I recently received a correspondence from a reader who has rejected her former religious beliefs in favor of a more scientifically based worldview. This process was evidently long and painful and she has now embarked on her own quest for truth. But where might such a trek lead? Here are some brief thoughts about her forthcoming journey.
I’ll begin by referring readers to my entry “Outgrowing Religion.” Perhaps knowing how this played out for me would help others. Next, I’ll reiterate these words from Walt Whitman which a high school teacher shared with me 50 years ago. They still resonate within me,
I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
Later I discovered the following words from Whitman’s friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. They confirmed the value of the search for truth,
[Life] offers every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, — you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, — most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.
So we must travel these roads mostly by ourselves (although friends can accompany us) and we will have to accept ambiguity. After all, the Buddha said you must be a lamp unto yourself and William James argued that we are all beggars when it comes to truth—which is why you should be skeptical of those who claim to possess it. As for me, I’m uncertain about things that ignorant people seem sure of.
Let me also say this to fellow travelers in the search for truth.
I did my doctoral dissertation on Jean Piaget. When asked about religion, Piaget said that every search is a religion, by which he meant that his scientific inquiries were his religion. And, in a published conversation between Piaget and Bringuier, you find this piece of dialogue which served as the epigram for my book on Piaget.
Bringuier – I wonder if what you attack in philosophy isn’t what is called metaphysics?
Piaget – Yes, of course …
Bringuier – But isn’t metaphysics, like the religious turn of mind or mysticism, a sign of one’s longing for unity? That’s what I meant about philosophy. One can’t turn up one’s nose at it too quickly, because the need exists. People have a need for unity.
Piaget – But, to me, the search for unity is much more substantial than the affirmation of unity; the need and the search, and the idea that one is working at it …
So anyone can say they have the truth—that Jesus is their savior or Mohammed the last prophet. That’s easy. It seems like an insurance policy. But of course, it isn’t. Perhaps the gods reward those who use their minds, by proportioning their assent to the evidence. And maybe the gods reject those who accept on faith alone, thereby defaulting on the use of their reason. The fact is that we don’t know the metaphysical structure of the world. So even if our eternal salvation depends on having the right beliefs (although performing the right actions seems more just) there is no sure way to know what those beliefs are.
To reiterate, it’s easy to accept the first ideas you’re taught and be done with it. What’s hard is to keep searching and growing and changing, never anchoring as Kazantzakis put it. The search for truth is just so much nobler and humbler than simply affirming the first ideas you encountered.