live. “God and how to live are matters of opinion,” they say. “Where things are and what you can safely eat — those are matters of fact.” Yes, of course they are matters of fact, but they are opinions too. After all, people may have different views about just what the facts are. The other diners might be of the opinion that the potato salad is wholesome. The lost motorist might be of the opinion that his general direction is correct. Surely that wouldn’t make me arrogant to contradict them.
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? Not necessarily — although, of course, he might be. The rule is that each one should offer evidence for what he thinks, listen to the evidence offered by his opponent, and not try to shut him up. That’s how science is supposed to work. Arrogance doesn’t come from having convictions; it comes from having the wrong convictions about how to treat people who don’t share them with you. Humility doesn’t come from not having convictions; it comes from having the right convictions about the importance of gentleness and respect.
What gives the myth of the intolerance of knowing truth its strength? Its power comes from a picture — not a photograph or a painting, but an image many people carry in their minds. In the 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. I agree that such a thing should never happen. But in my mind is a different picture. In mine a man is also being burned at the stake — I almost said, being hung on a cross. He’s there because other people, who say there isn’t any truth, are angry with him for saying that there is.
Myth No. 2 is the idea that the important thing in life 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. One form it takes is that the good life is a life spent seeking the good life. But do you notice something fishy about the statement? The speaker is talking in circles. On one hand, he says he already knows what the good life is — it’s the life spent seeking the good life. But if he already knows what it is, then he doesn’t have to seek it. In fact he can’t seek it, because he has it already. But if he can’t seek it, then he doesn’t have it, because seeking is what it is. So he has to seek it. Do you want to know what I think? He needs to seek somewhere else.
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 any? 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 than any other? The purpose of any search is to find what you are looking for. We search for truth not for the sake of searching, but for the sake of truth.
May I tell you what I think is at the bottom of the second myth? 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 — 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 with a little “t” has its own satisfaction, it can’t give you that satisfaction. 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 searching and longing for it. We long for the sake of longing; we search for the sake of the search.”
And then you tell your students. And then you tell your friends. And then you write it in your books. But it’s wrong.
Myth No. 3 is the idea that faith hinders the search for truth because it gets in the way of reasoning.
This idea itself hinders the search for truth. It stands facts on their head, for reasoning itself depends on faith. Many of you here in the Pontius Pilate Society describe yourselves as skeptics. You pride yourself that you take nothing on faith, and depend only on reasoning. A proper skepticism is good, and I myself am a skeptic. I am skeptical about the idea that it is possible to reason without taking anything on faith. Suppose someone were to say to you, “All reasoning is baloney.” He would be wrong, of course, but could you prove it? Guess what? You cannot do anything of the kind. The only way to prove your point would be to present an argument, but arguments themselves depend on reasoning. So your argument would beg the question — it would assume what it was supposed to prove. Where does this leave us? We reason not because the validity of reasoning can be proven, but because we take its validity on trust. We trust that the consequence relation — “if this, then that” — corresponds to something in reality. 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 it really happened? Of course not; you just trust that they were telling the truth. 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. What if I speculated that on the moon, cheese reflects light like rock does on earth and rock reflects light like 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.
I’m not saying that all kinds of faith are reasonable; I’m saying only that they can’t all be unreasonable. The plain fact is that unless you have some faith, you can’t even reason at all; unless you have some faith, you can’t even decide what to doubt. In order to know anything, you have to believe something.
So whether to have faith isn’t an issue. You will have faith in something. I don’t know what it will be: if not God, then something else. The only real question is which kind of faith to have. The wrong kind will hinder the search for truth — the right kind will help.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Professor Theophilus, for presenting your unusual point of view. I think all of us here can say that we have never heard anything like it. Interrogators, have you any questions?
MODERATOR: In honor of the Procurator, Pontius Pilate, that is what we call ourselves.
INTERROGATOR #1: Professor, you’ve presented some interesting arguments, but it seems to me that they all rest on a fallacy.
THEOPHILUS: If they do, then I will have to correct my thinking. What is the fallacy, please?
INTERROGATOR #1: All of your arguments about the search for truth take for granted that there is a truth to be found. I maintain that there is no truth.
THEOPHILUS: My goodness. Could that possibly be true?
INTERROGATOR #1: I think so.
THEOPHILUS: Then you concede that there is truth. But in that case your statement, “There is no truth,” must be false.
INTERROGATOR #1: Let me rephrase. I don’t claim to have a truth. It is only my belief that there is no truth.
THEOPHILUS: Forgive me, but that doesn’t let you off the hook. A belief is about a state of affairs. To say that you believe that there is no truth is to say that it is true that there is no truth. You are still in same pickle as before.
INTERROGATOR #1: But a belief isn’t about anything. It’s just a feeling.
THEOPHILUS: If your statement was not about anything, then it could not have been about my arguments, so you have said precisely nothing.
MODERATOR: Next question.
INTERROGATOR #2: Professor Theophilus, I deeply respect your beliefs, but I think truth is whatever a person sincerely believes.
THEOPHILUS: I’m impressed. You must be a powerful magician.
INTERROGATOR #2: Excuse me?
THEOPHILUS: If you sincerely believe you’re a large diet coke, will you be one? If you sincerely believe the onion rings are fries, will they be fries?
INTERROGATOR #2: I wasn’t talking about those kinds of things.
THEOPHILUS: Of course not. Nobody falls for the “truth is whatever you sincerely believe” gimmick when the subject is fries and diet coke. But if your magic doesn’t work even on little things like fries and diet coke, then I should think it very unlikely that it would work on big ones like right and wrong and God.
MODERATOR: Next question.
INTERROGATOR #3: Truth is just whatever works. If your beliefs work for you, great. I’m not interested unless they work for me.
THEOPHILUS: You’ll have to help me out, because I don’t know what it means for a belief to “work” for you. Do you mean it comforts you, that it motivates you, that it makes you a better person?
INTERROGATOR #3: Any of those things. I’m not going to dictate my own definition of what it means for a belief to work. What works for me may not work for you.
THEOPHILUS: Well, I don’t see what any of those things has to do with truth. If I have a tumor I may be comforted by the belief that I’m in perfect health, but the tumor is still there. If I’m driving in the wrong direction I may be motivated by the belief that I’m driving in the right one, but Chicago is still the other way. If there aren’t any fairies I may be made a better person by the belief that they’re watching me, but they really aren’t. Working doesn’t make a statement true.
INTERROGATOR #3: Then what does?
THEOPHILUS: 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. I don’t think the idea “Truth is whatever works” is a way to get to the truth. More often it’s a way to shut truth out. I may know someone who used to have ideals but now cares for nothing but money. Is that really all that matters? “Hey, It works for me.” You may know someone who gets fried every weekend and has started to use drugs on the weekdays too. Does it really make sense to destroy himself? “Lay off, it works for me.”
MODERATOR: Next question.
INTERROGATOR #4: If you don’t mind, I’d like to follow up on what you said to the first two interrogators.
THEOPHILUS: Please do.
INTERROGATOR #4: You said we can find out some truth. I agree. And you implied that there is a difference between little things and big things. I agree about that too.
THEOPHILUS: Thank you. What is the problem?
INTERROGATOR #4: There’s no doubt that we can find out some truth. I just don’t think we can find out any truths about the biggest and most important things, like God.
THEOPHILUS: Except one.
INTERROGATOR #4: Pardon me?
THEOPHILUS: I said, “Except one.” You do think you know one truth about God.
INTERROGATOR #4: I’m not aware that I think that.
THEOPHILUS: Nevertheless, you do think it. The one thing you think you know about God is that you can’t know anything else about God.
INTERROGATOR #4: I see what you mean. Yes, of course I think that one thing. But I don’t see how it makes a difference.
THEOPHILUS: My question for you is this: Why should that one thing be an exception?
INTERROGATOR #4: An exception?
THEOPHILUS: Yes. If you can’t know anything else about God, then on what grounds can you know this one thing about God?
INTERROGATOR #4: You make it sound as though I have to know a lot of things about God in order to say that I can’t know any other things about God.
THEOPHILUS: That’s what I think. I mentioned a little while ago that I am a skeptic. One of the things I am skeptical about is complete ignorance. Don’t you in fact have a rather elaborate picture of God in your mind, full of all sorts of colorful details?
INTERROGATOR #4: How could that be? What details do you mean?
THEOPHILUS: One detail, I’d guess, is that you think of God as infinitely distant — because otherwise you wouldn’t be so sure you couldn’t know anything about Him. Another is that you think of Him as unconcerned about you — because otherwise you’d expect Him to have provided the means for you to know Him. Third, you must picture Him as completely unlike the Biblical portrayal — because in that account He does care about you and has provided the means for you to know Him already. Should I go on?
INTERROGATOR #4: No, I see the point. I concede that I believe quite a few things about God.
THEOPHILUS: The only problem, you know, is that you have no good reason for believing the particular things about Him that you do.
INTERROGATOR #4: How could you possibly know that?
THEOPHILUS: Because until a moment ago, you didn’t even know that you did believe them. This would be a good time to begin an inquiry.
INTERROGATOR #4: How can I —
MODERATOR: Thank you, Professor Theophilus. Our time is up. Interrogators, don’t forget: Next week we discuss Matter: Why It’s All There Is. Good night.
Copyright 1999 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.