A reader has asked me:
How should I be trying to find truth? What should I be doing and studying to help find it? How can I look at anything independently?
…and maybe most importantly, should I listen to my conscience and emotions?
These are big questions. Philosophers have struggled with these questions for thousands of years, and they still don’t have them figured out. Look at the tables of contents in recent issues of the best philosophy journals like Mind, Noûs, and Australasian Journal of Philosophy, and you will see dozens of articles arguing about these very questions. Scientists, too, are actively researching these problems. These questions also plague the rest of us, who do not spend our careers trying to answer them but would like to know the answers by quicker means if possible.
Literally millions of dense, insightful pages have been written on these questions, and I could barely make a dent in considering them if I wrote an entire book about each one of them.
Besides, I’m certainly no authority. I haven’t spent a lifetime trying to answer these questions. I haven’t read the latest academic books and papers. I haven’t even taken a university course in epistemology (the study of knowledge and how to get it).
So now that you’re prepared to ignore everything I say, let me share my thoughts.
How should I be trying to find truth?
Truth is a difficult thing. Just a few centuries ago, the smartest humans alive were dead wrong about damn near everything.
They were wrong about gods. Wrong about astronomy. Wrong about disease. Wrong about heredity. Wrong about physics. Wrong about racism, sexism, nationalism, governance, and many other moral issues. Wrong about geology. Wrong about cosmology. Wrong about chemistry. Wrong about evolution. Wrong about nearly every subject imaginable.
Or so we believe. We think we are better informed than they were. Are we? Is our truth more reliable than their truth?
If we want to know the truth, we’d better have a good method for finding it. What’s the best method for finding truth? How should we be trying to find truth?1
Here’s how I see humanity’s situation with respect to knowledge. Recently, humanity awoke in a strange and beautiful universe. We did not know where we came from or what we should do, but we did our best to survive. We made some guesses about what things existed and how they worked, and most of those guesses turned out to be wrong. It turned out there was not a magical being that would give us a good harvest if we sacrificed virgins to him every so often. It turned out we were not at the center of a small universe. It turned out disease was the product of microorganisms, not sin or demons. It turned out earthquakes and tsunamis were the product of shifting tectonic plates. The universe was full of surprises.
So how can we figure out what things really exist and how they really work? The answer is important. The answer helps us decide what to do. If disease is the product of microorganisms and not demons, then the best way to heal billions of people is to train more doctors, not more priests and shamans. Knowledge is power; the power to do something about the condition of our universe.
Okay, so which methods give us reliable knowledge? There is no a priori answer. We could have awoken in a universe controlled by a playful demon who always delivered us truth whenever we raped antelope. In that universe, the best way to learn how the real world works would be to rape antelope as often as possible. Or we could have awoken in a universe in which our minds contained a special faculty that could directly detect truths about the universe, and so the most reliable path to knowledge would be to trust our inner sense. Or we could have awoken in a universe where our minds were programmed such that truth was always attached to things that were aesthetically pleasing to us. In such a universe, the best path to truth would have been to look for beauty.
But which universe did we wake up in? Which methods tend to work best for uncovering truth in this universe?
It could have been the case that our inner sense was a reliable guide to truth, but it’s not. Apparently, our inner sense was mankind’s primary (or only) method for finding truth for thousands of years, during which time we were dead wrong about damn near everything. Even today, the natural world continues to confound our most assured intuitions about the nature of space and time (see relativity), identity and causation (see quantum mechanics), and much more. I know that our inner sense delivers to us a sense of assurance along with its hypotheses, but the simple truth is that our inner sense has a horrible track record with the truth.
It could have been the case that mystical experience was a reliable guide to truth, but it’s not. Mystical experience has, over many eons, lead to belief in thousands of absurd and contradictory spiritual realities. Once again, it is the nature of mystical experience to deliver to us a strong assurance of veridicality along with its metaphysical claims, but the simple fact remains that mystical experience has a horrible track record with the truth.
I know the personal sway of mystical experiences. I had many of them myself. It was hard to even consider they might be an illusion. But anyone with a passing knowledge of psychology and neuroscience knows many good reasons to doubt the common metaphysical inferences drawn from mystical experiences. Mystical experience is what I call The Ultimate Bias, since we rarely hold our own mystical experiences to the same standards of proof as we do the bizarre (New Age, Hindu, Zen Buddhist…) mystical experiences of many other people. Mystical experience is another very poor guide to the truth.
It could have been the case that persons who rose to become public authorities were a reliable guide to truth, but they’re not. They’ve been wrong as often a “common” people have, and spouted just as much nonsense. Moreover, authorities constantly disagree with each other. So authority is a poor guide to truth.
It could have been the case that personal desire was a good guide to truth, but it’s not. People often have contradictory desires, and these desires often lead them to support contradictory claims. And many truths are disappointing to nearly all of us. So there seems to be little connection between what we want to be true and what is true.
It could have been the case that that beauty was a good guide to truth, but it’s not. For one thing, different people see different things as beautiful, and contradictory propositions cannot both be true. For another, there are many ugly truths. The atom bomb is very ugly but the nuclear physics behind it is deafeningly true. Suicide terrorism is ugly but it is rising in popularity precisely because its practitioners have realized an important truth: that it successfully coerces democracies to withdraw forces from a people group’s homeland.2
Instead, mankind awoke and tried dozens of different methods and found that one particular set of methods – the ones we call “scientific” – are the ones that work best at uncovering the truth about the world we live in. The proof is in the pudding, as they say: scientific methods probably add a greater number of usable truths to humanity’s stockpile of knowledge than all the other methods had for thousands of years, combined. And that’s exactly why science has the prestige that it has. That’s why it’s “the game to beat.” That’s why theologians and philosophers envy scientists and try to borrow their methods as much as possible into their own practices.
But science is always refining itself. When we find that some new set of tests give us more reliable results, we include them in our scientific practice. When we find that a set of techniques has been giving us unreliable answers, we stop using those methods. (At least, scientists do.)
So it looks to me like we’ve awoken in a universe that obeys natural laws, and that’s why scientific measurement, observation, experiment, and rigorous attempts to disprove hypotheses before they are accepted are such successful guides to the truth, whereas other methods have much higher rates of error, and should not generally be trusted.