Truth

Anyone who knows me knows that I value truth greatly. My respect for, even idealism of, truth has always been clear to me.

I’m not entirely sure why this is so.

I suspect my parents teaching me honesty is part of it and, of course, my dad having introduced me to the life of the intellect. But it seems to go beyond just those factors. There is something about my personality or my life experience that has caused me to value truth more than even my dad who spent much of his life in academia. As a conservative Christian, he would probably put before truth any other number of values: love, obedience, service, etc. Most people would put something or another before truth… which is to say that most people would rather assert their preferred values as truth than to value truth itself.

I don’t personally know any other person who puts as much emphasis on truth as I do (not to imply that I live up to my own ideal). Even my life-long best friend doesn’t think about truth in the way I do, although he comes closer than most people. My desire for truth at times can be a visceral impulse, something felt at the core of my being. I experience life and look out upon the world through the lense of truth-seeking. It truly bewilders me that others don’t share this inclination, this way of being in the world.

Truth as a value often seems out of fashion. We live in an age where righteous fundamentalism competes with skeptical relativism. It has become the norm for all sides to question truth as a value worthy of respect, especially in terms of the Enlightenment. We have collectively loss faith in truth, that it exists or can ever be known. Instead, doubt has become dominant and pervasive. Truth has become a mere personal issue. There are just claims of truth, but no shared sense of truth or even shared value of truth.

Yes, people argue over what is true. But such arguments have increasingly become battles of rhetoric. As a society, we’ve become cynical. Psychological insight has taught us how weak is the human mind. Simple reverence for truth is beyond most people these days. It sounds nice, if a bit naive. With propaganda and advertising, we are always looking for the angle, the spin, the manipulation. Claims of truth seem loaded, potentially dangerous even.

The Nazis knew their truth. The communists knew their truth. Islamic terrorists know their truth. And conservatives like Bush jr know truth in their gut. Or on the other end of the spectrum, New Agers know their own version of truth. People who claim truth are to be considered with suspicion or maybe just seen as simpleminded. Truth has become nearly synonymous with blind faith and dogmatic righteousness. In the media, truth is decided by whichever side wins.

There are so many competing claims of truth that we’ve forgotten how truth has a closer relationship to questions than answers. To question is to be weak. People who question don’t become powerful, wealthy or famous. Even in academia, it is the preson who proclaims a new theory or interpretation who gets attention from his or her peers. To question without offering an answer seems dissatisfying or boring. It is an argument between people declaring opposed truths that is exciting, that gets attention. Pick a side and fight for your team or else stand alone on the sideline as the valiant skeptic demolishing other people’s truths.

There is a new kind of lifestyle truthiness. You look for the truth that fits your life, rather than conform your life to truth. Claims of truth are how you know which group someone belongs to. There is Christian truth and Atheist truth, Republican truth and Democratic truth. Every group has their experts. Other experts are mercenaries who work for the highest bidder, usually think tanks.

I try not to fall into too much cynicism because the ensuing despair can be paralyzing. I have faith in truth, if faith can be used in this way, but I don’t have righteous certainty about any particular truth.

In my understanding and experience, the discussion of truth certainly isn’t about rhetoric or talking points or dogma. It isn’t even about philosophy and rationality, not ultimately at least. I see truth as a basic human experience. We may be confused about truth, change our minds, and be deluded more than we’f prefer. Still, the desire for truth is there and it can’t be denied.

Ever since the Axial Age, humans have become transfixed by the notion of ‘truth’. Revolutionary thinkers showed up on the scene and told their fellow humans that wisdom and knowledge matter more than kinship tribalism, more than obedience to authority, more than rule of law and tradition. This was when the seeds of modern civilization were planted. These seeds eventually grew into the Enlightenment. And now we live in an era of science. Truth as a value has become the background of modern society. We take it for granted which is why it is so easy to be cynical about it.

It is strange how the value of truth has played such a major role in social development. There seems to be something in human nature that corresponds to the notion of truth. Even before the Axial Age, peopl had various views of what ‘truth’ meant, even if they don’t correpsond to anything that we now recognize as truth. The moment humans could speak and draw cave paintings, the human desire for truth was off and running, although rather blindly at first.

My own sense is that truth as an idea and ideal touches upon the archetypal. There is an experience of a truth, a desire of truth that precedes any particular claim of truth. Truth-seeking matters because it springs from an impulse deep within us.

What is Intellectuality?

I’ve been thinking about the Fox pundits lately, but today I was thinking about the relationship (or lack thereof) between mainstream news and intellectuality.

I’m surprised when people try to defend Glenn Beck as an intellectual.  Even though he isn’t utterly stupid, he is far from being an intellectual.  His tendencies towards emotional melodrama and conspiracy theorizing show a lack of critical thinking skills.  And, as far as I can tell, his education is limited mostly to the research he does on the web… which is fine as far as it goes (I’m not dissing the web).

Bill O’Reilly is more of a genuine intellectual.  He has higher education in political analysis.  O’Reilly may not be the most profoundly insightful commentator and he may lack intellectual humility, but still he is an intellectual of sorts.  He is at least sometimes capable of calm reasoned analysis… when he isn’t shouting down opponents and righteously declaring his opinions.

Ultimately, O’Reilly is an ideologue just like Beck.  Whether one uses reason or paranoia to support one’s presupposed ideology, it’s not that big of a difference.  Intellectually respectable or not, O’Reilly and Beck seem to agree on a similar worldview which isn’t essentially intellectual in nature.

Anyways, that is just preamble.  The real reason for this post is my consideration of what defines intellectuality.

Real intellectuality isn’t just intelligence and it’s not even just critical thinking skills.  Both of those are part of it, but they mean little if they are simply motivated by non-rational impulses and used to rationalize non-rational beliefs.  A real intellectual looks at the facts before coming to a conclusion.  A real intellectual is reserved in their opinions and wary of biases.  A real intellectual is humble in their opinion, is willing to admit they’re wrong, and is willing to change their view to fit the facts.  A real intellectual not only looks at the facts but specifically looks for facts that might disprove their assumptions, seeks out reasons for why the may be wrong, considers all criticisms and all alternative viewpoints.

At this point, Beck has been left in the dust.  Pseudo-intellectual conspiracy theorizing does require a certain amount of intelligence and creates a facade of rationality, but it’s so far from being intellectually respectable that it deserves mockery.  O’Reilly, on the other hand, comes closer and yet still falls short.  He may sometimes play the role of an intellectual and may make some intelligent comments, but first and foremost he is an opinionator.

A real intellectual may be a hard thing to find.  Aren’t we all motivated by unconscious assumptions and impulses that bias our thinking?  Yes.  However, there are those who seek to look beyond their biases and there are those who embrace their biases.  A real intellectual may not be a genius and may not have any grand insights, but what is important is that they’re humble in accepting their limitations.  They know what they know and they know what they don’t know, and they don’t pretend to know more than they do.

More important than anything, a real intellectual has to either be fairly self-aware or else committed to a methodology that forces objectivity.  In science, peer review forces an approximation of objectivity in that personal biases tend to get filtered out over time.  In news reporting, fact-checking teams working behind the scenes to keep the reporting honest.  However, news reporting will never be as objective as science.  The fact-checkers are only as unbiased as the company that hires them.  Thusly, a news network such as Fox with a clear agenda will, even when using fact-checkers, promote biased reporting.  Furthermore, fact-checking has become less of a priority as news agencies have lost money and pundits have become more popular.

It’s hard to find real intellectuals on tv these days.  Even when they manage to sneak on for a few minutes, all that tv news allows for are soundbites.  To the average viewer, a real intellectual is boring.  People want to be entertained.  If people wanted to think, they’d read a book rather than watch the news.

An example of a real intellectual would be someone like Noam Chomsky.  He has some useful insight about why real intellectuals don’t make good tv talking heads.  I’ve never come across any other intellectual than sounds as calmly reasonable as Chomsky.  I actually get the sense that he has some genuine insight, that he actually knows what he is talking about.  He isn’t loud and bombastic.  Even in his strong opinions, he states everything with cited facts and clear logic.  He doesn’t slander those he disagrees with but simply analyzes why they are wrong.

Nonetheless, even Chomsky has an agenda.  His focus is politics and he wants to influence the world.  So, he isn’t simply stating facts.  He has biases, but he is open about his biases and he carefully explains the reasons for his beliefs.  He is what I would consider a real intellectual.  That is what he is and it isn’t just a role he is playing.  It’s just his way of viewing the world.  Chomsky’s intellectuality serves the purposes of intellectuality.  He doesn’t simply pay lip-service to it but rather genuinely believes in the value of the intellect.

Okay, that is my definition of intellectuality.  An intellectual can be an atheist or a theist, a scientist or a philosopher.  But, whatever he is, he combines rigorous critical thinking with humble open-mindedness.  As I already said, real intellectuality serves the purpose of intellectuality.

That said, I want to push this one step further.  Intellectuality itself is a bias.  It’s a way of viewing the world, a way of filtering out what one deems unuseful in order to focus on what one deems useful.

I consider myself an intellectual in that I often involve myself in intellectual activities and I try to be intellectually humble.  However, my intellectuality serves a profound sense of truth that includes but isn’t limited to intellectuality.  Intellectuality is just one of many perspectives which doesn’t mean I don’t respect intellectuality.  It may have its limitations, but it’s irreplaceable in the fight against pseudo-intellectuality.  If one isn’t capable of real intellectuality, then there is little hope for one having the clarity of mind to grasp even deeper truths.

It is intellect that helps one to clear away the mud, but it won’t necessarily help one to see the gold and tell it apart from fool’s gold.  Intellectuality is just a tool, but as it’s a way of viewing the world it’s easy to get lost in this one perspective.  To probe the foundations of mind and thought, to question intellectuality itself demands a wider set of tools.  As such, I’m a truth-seeker and I use whatever helps me to ascertain the truth.  This necessitates the intellect because even non-intellectual truths require some intellectual ability to give them form and to communicate them to others.

The relationship between intellect and truth is hard to clarify.  An intellectual may or may not be a truth-seeker, and a truth-seeker may or may not be an intellectual… but more often than not the two go hand in hand.

Let me use an example to differentiate an intellectual from a truth-seeker.  In some recent articles, Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins each wrote an essay about religion and science.  Karen Armstrong argued for non-literal religious truth as separate from the scientific endeavor.  Richard Dawkins argued for a dismissal of religion by interpreting it literally and showing that it fails scientific literalism.  Dawkins is an intellectual, but not a truth-seeker.  Armstrong is an intellectual and a truth-seeker.  As for the literalist religious type, they are definitely not intellectuals even when they use intellectual-sounding arguments to rationalize their apologetics and for this reason they’re not likely to be truth-seekers either.  The materialistic atheist and the anti-intellectual theist both believe they have found truth and so have little motivation to seek it.

To be both a real intellectual and a truth-seeker is a difficult but worthy aspiration.  The two jostle against each other and create an unresolvable tension.  And this tension is what motivates all great thinkers.