04 Aug The Search for Truth
By Anjum Altaf
Is there a need to search for truth? Most people would say ‘Yes’ but with different perspectives in mind.
There is one perspective that the truth about any proposition is already available, pre-packaged in words of wisdom, written down somewhere, or known to some sage. Our task is to find the source and we shall be informed.
The other perspective is that we ourselves have to reason our way to the truth, finding a bit here and a bit there, separating the truth from the untruth when they come packaged together, and questioning it when it goes against our common sense.
This is a personal choice of which the second one is intellectually more interesting. Take a simple proposition as an example: ‘Economic interest has a major influence on what we do; culture, nationality and religion are just impediments in the way.’ What is the truth regarding such a proposition and how can we discover it? The ancient Greeks used a special debating exercise to arrive at the truth or falsehood of such propositions.
Part of the exercise conforms to the usual debating format: a questioner undertakes to challenge the proposition and prove it wrong; an answerer undertakes to defend it and prove it right; and there is an audience that acts as a jury and enforces the correct rules of argumentation.
The more interesting aspect of the Greek practice pertains to the innovation that the same proposition is debated time after time. At times the questioner and answerer switch roles; at others, new contestants pick up where that last pair leaves off. A written record is kept of the arguments so that the debate does not start from scratch when it is resumed after a break.
It is an important premise of this exercise that the proposition is not something the answerer is personally convinced of or the questioner is opposed to. Both are charged with making the best case for their side. The arguments are impersonal and the debaters quarrel with the argument and not with the person making the argument. This point may seem an obvious one to those used to the practice of debating. But think how difficult it has become to adhere to this rule; people become personally attached to their arguments and intolerant of other viewpoints so easily.
Through this process of impersonal debating, the strong arguments are retained and the weak ones discarded. After many rounds, the final arguments, pro and con, begin to approach a consensus on the truth regarding any given proposition.
We can imagine such a debate about the proposition mentioned above. One feels that it would be easy to establish the claim that people are willing to give up culture and nationality in return for economic gain. But would they also give up religion? The direct evidence may not be sufficient to prove the truth of the proposition. But it could be pointed out that the bribery and corruption rife today show that individuals are trading religious and moral principles for economic gain. This could be a difficult argument to demolish. It would be an interesting debate and one can expect a much better understanding of the issue at the end of the exercise compared to the beginning.
This exercise is a variant of the Socratic method of teaching by guided questioning; the actual method is more challenging and readers can look it up themselves. In my own search, I was fascinated to chance upon a very similar and much more recent example from our own traditions. I discovered a reference to a book Peshawar Nights: Shia Islam in Sunni Traditions (translated from the Persian) that is reportedly based on the transcript of a dialogue that took place in Peshawar over a period of ten nights, beginning 27 January 1927, between several Sunni divines (the questioners) and a 31-year-old Shia scholar from Shiraz (the answerer).
The preface to the book states that the dialogue, which was extemporaneous, “was a model of respect”, and despite the seriousness of the subject and the presence of an audience of some 200, “there was no breach of decorum.”
“A condition of the dialogue was that only sources acceptable to both sides would be cited. The dialogue was held in Farsi, commonly understood in the city of Peshawar. The transcript, made by four reporters and published in the newspapers daily, was published in book form in Teheran”.
I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this document or even confirm whether the event actually ever took place. Nor am I personally interested in the propositions being debated. But the fact that there is reference to an exercise so similar to the Greek model, in a context and setting so familiar to us, I find truly amazing. This is indeed a tradition that we can build on to great advantage.
Of course, one does not need such elaborate exercises to begin the search for truth. A few years of practice in schools would build familiarity with the method. For those beyond that age, it is just as easy to start debating with one’s own self, subjecting one’s beliefs about any proposition to the tests of reason and logic and objective criticism. It can be a fascinating, though often painful, journey. But then, it is said that there is no gain without pain.