Monday, May 3, 2021

Virtue in the Pursuit of Truth

A question that I've been pondering over the last several years is how do we create an environent in which ideas proliferate, the best ideas rise to the top, and the worst ideas fade away. It has to be a free marketplace of thought lest good ideas be suppressed (and bad ideas forced). That's a foundation--but it's not enough. We've seen that even in the free exchange, some really bad ideas can get quite a following. In this age, misinformation can often run rampant. So, what do we do?

Alisdair McIntyre suggested the concept of virtue as being those qualities that are necessary for success in a practice. I think we can apply this to the realm of dialogue and debate. External controls will always be inadequate and potentially dangerous. What we need is to instill the internal controls of virture in ourselves in order to become the type of people who have productive conversations leading to truth. This raises the question, what are those virtues? Here I provide a few of my suggestions:

Diversity - Seeking out new (and contrary) ideas
The first thing that comes to mind is that we must be willing to challenge ourselves. To seek out new and contrary ideas that will supply us with fresh inspiration and challenge our existing notions. We cannot hide in our own little silos, else we will become stagnant. Worse, we'll tend to entrench ourselves deeper and deeper within our own ideas as they remain unchallenged. And when I say listening to contrary ideas, I don't mean the straw version that our own side often holds up in order to tear down. I mean listen to these ideas from the people that hold them, the best of the people that hold them. A little bit of contrary opinion is an essential part of any healthy intellectual diet.

Courage - Putting forth your ideas for critique and refinement
Of course, in order for diversity to work, people have to be willing to put their ideas on the table. Our current culture that makes political and religious talk taboo suppresses dialogue and actually allows a lot of bad ideas to persist for the simple reason that they're hidden. If I say that my religion is purely personal and so make myself immune to any critique, I rob myself of the opportunity to grow and rob you of the opportunity to be exposed to new ideas. We must have the courage to risk criticism in order to gain wisdom.

Imaginative - Seeking creative answers to complex questions
Often, questions are not quite as black and white as they at first seem. Sometimes when given two opposed solutions, it's actually an intelligent and creative combination of those solutions that is the best answer. Or a third way entirely. Not always (don't want to fall into Middle Ground Fallacy either), but it's worth taking some time to explore. Diversity and courage both play in here as well as diversity provides the fodder for creative combinations and courage allows us to put forward those seedlings of ideas that otherwise would never have a chance to grow.

Kindness - Being gentle in our disagreements
One way ideas die is by never seeing the light of day. Another way is by being sown in an infertile environment. It is essential that we practice kindness in our disagreements for two reasons: 1) To preserve the relationship. We must never sacrifice our friendships on the altar of intellectual pride. We must practice the love that God is working in us in every aspect of our lives, including in the way we dialogue with other people. 2) To give ideas a chance to grow. Shutting down an idea from the start could kill what might have become a fruitful exploration. Take a moment to suspend disbelief and objections--see where the idea takes you. Then, after you've given the idea a bit of breathing room to come into its own, then you can start dismantling it taking forward only what is useful.

Discerning - Being honest in our assessment of "good" and "bad" ideas
All this talk about kindness and imagination and diversity can sound like relativisitic mush. It's not, but that's because it's meant to be balance with an objective search for truth. The process here is every idea gets a chance, but only the best ideas rise to the top. At a certain point in the discussion we have to be ruthlessly honest in our assessments of ideas. Sure, there may be multiple "right" answers, but there are usually many more "wrong" answers. And even among the "right" ones, there's often better and worse answers or trade-offs that require careful analysis. Throw in uncertainty (we need to be honest about how much confidence we can place in certain lines of thought as well) and you've got a lot of nuance to deal with. We may not always agree in our assessment (though we should always handle our disagreements gracefully), but we can make our best attempt, try to understand each other, and learn.

Specific - Giving our ideas specificity so that they can be honestly assessed (rather than hiding in vagueness)
In order to give accurate assessments, it is essential that we bring specificity to our ideas. Often this will involve introducing nuance and complexity--this is ok. The world is complex. And usually this will happen in the later stages of an idea. It's also ok for things to start out somewhat vague, but for them to become seriously competitive in the marketplace of ideas they must eventually grow and become better defined. Giving specificity requires courage like we talked about earlier. As the contours become increasingly defined, you open yourself to more lines of attack. But this is a good thing. Only in the light can our beliefs become corrected and refined, bringing us closer to truth.

Respectful - Considering the best of our opponents' arguments
Respect goes beyond not name calling or yelling. It means giving those who disagree with you the benefit of the doubt. Even as you critique the weak points, be sure to acknowledge the strong points. Consider whether there's something you can learn here. And don't setup strawmen. All that will do is show how little you really understand your opponents' ideas. Taking the time to really get into another's shoes both shows respect for other people and earns you respect. This helps keep the dialogue going as both sides get further refined by each other (rather than becoming siloed and withering). 

Humility - Admitting the weaknesses of one's ideas and being willing to change
Finally, be willing to change. Be honest about the weak points in your arguments. Be honest about when you simply don't know. And seek always to grow, even when it means admitting you were wrong.

I'm sure one could go on with many more virtues here, but I've already gone too long for a blog post (perhaps conciseness is a virtue? Respect people's time). To bring it all back around, I think the main point is to remember we're all seeking truth in a world of unending pitfalls. We need to ask How can we best do that together?

What do you think? Are there any of these you disagree with? Any you would add?

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