The Quest for Truth (Part 1)

Truth is under attack in our culture. And we might be part of the problem.

Post-Truth World

In 2005, comedian Stephen Colbert introduced us to the word “truthiness,” which described how people embrace ideas that seem to be true based on their gut instincts and intuition, despite a lack of evidence to back it up. He sarcastically praised people who “know with their gut” instead of merely “thinking with their head.” Then in 2016, Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year was “post-truth,” which once again spoke to the prevalence of people in our culture believing things based on emotions and preconceived beliefs, rather than facts and evidence.

That brings up some important questions: Do facts matter anymore? Is the idea of concrete truth becoming obsolete in our world? And how do we navigate through all the disinformation that’s out there?

Christian Smith summarizes the current state of affairs when he says most emerging adults think “there is really no way to know what is really true. Anybody could be right, or wrong, or some of both,” (Souls in Transition, 163). This was based on an extensive research project on the lives, attitudes and beliefs of young adults in America.

Epistemic Humility

To give these young adults come credit, this attitude is a good example of epistemic humility. That just means they are humble enough to know they don’t have all the answers. They are not so sure of themselves or so convinced of their own intellect that they immediately reject contrary opinions. That was something Benjamin Franklin feared when he participated in the Constitutional Convention in our nation’s early years: “Most men, indeed, as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error.” 

In other words, Franklin feared that if everyone thought their view was the only view that could possibly be true, no one would be open to new evidence or additional arguments, even if they were true. To guard against this intellectual arrogance, Franklin pleaded with each of his fellow convention members to “doubt a little of his own infallibility.” 

If we can admit that we might not be 100% correct 100% of the time, or that our views might be based on subconscious bias, flawed or misleading information, or an interpretation of events that is colored by our own experience instead of concrete facts—we will have a much better chance of cutting through the noise and arriving at the actual truth.

After all, what is the likelihood that you, out of the 7+ billion people in the world, happen to be the one person who has figured it all out in all areas of spiritual, academic, or political significance? If we can recognize the absurdity of this, we’re much more likely to be open to opposing viewpoints, because we recognize that even though our opinions seem right to us in the moment, there’s a chance they are built on a flawed or incomplete interpretation of the relevant facts.

Truth Still Matters

But, practicing epistemic humility doesn’t mean that everyone is equally right in every area. And it doesn’t mean that sincerity automatically equates to accuracy. Someone could sincerely believe that California is smaller than Rhode Island, but their opinion would be wrong, despite how genuine it is. Truth and evidence still matter, it’s just that we know we might not have access to the full story, we might be understanding the facts in a flawed way, or we might be interpreting it in a way it was never intended—even on a subconscious level. 

Now, some things in life are purely matters of opinion, and everyone is entitled to their own view. The ideal spot for a vacation. The best flavor of ice cream. The athlete who brings the most passion to the game. In these areas, the idea of right and wrong doesn’t apply, because there is no universal, objective way to evaluate matters of opinion.

But what happens when everything is treated as an opinion? When even matters that can be evaluated from an objective, evidence-based perspective are treated as merely opinions? Truth, facts, and evidence become minor details in a larger narrative where gut instincts and appeals to emotion reign supreme. 

Truth as a Core Value

God expects his people to be committed to truth as a core value. A lying tongue and a false witness are two of the seven things God calls an abomination in Proverbs 6:16-19. Lying is mentioned alongside murder, sexual immorality and witchcraft in Revelation 21:8. Psalm 15:1-4 says that only those who “speak the truth from the heart” and keep their oaths “even when it hurts” may live in God’s presence. And Jeremiah 5:3 says that God’s eyes “look for truth.” 

Being committed to the truth involves confidence without arrogance. It means standing firm on our convictions while recognizing we might be missing part of the story. It means checking our biases as best we can and following the truth to the right conclusions, rather than bending the truth to meet our narrative. 

The truth is under attack in our culture. The question is, what side are you fighting on?

Part 2 of this series will look at the world of psychology and the ways that we are more affected by our subconscious biases than we’d probably like to admit.

This post was adapted from the first message in our Bible it Sermon series. Click or tap here to listen to the full message.