Truth Detectors

by Chris Swanson

Skepticism permeates modern culture. The most consistent and popular application of skepticism is religious skepticism. “We cannot prove God exists” is the common refrain. In fact, of the many unwritten social codes enforced by our culture, one of the strongest is the impropriety of claiming that Christianity is objectively true. Such a claim is an affront: a social faux pas at best and a mean spirited attack at worst. After all, agnosticism is cool; truth is not.

The pervasiveness of skepticism cannot help but discourage us from truth-seeking at some level. What is the point of working hard to know the truth if we believe our efforts will be rewarded by uncertainty and confusion? Thus the battle is lost before it is even fought. We throw up our hands and leave the task to others; after all, time is short.

My purpose here is not to guilt people into becoming scholars. Nor do I want to explore the sources of this malaise (although it is a very fascinating exploration). Instead I would like to propose that contrary to the savants, and contrary to the “cool” agnostics, we are born as truth-detectors, and we are very good at it.

The fact that we are good at determining the truth has been obscured by centuries of intellectual criticism. At the heart of these criticisms lies the “apparently” unbridgeable gap between the experiences of our senses on the one hand and the concepts and ideas that we use to understand those experiences on the other. Our concepts and ideas, it is supposed, come only from sense experience, and there is no “guarantee” that those ideas accurately reflect reality.

To explore this gap, let us consider the relationship between our experience and our ideas. When we are faced with a new experience (some image or color patterns impinging on our eyes, for instance) we generate an explanatory structure to make sense of that idea or experience. The structure answers for us questions of what and why. What am I experiencing right now, and why am I experiencing it? This explanatory structure can have many different names depending on the context. For simple experiences, the structure is simply a name (with all the meaning associated with that name) that we attach to the object of our vision. In other, more complicated scenarios, we may create an explanatory structure for a broad range of related but complicated experiences, thoughts, and memories. Such a structure may be called a story or a theory or a belief or an idea. But no matter the name, our natural tendency is to generate some sort of explanatory structure, and that process uses the same basic mental faculties in every case.

As an example, suppose I am jogging outside and I feel a sensation of coldness on my face. I immediately think “wind.” I quickly justify my conclusion by noting that I am sweating and that the moisture is enhancing the sensation of the wind on my face. I have created an explanatory structure to explain my experience. A different example might have to do with a comment from a friend on Facebook. Suppose I post a picture and my friend subsequently posts “lol.” I am going to recall that these letters represent “laugh out loud” and conclude that my friend was amused by my picture. In this case, it is not so much a physical sensation that I am explaining (although it is true that my eyes are registering a sensation of marks on a screen) but a concept or idea. I am providing an explanatory structure for the word “lol” appearing as it did and when it did on Facebook.

With each new experience or set of experiences that we are faced with, we typically make a quick assessment of the truth of our hastily assembled explanatory structure. That assessment depends on whether that structure is consistent with the assumptions we already believe to be true and whether it accurately fits all of the experiences that are available to us. The stronger the consistency and fit, the more confidence we have that the explanatory structure is true. I would argue that we humans are master craftsmen at creating and assessing explanatory structures.

Although what I have proposed may seem rather simple and straightforward, there are a few sticky issues that are worth considering. The first such issue is the impression that we are not “creating an explanatory structure” at all but simply experiencing some phenomenon directly. According to this perspective, I do not create the idea of wind to explain a sensation I am having on my face; I just “feel the wind.” I am more of a passive accepter of knowledge rather than a mentally active participant. Some experiences seem so basic that we do not need to engage our brains to know what is happening. However, I do not think this is right. We are fooled by our own lightning fast ability to skillfully create explanations. We are so experienced and talented in making identifications, in coming to snap decisions, that the process is hidden from us. But it is entirely possible either not to engage our minds or to engage them erroneously. If I am concentrating on the ache in my legs or on the car swerving dangerously ahead of me, I will not engage my mind on the feeling on my face and the sensation will not be explained. I will not know that there is wind on my face. If afterwards someone were to ask if there was a cool wind on my face, I would not be able to answer from experience (although I may make a judgment about the question based on other knowledge). Similarly, it is possible, though not probable, that I may create an incorrect explanatory structure; for instance, when I feel a sensation of coldness on my face, I may think the nerves in my cheek are going numb. The point is that with every experience or thought, our judgments and explanations are due to our active mental faculties becoming engaged.

A second issue regards whether or not we can clearly articulate the reasons why we have adopted a particular explanatory structure. In some cases, we do not articulate those reasons to ourselves. For instance, with regard to the wind, I am not likely to self-consciously scan through all the reasons why I think there is a cold wind on my face. Maybe I can see leaves flapping on a bush or tree, or I saw something like that earlier and have come to the conclusion it is a windy day. I have a belief that my motion through the air will generate a wind relative to my face. I believe that wind passing my face creates evaporation of moisture that has a cooling effect. I have a backlog of many similar experiences in which I have come to a similar conclusion. Further, I have often interacted with people who have claimed that joggers feel coolness on their face due to wind. That is a lot to think about for a single insignificant experience of feeling wind on my face, and I have probably missed other reasons. Nevertheless, those thoughts or some subset of them must zip through my brain very quickly without any words to bring them to my attention. The knowledge I have gained is no less valuable and true. It is simply unexamined.

In other instances, we do articulate the reasons why we believe a particular explanatory structure. These situations arise when there is some question about the veracity of our explanation. Perhaps there are other experiences or assumptions which do not fit with our explanation. In some cases, others have offered a criticism of our explanation. Often we find ourselves juggling many different kinds of evidence and weighing their relevance and truth. Such situations quickly become complex. Whatever the case, we typically will try to explore whether we have made a mistake. To do so means we must do the work of providing reasons for our belief—if not to others, at least to ourselves.

Generally, we are pretty good at providing reasons and examining them. Consider the “lol” example from above. If a friend is reading over my shoulder and claims that the “lol” is short for “lollipop,” I can come back quickly and decisively. “You’re nuts,” I would reply, “Ask anyone, and they will tell you that you are wrong. Or even better, Google “lol” and see how many lollipop hits you get!” My reason is that the consensus view of the meaning of “lol” is clearly established and that that view can easily be checked.

Sometimes, however, the reasons are more subtle and difficult to come by and require a more nuanced approach. Many questions of great interest do not yield easily to investigation. In these difficult cases, two aspects of knowledge-seeking become increasingly important: skill and will.

Skill in the art of knowing is one of the primary goals of education. In school we learn the use of language to understand the thoughts of others and clearly express our own. We learn how to organize those thoughts and craft arguments. We learn how to calculate to find and prove quantitative results. And we learn facts about our world and culture that help to provide a context in which to understand each other. Each of these things hones our skill of discerning the true from the false. This skill allows us to craft more complex, more accurate, and more detailed explanatory structures.

Like other skills, the skill of knowing fades into the background of our consciousness if we use it consistently. A dancer, for instance, when first learning how to dance must concentrate on each and every movement. Slowly the dancer learns the moves and no longer needs to concentrate on them. They become part of the dancer’s skill set upon which to build further, more difficult movements. So it is with the skill of knowing. A skilled reader does not need to recall the rules of grammar to understand a paragraph. Those rules are part of the reader’s skill set and are applied unconsciously. Nor does a mathematician need to think about the rules of algebra to use them; they can be called up without effort.

For better or for worse, the same process applies to our use of assumptions. The intellectual frameworks that we assume, after they have been vetted and tested by experience and thought, fade into the background of our consciousness. They become part of our skill set that allows us to seek truth. Without such assumptions we could not function. For instance, we all have a framework that tells us about how cars behave on the road. We use this framework constantly as we drive. We do not think about how to respond to a red light, a yellow line, or an oncoming car. Our framework of traffic laws and rules of thumb is instantly available to provide answers. Driving becomes second nature, but that framework, while firmly established in our minds, is not something of which we are conscious.

As our assumptions fade into the background, they are rarely brought out into the light for examination. They work well, and we become committed to them. The greater the level of commitment, the less likely we are to abandon them. In many cases, the assumptions also carry along with them personal or emotional content. It is here that will comes into play.

“Will” in the art of knowing is the other primary goal of education. A good education focuses not only on intellectual skills, but also on the training of our youth to value what is good and despise what is bad. We are creatures of will, and our will cannot be removed from our thoughts and actions. Thus in the process of judging the validity of an explanatory structure, our commitments, desires, and wants play a huge role. A desire to see our commitments justified influences our ability to judge fairly. A desire to pursue pleasure may turn our eyes from a true understanding of our actions. A fear of a negative outcome can drive us to deny clear evidence. Education should help students to recognize the role of those desires and encourage students toward those which are good in the eyes of God.

Driving, doing algebra, interpreting “lol,” and realizing that a wind is blowing on my face are rather simple examples of determining the truth. Many other questions are more difficult, as, for example, those pursued on the forefronts of science. They may be difficult, but the process is the same.

Difficult questions are not just the purview of scientists, however. One such question, to which I alluded at the beginning of this article, is whether to follow the God of the Bible. The biblical worldview, and its counterpart unbelief, are complex but important explanatory structures. They are not a result of a single experience but of a multitude of experiences. Those experiences may be events in our lives, conversations, or simply listening to the various voices in our culture.

Young people faced with the question consider the beliefs of parents, peers, and teachers. They consider also how parents, peers, and teachers have acted toward them; are they friends or foes? A young person may consider the arguments and claims that are made. To sort it all out, he must make a multitude of judgments, which takes a great deal of skill. Are parents and peers wise, and do their choices on this issue impact them for the good? Are the claims and arguments compelling?

Of particular importance when a person faces this question is the role of the will: he must decide whether he wants to live a life subject to God or whether he wants to pursue the enticements of the world. After coming to a tentative conclusion about the question, then, such a person weighs and tests his conclusion to see if it fits with other experience and other beliefs held to be true. He can also examine his conclusion for consistency: Does this developing explanatory structure lead to contradictory conclusions?

These difficulties are daunting. No doubt, they can lead to despair of ever finding the truth. But for those who desire to know, the information is available. It is possible to develop the types of skills necessary to decipher this information. It may take time, even a lifetime, but the question is the most important one we face.

What is striking about this particular question—whether to follow the God of the Bible—is that everyone does decide. Even the agnostic decides, though he may deny it. For the agnostic lives, and it is impossible to live in a way that both denies and accepts God. Skepticism is, in this important case, not even a possible alternative. We are not allowed to claim ignorance. In fact, I am convinced that the rise of skepticism in our culture is a symptom of the will to unbelief. People do not want to be subject to God; they want autonomy to create their own reality. What better justification for denying one’s dependence on God than to claim that it is impossible to know if the Bible is true?

Skepticism is an inadequate general outlook on knowledge. It denies our God-given abilities. It denies our daily experience. No doubt there are some questions that cannot be answered, and there are some questions that are not worth the effort to answer. Everyone acknowledges this. However, the skepticism that has pervaded our culture goes beyond this. It is often used as an excuse for not having to deal with the truth. We Christians, though, desire the truth, and thus we should struggle to resist the pessimism of skepticism.


Copyright January 2013 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Chris Swanson