In Search of Truth or Error? -- A brief commentary on our generation
The other day while working on another article, a thought quickly ran across my mind. I decided to stop what I was doing and chase it a while to see where it would lead. After following it down a trail of unpredictable twists and turns it finally came to a stop at this unexpected conclusion: We are a generation that is not so much in search of truth as it is in search of error.
I will explain what is meant by that shortly, but first let me share with you the initial thought that’s to blame for bringing me to that objectionable conclusion. The culprit was, of all things, a cliché (gasp! – That’s something of a 4 letter word for writers, I’m told … particularly among those not so strong in spelling … or counting). Anyway, the thought that started it all was this: “Money can’t buy happiness.”
So how did I get from “Money can’t buy happiness” to an indictment against our culture as one that seeks not truth but error? I’ll show you …
When you hear someone say something like “Money can’t buy happiness” what is the first thing you begin to do? If you’re like most you start to pile up as many arguments as you can to show how this just isn’t true. Nothing wrong with that, right? After all, the ability to critically analyze what we see and hear is regularly encouraged – as it should be. But the problem is this: in analysis, when all you can provide is criticism, you’ve done only half the work (and the less important half at that). You look at “Money can’t buy happiness” and you say, “Oh, really? So you think having enough money to eat whatever you wish, go wherever you want and do whatever you like won’t make you happy?” You’ve determined what in the statement should be rejected but you’ve not discerned what ought to be kept. You finish your analysis rejecting all, taking nothing away, and therefore nothing is precisely what you gain.
We are a generation that has been taught to question everything. Just take a look at our bumper stickers and t-shirts and you’ll see it’s our boast. I do not deny there is great value in raising tough questions and subjecting claims to critical analysis, but when the aim of analysis is questions and not answers, why, you’re as far from truth as the man who blindly accepts all things.
“Far from truth” … some of you just cringed reading those words, didn’t you? And that’s because “truth” in our generation is so abstract that to think of it as something or someone tangible that we can actually arrive at is tantamount to heresy. Now, to be sure, we do not completely reject the term “truth.” Call yourself a “seeker of truth” and you’ll win applause wherever you go. But heaven forbid you should ever claim to have found it.
In our day, anyone who is sure he knows something is a fool, while the one who knows nothing is hailed the wisest among us. We are a people who proudly boast in ignorance (of course, we’re not too fond of that Latin rendering; we’ve somehow become more partial to the Greek: agnostic). How fitting are the words spoken nearly 2000 years ago by the apostle Paul, “Claiming to wise, they became fools.”
I used to teach college students in China. As something of an object lesson I would prepare a white sheet of paper that I left completely blank, save for one small black dot in the center. I held up the piece of paper and asked the class what they saw. Their answer? “A black spot.” Isn’t funny that the black spot didn’t comprise one percent of the object I held up before them, and yet instead of commenting at all on the white piece of paper, their sole focus was on that one little black dot?
I bring this up just as an illustration of what our generation is so prone to do. We will ignore the substance of a thing—the 99%—to focus on the 1% that we’d like to reject. Now I know that many of you are already objecting to this analogy, “We speak only of the spot because our minds are made to recognize and focus on inconsistencies within patterns!” Yes, I’m aware of that. Do you see, though, that you’ve just done the very thing I’ve warned against? You are presented with something and the goal you have is to prove it false, to prove it utterly invalid so that you needn’t be bothered by any of the implications. Instead of coming at propositions with a mind that asks, “What can be learned?” you’ve made it your aim to find reasons for discarding the whole thing. You throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak.
Now, please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that we should embrace falsehood or illogical arguments for what can be learned from them. I’m not saying a statement is true so long as 99% of it is and that the 1% is inconsequential. Lies are most dangerous when they are almost completely true. What I do want to encourage, though, is a different attitude toward criticism and analysis. One that is not satisfied with raising questions but rather with providing answers. An attitude that confesses, first of all, that there truly are answers—there really is truth—to be arrived at. And an attitude that in humility repeatedly asks, “What might I learn?” instead of in arrogance refusing, “I will not be taught!”