Tag Archives: Truth

Can You Find God on the Enlightenment’s Terms?

According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 42% of Americans believe “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” Most people who chose that response to the question of human origins attend church regularly. It seems safe to assume that they get some of their most important ideas about life from God speaking to them in one way or another — in answer to prayer, through passages in the Bible, an so on.

In contrast, America’s founding fathers were above all children of the Enlightenment. In the last post, we saw that Enlightenment thinkers insisted that knowledge, including answers to the great questions of life, be justified in ways that are, in principle, accessible to all. A private word from an invisible God would not qualify.

A believer might counter that an Enlightenment epistemology based on science, logic and reason is going to miss important truths that God himself communicates.

In a way, I’d say the believers are right. If I were to have a vision in which the Christian God appeared to me personally and said, “I exist. Worship me,” I would be more inclined to believe that my brain chemistry was doing something strange, than to believe that God had truly appeared to me. After all, people of other faiths that contradict Christianity also have visions of their gods. Evidently visions are not reliable sources of truth, which was exactly the Enlightenment’s point.

However, that does not mean someone like me is beyond God’s reach. If God exists and is interested in a relationship with all mankind, including freethinkers, he could reveal himself in ways that are, in principle, accessible to all.

In fact, believers say he has done exactly that. Google a question like “How do we know the Bible is true?” and you will find reasons like these, summarized from ChristianAnswers.net:

  • The Bible contains many fulfilled prophecies.
  • The Bible is more historically accurate than other texts of the period.
  • The Bible makes correct scientific claims that were ahead of its time.
  • The Bible has a uniquely harmonious message event though it was written by many men over hundreds of years.
  • The Bible has had a unique effect on people who have believe it.

All of these reasons can be evaluated by Enlightenment standards. For example, anyone can, in principle, determine whether a given prophecy was made ahead of its alleged fulfillment, was specific enough to be remarkable, and was actually fulfilled. Even the last reason, which seems private and personal, can be tested by asking, “Do Bible-believers live uniquely righteous lives?”

The ultraconservative, creationist website, Answers in Genesis, is right in line with the Enlightenment as they say, “When asked how they know that the Bible is true, some Christians have answered, ‘We know the Bible is true by faith.’ While that answer may sound pious, it is not very logical, nor is it a correct application of Scripture. … A person doesn’t really know something just by believing it. He simply believes it. So the response is essentially, ‘We believe because we believe.’ While it is true that we believe, this answer is totally irrelevant to the question being asked. It is a non-answer. Such a response is not acceptable for a person who is a follower of Christ.” They go on to give their own reason for believing the Bible is true, based on pure logic.

Perhaps the folks at ChristianAnswers.net and Answers in Genesis are only trying to appeal to the unconverted in ways they would understand, but I give them more credit than that. I think they truly believe their faith is grounded in evidence. That’s certainly what I thought about my faith in my evangelical days.

So my response to a Christian who asks, “Aren’t you cutting yourself off from God speaking to you?” is, “Isn’t God able to speak through evidence?” Most Christians would agree that he is, and then we can have a conversation about the evidence … on the Enlightenment’s terms.

A Chess Player’s Truth-Loving Test

We all like to win. Nowhere is this more true than in competitive games and sports. Back in the day, I used to play competitive chess, representing my employer in an inter-company league in the Hartford, Connecticut area.

People who don’t play chess sometimes picture a game where both players sit immobile, each thinking it’s the other’s turn to play, until both fall asleep.

In reality, tournament chess is an incredibly suspenseful, sustained, high-pressure contest. We played with chess clocks set so each player had to make 40 moves in 90 minutes on his own clock. You’d think a three-hour combined time limit would make for a leisurely game, but I assure you it was very tense. One or both players usually got into time trouble by the end, having to make, say, 10 moves in his final two minutes. That was after spending nearly three hours thinking as hard as he could, searching for the best plan, wondering what his opponent is planning, worrying about making a blunder and wanting to score a point for his team.

After all that effort and tension, a victory felt really good. We recorded our moves as we played and I would savor a victory by replaying it at home. (Not that I needed the written record; with that much thinking invested, it was easy to remember every move.)

In my early days, I cared very much about winning but as my game improved I cared about something else even more, namely whether the game was beautiful. If I played my best, but lost, I would derive true enjoyment from a game that was as beautiful as I knew how to make it.

Conversely, if I won only because my opponent blundered, the victory would be empty.

There were some games that were more of an honor to lose than other games were to win.

Chess is very much like a debate. One player may think, “My King is safe. I can embark on a queenside attack.” The other player is thinking, “I’ll break through to his King before his queenside attack has done significant damage.” Or maybe the second player doesn’t see the attack coming and will soon be shown the error of his ways. The game is all about discovering whether your ideas are sound.

A player who loves chess even more than he loves winning will enjoy a game where his errors are refuted even more than a game he wins because of his opponent’s mistake.

So here is my Chess Player’s Truth-Loving Test for all debates, whether or not they occur on a chessboard.

A person loves the truth when he (or she) is happier to hear a beautiful refutation of his errors than to win an argument against a weak opponent.

Other truth-loving tests in this series:

The Islamic State, Christianity, and Holy Texts

What sense can you make of this dialog?

JOE: They say, “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

MARY: Why is the Aurora Borealis visible only in the far north?

JOE: I am convinced we will have a Republican president after the next election.

MARY: I should probably have a mammogram.

JOE: Oak trees are strong and brown. Birch trees are weaker, and have white bark.

MARY: Chocolate ice cream is my favorite.

When I took an acting class in college, the professor gave us an exercise based on dialog much like the above. He paired us off and gave each pair a full page of non sequiturs. Each pair was supposed to take a week to figure out how to present the dialog in a way that made sense. We were allowed to repeat words, but not omit or reorder any. When the class met again, we were to act out our interpretations in a convincing way.

My partner was totally stumped, as were most people in the class. However, I took up the challenge and managed to cast the dialog as being about a visit to the dentist, even though dentists were nowhere in the original. (There was a sentence about a proctologist, though!)

I was able to give every syllable an interpretation that made perfect sense. Not only that, but I was sure that I had found the only solution to the puzzle. When other students assigned a different meaning, I had to give them credit for trying, but I thought they had not fit their interpretation to the text as well as I had.

In fact, had I not known that the dialog was designed as nonsense, I might have marveled at how cleverly its true meaning was woven into seemingly unrelated content.

That experience is what came to mind when I read the cover story in the latest issue of The Atlantic: What ISIS Really Wants. To hear American politicians talk, the Islamic State is not Islamic at all. They are just a “death cult.” The Atlantic‘s article argues very effectively for a more sobering view:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Yes, there are alternate interpretations of Islam. As Graeme Wood points out toward the end of the article,

There is, however, another strand of Islam that offers a hard-line alternative to the Islamic State—just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions. This strand has proved appealing to many Muslims cursed or blessed with a psychological longing to see every jot and tittle of the holy texts implemented as they were in the earliest days of Islam.

[The are] committed to expanding Dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, even, perhaps, with the implementation of monstrous practices such as slavery and amputation—but at some future point. Their first priority is personal purification and religious observance, and they believe anything that thwarts those goals—such as causing war or unrest that would disrupt lives and prayer and scholarship—is forbidden.

In practical terms, then, one fundamentalist group is attempting to take over the world, while the other peacefully devotes itself to a life of prayer and scholarship. Two groups have the same view of their holy text, but reach opposite conclusions about how to live.

It would be easy to laugh at the ridiculous Muslims, but we in the Christian West have not been without diversity of interpretation of our holy text, the Bible.

One thinks of Christian pro-lifers who bomb abortion clinics, while other Christians, equally devoted to the scriptures, decry that practice and focus instead on prayer, asking God to stop abortion by changing people’s hearts.

Or, on a less violent level, one is reminded of Bible-believing Christians who preach that God will heal all who ask in faith for a miracle, even as other Bible-believing Christians caution that such prayers are presumptuous.

How can people who agree on a simple, common-sense, literal method of interpreting a holy text reach opposite conclusions based on it?

Surely part of the answer is that all scriptures have some passages that point one way, while others tend toward the opposite.

However, the acting exercise also taught me that if even a nonsense dialog can be wrestled into meaning something consistent, surely a relatively coherent book like the Bible or the Koran can be made to say things that the original authors did not have in mind.

More than that, it taught me that when someone thinks he has found the only sensible interpretation that takes the entire text into account, it may be because of his cleverness rather than because the text actually speaks with a unified voice.

What if Life is a Joke?

What if the truth about life were horrible? What if, as the ancient Hebrews believed, we are all destined to spend eternity in a shadowy sheol rather than a glorious heaven? Or what if there is no afterlife at all? What if life is absurd — just a cosmic joke played on us by no-one at all?

If you were to discover that any of these propositions is absolutely, undeniably true, how would you feel?

I’ve been rereading Plato at the Googleplex, in which author Rebecca Goldstein imagines Plato on a book tour in modern America. I’d like to share with you a passage that I find very moving. Ms. Goldstein, synthesizing Plato’s writings, has him say this about those who are fit to be the Guardians of his ideal republic.

[An essential character quality is] an inborn horror of being deceived as to the nature of things, and an inborn desire to know the truth… [It] is something different from intelligence and different from knowledge. Those who have this trait love the truth not because it is like this or like that. They love the truth simply because it is the truth and are prepared to love it no matter what it turns out to be. They will stick to a view just so long as it seems to them the truth and will not be seduced away from that view no matter what others are telling them, or what flashier and more attractive options are dangled before them; but they are also the least reluctant among all people to abandon a formerly loved view, if once they become convinced that it is not true. They are always on the scent of the truth, like dogs, who are the most philosophical of animals.

Do you identify with this? I do. During the years that I was in the evangelical church, nothing “seduced me away from that view” — not money, not social opportunities, not fleshly lusts, not even the common decency to see some of its teachings as horrible. I thought I had found the truth; how could anything else matter?

When I became convinced otherwise, I did not mourn the loss of eternal life, a God who loved me, or a sense of eternal purpose. Instead, I felt anger at having been deceived.

I don’t think life is a joke. I’d say it’s more of a game. But if that is the truth of the matter, I am prepared to love it. Delighted, even. How about you?

Voltaire’s Truth-Loving Test in Candide

I’ve been collecting and posting tests of how much one loves truth, as proposed by famous philosophers. So far, we have

  • Plato’s test: Tell children glorious stories. Emphasize that the stories are true when they are, in fact, false. See which children can resist the stories’ appeal, and spontaneously protest as to why they are impossible.
  • C.S. Lewis’ Test: Upon learning that an ugly rumor about one’s enemies is false, is one relieved that even they aren’t as bad as all that, or does one wish to cling to the rumor?

Now for Voltaire’s.

For my entire adult life, this writer of the French Enlightenment was reviled as an enemy of God by every one of my acquaintances who was educated enough to recognize his name. I formed the impression that he was a villain who, entirely unprovoked, spent his bitter life writing polemics against Christianity.

Imagine my curiosity when I read Robert Ingersoll‘s Lecture on Voltaire, and learned that he was exceedingly generous and warm-hearted, a tireless advocate of liberty and justice, and may have done more than anyone else to abolish cruel and unusual punishments in France.

I decided to read the first of his works that I could get my hands on, and that happened to be Candide. In this book, the guileless Candide is raised in a castle and tutored by the philosopher, Pangloss, whose most memorable tenet is that we live in the best of all possible worlds. (“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles.”)

Almost from page 1, bad things begin to happen to Candide and everyone else in the castle, from which they are all driven out. Candide, separated from Pangloss for most of his tribulations, wonders whether the philosopher would maintain his sunny outlook in the face of so much distress.

Pangloss returns at the end of the book, having suffered at least as much as Candide.

Candide asks him, “When You were hanged, dissected, whipped, and tugging at the oar [as a galley slave], did you continue to think that everything in this world happens for the best?”

“I have always abided by my first opinion,” answered Pangloss; “for, after all, I am a philosopher, and it would not become me to retract my sentiments; especially as Leibnitz could not be in the wrong: and that preestablished harmony is the finest thing in the world.”

In the final chapter, Candide and Pangloss are living a quiet life on a small farm. Pangloss tries to convince Candide that Candide’s misfortunes, which were many and severe, are entirely compatible with this being the best of all possible worlds. “For had you not suffered them,” Pangloss says, “you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”

Obviously and comically, the pleasures of citrons and pistachio nuts are as nothing compared to what both men have suffered. But they are all Pangloss needs to hold onto his doctrine.

I suppose there are many truth-loving tests one could extract from this book, but I’ll choose this one:

Our love of truth is inversely related to our stubbornness in holding onto our ideas, and the lameness of our rationales, as judged by an impartial, educated observer.

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?

Are We Happier Lying to Ourselves?

I’m not lying to you: scientific experiments have shown that people who lie to themselves are happier than people who tell themselves the truth:

Radiolab: Lying to Ourselves

To begin, it’s interesting to note how the experimenters distinguished the truth-tellers from the liars. There were two ways.

In one experiment, people were asked to pick out their own voice from recordings of 10 different voices saying the same thing. While they tried to do this, electrodes measured bodily signs such as perspiration. Many subjects were not to give reliable answers orally, but the electrodes detected that their bodies could identify their own voice. In other words, their conscious minds were not able to access a truth that they knew deep-down.

In a more amusing experiment, the subjects were asked embarrassing questions, the answers to which are well-known, but which people won’t admit. The most mild was, “Have you ever enjoyed your bowel movements?” Of course everyone has, but not everyone will admit it.

It turns out that the same people who would not admit the truth in the second experiment were the ones who had the hardest time accessing the truth in the first. OK, so now we know who is most able to lie, even to themselves.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that these people are better at some things. For example, competitive athletes pump themselves up before the big contest by telling themselves, “I’m invincible.” The Radiolab show reported that swimmers who lied in response to the embarrassing questions were more likely to qualify for the big race at the end of the year.

What did surprise me is that people who lie even to themselves are happier. I can recall times when I attempted to hide the truth from myself, and I was not happy.

I recall an episode at Christian retreat when I was young. We were supposed to “spend time with God” by going to a quiet place and meditating on the scriptures. Then, we would meet as a group and share what we had learned. The scripture I chose pertained to God creating the world. During my meditation, I realized that God as ultimate creator must be the source of all love. When I shared this with the group, everyone thought that was wonderful.

But I was lying to myself, for even as I shared my supposed truth, I realized that the same logic would demonstrate that God is the source of all hate. With the help of groupthink and my desire to think godly thoughts, it only took a half-conscious effort to suppress the unpleasant inconsistency. Still, I was uncomfortable.

That was a lie that I caught myself in, but how many did I not notice? Regular readers of this blog know that I have reversed many of my deepest convictions over the last few years. To what extent was I ignorant in my earlier years, and to what extent was I just lying to myself? Sometimes, as at the retreat, I was aware of half-conscious lies. I suspect they were the tip of the iceberg.

The scientists on Radiolab said that people who see the world as it is tend to be more depressed. The show’s closing line was, “We’re so vulnerable to being hurt that we’re given the capacity to distort … as a gift.”

Maybe so, but I do know this: I tell myself the truth more often now and am happier for it. I have become a big fan of reality. The lies one tells oneself become a burden. I didn’t realize how heavy the burden was until I crawled out from under it. I suspect that even unconscious lies drain the body of energy.

Even unpleasant reality can hold amusing ironies. Or at least they can be amusing if one cultivates a sort of Buddhist detachment. Maybe that’s the key. Maybe we can only stand the truth if we can stand apart from it sometimes.

What do you think? Are we happier with a little dose of self-deception, or is clear-eyed truth-telling the only way?