Toward Wholeness Blog

How do you KNOW something is true? Part 3


It’s quite the challenging time when part of the country wants to address systemic racism and another part doesn’t believe it’s a problem. Part of the country believes that the irrefutable realities of climate change requires dramatic action to curb the human-caused increase of greenhouse gases, and another part doesn’t believe climate change is caused by humans. Part of the country believes masks help curb the spread of the corona virus; another part doesn’t, or at the least doesn’t believe that the spread of the virus is a big deal, certainly not big enough to prevent attendance at a football game. Mail in ballots? The security of the election? The reputation of our national intelligence agencies and virologists, scientists, and policy-makers at the Centers for Disease Control? It feels like we're questioning everything at every turn.

We no longer have cultural consensus on any of these things, and as a result, we’re standing on the precipice of a cultural implosion, because a little bit of history reading will tell you that the rise of dictatorships, or civil wars, or anarchy, are always preceded by a profound loss of ‘good faith’ in our culture’s institutions.

The phrase ‘good faith’ is important because you’re not in the post-office, or every polling station, or the high level FBI meetings, or the CDC’s meetings where scientists create public health messaging that’s distributed, only to be removed by other authorities. You either believe in the fundamental credibility of these institutions or you don’t.

How, then, do you decide? In the first two parts of this series, found here and here, we addressed these foundations for knowing:

  1. Post-Modernity is right about some things

  2. Most decisions have an element of faith

  3. Almost no decisions depend on blind faith

Now we bring the series to a close with these final important foundations:

4. You place your faith where the evidence points

We already know that no person or institution is perfect, that nefarious characters are everywhere, and sometimes manage to find their way to positions of authority. In addition, we all have blind spots and moments of failure. Still, we need to make decisions. So we’ll need to look at the evidence and decide: Will I trust the CDC’s original statement on the airborne nature of the virus before they were removed, or will I trust the authorities who removed them? Will I trust a state’s final declaration of election results, or will I trust the one who tells me that the results have been not just corrupted, but so utterly corrupted as to be completely invalidated?

Looking at the evidence, though, is challenging, because there are competing evidence narratives for almost every single issue these days, and I don’t have first-hand knowledge for most matters. That means I’ll need to choose which “evidence” to believe. This is, itself, problematic, because...

5. The evidence I choose to believe depends on credible knowledge I don’t have.

I don’t have first-hand lab knowledge of the ice core in Greenland, or the detailed records of winter snowfall in the Northern hemisphere overall and the rate at which it’s changing, or how the Corona virus’ transmission is mitigated through mask-wearing, or even how the mail in ballots are counted in Wisconsin.

For all these things, and many thousands of other issues, I’ll need, as I said earlier, to put my faith dollar on the table and make a decision: “What do I believe?” Hopefully I won’t just toss a dart at the options and go with where it lands. Instead I’ll put my faith dollar down based on evidence. But I’ll need to make a choice: Which evidence will I believe? This source, or that?

My answer: I’m putting my faith dollar down where I see the most credible knowledge. And where will I find that?

6. Credibility and Knowledge are tied to TWO THINGS: Character and References

Nine years ago I had the privilege of taking a red-eye flight to New York City and then hopping onto the subway so I could travel to my lodging, check-in, and then visit the “Harvard Club” where, for three days, I’d hear from Francis Collins, NT Wright, Tim Keller, and other famous scientists and theologians on the subject of science and faith. It was privilege to be there and everyone in the room was smarter than me, so I was soaking up their teachings like a sponge.

On the last night of the conference, I had the great honor of sitting with Francis Collins for supper. I heard his testimony, which you can hear here. I discovered, first-hand, his integrity, and unimpeachable character. I listened to him answer my questions about the age of the earth with honesty and humility.

Yes, I did my own homework, but I also need to depend on those who know more than me and, of course, the challenge is that there are people who ‘know more than me’ saying conflicting things. Who should I believe?

I’ll go with the person who has good character. It should be an obvious statement but it’s worth saying: “You can’t trust the truth-claims of compulsive liars.” So when Collins talks about how his science is peer reviewed, challenged, re-calibrated in light of new evidence, how his solid science led to his leadership in mapping the human genome, and how he’s trusted by both political parties (or was until the present administration), I tend to trust him. That he just won a prestigious award this past week which garnered praise from both president’s Bush and Obama, and then gave this speech, I decide I’m going to listen to him:

On the age of the earth

On virology and masks

On climate change

This, friends, is why character matters, perhaps more than ever. Am I going to believe my own national security agents, or a dictator? An award winning scientist with a decades-long track record of credibility, or a YouTube video about the mask hoax and 5G as a means of spreading the virus? Am I going to believe there’s a big QAnon pedophile thing happening, even bigger than the pizzeria sex ring of 2016, or that it’s fabricated nonsense, as responsible journalism declares?

How you make these decisions isn’t just a private matter because it affects how you live, spend, drive, vote, respond to the election outcome, and more.

I began this series by saying that mature believers have discernment. Yes, there are different ways of slicing policies, different visions of how big or small government should be, competing values of individual liberties and the good of the whole. In the end, each of us needs to decide. But our decisions need to begin with a commitment to seeking truth, and my hope is that these principles will help you do just that. Otherwise, we’re facing an erosion of faith and trust in facts and institutions serious enough to threaten our national stability - and I KNOW most of us don’t want that!

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