In the 4th century B.C., Plato wrote his famous Allegory of the Cave, depicting humans as captives chained in a fixed position in a dark cave, where they only see shadows on a wall in front of them. Oblivious to realities beyond the shadows, they dismiss anyone who attempts to explain the outside world to them. The 1999 film “The Matrix” modernized this allegory, replacing the cave with a computer simulation that enslaves the minds of humanity.
Beneath the epistemological, metaphysical and ethical questions raised by Plato’s allegory is the provocative premise that the large majority of us are mistaken about what we think we know to be true. The human mind is a wonder, capable of remarkable calculation and creative brilliance. Yet it is also highly impressionable, easily manipulated and prone to overconfidence.
We can see that this premise, though provocative, is often true by looking historically at debunked positions that were once majority views, such as geocentrism or the claim that a man’s testimony is more reliable than a woman’s.
Plato’s premise is also supported by contemporary research on cognitive biases, such as the overconfidence effect. Infamously, the majority of people rate themselves “above average” in driving skill and various other abilities. One study found that when people rate their confidence in their recollection of a piece of information at 80%-90%, they are correct only 55% of the time. A 2019 study by cognitive scientist Philip Fernbach and others even found that the more knowledgeable an opponent of genetically modified foods claimed to be, the lower they scored in a test of objective knowledge about science and genetics.
Our inaccuracy in understanding reality costs us as mistaken ideas are translated into action—in the form of harmful public policies, wasteful endeavors in business and nonprofits, and unhealthy personal decisions. Every area of life suffers when truth is misperceived.
In a world full of misinformation, polarization and indoctrination, countless ideas compete for our assent, and conflicting claims are pronounced with forceful bravado. If our minds are so easily misled, how can we navigate through all of this noise to pursue truth with any reliability?
Step One: Cultivate Intellectual Humility
The first step on the path to truth is intellectual humility, which involves the acknowledgement of our limitations and fallibility in forming beliefs. When it comes to difficult questions lacking consensus answers, most of us are wrong about most things, and all of us are wrong about at least some things.
In “The Apology,” Plato recounts Socrates’ famous teaching that he is wise because he knows that he knows nothing. This pithy expression of intellectual humility was not a defense of nihilism, the claim that we cannot know anything, or the position that we should not have convictions. The teaching itself, of course, makes a claim to knowledge. In Book 7 of “The Republic,” Plato decries students of philosophy who “are always contradicting and refuting others” and “speedily get into a way of not believing anything.” He continues: “But when a man begins to get older, he will no longer be guilty of such insanity; he will imitate the dialectician who is seeking for truth, and not the eristic.” Socrates’ and Plato’s point is that in order to become wise and pursue truth, we must begin from a position of intellectual humility.
Recent research has backed up the view that intellectual humility is an important tool in discerning truth. Psychologist Mark Leary reports that people high in intellectual humility “distinguish strong from weak arguments more clearly.” One 2016 study found that intellectually humble people more accurately distinguish between real and fake information, and, in memory tasks, distinguish “more successfully between sentences they had read previously and those they had not.” Intellectual humility enables us to assess information more accurately and opens us to learn more from a greater diversity of sources.
Step Two: Get a Crash Course in Logic
Discerning truth from falsity requires not just humility, but also sound reasoning. But what is sound reasoning? Philosophers have developed the discipline of logic to answer this question. Studying the basics of logic can sharpen our critical thinking, just as studying proper running form can improve our running. As with running, most people organically learn how to reason to some degree when they are young, but a relatively small amount of research into logic can take someone much further.
Learning about valid argument structures and how to break down an argument into premises can help you assess the strength of reasons given for different conclusions. Investing a little bit of time memorizing the most common fallacies in reasoning—like red herrings, equivocations and the fallacy of composition—may serve you the rest of your life.
Studying logic has long been considered beneficial in the development of reasoning skills, and there is data supporting this claim. In a 2019 study of almost 15,000 undergraduates, psychologists Rafael Quintana and Christian Schunn found that students from a variety of majors improved their grades in other classes after taking a single logic course. Philosophy majors, who study logic most heavily, are also among the top performers on tests like the LSAT and GRE each year. By improving critical thinking, logic equips us to sort through information, spot weak arguments and follow sound trails of reasoning. Logic is thus another valuable tool for those pursuing truth.
Step Three: Impartially Study the Best Arguments on Each Side
We tend to study sources with which we already agree more than sources with which we disagree—conservatives turn on Fox News, liberals watch MSNBC. Social media worsens this tendency, as it curates content similar to what we have consumed in the past. To escape our silos, we must research positions that differ from our own and challenge our worldviews.
Rather than reading summaries of arguments written by critics of those arguments, read each side in its own words. It is rare to find an accurate, fair and charitable description of a viewpoint from someone who does not hold that viewpoint. Moreover, study the best defenders of each viewpoint. Every perspective has ineffective defenders. Learn from the ones who are not just clear communicators, but widely respected experts in relevant fields, and find informed proponents of different views who are willing to cordially discuss their perspectives with you. If you listen more than speak and don’t try to prove someone wrong, you’re likely to learn more from the conversation.
Subject yourself to the same rigor of pursuit that you would want someone who disagrees with you to undertake. Linda Elder and Richard Paul, researchers on critical thinking, write that “[i]ntellectual integrity is manifested in the commitment to hold oneself to the same standards of evidence and proof one expects others to meet (especially one’s antagonists).”
And if you know you are particularly biased toward one perspective, it is not always enough to research each side equally. To counterbalance what we are used to hearing, we must sometimes give the side with which we are less familiar more study than the perspective with which we’re already accustomed. Try to detach yourself from any personal stake you have in a question, and imagine how a rational third party would assess it.
Maimonides observes in “Guide for the Perplexed” that “one of the causes which prevent men from finding truth” is clinging to the habitual opinions “to which he has been accustomed from his youth.” No one is lucid enough to perceive reality completely free of bias, but with intention and effort, we can become more objective.
Step Four: Appreciate Nuance
The world is incredibly complex, and the mind is like a shot glass trying to catch Victoria Falls. We can process only so much information, so we oversimplify to fit the world within our understanding. Some simplification is useful and necessary, but we also unhelpfully make generalizations, create false dilemmas, think short term and ignore context. Each of these types of oversimplification epitomizes lazy thinking, which researchers at Yale University found to be the top cause behind the flourishing of “fake news.” By capping the number of characters and giving “likes” to blunt, emotive statements, social media rewards unnuanced and extreme views, exacerbating the natural human tendency to oversimplify and deepening polarization.
To reduce errors of oversimplification, we should contextualize information. A public policy (for example, student loan forgiveness) may have a positive short-term impact over a couple years, yet a negative impact over five or 10 years. The correct answer to a question may depend on how the question’s terms are defined. A solution may work in one situation, yet fail in another. Two perspectives may be presented, and both might be wrong, or right, on different points. “The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” as Algernon says in “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
So we should consider middle ground options, and be hesitant in adopting extreme positions, which rarely account for all of the data. Additionally, we ought to be careful in ascribing negative intentions to thinkers, and appreciate that most disagreements are between equally sincere and well-intentioned sides. This kind of goodwill is as important as ever in our polarized culture.
Step Five: Write It Down and Get Feedback
Anyone who has written a persuasive essay knows that writing forces us to clarify our thoughts—and it frequently exposes the limits of what we understand. It is often said, in fact, that “writing is thinking,” and there is research showing a link between writing and thinking. A study of biology students, for instance, concluded that adding a writing component to a biology course “significantly improved critical thinking skills” relative to a “traditional quiz-based laboratory.”
So to start testing your own argument, write it down. Succinctly type up your perspective on a question, stating a conclusion and listing the premises that support that conclusion. Then look at the premises one by one. How well substantiated is each premise, really? Are there data, or comparably plausible arguments, that contradict any of those premises? To go above and beyond, try writing a strong defense of the opposite position. Reading our thoughts on paper helps us view them more objectively—a phenomenon psychologists call “cognitive defusion.”
Shareability is another benefit of writing down your thoughts. Once you are satisfied that your argument is sound, send it to a few knowledgeable people who disagree with the conclusion. Listen to their feedback, conduct more research, and revise your conclusion and premises accordingly.
The answers to difficult questions are not obvious, and sometimes, they’re not even knowable at a specific point in time. Invest the time a question requires; otherwise, withhold taking a stance.
Step Six: Have Intellectual Courage
We will always be fallible in our pursuit of truth, but these steps can decrease our susceptibility to error and improve our ability to identify truth. Following these steps is likely to push us outside our comfort zones, especially when it challenges our preconceptions.
Updating one’s perspectives can be psychologically, socially and even physically costly. To change one’s mind is to admit one was wrong, which insults the ego. To express a belief to others can cause judgment or alienation. To live out some beliefs can threaten one’s livelihood or even one’s life in some parts of the world. Pursuing truth requires courage. Intellectual courage involves following the evidence where it leads, come what may, neither jumping to conclusions nor waiting for absolute certainty.
Escaping the Matrix
In “The Matrix,” the real world is dreadful and destitute, while in the simulation, ignorance is bliss. The film challenges us: Will we accept truth, even if we prefer a lie?
When we take the “blue pill,” choosing to live in ignorance, we miss out on knowledge of how to benefit the world and help other people. We lose, moreover, the many elusive virtues and refinements of character that the honest pursuit of truth requires and cultivates. Plato’s answer to this challenge, therefore, is that the pursuit of truth is not just a fulfilling endeavor, but a moral responsibility.