Something might be true, even if it were also harmful and dangerous in the highest degree; indeed, it might be part of the essential nature of existence that to understand it completely would lead to our own destruction. The strength of a person’s spirit would then be measured by how much ‘truth’ he could tolerate, or more precisely, to what extent he needs to have it diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, falsified.
I credit Jordan Peterson for bringing this to my attention. Riffing on Nietzche’s idea, Peterson said, “The pathway to who you could be if you were completely who you [are] is through the truth. …And so the truth does set you free but the problem is that it destroys everything that isn’t worthy in you as it sets you free” and that is often painful.
I can attest to the truth of what these gentlemen have said. It took me four decades of growing up before I was finally ready to squarely face some difficult questions about my own beliefs, and then it took four more years of study and critical thinking before I was ready to abandon those beliefs. It was very painful but it did set me free.
In my experience, Nietzche’s description of the weak-spirited person as one who needs to have the truth “diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, [and] falsified” does not so much refer to the outer truth being examined (i.e., a belief system) as to inner the truth about the person himself: the fact that he harbors confirmation bias, and why he does; his willingness to go along to get along; his fear of life falling apart if he allows his beliefs to change; his attachment to the positive outcomes of his belief system; his need for life to make perfect sense; and many other counter-productive traits.
Until those character defects are exposed and rectified, the project of correcting the outer falsehoods is hopeless.
Are you facing the unpleasant truths about yourself? Take this handy homemade quiz and find out! Every “Yes” answer says you are on the right track.
When someone corrects your behavior, or an argument you are making, are you grateful rather than defensive?
Do you help your ideological opponents fashion the strongest possible argument for their position before you attempt a rebuttal?
Have you given as much thought to your method of arriving at truth as to whatever you have concluded is the truth?
Do you often catch yourself believing what someone says because they are good-looking, or of your race? (We all do this, so if you’re at least catching yourself, that’s a good thing.)
Do you often catch yourself reflexively believing someone is “bad” because they disagree with your political or religious convictions? (Also something we all do, so the more you catch yourself, the better.)
And one more for these days of COVID-19: Do you respect the conclusions of acknowledged experts more than the opinions of your friends or conspiracy theorists?
Last month, a commenter dropped this interesting nugget:
God’s existence implies accountability’s existence…
More broadly, our discussion was about whether morality can be grounded in a non-theistic framework. I thought yes; he thought no. For him, God is what makes the “moral code” real, objective, absolute and authoritative. Fair enough, and his position has been the position of most people throughout recorded history.
But let’s look at recorded history. I will argue that my commenter hit the nail on the head when he said, “God’s existence implies accountability’s existence,” but accountability is not the same thing as morality — at least not what most of us mean by morality.
There is a story that a high-level Russian official visited America during the Reagan presidency and was shown the abundance of goods in American stores. He was astonished at the bountiful display and how it compared to the meager offerings in his home country.
“Who planned all this production?” he asked.
“Nobody,” his hosts replied. “People just decide for themselves what they want to produce and sell.”
He thought they must be concealing something. “No, seriously. Tell me: what authority is behind all this?”
“We assure you, this did not come from a central plan. People are free to go into business as they like and produce what they want, and what you see on the shelves is the result.”
I wrote thefirstfourparts of this series a year ago, but something I recently read in How to Think brought the subject to mind again so here is another way to separate the internet’s wheat from its chaff:
Rule #5 – Does the website engage with the best arguments of its opposition?
In a chapter of How to Think titled Repulsions, Alan Jacobs warns that animus toward our opposition “disables our ethical and our practical judgment.” We have such an emotional investment in believing that they are wrong that we harp on their weakest arguments and ridicule their most loony representatives.
If you want to find the truth, then the most dangerous place for you to be is in a group that already agrees with you.
This is particularly true if membership in that group is based on shared thinking, such as the sort of church where you must all recite the same creed, the faculty of a school where there are written or unwritten expectations for what you will teach or publish, or a political party whose “platform” you must support.
The reason is obvious, isn’t it? As Alan Jacobs says in his book, How to Think,
…the pressures imposed on us by Inner Rings [of people who control such groups] make genuine thinking almost impossible by making belonging contingent on conformity.
Mary enters the house and looks into the living room. A familiar appearance greets her from her husband’s chair. She thinks, “My husband is sitting in the living room,” and then walks into the den. But Mary misidentified the man in the chair. [Perhaps she only saw the back of his head.] It’s not her husband, but his brother, whom she had no reason to think was even in the country. However, her husband was seated along the opposite wall of the living room, out of Mary’s sight, dozing in a different chair.
Would you say that Mary knew her husband was in the living room or, because she was mistaken about the evidence, was she merely lucky?