Thursday, February 13, 2020

Seeking Truth

Around the middle part of the 16th century European scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton ignited what has come to be called the "Scientific Revolution." For the next two hundred years, the scientific method brought about massive changes in our understanding of the universe by asserting that truth could be found by applying the scientific method of hypotheses, observation, measurement, and experiment, all conducted against a backdrop of rigorous skepticism. Famously, Galileo was found by the Catholic Church to be "vehemently suspect of heresy" and placed under a life sentence of house arrest for defending the Copernican notion that the Earth moves around the Sun.

Galileo wasn't the only scientist to be considered an enemy of truth, a sentiment that continues to this day with sizable segments of our population denying, at least in part, such scientific "truths" as man-caused climate change, the efficacy and safety of vaccines, and many of the foundational principles of how young children learn. Not long ago, I wrote about a man I met who is convinced that the Earth is flat, a man who is apparently not alone in this surprising belief. I'm not here today to argue about any of these specific matters, only to point out that for all of us, there are truths other than those derived from scientific.

Truth is a difficult thing to talk about. Science is only one of the ways we seek truth. Science is, at bottom, a quest to establish facts about reality that hold true no matter who is making the observation. It is a way of understanding realty from the outside. Pope Urban VIII, however, derived truth from his spirituality, which one could say is a way of understanding reality by looking within oneself, and relying upon not experiment, but faith. Artists seek truth by trying to understand reality from the inside out, assuming that reality is inherently subjective and only comprehensible through the filter of self. And then there is the most ancient quest for truth of all, the collective truths we create through our mythologies, those stories we tell again and again until they become reality.

I confess to a prejudice in favor of science because it is the only path that requires truth to change as new evidence emerges, but when I'm honest with myself, I can see that an equal share of my own "truth" is shaped by spirituality, art, and myth. And, frankly, these various kinds of truth live quite comfortably within me, complimenting one another by filling in the gaps left by the inadequacies of each. For instance, for me it's true that love is the shortcut word we use for that Holy Grail of science, the Grand Unifying Theory. I don't have evidence for that: it's a truth that I've arrived through my soul, art, and our mythologies.

Education can be defined in many ways, but most of us would agree that at some level it is a search for truth, and I would assert that any searcher who ignores the paths of science, spirituality, art, or mythology, will ultimately fall short in that quest, finding themselves unfulfilled. Truth is out there. Truth is subjective. Truth is individual. And truth is collective. It comes from without and within, and it is never complete. As humans, whatever our age, we are driven to seek truth, whatever it is, and by whatever path. Of course, we argue over it, but we just as often agree, even if we've come to it via different routes. The children in our care are truth-seekers as well. At any given moment they are engaged in science, in soul searching, in creating art, or in wrestling with the stories that define us.

Humans are the truth-seeking animal, whatever that means, and the truth we discover is the clay from which we shape the purpose of our lives.

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