Methods for Seeking Truth

One of unforeseen advantages I encountered during the course of my education was the discovery of widely differing, though equally valid, methods for seeking truth.  As the son of an Episcopal priest, I was exposed at an early age to the concept of Biblical exegesis.  Often, my father’s sermons would amount to a detailed examination of critical words used in Biblical texts.  For example, what did Jesus mean when he told his disciples, in Luke 14:26, that they must “hate” their parents?  How can this statement be squared with Jesus’s statement in Matthew 5:17, that he did not come abolish “the law and the prophets” but rather to fulfill them?  Doesn’t this “hate” statement seem to abolish one of the Ten Commandments–see, e. g., Exodus 20:12–which required that everyone “honor your father and your mother”?  Obviously, more than one sermon was necessary to make sense of all this.

And so the first method of seeking truth that I learned about was the method of parsing phrases with a critical eye toward understanding the meaning of the speaker or writer. Had this phrase been translated correctly?  Were multiple translations possible?  What was the historical, sociological, economic, and religious context in which the words were spoken?  What have other thinkers written about these words?

But of course, the method of exegesis–when used alone, or when coupled with blind faith in one particular interpretation–can lead to endless arguments of a subjective nature, the type that have led over the centuries to religious tyranny, crusades, inquisitions, and cult suicides.  So, if exegesis and blind faith cannot be relied upon to arrive at truth, what other methods are available?

The second method to which I was exposed, this time in junior high school, was the “scientific method.”  It made sense to me that a person’s observations would naturally lead to a set of beliefs about the world (aka “hypotheses”), and that these beliefs could, in many cases, be tested through objective experimentation, the results of which would lead to new beliefs.  So by the time I went to college, I understood that there were apparent differences between the methods used by science and religion, and I knew enough–or thought I knew enough–to side with the objective, verifiable facts whenever possible.  However, I also learned that some of the best exegesis is that which makes use of the scientific method, so that there need not be a clash between the two methods at all.

The third method I encountered, this time as a college student in the process of writing an honors thesis, was taught to me in a course titled Historical Methods.  What I learned in this class was the importance of digging for original source material whenever possible, and the various research tools available for accomplishing that goal. For example, it was not good enough for my professor for students to merely find microfilm or microfiche copies of Colonial-era newspapers to fully understand the context of events that occurred during that time.  We were, instead, expected to dig further, perhaps looking for names mentioned in the newspaper articles, then perhaps searching for copies of contemporaneous letters written by those people about the same events that had been reported about in the newspapers.  Only after a sufficient amount of digging of that type–and after thoughtful analysis of what we had discovered–could we expect to earn an A in the class. Ultimately, I learned that historical methods wound up being a combination, in many cases, of exegesis and the scientific method, and again, there didn’t need to be any conflict between those methods.

The fourth method I learned, this time in law school, was the “legal method,” which, ironically, can also be found echoed in the writings of Hegel and Marx relating to “dialectical materialism.”  According to our Anglo-American system of justice, the best approximation of the truth of a particular dispute can be determined by allowing opposing sides to pose their strongest arguments–the theory being that the “truth” will be discovered in the process.  (Or, as Hegel and Marx would suggest, that a “thesis” and an “antithesis,” when allowed to clash, will result in a “synthesis.”)  So in American courtrooms, we see an attorney for the plaintiff and an attorney for the defendant, each posing arguments to prove the rightness of their clients’ respective causes.  Attorneys can be expected to use whatever other methods happen to coincide with their clients’ interests–whether those methods include exegesis, historical or scientific methods.  The role of the judge, and sometimes the jury, is to assess the evidence and arguments posed by each side, and then determine where the truth happens to lie, albeit somewhere in the middle.

Unfortunately, most judicial contests are structured in a manner that someone must win and someone must lose, despite the fact that in most areas of life there are elements of truth and error on multiple sides–and there may be more than two sides–of a particular question.  Also, many cases are settled prior to trial, either by some analysis of the probability of winning multiplied by expected gain (or loss), or by some analysis of the expected costs of litigation, or both.  And a judge’s pretrial procedural motions–those rendered long before historical or scientific evidence has been introduced at trial–may cast such a bias on the impending trial that one side views the prospect of an actual trial as pointless.

For the Spirited Reasoner, we should view all of these methods not as mandated paths, but as tools available to use for the seeking of truth.  In every case, our goal should be to shed light on a question rather than heat.  We should welcome the prospect of our minds being changed in the process, because that is how our horizons are broadened and our lives enriched.  We should always be on guard against the use of any method that closes off inquiry prematurely.  Our attitude should be somewhat along the following lines:  “I wonder what I will find if I hike to the other side of this mountain?  Maybe I will discover a vista I have never seen or even imagined before.”  The opposite, and I believe deadly, attitude to that of the Spirited Reasoner could be expressed as follows:  “Why should I hike to the other side of this mountain?  I’m satisfied with what I can see right here.  And by the way, since I would feel threatened if you discovered something that would render my view obsolete, I plan to do everything I can to stop you from taking your hike.”