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SVS: Truth (What It Means to Value It)
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What it Means to Value Truth

A Sense of Wonder, A Sense of Awe

I once had a friend tell me that standing among giant sequoias he felt a sense of awe, that it was like being with god. The sense of awe and wonder is completely justified, but there is no need to attribute it to magical thinking. The fact that sequoias evolved through an intricate process over millions of years and that each giant tree is constructed from a single cell with microscopic blueprints detailing how multiplying cells unfold and specialize to build something taller than an office building. These truths do not diminish a sense of awe; they enhance it.

Richard Dawkins has written a beautiful book on the subject, Unweaving the Rainbow. The title comes from the poet Keats, whose poem "Lamia" was written as a response to Newton's discovery that white light is actually composed of a spectrum of light of all the colors of the rainbow, divisible by a prism. Keats wrote:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow

As Dawkins points out, this sentiment is antiquated and silly. The real world holds much more deserving of awe than the magic and miracles of pseudoscience, New Age mysticism, or the world's religions. I've already mentioned the micromachinery of biological cells, and how it changes over millenia and works to build everything from bacteria to dinosaurs. The immensity of space and the depth of time should engender awe in anyone. Findings in quantum physics suggest the existence of a single entity in more than one place at once. And my own personal quest is to understand the workings of the newest addition to mammalian brains, the neocortex. Spend even a little time trying to learn about an entity like the human brain, with a hundred billion neurons and trillions of connections, differentially firing like an electro-chemical storm inside your skull, giving rise to thoughts, feelings, and consciousness, and try to tell me there is no sense of awe in the "mundane" workings of the real world. Who the hell needs unicorns, dragons, and deities when you've got the neocortex?

But you might argue that not everyone is interested in science, much less brain science. But that misses the point. We all have curiosity; it is our greatest virtue. The problem is that all too often is it misdirected to areas of belief that really don't deserve the time and attention they get. It's sometimes harder work to get at truer facts and understand them, but that's no excuse for not trying.The key is to relish in your curiosity, but use it to try to learn about the things in the world that interest you. I don't expect everyone to get goosebumps over brains, even though I do. The world would be a dull place indeed if we were all equally interested in exactly the same things.

So find the things that give you goosebumps. The pursuit of truth is not exclusive to science, either. Art is about putting things together in an attempt to illuminate some truth about the world from a new perspective. Good art is true art. A good journalist tries to relay events as they are, and in many cases ferret out the dishonesty of others. To teach is to try to confer knowledge to another.

This doesn't mean these are the only worthwhile occupations. We have yet to talk about the other two core values, freedom and structure. Pursuing truth doesn't have to be your primary occupation, but it should be part of your life, as should personal honesty.


To value truth is to hold honesty as one of the highest personal virtues. Valuing truth entails caring about truth as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. The more true things you know and the more truths you tell, the closer is your relation to the real world, and the better you are for it. So to the greatest extent possible, speak the truth.

But what about the old chestnut about lying to the Nazi soldier who asks if you're harboring a fugitive family in your house. Should you lie? Of course you should. To tell the truth would be to sacrifice the liberty and life of those you are protecting. Truth is one of the core values, but it is not the only value, and will naturally come into conflict with the others. No value system should be rigid in absolutes. When a conflict arises between deeply held values, a decision must be made. Experience will help, but some decisions will be difficult nonetheless.

A rule of thumb is to consider the motivation of a lie, even a small one. If it is to pursue wealth, power, or pleasure as an end, rather than a core value, then it is unworthy to be uttered. If it is to spare the feelings of a friend, then the truth is preferable. Deceit often has a way of catching up to the deceiver anyway. The more honest you are, and the more your honesty bears out to those around you, the more reliable and trusted you will become, and you'll be on the path to lead the good life.

Personal steps for valuing Truth:

  • Constantly critically examine what you think: Put your beliefs through the ringer. If they can't stand up to the scrutiny, then they just might be worth believing.
  • Engage in healthy debate: Others will probably have criticisms of your ideas that you have not thought of, or have not thought of in a particular way. Again, put your beliefs through the crucible of criticism and what remains will likely be better.
  • In all things be a student: Never stop learning and never stop thinking, no matter what arena of life.
  • In what you do know, be a teacher: Strive to share your knowledge with those who are looking for it.
  • Be ruthlessly honest: Honesty enhances the potential for clear communication, makes for a better society, and increases your reliability to others.

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