“The majority of men do not think in order to know the truth, but in order to assure themselves that the life which they lead, and which is agreeable and habitual to them, is one which coincides with the truth.”—Leo Tolstoy
What do you live for? What makes anything you aspire to do even worth doing? While this may seem like a trite exercise, it is a critical, arguably the most critical, question to unearth to live an examined, meaningful life. One may turn to more foundational personal motivators in search of an answer: to do good for the world, to be happy. Others may default on their inability to do otherwise: “My biological urge to survive has given me no choice but to keep living.” Regardless of what you live for or how you think one should derive purpose, prepackaged into your belief is the idea that truth, in some form or another, is a legitimate concept. In fact, merely holding a belief in anything in the first place affirms this conclusion. To even claim that truth doesn’t exist admits of a consistency in which facts should be verified against. Suffice it to say, anyone with a coherent philosophy on life holds truth at their bedrock of values.
Many may disagree whether truth exists in any absolute sense, but at the very least, everyone acts as though truth is real. We journey through the world with the assumption that there is a commonality among our experience as humans and that through logic and observation, we can converge on a set of ideas that appear to be “true.” Without this assumption, we simply could not act in any meaningful way. How does one engage in a world in which they can’t predict? We step out of bed in the morning anticipating the floor to meet our feet and offer resistance to our body weight. We drop waste in a trash can knowing it will fall to the bottom and not remain afloat in the air. Clearly implicit in our daily functioning is an expectation of predictability and a recognition of some level of verifiable truth that enables us to maneuver through reality.
Yet, how we carry out our lives beyond menial, daily tasks often betrays such a notion. Truth is at the bottom of whatever we live for, but our intellectualized reflection shifts to startling introspection when we switch the question to “How do I live?”
Much of our moments are spent autonomically behaving in ways consistent with the narrative we hold about ourselves and the world. We spend a lot of time finding ways to fulfill this narrative but not much time actually creating it. Oftentimes, the story we hold about the world isn’t even a product of our own thoughts. Around 80% of people raised by Protestants, for example, still identify as Protestant into adulthood. A similar proportion of teens share political parties with their parents. Beyond that, as one dives more into the study of human behavior, it becomes clear that people behave in a manner that is often discordant with their true beliefs. How often do we bite our tongues when disagreeing with an authority figure? Or laugh at jokes we don’t understand and tell white lies to avoid social discomfort?
While these common practices appear seemingly innocuous, small habits can quickly spill over into more consequential behaviors. Take for instance an alarmingly dominant approach to college curricula. It is all too common for students to find the shortest possible route to a satisfactory grade. Professors loathe it and classmates celebrate it. It’s not hard to imagine the opportunity costs associated with this approach—a graduate who skirted their way through their degree has a high probability of being unprepared for their career. But, an often overlooked and insidious perspective is the one taken by the student who actually learns the material in order to succeed on assignments. Lost in such an effort is the idea that what is being taught is reality.
After all, progress is not made through A’s on a genetics test, rather it results from a persistent search for inconsistencies between new knowledge and what we previously held as true. As humans who care about truth, we have a responsibility to verify that what we learn is consistent with prior knowledge, requiring that we view knowledge not in isolation but as nodes on an interconnected web of truth. When one connection is severed, we must either find a new way to bridge the nodes or update our understanding of them — always leaving open the possibility that we were previously mistaken. One can easily object that it’s neither possible nor optimal to learn everything to accomplish this task, which is undoubtedly true; but, our range of relevancy is often much too narrow.
We tend to view new information as a standalone object, failing to weave the thread that connects even unrelated or insignificant topics to the larger fabric of reality. The classroom further exacerbates this problem by compartmentalizing knowledge inside an enclosure of sheetrock and brick that separates it from “real life.” What we lose in this tunnel vision is the cumulative power of numerous minds being put together and actively engaging in the advancement of knowledge, both for themselves and for humanity.
It may be tempting to dismiss this exercise as confined to college campuses and classrooms, but students quickly become adults and continue on with their myopic view of learning. Many carry on and accept whatever least destabilizes their narrative of the world because, after all, they’re not the experts who need to think critically about what they accept.
Simultaneously, however, they hold their beliefs tightly to their chest as if they were the ones who directly observed the unfolding of their conclusions. This is a serious problem. We’re seeing it unfold in the spread of misinformation throughout all media. The populace is ill-equipped at rigorously filtering through the wildfire of information produced by the digital age.
As a result, our emotions and biases are left to be hijacked by the deluge of pseudoscience pumped through our screens. And, the consequence is not your 70-year-old neighbor rambling about adrenochrome harvesting by Hollywood elites; the consequence is thousands of lives lost and a severe opportunity cost of human progress. The digital age is here to stay, and if we care about our autonomy toward knowledge, the only way to prevent it from destroying us is to take responsibility for actively seeking out truth through critical, scientific reasoning.
Such an effort will not succeed through coercion or force—it must be truly accepted by each member of society. We must come together and recognize both collectively and individually that not only is the truth the foundation of our existence but that our lives are worth living with its value unceasingly in mind. Never has one in their dying moments regretted living with integrity and remaining steadfast to their ultimate values in life.
An examined life provides visceral meaning and peace, but it is not an easy way to live. It requires constant introspection and self-checking. It demands persistent discipline, openness, and humility. Yes, the truth is often scary and uncomfortable. It can shatter our lives into millions of pieces, but it is the only thing that allows us to put ourselves back together. The truth owes you nothing and asks for nothing in return. It is simply there, waiting to be seen.