Practicing Truth Together

Bonnie Kristian

When I first drafted my proposal for the book that would become Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community (Baker Academic, 2022), my literary agent had some feedback. I shouldn’t say the book is about “epistemology,” he advised, because no one knows what that word means. My editor heartily agreed, and I soon found, as I explained my new book idea to friends and family, that they were right: I had to define “epistemology” every time I said it, because, indeed, no one knows what that word means.

That’s exactly the problem I’m writing to address: We’ve spent forty years dramatically increasing how much information the average person encounters daily, and we made no effort to equip ourselves to handle that shift. In some times and places, you might not need to think consciously about epistemology. Ours is not one of those contexts, nor is there any sign it will become one in our lifetimes. Absent some catastrophic change in our society, our information environment is unlikely to become any calmer or more manageable. The confusion may ebb and flow, improve here, worsen there, but I’m not optimistic that we’ll find large-scale fixes for our epistemic crisis. I don’t think we’ll solve our knowledge woes by tweaking Twitter’s content moderation algorithms or forcing cable news to comply with equal time regulations or firing experts who get things wrong.

Debates around policy, whether legal or corporate, have their place and value. But they can’t and won’t get us out of this mess, because the problems that policy might conceivably address are less the cause of the crisis than its symptoms. The real cause is deeper than bad tweets or sensationalist news or expert mistakes and the like. It’s in our own thinking, our own behavior, our own vice. “The problem isn’t that there are liars,” as author Freddie deBoer has argued, for “there will always be liars. The problem is that people believe them.” Whatever policy progress we can make, we’ll never be free of deception, ignorance, error, and confusion in this age, but, as deBoer adds, “you can produce a populace wise and caring enough to reject them. … It has to start with the believers, not with the belief” ( “Nitro Edition: None of This Is New,” Freddie deBoer, April 5, 2021).

The resolution of an epistemic crisis, then, requires epistemology. It requires understanding not only that we’ve believed untrue things but also why they made sense to us and where we went wrong. It requires epistemological self-awareness: noticing how we gain knowledge and form beliefs, as well as whether that process is prone to error and how it might be improved. It requires, crucially, the development of intellectual virtues.

These virtues were once epistemology’s central focus, writes philosopher W. Jay Wood in Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous. This was philosophers’ concern, Wood says, “for the simple reason that your very character, the kind of person you are and are becoming, is at stake. Careful oversight of our intellectual lives is imperative if we are to think well, and thinking well is an indispensable ingredient to living well” (Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous [IVP Academic, 1998], 16–17).

Building intellectual virtue isn’t a formulaic thing. It isn’t something you can do once and for all. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll always be right in your beliefs. Rather, developing these virtues can make you a characteristically trustworthy person. It can equip you to discern truth, gain knowledge, and communicate well what you’ve come to understand (Wood, Epistemology, 47). Responsibility in one moment of belief formation will make it ever so slightly more feasible to be responsible in the next (Wood, Epistemology, 26). “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10). All your small decisions accumulate.

Unlike academic epistemology, the development of epistemic virtue isn’t optional for us as Christians who live in a chaotic, complex information environment. You have a duty here. We all do. We have a duty to forge these virtues in ourselves—to become, with God’s help, the sort of people who are trustworthy now and suited for complete knowledge in the age to come (Wood, Epistemology, 19). Without epistemic virtue, “we cannot succeed in the moral life,” Wood argues, and we will find it difficult to hold onto even the truths we manage to rightly grasp (Wood, Epistemology, 19).

Following Wood, I’ll outline three epistemic virtues—studiousness, intellectual honesty, and wisdom—then I’ll turn to a few practical suggestions for their nurture.

To be studious is to seek knowledge and to seek it rightly. In the classical model of virtues as a happy medium between opposing vices, we find it distinct from vicious curiosity, on the one side, and gullibility and obtuseness on the other. The studious person wants to know truth, but not by any means or at any cost. She interrogates herself about why she wants to know something and whether her path to learning it is moral (Wood, Epistemology, 55–61).

A studious person is both teachable and willing to share what she knows. She “must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful” (2 Tim 2:24). She realizes her own limits and knows she cannot be well informed about everything. She keeps silent when she is ignorant. A studious person is attentive to others’ thinking and confident—not certain—of her own (James K. Dew and Mark W. Foreman, How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology [IVP Academic, 2014], 160). She actively strengthens her theory of mind: her capacity to understand that other people have different perspectives, values, information, and goals, and that this will affect their reasoning and moves in perhaps unexpected but still intelligible ways.

While studiousness is largely concerned with how we seek knowledge, intellectual honesty is about our response to the truth we find (Wood, Epistemology, 61–66). It stands apart from the vices of intellectual dishonesty, which knows the truth but denies or suppresses it, and willful naivete, which knows the truth is there but refuses to look.

An intellectually honest person is always sincere and deals in good faith, though he may not be able to expect sincerity and good faith in return (Rom 12:17–21). He isn’t cynical, and he doesn’t meet serious argument with trolling. When he’s wrong, he holds himself accountable, “put[ting] off falsehood and speak[ing] truthfully to [his] neighbor” (Eph 4:25). He is always on the lookout lest his own self-interest distort his thinking.

An intellectually honest person is also courageous. Accountability needs courage, but beyond that, he will defend his best understanding of the truth even when it is unpopular. He never dissembles. This does not make him uncivil, but it does require him to be resolute, to refuse to be dishonest even when it is the path to acceptance.

After gaining and responding well to knowledge, wisdom should determine how we use it. Wisdom is about good judgment and discernment, and it stands in contrast to folly in its many forms. A wise person’s life is “marked by deep and abiding meaningfulness, anchored in beliefs and purposes that offer lasting contentment,” Wood says. She is interested in knowledge “of ultimate significance—knowledge that explains the most important features of our world, especially as they bear on human happiness” (Wood, Epistemology, 66–74).

The wise person is circumspect and prudent. She resists taking offense (yes, this is a choice; cf. Prov 12:16). She thinks through her decisions (14:8) and can foresee trouble before it comes (27:12). She acts with humility and restraint, recognizing her own weaknesses and accurately appraising the extent of her own knowledge and power. She does not seek conflict, chaos, or pointless and petty argument.

For Christians, wisdom is something we can foster in ourselves but also something we can request from God in prayer. “We are not alone in our efforts to cultivate life-characterizing concerns and the virtuous emotions and behavior that stem from them,” Wood writes. “God is ready to assist us. We can hardly do better than to recall the words of James: ‘If any of you lack wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you’ (James 1:5)” (Wood, Epistemology, 196).

That acquisition process, however, is not so simple as a single prayer. We need habits. A metaphor I find helpful here is a gothic cathedral, all spires and stained-glass glow. The virtues are like the windows. They let in light; through them, we gain knowledge and identify truth. But the windows, of course, can’t stand on their own. They’re held in place by great walls of stone, and this is the function of habit. To form habits conducive to studiousness, intellectual honesty, and wisdom is to create a framework of automatic behavior in which virtue can cast its truthful light.

We tend to think of this relationship the other way around. We try to put up the windows and expect the walls to materialize around them. That’s not how it works. A passing fancy for virtue doesn’t make you virtuous. Acquiring knowledge is an integral part of Christian maturity, but sanctification doesn’t happen by information transfer (James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit [Brazos, 2016], 4–7). We don’t think our way to virtue any more than we think our way to liking a new food. Intellectual assent to a truthful proposition is not enough to make that truth evident in your life. Truth must be practiced (Justin Whitmel Earley, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction [InterVarsity Press, 2019], 15–16). “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (Jas 2:19). As “faith without deeds is dead” (Jas 2:26), so virtue without habit is dead.

What sort of habit do we need? Well, that depends on your specific temptations, your characteristic failings and misuses of time and attention. Three common themes, however, of my broader discussion of habits in Untrustworthy, are worth highlighting in brief. First, we need limits. We need limits on our screen time and news consumption and useless worries. We can never build virtues if our heads are always full of tweets. Second, we need worship. Limits on misuses of our time and attention do little good unless we replace them with something better, otherwise “the final condition of that person is worse than the first” (Matt 12:45). That foremost includes worship “in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). And third, we need Christian community as a place of mutual edification in the building of habits and virtues alike. As Christians, truth is something we practice together.

[Adapted from Bonnie Kristian, Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community (Brazos Press, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2022); used with permission.]

Posted Nov 02, 2022