Potato Salads and Highways

huge.102.510428Is it really so arrogant and intolerant to think you know the truth? Let’s start with simple cases. I happen to know that the potato salad is spoiled, and the last three diners got sick just from eating it. Would it be arrogant for me to warn the others? You happen to know that the public library is this way, but the motorist who asked me for directions is headed that way. Would it be intolerant for you to suggest that he turn around, and tell him why? Is it really so arrogant and intolerant to think you know the truth? Let’s start with simple cases. I happen to know that the potato salad is spoiled, and the last three diners got sick just from eating it. Would it be arrogant for me to warn the others? You happen to know that the public library is this way, but the motorist who asked me for directions is headed that way. Would it be intolerant for you to suggest that he turn around, and tell him why?

k14209886Of course no one takes this line about potato salads or highways. On the other hand, people do take this line about who God is and how to live. “God and how to live are matters of opinion,” they say. “Where things are and what you can safely eat — those are matters of fact.” Yes, of course they are matters of fact, but they are opinions too. After all, people may have different views about just what the facts are. The other diners might be of the opinion that the potato salad is wholesome. The lost motorist might be of the opinion that his general direction is correct. Surely that wouldn’t make me arrogant to contradict them.

Science 6Differences of opinion arise even in the sciences. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould is of the opinion that Darwinian evolution is a fact; biochemist Michael J. Behe is of the opinion that it’s not. Each scientist says that he’s right; each scientist says that the other is wrong. Does that make him arrogant or intolerant? Not necessarily — although, of course, he might be. The rule is that each one should offer evidence for what he thinks, listen to the evidence offered by his opponent, and not try to shut him up. That’s how science is supposed to work. Arrogance doesn’t come from having convictions; it comes from having the wrong convictions about how to treat people who don’t share them with you. Humility doesn’t come from not having convictions; it comes from having the right convictions about the importance of gentleness and respect.

What gives the myth of the intolerance of knowing truth its strength? Its power comes from a picture — not a photograph or a painting, but an image many people carry in their minds. In the picture, a man is being burned at the stake. He’s there because other people, who say they have the truth, are angry with him for saying that they don’t. I agree that such a thing should never happen. But in my mind is a different picture. In mine a man is also being burned at the stake — I almost said, being hung on a cross. He’s there because other people, who say there isn’t any truth, are angry with him for saying that there is.

–J. Budziszewski

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