I’ve been writing the same book all my life, like almost every would-be writer has. As I’ve grown older, it’s grown in scope, and, I hope, depth. But its basic ideas have remained the same, and I’ve been cooking it slowly in my sometimes addled, rapidly aging brain for almost five decades. Lately I’ve been trying to boil it down to 3-5 “big” ideas, an arbitrary but worthy goal, in attempt to kick-start my ambitious project.
So what are the big ideas, you ask? Well, in no particular order of importance, I offer the following list:
We should never substitute a partial truth for the whole truth
Tension–and not diversity–is at the heart of inclusion
Human beings are all half messed up
All beliefs rest on faith
Love is a gift we offer to others without expecting anything in return
I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas to explore, especially as I try to piece together my magnum opus. But this is as good a place as any to start, and it’s time to share my thoughts with anyone willing and foolish enough to listen.
For most of my childhood, and even into my young adult life, I considered reading a uniform and “basic” activity, one engaged in to gather information or by which to be entertained. As I entered the last few years of high school, and especially as I began to be drawn to imaginative writers (novelists, dramatists, and, increasingly, poets), I realized that there were qualitative differences in the writers themselves, and started to realize that reading was more than just an attempt to remember what writers said, and instead called for a more mature approach, one that required me to analyze what their words meant, and, eventually, to evaluate the truth of their work not only from my individual perspective, but also as a way to join with so many others who, both before and after me, have taken part or will take part in The Great Conversation.
Mortimer Adler’s articulation of the levels of reading in How to Read A Book helped me better consider what I had intuited as a developing reader: moving beyond the elementary level of reading was much more taxing on my mind, and would require me to develop not only different techniques, but a different mindset altogether as a reader. Although I had certainly engaged in some inspectional reading, analytical reading, and even some unconscious evaluative/syntopical reading, it wasn’t until I entered college and discovered my desire to become an English major, and eventually an English teacher, that I became more conscious of the power books had, especially Great Books, to develop our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual capacities. More than just a means of gathering information about the world, or of being entertained, books, reading books—in particular, re-reading, ruminating on, and evaluating their ideas—forced me to see them as the endless fonts of wisdom I have found them to be. What does it say? What does it mean? Is it true?—these questions, once articulated for me by Adler, Hutchins, and others, helped me to become a better learner, teacher, and, I’d like to think, a wiser and more compassionate human being.
Perhaps the most important reason to recognize the different levels of reading is that it helps one begin to emerge from the natural, egoistic state in which we too often seem to dwell. Just as Adler points out that each of the levels are subsumed in the one that follows, and that there is a recursive quality in the way we deploy them as readers, so, too, is there a recursive quality about the way we interact with the minds and hearts of others as readers and thinkers. Because egoism is our default state, we filter the information we take in, especially as readers and thinkers, through a set of pre-conceived and often unconscious lenses, and this colors not only what we come to understand but our ability to move beyond an elementary understanding at all. In many cases, no growth can occur when we employ such a narrow, unconscious, technique in our reading; it is only when we begin to consciously inspect our assumptions, analyze the alien thoughts of others, and evaluate their larger significance that we begin to approach what might be called a more enlightened understanding of the world around us.
In the polarized, ideologically blind world too many of us inhabit in the twenty-first century, perhaps the only antidote to our inability to bridge the great divides that seem to separate us from one another is to revive The Great Conversation, even if just as individual readers at first. Perhaps our willingness to entertain and think through the great ideas with which so many of the great writers and thinkers before us struggled will help us to close the gap that seems to isolate so many of us from one another; indeed, while we will surely notice the fierce debate that has raged concerning the perennial questions confronting humanity, perhaps we will grow not only in humility, but also renew the hope that wisdom and progress are always within, if just beyond, our collective grasp.
“Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
I’ve purposely avoided talking about specific issues thus far, because I’ve been trying to lay out a principled approach to thoughtful discussions—as much for myself as for anyone who comes here to consider my random musings. Today, I will try to cite a specific topic/debate (and one on which I have very little expertise). Choosing a side in the debate is less important—at first—than acknowledging the need for a wide-ranging and OPEN discussion on ANY problem human beings are trying to collectively solve together.
Climate Wars—acceptance vs. denial
other topic can spark outrage as quickly as the debate over climate
change. Filled with righteous rage, the Social
Justice Warrior is ready to pounce on anyone who voices the slightest bit of
skepticism about the overwhelming consensus scientists now hold concerning the permanent
damage our reliance on fossil fuels is doing to our planet. Filled with contempt for the Chicken Littles of
the environmental activist world, climate skeptics downplay the seriousness of
the problem to a greater or lesser degree.
For this, they are often branded as “deniers,” regardless of the degree
to which they remain skeptical of the overwhelming majority who accept the
reality of climate change.
But I’ve chosen
to discuss this topic not because I think I have the knowledge to argue effectively
for either acceptance or denial of climate change, but because I understand how
to frame a discussion—any discussion—so that one might come to a more enlightened
understanding of it.
Start with the Binary
thinking is rarely a good ending point, it is almost always a great starting
point. Whenever I look at a problem I am
trying to understand, I try to find opinions about it along a continuum. In this case, I might start with a simple equation
like “denial vs. acceptance of climate change.”
I would then go to the experts—legitimate climate scientists—and read up
on what they have to say about the issue.
Doing this is harder than one might think. One needs to judge the credibility of the
scientists, and the credibility of the science they are citing to back up their
opinions. On the topic of climate
change, assessing credibility is particularly perilous, because the field is so
politicized. Most of the research accepting
climate change’s grave and imminent threat, especially in the United States, is
backed and lauded by members of the left.
Most of the research expressing skepticism of climate change—in particular,
skepticism about the degree to which human beings are responsible—is backed and
lauded by members of the right. Like
everything else in our polarized political landscape, the “truth” about climate
change is filtered through one’s political lens.
Looking through, rather than at, the
But as I mentioned before, binary thinking is a starting place. To really get a good look at any issue, one has to suspend both belief AND disbelief. One must look at ALL sides of an issue, coolly and objectively, allowing all preconceived views and tribal loyalties to fall away. This, too, is quite difficult. The roots of our interpretive lenses are deeply embedded in the structures of our being—of who we are. So, it might seem a fool’s errand to try to leave our subjective selves behind. How could that even be possible?
That’s why we invented the scientific
The scientific method uses experimentation and the objective gathering of data to come ever closer to what human beings can know to be the “objective” truth. On many levels it has been wildly successful in helping us understand the universe in a richer way. Karl Popper, perhaps our greatest philosopher of science, was careful to remind us that science depended more on what was falsifiable, rather than verifiable:
“A statement, hypothesis, or theory has falsifiability (or is falsifiable) if it is contradicted by a basic statement, which, in an eventual successful or failed falsification, must respectively correspond to a true or hypothetical observation. For example, the claim ‘all swans are white and have always been white’ is falsifiable since it is contradicted by this basic statement: ‘In 1697, during the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh expedition, there were black swans on the shore of the Swan River in Australia’, which in this case is a true observation. The concept is also known by the terms refutable and refutability.” (Wikipedia)
So here is what that all boils down to: never let consensus dissuade you from continuing the quest for more knowledge. No matter how sure the science appears to be. Does that mean we shouldn’t act on the overwhelming knowledge we appear to have? Of course not. But we shouldn’t be discouraging skeptics from continuing the work of poking holes in what we think we know.
I have a great deal of faith in most of the science I have seen concerning climate change. I don’t think you will find many people who disagree about the fact that human beings and our often destructive behavior have done some serious damage to the planet. But when I see respected climate scientists like Judith Curry being attacked merely because she is skeptical about the extent to which human beings have contributed to the current crisis, I get worried about the scientific enterprise altogether. The quest for the truth—not consensus—must be our ONLY stance, a stance that has NOTHING TO DO WITH POLITICS. We can accept the growing evidence that science seems to be providing while remaining skeptical that all the data is in.
approach, and collapsing all binaries
philosophy of science can, and should, be extended back into the non-scientific
realms as well. If we can work in the
days, months, and years ahead to sit down with one another, discuss our disagreements,
having faith in the truth as we know it but remaining open to the fact that we
may be—if even slightly—in error, we may start to make some of the progress the
world so desperately needs.
“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world it’s pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We’re on the wrong road. And if that is so we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.”
C.S. Lewis had a way of capturing a sentiment in simple language that made it seem like the commonest of sense. Unfortunately, in a world where the notion of common sense has become suspect, we often have to strain to hear his now distant voice so that we might access the timeless truths he articulates so effortlessly.
I’ve been thinking about the meaning
of progress lately, trying to tease out and name what being a true progressive
means. As Lewis clearly states, progress
is something we all want. I strive to be good, just, humble, loving,
and generous toward everyone and everything in my life. To the extent I am successful in my efforts,
I am always mindful that progress is always inextricably connected to Truth; if
Truth doesn’t drive progress and keep us on the right road, we quickly make a
wrong turn and need to do an “about-turn” to find our way back to the right
road before we can regain our forward momentum.
If Lewis is right about what it takes to become the “most progressive” persons we can be, he is asking us to recognize the innumerable mistakes humanity has made in the name of progress—and take a more conservative approach in our quest to attain it.
I think the Founding Fathers understood what Lewis meant about the way human beings make progress—haphazardly, often taking one step forward and two (or more!) steps back, suffering along the way, learning slowly—painfully slowly—from their mistakes. I’ve been thinking a lot about why the Framers made it so hard to enact change—meaningful, True Change—and it seems obvious they knew that we limited and self-righteous and “pig-headed” humans weren’t keen on admitting mistakes. Thus, they pieced together a governmental structure that would help to save us from ourselves.
Though safety cannot be guaranteed, a look back at the wise thinkers and writers who have walked this mortal road before us can at least alert us to some of the danger we are bound to encounter along our collective way. Progress doesn’t mean constructing a new road—or a new reality. It means gathering up the knowledge passed down to us and carrying it forward a few steps at a time, always mindful that we may have to retrace our steps after making the inevitable mistakes we humans always make.
Untruth, and the danger of worshipping Power
My first few posts have dealt with the need to believe Truth exists, and, more importantly, that need to spend our lives trying to discover its reality. Most contemporary thinkers in the academy dismiss the notion of Truth; for them, anything an individual comes to view as true is a product of a “constructed” reality, a reality most often imposed on them unconsciously by the society or culture in which they were raised. More sinister yet, such truths are imposed on the unwitting members of society by the powerful, who get to define the truth as they wish it to be seen, so that we come to see truth as grounded in power, rather than God, nature, or any kind of universal, objective force.
The problem is that one must choose which God to worship—the God of Truth, or the god of Untruth—and that choice requires a leap of faith. When you argue with most of our academic elite today, they will agree that all truth claims are grounded in power; what they are less likely to admit is that they have come to that belief by an act of faith. The most trouble that I got in as a doctoral student in graduate school was when I argued that an individual’s understanding of truth was constructed, but that it did not follow that Truth itself was a construct. The idea that we construct our understanding of truth is common sense 101. The idea that there is no such thing as Truth, and that we make it up as we go, leads to nowhere.
Why nowhere, you ask?
Because it means that nothing is real, and all attempts to prove otherwise are foolish. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that the Untruth crowd still concocts ways to use power to impose a reality on the societies in which they live and seek influence. Most modern members of the progressive left admirably seek to bring about a state of “social justice” in our often unjust world, but the assumptions that underpin their cause denies the very notion that such justice exists. It’s just a “constructed” idea of social justice that they would like the rest of society to accept because of the power of their collective wills.
Now, like Socrates—who spent his life trying to define Justice (among other things)—I have some real sympathy for the Truth of the fact that injustice really exists in the world, and that human beings and the societies they live in should be about the business of bringing about a just State. But justice can’t be just some made-up idea, a political platform that can be slapped together and shoved down the collective throats of the just and unjust alike. No—it has to be grounded in reality. And it must bring about Justice For All—not just some marginalized or persecuted group. If we fail to come to grips with the fact that Justice is a universal Truth whose reality ALL human beings deserve to be subject to–and beneficiaries of–then the political powers of the day will simply continue to abuse their power to subjugate, marginalize, and persecute the politically out-of-favor groups of tomorrow.
“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill is one of the great defenders of liberty of all time, a classically liberal thinker who championed free speech, and spirited debate. Central to his work was the belief that the purpose of arguing wasn’t to win, or even to come to consensus—but to get at the truth. For him, the greatest threat to liberty and the democratic society wasn’t that human beings were often foolish and made bad choices. He took that as a given. Instead, he worried that the greater threat was the human tendency to use the power of majority and consensus to “win” arguments, rather than allowing truth itself to win. Unless you have been living in a vacuum, you may have noticed that our country has been wracked by a series of contentious debates over how we should govern ourselves. Again, such debates are nothing new, and, if taken up in the proper spirit, our attempts to contend with one another to discover the right, the true, and the good form the lifeblood of what it means to live as a free and democratic people. But when we contend with one another by allowing majority and consensus to justify silencing those with opposing views, we not only abandon any hope for discovering the truth, but also abandon any hope we have of holding onto our liberty. What keeps me up at night, and has steadily done so for more than a decade, is the momentum that ideologues have gained in turning almost every aspect of our lives into a political power struggle, a zero-sum game of “winners” and “losers” or “lovers” and “haters.” While history has shown that totalitarian regimes can form on both the right and left side of the political spectrum, as a classical liberal (when it comes to my teaching approach) I am most horrified by the silencing of debate by members of the “progressive” left—especially on college campuses. Let me state up front that I am equally horrified by some of the ideas and uncivilized behavior and discourse coming from the right side of the aisle as well. But the real danger transcends either major political party, and any of the most contentious issues they are at war with each other over. That danger can be summed up in one word: Ideology. Merriam Webster Online lists a three-part definition for IDEOLOGY: –a manner, or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture –the integrated theories, assertions, or aims that constitute a sociopolitical program –a systematic body of concepts, especially about human life or culture
For the sake of simplicity—because we have increasingly become a nation of simplistic ideologues—I will define ideology and ideological thinking as the tendency to look at the world through a narrow lens that only confirms what you want the truth to be, rather than what the truth really is. This wouldn’t be so bad if ideologues didn’t try to impose their skewed or impartial grasp of reality on the rest of us. Unfortunately, that is just what has been happening, and now we are in danger of not only destroying our university and educational systems, but also of destroying our democratic institutions of government as well. In future blogs I will try to discuss these dangers in a more concrete manner. But for now, I offer this one dictum for clearly thinking about ANY topic—throw away your ideological glasses, start trying to discover truth and reality by examining them head on (with both your head and your heart), and stop trying to conjure up an imaginary truth and reality with the magical wand of your preferred ideology.
Only a belief in Truth can set us—and keep us—free…
For my first “official” blog post, I’d like to speak briefly about Truth—with a capital “T”—and the core role it must play in our THINKING and ARGUING lives. Socrates, one of the great teachers of all time, understood the crucial role that the pursuit of truth played in the building and maintaining of a free Republic. It was his intellectual humility that was the key to his wisdom, however. He simultaneously believed that “Truth” existed (He believed it was woven into the fabric of the universe), but also doubted his ability, as a limited, mortal being, to ever know Truth in its “fullness.”
Socrates is most famous for his habit of questioning everything and everyone. He perfected the art of poking holes in the ideas his compatriots had about love, justice, goodness, truth, and beauty. But he did so not to promote skepticism about all knowledge or relativism about what constituted truth. He did so to force us not only to be cautious in making our truth claims, but also to be confident that our relentless pursuit of them would bring us ever closer to real knowledge. Seek the truth, but remind yourself that you will always fall short in your quest, seems like an easy enough rule to live by. Why does that humble position get him killed then?
truth about seeking truth
Socrates was condemned by a jury of his peers to death on the charge that he was “corrupting the minds of the youth.” Any great teacher and thinker who has followed in his footsteps has usually met the same fate—if not literally, then figuratively. To be a warrior for Truth is to expose yourself—and your fellow Truth warriors—to the fury of all other competing perspectives, and the tribal warfare that grows up around each group’s need to confirm its own biased and partial grasp of said Truth. Thus, a desire for safety keeps most of us from moving too close to Truth’s center; the incoming fire from every direction is impossible to dodge for very long.
If the pursuit of Truth is so dangerous, why should we bother? Better to hold on to the “partial” truth our respective tribes cling to, and stay inside our “caves” AND LIVE. The problem—as Socrates knew full well—is that once we’ve committed ourselves to seeking Truth, there is no turning back. To do so would be to die to Truth itself—to inhabit the rest of our mortal lives as shades, cut off from reality and all human connection. So, when Socrates took the hemlock, he knew that his soul’s journey toward Truth would continue eternally, and he willingly discarded this false realm and its death-dealing ignorance forever.
into the Light
As I think about trying to understand the truth of the
world around me in the days and years and (hopefully) decades ahead, I will try
to remain committed to the belief in Truth, and humble enough to know its
wholeness is always just beyond my grasp.
I invite those of you who come here to think along with me about a wide
variety of contemporary and perennial topics to make the same commitment, and
to allow Truth to keep you centered and humble.