On September 27th, Hope College hosted its annual Critical Issues Symposium. This event is hosted by the Provost Office and Student Congress as a collaborative project and is open to Hope students, faculty, and the Holland Community. The day opens with a keynote speaker, followed by two sets of breakout sessions students can choose to attend, and finishes with a reception where students have the opportunity to talk with the speakers of the day.
This year’s topic was “Discerning Truth in a World of Uncertainty” and the Keynote speaker was Dr. Justin McBrayer, of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. Dr. McBrayer is a Christian and a philosophy professor with an emphasis in epistemology. He’s written a few books with his most recent entitled, “Beyond Fake News; Finding the Truth in a World of Misinformation.” After interviewing Madeline Chrome, this year’s CIS director, she expressed “You can see why he is a perfect fit for this year’s CIS!
Dr. McBrayer described himself as a “philosopher who likes to work on important human questions.” He opened his address with two statements: (1) the world is swimming with misinformation; (2) the world is becoming an increasingly challenging environment to navigate. In the remainder of his address, he delved into what is truth, what are the barriers between individuals and truth, and what individuals can do to better discern the truth.
To start, Dr. McBryer defined truth as the correspondence between a description and the way the world is. Truth is not created, rather it is discovered, and it is utterly objective. He emphasized that the truth is black and white because the world is black and white. However, the evidence we find for truth can sometimes be gray in the way we see and interpret it. Our view of the truth can be relative and fuzzy, but truth itself stays black and white nevertheless.
Next, Dr. McBryer listed a few things that bar us from the truth. First, he explained that our view of the world is limited. We do not know every view of every situation we encounter. Our view can be narrow. We experience the world but do not always see the full picture. This can also lead to disagreement, as other people see different sides to the same experience. Second, he says that there are two types of questions in the world: little questions we answer on our own and big questions that we need help answering. Big questions that we struggle to answer alone, but don’t ask or help understanding, are the ones that can stop us from finding the truth. Third, Dr. McBryer explains that we are not “truth computers”. He states “We are wired to survive, not to think accurately and clearly about everything”. He also draws on the idea of heuristics. In psychology, heuristics are a mental shortcut where the mind strives to solve problems by filling in blank spaces with what it knows from previous experience. However, this does not always create a complete and accurate picture. It’s simply how our brain functions. Dr. McBryer emphasizes that we crave social comfort over truth. He shared that according to student and professor surveys, 90% of college professors think they’re better at teaching than the average lecturer. Because we are human and not computers, we naturally do not have the ability to inherently know the truth.
Finally, Dr. McBryer gave three tools on how to better discern the truth, stating that “University is the greatest tool ever devised for figuring out the world”. First, he encourages cultivating diversity. Based on the idea that every person only has one perspective of the world, it is easier to piece together the truth when there are several different backgrounds sharing their viewpoints. Different voices must be welcome into the conversation. Second, since there are questions that people are unable to answer on their own, there must be academic methods deployed. Dr. McByer used the example of libraries, labs, and field studies. These methods open the doors for students to begin to see the truth in the world around them. Third and finally, Dr. Mcbryer stresses the importance of the free competition of ideas. In a world where so many things can be found offensive or crazy, it is even more important to be willing to listen and hear from everyone around you. Dr. McBrayer states “Offense is a bad guide to the truth. Most true things will offend at least someone”. Essentially, “keeping ideas out of the university because they are offensive is a bad way to find the truth”. He uses examples of students being scared to speak their minds in class, or newspapers being unable to write articles because they harbor fear of being shut down by the school. Dr. McBryer highlights that, in order to find out the truth, people must be open to alternate perspectives of the world around them.
This year’s Critical Issue Symposium tackled a highly significant topic. As stated by CIS Director Madeline Chrome in an interview, “When we were thinking about topics, we wanted something broad and engaging to a wide audience but also relevant to society today. News, media, and in general the US is very polarized. There’s lots of mixed information. It’s hard to discern what’s truth, opinion, and fact. It’s hard to discern the facts and what to do with them. We want to equip students and the community with the tools to discern facts and opinions.”
In today’s culture and society, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find truth in the chaos of social media. Misinformation can quickly spread and people are driven to express opinions in aggressive and hostile ways, often without caring to listen to the other side. Dr. McBryer stresses that, while there may be barriers and tough conversations, the truth is out there. And it is more critical and worth it than ever before to find it.
*All of what has been written above is a review of Dr. Justin McBryer’s thoughts and is not a direct opinion of the Anchor or any of their writers*
Photo credit: Jayson L. Dibble