Albert Einstein said, “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
“Certainly, no tract has been more significant as a statement of the liberal position on the importance of freedom for the discovery of truth….” wrote David Spitz in the preface to On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill – A Norton Critical Edition [i]. Though in the early 20th century, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce found much to dislike in the book, disdaining the “cheap” and “ignoble arguments” and its “fallacious reasonings”[ii], I found Mill’s ideas on the freedom-truth relationship very enlightening and interesting. Frankly, I hadn’t thought much about that exact relationship even though I have studied liberty and truth to some degree over the years. In some sense, I knew that a closed society or a cult would not facilitate the search for truth – that much is obvious – but in America for example, the idea that truth is only apprehensible under conditions of openness and freedom and individuality has enough merit that it is worth sustained consideration. What follows is a summation of Mill’s ideas about this relationship, and a little commentary from myself and relevant luminaries.
Spitz inquires, “If a professor teaches erroneous, perhaps loathsome, ideas, should not students have a right to silence him or to protect other students from being contaminated by his views by preventing them from entering the classroom? Has a community no right to defend its truth from error?” This is a very intriguing and fundamental question, and it gets right to the principle involved in freedom of thought, yes, but more pointedly, free expression. And in a time when political correctness has, in my opinion, run amok; when university professors are often now not protected by tenure; and when Fox News tries to utterly destroy the concept of truth for a profit motive, this is a very timely and critical issue to understand fully. Indeed, Rudy Giuliani literally exclaimed on television in 2020, “Truth is not truth!” And the ubiquitous social media platforms are daily encountering serious ethical decisions in regard to misinformation, disinformation, and even the planning and publicity around insurrection. So suffice it to say, this is the time and place where America sinks into a swamp in regard to truth and wisdom and knowledge, or it changes its trajectory of late in some very significant ways.
Much of Mill’s groundbreaking treatise has to do with the degree to which a person has the liberty to think, express, and do what they want – not necessarily for the purposes of discovering truth per se, but truth discovery vis-à-vis civil freedoms. That is, How much right does a person or a community or a state have in silencing, punishing, and controlling the thoughts and actions of another? Essentially, a minority. Mill stakes out an affirmative position, and I think it is both wise and justified.
“Every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is so far doing a public service. We should be grateful to him for attacking most unsparingly our most cherished opinions,” Mill wrote, and this is a relevant and trenchant quote to capture what his second chapter, “On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”, is fundamentally about. Certainly, George Orwell was in this vein when he wrote, “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue… and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for a long time, until sooner or later these false beliefs bump up against reality — often on a battlefield.”[iii] Indeed, if truth-apprehension is a process, it is greatly stifled (or obliterated, perhaps) if every person in society is not adequately free to go where the facts lead them. This is most assuredly true in the realms of academic freedom (which is, in short, the ability of a professor to teach what is to them reasonable, without fear of censorship or reprisal) and science (which is literally pointless if all the data cannot be observed unimpeded). As a fan of real-life murder mystery shows (e.g., Forensic Files), the detectives always try to have unfettered access to the evidence (the truth) and the literal truth as told by suspects, witnesses, etc. This process of winnowing so as to find the literal and unambiguous truth is somewhat akin to the process of finding truth in the wild and wolly world of applied philosophy.
Mill wrote: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion….” This beautifully illustrates the idea that a person has a tendency to be biased; to prematurely foreclose on what they consider the truth. This is just human nature. Unless one exposes one’s beliefs, prejudices, and deeply-held opinions to the sanitizing light of day, they stand little chance of proving correct (that is, true). A person in a society that censors, prohibits, and obfuscates truth will have immense difficulty determining what is real and what is made up; what is bankable and what is mutable. In Orwell’s powerful book 1984, very few citizens knew what the hell was really going on – they were benighted by the totalitarian regime in control.
This point Mill makes reminds me of the process of evolution by means of natural selection: it operates whereby the strongest survive, generation after generation, by being the fittest and most well-adapted. Similarly, one’s ideas that stand the test of time and subjection to all manner of alternatives are those that can more assuredly be counted on. The renowned philosopher Will Durant wrote: “Philosophy begins when one learns to doubt, particularly one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas, one’s axioms.” Unless one doubts and thinks critically, little progress can be made – and little confidence in one’s beliefs can be warranted. Mill adds, “No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead.”
Ayn Rand believed such a thing; it is evident in her books and comments about how the courageous leaders of society must be allowed to flourish and create if society is to benefit from such successful individuals. Nietzsche urged the übermenschen in a society to lose their fetters and proceed unimpeded toward higher and higher levels of thought, action, and development; to him, Christianity was a foolish notion that only inhibited and stymied the leaders and the masses, both. When he said “God is dead”, I think he was in part referring to the fact that one cannot rely on received wisdom from elders, priests, and so on; that humankind was in a post-religious mental realm, and new values and visions were necessary. These two hyper-libertarians are somewhat allied with Mill insofar as they believe truth is apprehendable, and that no mental or societal impediment to finding and living within it should be tolerated. At their best, both Nietzsche and Rand extolled and promulgated freedom of thought as the only path to truth. No person, community, or state should impede this process if they aim to be wise (or wisely constituted and governed). Indeed, Mill claimed that:
“[t]he only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.”
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit; the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth is produced by its collision with error.”
Progress occurs in an individual’s mind (or, likewise, in a society) to the degree that truth is the basis. A person must deal with reality in order to be on terra firma, and to thereby function well, grow, and develop. The same goes for a society. The opposite is also true. This is one of the main reasons why countries such as New Zealand perform very well on all sorts of measures of excellence, whereas Communist Russia was a dismal failure. But it needn’t be an authoritarian regime to stifle the kind of progress that is dependent on both truth and freedom; a society like Victorian England was hamstrung by its cultural mores and the like. This is where freedom of thinking does dovetail with Mill’s other views about political and civil freedom.
Indeed, Mill believed that “[t]he despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement.” Indeed, Freud and his predecessor Josef Breuer found that women of the Victorian era were presenting in statistical irregularity with symptoms they termed hysteria. This was, basically, a subconscious mechanism by which a patient was so stifled, so subjugated, so truncated that they literally couldn’t function well. Human nature is human nature – 5,000 years ago or 200 years ago or today – and people cannot live a life that is so confining and coerced. Anne Frank definitely agreed, and so have myriad suffragists and civil rights agitators.
One claim Mill makes is fairly complex, but indicative of where his head was at when he wrote the book. “There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted – and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation.” To be clear, truth is difficult to apprehend in the phenomenal (Kant) world, but Mill’s book was influential in highlighting the indispensable ingredient of freedom of thought, and he certainly tried to subvert the “tyranny of custom”, as Bertrand Russell put it. Here is a succinct point made by the inimitable philosopher who no doubt was aware of On Liberty: “Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom.” The modern writer Alfie Kohn points out that “We are neither omniscient nor infallible. We must work to achieve our knowledge. The mere presence of an idea inside our mind does not prove that the idea is true; many ideas that are false may enter our consciousness.”
The famed science writer Dan Brown adds: “The world is a big place, and now more than ever, there is enormous danger in believing that we are infallible: that our version of the truth is absolute, and that everyone who does not think like we do is wrong, and therefore, an enemy.” Mill definitely does not come across in the book as a fan of “absolute princes, or others, who are accustomed to unlimited deference,” organized religion, dogma, or especially measures taken by communities in the name of religion to silence, censor, or burn books. The Catholic Church is more than once the target of Mill’s ire. Certainly, without any doubt, if one burns a human at the stake because the person was alleged to or did indeed believe some truth or have some opinion, one can assume that the person was right for all intents and purposes. Indeed, Mill writes that “all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” Indeed, higher on p. 18 he indicates that “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion: and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.” How foolish the Catholic Church now seems, or the Puritan settlers of New England, when one looks back upon the tyrannical acts that Giordano Bruno was subjected to, or any of the many thousands of so-called “witches” in heinous “witch trials”.
Indeed, the Church only forestalled truth from being discovered when it put the screws to pioneering scientist Galileo Galilei. The banning of books is a preposterous way to try to have a progressive and open society. This dogmatic arrogance can be neatly contrasted with the openness and scientific progress that took place in Arab societies in the Middle Ages. In fact, Aristotle’s writings might not even really exist today if it weren’t for Arab scholars and Medieval monks. The loss of many of the philosophical researches conducted by Aristotle’s students in his Lyceum is immeasurable; today, we only have the works of three ancient Athenian playwrights. For society to purposefully stymie progress – be it spiritual, philosophical, or scientific – is undoubtedly unwise. Aristotle elevated the search for truth above all else, including friendship and respect and other social niceties, and this quote exemplifies this noble virtue: “Plato is dear to me, Socrates is dear, but truth is dearer still.” Interestingly, the influential French philosophe, Denis Diderot, noted that “Ever since Socrates, playing the sage among fools has been a dangerous business.”
Philosopher Felipe Fernandez-Armesto notes that “The pursuit of truth has been a long-standing, widely shared project of mankind. Now a lot of us seem to have abandoned it.” Indeed, Fox News is an ignoble exemplar of what happens when truth is not in any way prioritized. Studies have shown that lies are routinely told on the cable news network in order to garner viewership. Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson recently started floating the quasi-white-supremacist, quasi-Q-Anon malarkey that non-whites and immigrants are trying to “replace” whites and fundamentally alter the social fabric of America. Rush Limbaugh made a whole career out of lying to the public. Indeed, MSNBC is not above massaging facts to fit the narrative. With Fox, however, the die is cast: they manipulate truth and facts and huge numbers of Americans believe it (much to the disbelief of other, similar countries!). I like what Noam Chomsky says that really highlights the predicament in which America has allowed itself to sink:
“You can go to the most reactionary parts of the country, or anywhere else, and a thousand people will show up to listen, and they’ll be really excited about what you’re saying — no matter what it is. That’s the trouble: it’s no matter what it is. People are so disillusioned by this point in time that they will believe almost anything.”
Fox News likes it this way. It is an interesting situation, though, in that no one forces anyone to watch Fox. That is, no one is being burned at the stake for not “believing in” fake news. And yet, due to a very complex and nuanced and slowly-developing process, this is where we are. When I would watch The Daily Show, or when I watch Real Time with Bill Maher, it is painfully obvious to me that a huge swath of the country is so lackadaisical, so undereducated, so manipulated that they don’t know much about much. The last statistic I remember hearing about the 2020 presidential election – which led to an attempted coup, mind you! – was that 75% of Republicans believe that Trump won the election. That is astonishing because it is so obviously untrue, so patently false. It is as though many Americans have lost their critical thinking skills and their ability to tell truth from falsehood. Perhaps this is part of the very fabric of American society – founded on the enslavement of humans as it was. How we got here is an amazing journey which many scholars on the political Left have opined; what is most relevant to these purposes is the recognition of just how far below our potential America has fallen. The principles of freedom and truth – and their critical relationship – were elucidated pretty convincingly in Mill’s On Liberty more than a hundred years ago.
No society can thrive and advance if they are more than a century behind in their sophistication. It is probably causing Mill to turn over in his grave that he wrote “Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth….” and yet – and yet – despite ample liberty here in America, a large percentage of Americans believe irrational things. In a recent poll, only 22% of Americans believed in a humanistic and atheistic theory of evolution.[iv] It would be enough to confound Mill – we have the Internet and yet we are woefully foolish and benighted in many ways! Skepticism and science writer Michael Shermer writes this in his book Why People Believe Weird Things: Superstition, Pseudoscience, and Other Confusions of Our Time: “Of the various tools taught in school, science and thinking skeptically about all claims should be near the top.”
Perhaps, not unlike how Shakespeare was thinking with the line, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves”, humans just have a hard time “getting it” as it were. In the book Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, science writer Stephen S. Hall points out, sadly, that:
“Even ‘gerontologically correct’ psychologists have failed to find evidence of increasing wisdom with age. As part of the Berlin Wisdom Project, Paul Baltes and his colleagues conducted several studies exploring the relationship of wisdom to age, and they repeatedly failed to find any convincing evidence that wisdom, by their measures, increased much at all from the age of twenty to the age of ninety.”
I would assert that Mill’s idea about how freedom of thought is part and parcel of the truth should best be considered as necessary but not sufficient to generate wisdom. For in America, we have the freedom (constitutionally and culturally), but not much of the wisdom, or the engrained habits relevant to apprehending significant and meaningful truths. And, importantly, to quote Lois McMaster Bujold, “If the truth doesn’t save us, what does that say about us?”
I will share some additional quotations that bolster the views I hold on the nature and importance of truth:
“To discover to the world something which deeply concerns it, and of which it was previously ignorant; to prove to it that it had been mistaken on some vital point of temporal or spiritual interest, is an important a service as a human being can render to his fellow-creatures….” (Mill)
“An aphorism can never be the whole truth; it is either a half-truth or a truth-and-a-half.” (Karl Kraus)
“If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all — except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the Bill of Rights is the guardian of our security as well as our liberty.” (John F. Kennedy)
“There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.” (Anais Nin)
“Truth is reborn with each enlightened mind.” (Leonard Leeman)
“By academic freedom I understand the right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true. This right implies also a duty: one must not conceal any part of what on has recognized to be true. It is evident that any restriction on academic freedom acts in such a way as to hamper the dissemination of knowledge among the people and thereby impedes national judgment and action.” (Albert Einstein)
“We really hold one major weapon against irrationality – reason itself. But the cards are stacked against us in contemporary America, where even a well-intentioned appearance on Oprah or Donahue only permits a hyped-up sound bite rather than a proper analysis. So we have to try harder.” (Stephen Jay Gould)
“In the fusion of two contradictory opinions shines the truth.” (Anita Vélez-Mitchell)
“It would be better not to know so many things than to know so many things that are not so.” (Felix Okoye)
“That which has always been accepted by everyone, everywhere, is almost certain to be false.” (Paul Valery)
“Whatever the quality of my works may be, read them as if I were still seeking, and were not aware of the truth, and were seeking it obstinately, too.” (Seneca)
“The Greek word for philosopher (philosophos) connotes a distinction from sophos. It signifies the lover of wisdom (knowledge) as distinguished from him who considers himself wise in the possession of knowledge. This meaning of the word still endures: the essence of philosophy is not the possession of the truth but the search for truth…. Philosophy means to be on the way. Its questions are more essential than its answers, and every answer becomes a new question.” (Karl Jaspers)
“[Mankind] is capable of rectifying his mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion to show how experience is to be interpreted.” (Mill)
“Doubt is not a pleasant state of mind, but certainty is absurd.” (Voltaire)
“The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton)
“Without free speech no search for truth is possible… no discovery of truth is useful. Better a thousand-fold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial slays the life of the people.” (Charles Bradlaugh)
“Part of the beauty of prizing truth as a value is your ability to recognize the difference between fact and perception.” (Yvonne Bailey)
“He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties.” (Mill)
“Our culture of discussion in our region is to debate, to know the truth, and try to prove to the other one how they are mistaken — and it’s not really helpful. Listening compassionately can enable us to let the other person reveal and discover what is really there.” (Hagit Lifshitz)
“One is not morally free to investigate the truth of the Christian doctrine by means of reason; instead, one must believe uncritically or be condemned as immoral. A man is thus forced to choose between morality and truth, virtue and reason. The paragon of virtue, according to this view, is the man who refuses critically to evaluate his ideas—and one can scarcely imagine a more vicious form of irrationalism.” (George H. Smith)
“The real advantage which truth has, consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally found person to rediscover it, until some of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it.” (Mill)
“A truthful individual is one who is willing to appeal to others and constitute the meaning of his or her opinion through dialogue with them, thereby engaging with as many diverse doxai as possible, including those that are in opposition with her own and originating from different socio-economic classes, cultural and religious backgrounds, geographical areas, and so on.” (Hannah Arendt)
“The point of John Stewart Mill’s exposition is that the government, even when it represents the will of the people, has no right to stifle the expression of ideas, even false ideas, because the free expression of ideas is a value to society in general rather than to the speaker himself. It is from the free exchange of ideas that the truth will emerge; the role of falsehood is to serve as the background against which truth may be perceived.” (Harriet Pollack and Alexander B. Smith)
Conformity and obedience,
Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,
Makes slaves of men and of the human frame,
A mechanized automaton.
(Percy Bysshe Shelley)
“A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened.” (George Orwell)
“At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty — and thus a good unto itself — but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole.” (William H. Rehnquist)
“…most situations deserve to be viewed from many perspectives. Any one perspective on a situation, even if it is a totally valid perspective, reveals just a tiny bit of the truth of that situation. Additional valid perspectives reveal more.” (Copthorne Macdonald)
“In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it…. [H]e has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.” (Mill)
“A society is moving toward dangerous ground when loyalty to the truth is seen as disloyalty to some supposedly higher interest.” (Marilynne Robinson)
“In the real world, as opposed to the political world, ignorance isn’t strength. A leader who has the political power to pretend that he’s infallible, and uses that power to avoid ever admitting mistakes, eventually makes mistakes that are so large that they can’t be covered up.” (Paul Krugman)
“Doubt is the vestibule which all must pass before they can enter into the temple of truth.” (Charles Caleb Colton)
“For millennia of recorded history, the human spirit has been imprisoned by the fetters of androcracy [the ‘dominator cultural model’]. Our minds have been stunted, and our hearts have been numbed. And yet our striving for truth, beauty, and justice has never been extinguished. As we break out of these fetters, as our minds, hearts, and hands are freed, so also will be our creative imagination.” (Riane Eisler)
[i] On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill – A Norton Critical Edition. David Spitz, Editor. 1975. p. vii.
[ii] “The Roots of Liberty,” in Ruth N. Anshen, ed., Freedom: Its Meaning. 1940. p. 34.
[iii] “In Front of Your Nose,” in Tribune. 3/22/1946.
[iv] Gallup poll: “Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design.” https://news.gallup.com/poll/21814/evolution-creationism-intelligent-design.aspx