Home > Uncategorized > Truth, Honesty, and Brains

Truth, Honesty, and Brains

I am a person who spends much of his time surrounded by intelligent people. One certainly does not have to be a genius to be an academic but, at least in mathematics, one does at least have to be somewhat bright. And so I spend a lot of time listening to smart people talk. I listen to their ideas, insights, and connections, and admire how often they think about things that ordinary people do not, or think about things in ways in which they are not ordinarily thought about. Mathematicians are full of concepts, criticisms, and abstract ideas. I’m sure the same is true in other academic fields as well.

Probably since some time in high school, I have thought of myself as an intellectual. People have always told me that I’m smart, and this probably was the grounding for a lot of my sense of self-worth (and consequently, for a lot of my pride as well). I am telling you this because I want to tell you about what might be the most important moral insight that I’ve ever had. It is a fact that accounts, at least partially, for something that many have found perplexing: that so many highly intelligent people tend to disagree with each other about so very much. And it is a fact, I believe, that a good many of these same highly intelligent people do not realize.

I suspect that this realization was delivered to me by the grace of God–though I think that the truth of it is accessible to anyone capable of honest reflection. You see, I’ve always considered myself to be a truth seeker, which I am. But, along with that, I always assumed, I always took it for granted, that my intelligence placed me in a superior relation to the truth, in comparison with other people. The moral insight I received was that this isn’t the case. What I realized could perhaps best be summarized like this: the virtue that leads one to truth is honesty, not intelligence.

To make an analogy: if one is lost, it is more important to have a compass than to be able to walk quickly. Honesty is the compass that points us towards the truth. While a good brain may make the journey a bit more easy going in some areas (though probably not in others), if we are pointed in the wrong direction it may actually only make things worse.

But this analogy does not capture the whole of the issue, which is the personal nature of truth, its relation to morality (which is also personal), and how important that connection really is. For, from the Christian view, all truth ultimately reflects something about God or what he has done in the world. Jesus, who is God incarnate, and who claimed himself to be the truth, is ultimately the one we are interacting with–drawing closer towards or pushing away–in all that we do or say or think in relation to knowledge and truth (and in other things as well, but I have narrowed my focus here).

However, ever since the scientific revolution, which heralded in the identification of scientific theory with truth (or at least with the best approximation to the truth), truth became associated with a picture and a method rather than a person: if we could just think clearly, be objective, and get the experiment right, we’d eventually learn how things work after all.

I suspect most people today basically think this is right. What matters in coming to know the truth is examining the evidence properly and thinking logically, perhaps with creativity and inspiration playing a role in fitting things together as well. These are the values of the enlightenment that we still basically hold to. All of the powers of the mind of man are acknowledged today as important parts of the process of coming to know the truth about things.

Now, the basic association between honesty and truth is also somewhat acknowledged, though only incidentally. To illustrate this, I am inclined to use another analogy. Suppose a man tells a lie to his wife: he tells her that he can’t make it home for dinner because he is held late at the office. In reality he won’t make it back because he fully intends to spend the night drinking with his friends. Now, this lie will have practical consequences. He will not, in fact, be home for dinner, disrupting the evening that they had originally planned.

But these simple consequences are, in a way, the least serious reason that the lie is wrong. All and all, the disruption of evening plans is not really a big deal. He could, just as easily, have had a legitimate excuse (reasoning like this is, in fact, one of the things that leads people to tell lies in the first place). What is more significant is the effect that the lie will have on their relationship. Whether or not the wife ever finds out about it, it will probably make the husband more inclined to tell another lie in the future. If she does find out about it, the trust between them will be affected–she will have a more difficult time trusting him. All in all, lies in a relationship bring about division between the parties involved. They make it more difficult for individuals to truly know each other.

What I propose is that the relationship between honesty and truth is acknowledged today primarily in terms of the surface level consequences that are involved–like the man who only considers how his lie will effect the evening plans, and not his marriage overall. If I lie in a scientific experiment, for instance, then the data that I offer to the scientific community will be useless, and may even lead people astray. And this is why the scientific method has such rigorous standards–to weed out the effect of such things (and also the effect of simple error). But this effect, I submit, is only the first layer of how my lie affects things, and it is actually the least serious layer. People will probably eventually figure out that the data I provided is faulty and that the conclusions of my research are incorrect. And science can recover form such things just as easily as it recovers from honest error.

What are the deeper effects of my lie? Well, in this example, the personal component to the lie is certainly less obvious than in the example of the husband and wife. We could say that my lie affects my relationship with the scientific community, and breaks trust in the scientific community in general. I think this is true, though it is not the main point I am trying to make. What I would really like to convey is this: honesty, in general, bears an essential relation to the truth, not an incidental one. But to understand this, we have to bring God into the picture.

When we strip it down, telling a lie, in its most basic sense, is really an effort (conscious or not) to circumvent the Author of reality by constructing a reality of our own, to our own ends. So something much more serious happens than simply the truth not being told when we lie or bend the truth in general. Its not just that knowledge is obscured. We are affected. There are no “white lies.” Our soul, our character, is altered by all of the decisions we make in regards to truth. And we are committing an act of personal import, whether we realize it or not. There is no such thing as an impersonal lie, and indeed there is one person Who is supremely concerned with and affected by all lies. To lie affects one’s relationship with his Creator–an estrangement between man and God.

In our fallenness, we rarely perceive it in this way. The desire to control and create our own reality runs deep, deeper than we realize. I know that I say these things, but that they will probably seem quite unreal to me the next time something (seemingly) important is at stake for me in presenting things as they actually are, or in humbly accepting reality as given by God, rather than fretting about the life I might create for myself. I tend to think, by default, that I have to build a reality of my own construction in order to be safe. But the truth, in the end, is nothing to be afraid of. It’s simply not worth it to hold on to the false worlds we create. So let us…let go! The same Jesus who says “I am the truth” says “fear not!” He will lead us on the right paths, for his name’s sake.

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