Ongoing Pursuit of Truth Demands Critical Thinking

By Matt Runde, September 1, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

A freethinker values the pursuit of truth above all else. He feels obligated to critically evaluate any information that is presented, regardless of its source. The relentless quest for truth underlies all of human progress, and it is only through knowledge that we can hope to surmount our future challenges.

How do we determine what is true? When we are young, we rely on adults for guidance, and we generally accept what we are told. We are evolutionarily programmed to accept the teaching of our parents without question, as the consequence of disregard can be catastrophic. The child who ignores the warning to avoid alligator-infested waters may not live to reproduce. However, with age we find that this type of knowledge, being inflexible and dogmatic, is not always reliable. Life experience provides us with the ability to discern truth for ourselves, and our own ability to judge takes precedence.

The principal manner in which we discern truth is through our physical senses. All of our learning in infancy is derived in this manner. Very early we learn that our senses provide a reliable reflection of the world, and that similar effects predictably follow similar causes. If a statement is contrary to our past sensory experiences, it should make us skeptical. We doubt a claim that a person lived to be nine hundred years old, because we have never met or heard of anyone that old, and we know much about human biology. Of course, we all have had experiences where our senses have deceived us. Mirages, intoxication, and neurologic illness can all fool the senses of an individual. However, where a single individual’s senses can be fooled, the accumulated experience of everyone will not be deceived. Anyone claiming to know a nine hundred year old person will need to supply extraordinary evidence if they want support from the rest of us.

There is a second avenue through which we can assess truth. Our five senses give us an understanding of the way the world works, and this allows us to predict future events. This is the “sense” of reason that we develop in adulthood. Most of us will not directly experience the fact that atoms are the building blocks of matter, yet we can follow the logic that leads to that conclusion. Even though we cannot directly experience the rotation of the Earth around the Sun, a telescope and our sense of sight gives us the basic information and our sense of reason does the rest.

Why is truth important? Why not allow children to persist in their pleasant fantasies about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy? Sustaining irrational beliefs is not only impractical but also dangerous. If we convince children that they must deny their sense of logic on some issues, it may make them susceptible to silver-tongued charlatans like Reverend Jim Jones, Bernie Madoff, Adolf Hitler and numerous others. They may lose the ability to determine when they are being fooled. That is why it is critical to reject irrational arguments whenever and wherever they are presented.

Furthermore, if we believe in ideas that are unverifiable, it leaves us susceptible to subjugation. Same-sex couples are finally making inroads toward equality, after years of persecution based largely on literal interpretation of scripture. Slavery is also implicitly condoned by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy books, and would persist today if not for social progress through reason and experience. Before we understood the nature of mental illness, schizophrenics suffered torture or murder for presumed demonic possession.

In order to accept a claim as truth, it must be theoretically possible to prove the claim false, either through our physical senses or our use of reason. For example, Darwin’s theory of evolution is eminently falsifiable. All it would take is to find one fossil in the wrong geologic layer. That has never happened, despite innumerable challenges. On the other hand, the claim that a pink unicorn lives somewhere in the universe is not falsifiable, because it is not possible to explore the entire universe in order to refute that claim. If a claim is not falsifiable, it cannot be accepted as true.

Ultimately, then, if a claim is inconsistent with either our sensory experience or our reasoning, it must be rejected as false. No information can be accepted without conforming to one or the other test, no matter if it is a day old or two thousand years old.

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