For a long time as a young teacher, I believed the danger of prostituting their minds by believing falsehoods was the preeminent, or even singular, intellectual danger my students faced. So I challenged them and tried to teach them always to be self-critical, questioning, skeptical. What are your assumptions? How can you defend your position? Where’s your evidence? Why do you believe that?
I thought I was helping my students by training them to think critically. And no doubt I was. However, reading John Henry Newman has helped me see another danger, perhaps a graver one: to be so afraid of being wrong that we fail to believe as true that which is true. He worried about the modern tendency to make a god of critical reason, as if avoiding error, rather than finding truth, were the great goal of life.
Like Plato and St. Augustine, Newman presumed that human beings fundamentally seek to know the truth. Our hearts are restless, not with fear of error, but a desire to rest in God, who is the fullness of all truth. The fulfilling activity of intellectual life is to affirm truth rather than recoil from falsehood.
Critical reason, which Newman sometimes calls “strict reason,” and which he certainly did not reject, parses arguments, examines premises, and tests hypotheses. It filters belief. Strict reason is critical, not creative. The methods of critique “will pull down, and will not be able to build up.” Clear-minded and scrupulous analysis clears the underbrush of error, but it cannot plant the seeds of truth.
Therein lies the danger. If we fear error too much, and thus overvalue critical reason, we will develop a mind active and able in doubt but untrained to move toward belief, a mentality too quick to find reasons not to nurture convictions.
Ideally, we would like critical reason to minister to the more fundamental project of affirming truth. We picture ourselves scrupulously examining various truth-claims, weeding out the irrational ones, and then judiciously assenting to those that seem to have solid grounds.
As Newman recognized, life does not work that way. In the first place, our mental machinery isn’t so finely tuned. Of any one of our convictions, he says in a pithy formula, “That according to its desireableness, whether in point of excellence, or range, or intricacy, so is the subtlety of evidence on which it is received.”
In other words, answers to really important questions can’t be answered very easily. Is equality more important than freedom? Does my bodily death extinguish my existence? Are my moral obligations to others more important than satisfying my desires? Is happiness the same as pleasure?
The great French mathematician Blaise Pascal made a similar observation, which I formulate in the following way: The certainty with which we can know a truth is inversely proportional to its importance.
Neither Newman nor Pascal implied that we cannot reason about important things. On the contrary, Pascal famously formulated an argument designed to induce us to answer one of the most important of all questions: Does God exist? As Pascal’s wager suggests, both Pascal and Newman recognized that truth outruns our powers of reason. Therefore, we need to risk error as we leap forward to grasp what we hope to be the deeper truth of things.
In my experience, although the modern university is full of trite, politically correct pieties, for the most part its educational culture is cautious to a fault. Students are trained—I was trained—to believe as little as possible so that the mind can be spared the ignominy of error. The consequences: an impoverished intellectual life. The contemporary mind very often lives on a starvation diet of small, inconsequential truths, because those are the only points on which we can be sure we’re avoiding error.
We can worry about getting on the wrong train in the foreign train station whose signs we can’t read. But we should also worry about dithering in the station too long and thus failing to get on the right train. We could starve to death in that station if we never leave. This, it seems to me, is the essence of Newman and Pascal’s insight. Sometimes, the dangers of failing to affirm the truth are far greater than the dangers of wrongly affirming falsehood.
If we see this danger—the danger of truths lost, insights missed, convictions never formed—then the complexion of intellectual inquiry changes, and the burdens of proof shift. We begin to cherish books and teachers and friends who push us and romance us with the possibilities of truth.
The life of the mind turns into an adventure. Errors risked seem worthy gambles for the sake of the rich reward of engrossing, life-commanding truths that are only accessible to a mind passionate with the intimacy of conviction rather than coldly can critically distant.
R.R. Reno is a senior editor of First Things.