The pursuit of truth

A lot of education in England seems to be about learning “how to be right”, not learning “how to discover truth.” This is a reason why our politics is so messed up: our politicians are often very clever at being right but bad at discovering the truth, for the very same reason. When you are good at arguing, you are good at convincing yourself that you are right. If you have convinced yourself you are right, you are less likely to be motivated to discover the truth and therefore less likely to make good decisions. Here I have tried to examine this a bit more.

There is danger in educating people to be good at arguing. I have noticed among people that ability at arguing runs with increased risk of believing the argument irrespective of whether it is true or not.

When someone argues a case they might side emotionally with that case. They might attach the case to their own ego, so that if they “lose” the argument they might feel the shame that their ego or their identity has been diminished in some way. Diminished, at least, in the eyes of the person they are arguing with.

Fear of that eventual shame might motivate them to try and win the argument at all costs. This might include ignoring their deepest, most honest thoughts, overlooking certain observations they consider to be facts, attributing, with rhetorical sleight of tongue, less weight to one piece of evidence and more to another, than, in their heart of hearts, they would give at another time of calm examination.

They might also desire to enjoy a feeling of power which they associate with “winning” an argument, and feel motivated to use the techniques, to win the game, which, as above, lead them away from the honest truth.

These are the dangers of a person allowing an argument to attach itself to their identity: that the victor of the argument is not the truth.

Yet there is a strong case for employing ego and emotion in an argument: the desire to win, the desire to avoid the shame of loss are forces of motivation, which force the mind to pick away at the other side, to examine it with a toothpick, picking out any loose pieces from dark corners, to shine into the counter-argument a bright light, looking for small fissures or cracks, any weaknesses which might betray an untruth in the construction of the argument.

Without that egoistical motivation, the ensuing argument might be weaker and it might fail to progress closer to the truth.

The employment of one’s ego in an argument, therefore, is important but risky: it can help and can also hinder the desired outcome of discovering the truth.

When you examine a debate in terms of how it approaches the truth, you may well even discover that the “loser” actually makes a greater contribution to the truth than the “winner”. Understanding this turns many assumptions we have about winning and losing on their head.

In educating people, therefore, it is not enough to teach them the skills of analysis, logic and rhetoric, which is what schools and universities do, or once did. It is also not enough to spur them to be competitive, to nurture the desire to win through the culture of the ego and the tribe, which is practised in sports. Just those alone, and you get arrogant, narrow-minded Conservatives running a country. Or arrogant, narrow-minded Socialists running a country. Or even arrogant, narrow-minded Greens!

No: this education must be tempered through teaching, in some way, how to remain aware, when arguing, that achieving the truth is the primary goal of an argument; how to see an argument as a joint exploration of a domain and pursuit of truth, not a personal fight; how to subordinate one’s ego to that goal by detaching the ego from one particular side of the argument, yet still harnessing its energies in service of the argument; how to shrug off any sense of diminishment of ego if one discovers that a view held is not valid.

This is something that great educational establishments, in certain fields – more in humanities than sciences, because physics has a way, called gravity, of bringing flighty egos down to the ground – have failed to do, and the result is what we have.

There are other ways. Two come to mind:

The agile start-up approach to setting up a new business or venture, is based on creating hypotheses and testing them humbly in order to discover the truth about the business proposition. You create a model of your proposed business, tease out of it the assumptions you are making, and then, through interviews of potential customers and suppliers, test those assumptions. It is surely not the only way to start a business, but it is a great way of saving a lot of capital being spent on assumptions which the ego – proud at the revolutionary idea – prevents one from testing properly. Try out the Udacity course: https://www.udacity.com/course/how-to-build-a-startup–ep245

Another is the way that Buddhist monks learn to debate. They understand that a debate is a duel aimed, not at wounding the other, but at jointly discovering the truth and clearing the mind of misconceptions. The debate has rituals, such as the smacking of hands and foot stamping: by submitting to a ritual, you ease the pressure on your own ego – you are playing a game, there is a touch of levity to it, and it does not matter who wins or loses; what matters is that you jointly get closer to the truth. http://asiasociety.org/tibetan-buddhist-debate

If we want people to argue well, with the purpose of discovering truth and dispelling misconceptions, we must help them by promoting, in the education system as well as in the raising of children, a deep respect of truth and an understanding that argument must serve truth, not just be a vehicle for celebrating power and exposing weakness. Broadly this means that education and child-raising should put more emphasis on nurturing humility and kindness and less emphasis on encouraging clever-clogs and smarty-pants.

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