Tag Archives: Inspiration

C.S. Lewis’s Truth-Loving Test

A few months ago, we heard this from Plato. It was his way of determining who loved truth and who didn’t.

What I proposed was having our children be told glorious tales to stir their imaginations, very much stressing all the time that these tales were true, and then seeing which among the children can resist them, can see the logical inconsistencies within these tales, and see all their inconsistencies with other truths that they have been told.

Here’s another truth-loving test, from C.S. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity. (In the book, he did not propose this as a truth-loving test, but I think it makes an excellent one.)

The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

I read the quote over at Slacktivist’s blog. He had earlier treated the theme in a wonderful post called Jackie at the crossroads. In that story, a young woman named Jackie has claimed there are poisonous spiders in airport restrooms, former stow-aways on international flights. When she is shown that this is just an urban legend, she has a choice: she can double-down or laughingly admit her gullibility. Her choice is a very clear window on her character.

How about us? When we learn that the rumor we have spread about our political or religious adversaries is unfounded, is our first reaction to be relieved that they are not so bad after all? Or do we double down by finding another way they are so bad, or by calling the refutation “biased” even though it is our own bias that has just been exposed?

Lessons in Humility

Our forebears thought the sky was a solid dome above the Earth, in which the stars were embedded.

By the second century AD, we had realized that the planets were out in space, but we still thought the Earth was the center of the universe.

In 1543, Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, arguing that Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun. This offended our self-image so much that when Galileo supported the idea, we imprisoned him.

The Copernican view was finally accepted, but we still thought we were exceptional because the laws of physics were different on Earth than in the heavens. Isaac Newton changed all that. In 1687, he published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, proving that a single Law of Gravity could explain movements in both heaven and Earth.

A century after Netwon, thanks to the tireless work of William Herschel and his sister, Caroline, it became known that our solar system is embedded in a gigantic galaxy, the Milky Way. When Friedrich Bessel measured the distance to a nearby star as 11.4 light-years, people were agog.

In 1920, we learned that, not only were we not at the center of the solar system, but our solar system was not at the center of our galaxy. Later in that decade, we would learn that our galaxy was but one among many.

Close on the heels of that discovery, Edwin Hubble proved that the universe is expanding. We were becoming a smaller part of the whole all the time. And at an accelerating rate: at the close of the century, we realized that the universe is flying apart faster and faster.

Working the expansion backward, Alexander Friedmann had suggested, in 1922, that the universe could have been born in what we now call the Big Bang. Even Einstein initially called the idea “suspicious” but by mid-century, it had begun to take hold. Apparently we are even less than the dust of the Earth: we are detritus from a random quantum fluctuation.

In 1600, Giodano Bruno got himself burned at the stake for, among other heresies, suggesting that the stars were suns much like ours, with inhabited planets. It was not until the time of America’s Civil War that conclusive proof was found that he was right about the suns, and not until after the first Gulf War that he was right about the planets.

When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that our world was almost certainly the only inhabited one in the universe. The scientific consensus now seems to be that life on other worlds is inevitable.

I was also taught humans were the only animals who could reason or use tools. I just finished a book about an African Grey parrot who could hold an intelligent conversation, in English, infused with a mischievous sense of humor. Many species have been observed not only to use but to make tools.

Our self-concept has come a long way from being the apex of creation, in a domed terrarium made especially for us to inhabit, only a few thousand years ago. We now know we are specs on a pale blue dot that orbits a larger, white dot that occupies a not-so-special place two thirds of the way down one of the spiral arms of a galaxy that has, at its center, a supermassive black hole.


Coming toward us at 110 kilometers per second is the Andromeda galaxy — three times as large at the Milky Way and with its own supermassive black hole. Fortunately, space is so vast that it will be 4 billion years before the galaxies collide. Our best guess is that when they do, the Earth will first be pulled toward the dual black holes and then ejected to intergalactic space.

But nobody will be here to witness Earth’s ignominious end. Three billion years earlier (only a billion from now) the radiation from the Sun will have grown so intense that it will have extinguished the last spark of life on our planet.

Life was born here 3.5 billion years ago, and has less than 1 billion to go. Now that we are well past middle age, perhaps it is time to reflect on our accomplishments.

If we can be proud of anything, it is this: that we have discovered the vastness of space and time in the universe, and our correspondingly humble position in it. After centuries of fighting against our change in circumstance, we may also be proud of having exchanged our offense for awe.

Plato’s Truth-Loving Test

Love them or hate them, standardized tests are part of growing up. To get into college, most students take the SAT. To gain admission to graduate school, you might take the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, or who know what else.

Inasmuch as higher education is usually required for leadership positions in our society, these tests are gate-keepers to leadership. They do a good job of measuring intelligence, but is intelligence what we want most in our leaders?

It seems to me that the problems in America today are not due to our leaders being stupid. On the contrary, I suggest that many politicians who take stupid positions are very smart. Take an issue like climate change. There’s a lot of money at stake and politicians know it. They also know exactly how informed or uninformed the public is, and just how flagrantly they (the politicians) can deny reality. They’re very smart about that. The problem is that they have insufficient love for truth.

And what about the polarization of public discourse that is so notorious right now? As any reader of PolitiFact.com or FactCheck.org knows, much of the dysfunction and hate is fueled by outright lies. Again: not enough love of the truth.

What I want is a leader who loves the truth — whose highest aim is to discover what it is, so that he may promote and serve it.

We have standardized tests that help smart people rise to the top. How can we identify people who love truth?

Plato solved that problem 2,400 years ago. As dramatized in Plato at the Googleplex (a book you’ll be hearing more from on this blog), Plato says,

What I proposed was having our children be told glorious tales to stir their imaginations, very much stressing all the time that these tales were true, and then seeing which among the children can resist them, can see the logical inconsistencies within these tales, and see all their inconsistencies with other truths that they have been told (Republic 413c-414a).

What an interesting idea! Do you think that would be a good test of truth-loving? It makes sense that people who will not be enticed by attractive, heroic lies would be leaders we can trust, doesn’t it?

Maybe the question is moot. Maybe Plato could engineer this test in his ideal city, but the suggestion is not practical today.

Or is it?

I suggest that Plato’s test is embedded everywhere in our society, but most of us don’t realize it. To know whether we have passed his test, all we must do is ask whether we have found the flaws in our most cherished beliefs — and all beliefs have flaws.

How many of us have esteemed as a true friend one who incisively criticizes our culture? How many of us Americans have seen how un-democratic it is to arrogate the maximum power for America in the assembly of nations? How many of us have seen the contradictions and cruelties in the scriptures we learned at our mother’s knee?

How many of us would vote for a politician who openly does any of these things?

Plato’s test is already in place. How many of us will care about the results — in our leaders or in ourselves?


McDonald’s and the Act of Uniformity

Have you ever heard laments like these?

With Wal-Mart forcing the mom-and-pops out of business, the whole country is becoming the same. Soon there will be no such thing as regional character.

Exports from the American entertainment industry are slowly making the rest of the world just like us.

There are 3,000 McDonald’s restaurants in Beijing! American culture is polluting the world.

(There’s even a word for that last one: McDonaldization!)

As communication and trade increase, it is inevitable that ideas and culture will diffuse like dye through water. It can seem that where we used to have enchanting red liquid over here and emerald green liquid over there, now we just have a brown puddle.

Not so fast. I suggest that this so-called homogenization is actually bringing us diversity, not uniformity.

The subject came to mind when a book called Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices happened to catch my eye this morning. I Googled around about its author, Thomas Brooks, and discovered that he was a “non-conformist” Puritan minister. What that means, among other things, was that he ran afoul of the Act of Uniformity passed by the English Parliament in 1662. Although he was a devout Christian, he apparently didn’t pray in the right way, or believe the right things, and he lost his job — he and about 2,000 others.

Combined with other Acts passed at about the same time, the Act of Uniformity not only  restricted church offices to conforming Anglicans, but likewise limited opportunities in the military and government.

I suppose that was better than a few years earlier, when people of the wrong Christian faith could be executed, but still…

Obviously the England of 1662 was still rife with in-tribe / out-tribe psychology. That’s hardly surprising: most people’s knowledge of Catholics, the French, and other out-tribers was limited to ugly rumor.

Today, thanks to the internet and the dreaded globalization, we are no longer as xenophobic. To be sure, we still trust our own kind more than outsiders, but the situation is not nearly as bad as it used to be. Dealing with people around the globe has taught many of us that people on the other side of the Earth can be good people, too. Beyond that, we are coming to appreciate and welcome each others’ cultures.

Last November, my software team in Massachusetts celebrated a small Thanksgiving feast over video-conference with the other half of our team, located in India. At Christmas, we exchanged gifts.

As people are being mixed together more, we’re also discovering that our old prejudices against foreigners, people of lower classes, people of higher classes, homosexuals, people with disabilities — really prejudices against anyone — just don’t make sense.

It’s hard to imagine, but just 100 years ago we had a president (Woodrow Wilson) who said, “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation … until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the southern country.” And that was from a Northern progressive! He was one of the liberal ones!

How have we freed ourselves from such insanity? Only as commerce and the internet have thrown us together.

Perhaps the world is becoming more homogenized, but only in a coarse-grained way. At the fine-grained level where people live, we are more diverse than ever.

Paying it Forward at Starbucks

I got an early start this morning and decided to stop by Starbucks and write a blog post. What I had planned to write about went out the window as I stood in line.

As the man in front of me reached for his wallet, the barista told him that someone had left a gift card with $250 on it to “pay it foward” so his coffee was covered.

Later, while I was sitting in the shop, I would overhear that Mr. Pay-it-Forward has been doing this every Christmas for years, and that there’s actually a second person in town who does the same thing.

The customer in front of me, whose purchase would have amounted to about $5, was moved to add $40 to the gift card. I saw other people do what they could to keep the pay-it-forward momentum going, either tipping more generously than usual or adding to the card.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how it’s done. Yes!

What Morality Is

We spend a lot of energy arguing about what is right or wrong, but how many of us have stopped to ask what morality is?

Do the principles of morality exist apart from living beings? 2 + 2 would equal 4 even if there were nobody around to add the numbers, but would Do unto others as you would have them do unto you make any sense if there were no others and no you? Right away we see that morality is at least somewhat contingent.

A theist might assert that moral principles are whatever God says they are and they as eternal and unchanging as God himself. In theory that’s possible but in practice it never happens that way.

My own former tradition of evangelical Christianity is a case in point. Although we believed that the Bible was God’s Unchanging Word, we found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of having to explain away supposedly eternal commands ranging from keeping the sabbath to women not being allowed to teach men. I suspect other traditions whose morality is based on what God has literally written in stone face similar conundrums. If the moral code is eternal, then we have not yet seen it on Earth.

This is not to say that morality is arbitrary. Far from it. Just as there are physical characteristics of humans that distinguish us from other species, there are moral characteristics that seem to suit us best. For example, take monogamy. That ideal has had a salutary effect on our social development, giving almost every woman a reliable support for her children and almost every man a reason to be productive. However, it would be entirely unsuitable for bees, whose social organization is exquisitely optimized around a single bearing female.

Moral norms evolved one way for bees, and another way for us. As human society continues to evolve, what makes us flourish may change, too. That’s what I think morality is: whatever best makes us flourish.

An open-minded observer cannot help but notice that moral principles are memes that continually battle each other for control of our minds. Over time, the memes that gain the upper hand are those that make their hosts (that’s us) flourish.

Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs put physiological survival at the base and morality at the top. Our first need as a species, and the first to be fulfilled, was survival. As we became more firmly rooted in our niche, we were able to progress up the Hierarchy, until in the 21st century most of us in the First World think all day about the top level — self-actualization — and barely give survival a thought.

In the same way, primitive moral systems emphasized tribal cohesion and survival. It was just fine to enslave or wipe out rival tribes, stone heretics and so on. Now, thanks to prosperity, commerce, and other factors, we are past that. Our moral systems are based on universal rights rather than tribal exceptionalism; on freedom of thought rather than conformity; on mutual respect rather than authority.

Economic progress can give us the luxury of more enlightened morals, and better morals in turn promote prosperity and happiness.

It is said that morality is a straight and narrow path. That may be true, but it is not level. It rises with our progression as a species.

Scratching Your Way Out of a Room

Benjamin Verdery is not only a fantastic classical guitarist, but a fabulous teacher. I once heard him use this memorable analogy to encourage a student to work on technique.

When you try to play the guitar without proper technique, you might learn to play faster or more expressively, but it will be as if you were trying to get out of this room by scratching your way through the wall, when there’s a door right over there.

Benjamin Verdery was saying, in essence, “Your body’s biomechanics work a certain way. Until you align with that reality, results will be hard to come by.”

Many people are trying to scratch their way out of rooms. When they don’t make progress, they try scratching harder rather than looking for a door. They might even berate themselves for having inadequate fingernails. Some people hope there is no door, because then all that scratching would have been for nothing.

I’m not here to criticize anyone’s favorite techniques for living — although regular readers will know what has not worked for me. Let me just encourage you: if your technique has not worked for a year, a decade or more, maybe the problem is not with your application of the technique. Maybe it’s not that you haven’t tried hard enough. Maybe you are not inadequate. Maybe you just need a new technique — one that is more aligned with the reality of your situation.

Are you having power struggles with your children? If clamping down on them has not worked, maybe clamping down harder will not work either. Instead, you could learn what it would take to earn their respect, and do that.

Has prayer not worked? Maybe it’s not your lack of faith or devotion. Maybe praying harder will not change anything. Perhaps it’s time to take action on your own.

Has talk therapy not cured your depression? Maybe you don’t need to talk more. Perhaps you are serotonin-deprived and need medication.

Do you continue to have anger issues? Maybe trying harder to stifle yourself will not to help. Perhaps you just need to look at life differently so you don’t get angry in the first place.

I’m suggesting that you give yourself a break. Don’t make life harder than it has to be. If you haven’t been able to scratch your way through the wall, maybe there’s a door.