In Liber Veritas?

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A recent conversation with a friend initiated some reflection about the value of truth. It started with us sharing what we'd been reading as of late; I mentioned that I recently started The Book Thief and that it has reminded me of how much I love fiction.  This began a bit of a debate where we were trying to determine the value of reading, especially of reading non-fiction.  My friend expressed the opinion that while our culture (or at least the so-called intellectuals in this culture) places a high value on being "well-read," it really has no benefit over, for example, playing video games or watching television. It all has to do with how we choose to spend our time, he insisted. Some people choose to spend their free time reading, while others choose to spend their free time playing video games. But is this true? Is there no benefit to reading over and above watching Sherlock on TV, playing the newest Halo game, or  some other hobby?

I think in order to answer this question we must first narrow down what the motivation behind reading, especially reading non-fiction, actually is. Certainly there is an element of entertainment which I cannot deny. Since reading philosophy, theology, or science is one of my favorite things to do, it would be a lie to say that I am not motivated to read them because they entertain me. They also act as a sort of stress reliever or escape from time to time; after a long day at work, it is comforting to lose myself into the works of Popper, Warfield, or Aquinas. But are those the primary motivations for reading non-fiction? I don't think so. My own largest motivation for reading non-fiction, as I suppose it is for many others, is to be exposed to new ideas. And without being exposed to new ideas, how could we ever hope to ascertain truth about anything? I suppose like the rationalists we could hold that truth can always be come upon a priori, or deductively. Or maybe like the Gnostics, we could hold that deep truths can only be obtained mysteriously by rejecting the material world and embracing the spiritual.

Regardless of what the correct epistemological stance is, it should be obvious that we need to be exposed to new ideas before we can consider them, or ultimately accept them as true. This is certainly true of the Christian faith, and the truth of salvation, as the Apostle Paul eloquently puts it in Romans 10: "How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them?" One cannot believe in the salvation that comes from Christ's sacrifice if they have not first heard about the salvation that comes from Christ's sacrifice. And I see no reason to believe that this is unique to the Christian faith. It is obvious that people everywhere believe that important ideas should be effectively communicated. Religious truths, political truths, moral truths, pragmatic truths, etc, are all thought to be valuable enough to human beings that they are worth spreading.

So the motivation to read is to be exposed to new ideas, and the motivation to be exposed to new ideas is to ascertain truth. As seen above, people certainly act in such a way that shows they believe certain truths to be valuable enough to communicate to others. However, often the benefit seen in these ideas is not the ideas themselves, but the ways in which people respond to them.  After all, ideas are very powerful.  But is there any intrinsic value in truth qua truth? Is there any benefit in me knowing X even if my knowing X does not produce in me some sort of conviction which compels me to act in some way which is beneficial to myself or others? Surely there is a pragmatic benefit in what knowing X enables me to do, even if it does not compel me to do it.  For example, knowing some geometric truths could enable one to be a more effective civil engineer. But even this is an extrinsic value due to its pragmatism. The geometric truth, in this context, is not valuable simply in virtue of the fact that it is a geometric truth, but rather because of what it allows someone to do.

I think in the context of the Christian faith, it is hard to argue that truth does not not have intrinsic value; this is mainly because the Christian faith revolves around Truth with a capital 'T.' The Gospel of John testifies that Jesus is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life," and further that Jesus is the divine Logos by whom, and through whom, all things were made. Some may argue that these facts pertain only to spiritual truths, found in Holy Scripture, or pertaining to salvation. But this is not consistent with the sweeping claim that the Apostle John makes in the beginning of his Gospel. By calling Jesus the Logos, or "Word" as it is translated in English, John was referring to a well-known Greek idea that would have been familiar to his audience. The Logos, according to the Greeks, was the active reason pervading and animating the universe. Calling Jesus the Logos, then, clearly communicated more than his identification with spiritual truths or those found in the Bible. Augustine of Hippo in his On Christian Doctrines says the following in agreement: "[...L]et every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master [...]"1 The geometric truth of the Pythagorean Theorem, then, may not be found in Scripture, and may not pertain to the salvation of men, but it is still a truth that belongs to the Master, Jesus Christ, by whom and through whom all things were made.

So then, the value of reading is more than entertainment, comfort, or escape. The value of reading is primarily the ascertainment of truth, which for the Christian is intrinsically valuable. Insofar as non-fiction's main utility is to convey ideas, it is worth spending time studying. Fiction likewise, though less explicitly, can be used to convey truths which are intrinsically valuable (in fact, some might argue that truth can be communicated even more effectively in fiction than in non-fiction). Likewise, video games and television shows contain the same value, insofar as they communicate truth. However, my own experience is that these mediums are more often aimed at entertainment than truth.


1. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book II, Chapter 18.
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1 comment :

  1. On the whole I agree. I don't think books necessarily have the advantage when it comes to being exposed to new ideas and to truth, it's just the case that books currently contain a lot more in the way of ideas and truth than other media such as TV shows and video games.

    There is a lot of untapped potential when it comes to TV and video games. It would be awesome if some RPG plumbed the depths of ethical issues, or the nature of existence, or the existence/in-existence of God. But right now they are almost all geared towards entertainment, because that is how to make a lot of money. Books already have a strong tradition of covering more meaty subject matter, so I don't see anything changing anytime soon.