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On Caring About and Pursuing Truth

Aiming at having true beliefs is important for a number of reasons. Here’s a fairly obvious yet important one: truths accurately represent the way things really are; falsehoods do not. If so, then since our thoughts, feelings, and (ultimately) actions are largely governed by our beliefs, believing falsehoods can lead to thinking, feeling, and (ultimately) acting in ways that are not in the best interests of ourselves and others, since they’re not tailored to the way the world really is. And as we all know by experience, this can hurt us – sometimes badly. Think of those who buy automobiles and houses, and those who marry (let alone those who set foreign and domestic policy) on the basis of false information. Thus, at the very least, we should care about having true beliefs, if for no other reason than that it’s in our own best interests to do so.

If it’s important to aim at having true beliefs, how can we increase our chances of having such beliefs? Well, choosing what to believe on the basis of flipping a coin doesn’t seem to be an effective method. What, then, is effective? Speaking in the most general terms: sensitivity to evidence; that is, listening to (and reading) the best evidence and arguments we can get our hands on, and forming our beliefs in the light of it.

Now as we all know, the truth is often hard to find when it comes to matters that go beyond the ordinary events of common experience. Thus, there is a corresponding wide range of opinion on issues with respect to politics, economics, religion, etc. Unfortunately, the implications and consequences of such issues are often so momentous that we can’t afford to suspend judgment, and we are thus forced to come to conclusions on such matters. How, then, are we to proceed? Clearly, if our aim is truth, and this requires a sensitivity to evidence and arguments, then we must carefully and critically listen to the evidence and arguments from all the major "camps" with respect to a given issue. Just listening to the arguments of the camps that we’re antecedently attracted to radically diminishes the probability that we’ll have true beliefs (This of course includes the vice of forming one's opinions about opposing views merely on the basis of what is said about them from thinkers within one's favorite “camp”.). Thus, increasing our chances of having true beliefs requires sensitivity to evidence, as well as to all of the competing theories that attempt to explain the evidence.

But this isn’t the whole story. For one can listen to all the evidence and all of the competing theories, and yet fail to properly evaluate it. What sorts of things do we need to properly evaluate theories and evidence? Well, we need good critical thinking skills; so it’s a good idea to develop these to the best of our abilities. The core of any good set of good critical thinking skills includes the ability to distinguish reliable from unreliable sources of evidence, as well as the ability to distinguish reliable from unreliable inferences, or patterns of reasoning (i.e., good vs. bad inductive and deductive inferences). Logic and critical thinking courses are of course especially helpful in this regard.

But again, this can’t be the whole story. For we all know plenty of people who use logic purely for sport, e.g., to debate issues merely to seek “victory” in a contest of wits. Thus, one can listen to all the competing theories about a range of evidence and arguments without the attempt to discern truth. This naturally leads us to see the need for certain intellectual virtues. Here are some examples that I think are fairly uncontroversial:

Intellectual humility:
realizing my finitude and fallibility, I acknowledge that I may be mistaken -- even about matters that are deeply important and fundamental. This leads to a willingness to genuinely listen to others, a lack of concern for “winning” a debate, and a keen interest in finding the truth. It also leads to a desire to find out where one is mistaken or otherwise unjustified in one’s beliefs, in order to correct them.

Intellectual honesty
: Applying the same rigorous standards to one’s cherished views as one does to the views one finds unattractive. Acknowledging, to yourself and to those with whom you disagree, problems and objections to your views for which you lack a solid answer.

Intellectual charity: giving your interlocutor the best possible hearing. When reading arguments and positions different from your own, you aim at mastering and internalizing them. When these have weaknesses, you attempt to make them stronger.

Intellectual tentativeness: Permanently leaving your beliefs open to revision, should new evidence come to light that conflicts with them.

At this point, we have what looks to be a fairly reasonable and effective plan for increasing the likelihood of believing truths and avoiding falsehood. However, our chances can be increased yet further if we participate with others in the pursuit of truth: collective, evidence-sensitive inquiry. Thus, ideally, we would have a group of others (the more the merrier!) participating in the democratic exchange of ideas. This nicely provides for an extra level of rigor and scrutiny: the all-important factor of peer-review.

Thus, we have a complete and attractive vision for the pursuit of truth: applying the free, friendly, open, charitable, and frank exchange of ideas and arguments, where we see each other as friends and cooperators in a meaningful and exciting joint venture in the pursuit of truth (as opposed to seeing each other as adversaries and competitors in a battle for victory). In this way, we can substantially increase our chances of believing truths and avoiding falsehoods, and thereby increase our chances of flourishing.


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