Montaigne, Truth, and the Scientific Method

The next reading on our list is Montaigne’s essay entitled “That It Is Folly to Measure the True and the False by Our Own Capacity.”

Montaigne begins this essay with what I think is some very sound advice and then detours into a very destrctive path. At the same time he shows us the need for the scientific method, and perhaps the need for formal rules of logic and evidence in the humanities.

At the beginning of the essay he begins with a very sonds premise: we should not judge the world only by our own experience and abilities. He warns us that it is too easy to be led astray either by a lack of experience or by a lack of context with which to make a good judgment.

“The more a mind is empty and without counterpoise, the more easily it gives beneath the weight of the first persuasive argument. That is why children, common people, women, and sick people are more subject to being led by the earrs. But then, on the other hand, it is foolish presumption to go around disdaining and condemning as false whatever does not seem likely to us; which is an ordinary vice in thos who think they have more than common ability.”

This is certainly true int he today’s world. In talking about public policy and politics, and even in some business cases, I have seen many people glom onto the first argument that makes sense and is easily digested. Then they refuse to let go in the face of conflicting evidence. They are like the people Montaigne describes when he says that “He who had never seen a river thought that the first one he came across was the ocean. And the things that are the greatest within our knowledge we judge to be the utmost that nature can do in that category.”

People tend to interpret things based on their own experience and often cannot see that their lives are not the same as everyone else’s life. It is a hard task to put yourself in someone else’s position, but it is a worthwhile exercise.

So, I am with Montaigne through this point. We should not take our personal experience to be the sum of the whole world. But, it is how he endeavors to solve this problem that causes me to break ranks with him.

Montaigne says that rather than relying on our own capacity, we ought to rely on outside authroities to guide us to the truth. In addressing this issue, Montaigne skips over lesser subjects and heads right to the discussion of miracles and the authority of the church.

“The great Saint Augustine testifies that he saw a blind child recover his sight upon the relics of Saint Gervase and Saint Protasius at Milan; a woman at Carthage cured of a cancer by the sign of the cross that a newly baptized woman made over her; Hesperius, a close friend of his, cast out the spirits that infested his house with a little earth from the sepulcher of Our Lord, and a paralytic promptly cured by this earth…and he reports other miracles at which he says he himself was present. Of what shall we accuse both him and two holy bishops, Aurelius and Maximinus, whom he call upon as his witnesses?…Is there any man in our time so impudent that he thinks himself comparable to them, either in virtue and piety or in learning, judgment, and ability?”

This is where Montaigne and I part ways. I am not for just letting things stand on authority and especially ancient authority. He writes, “We must either submirt completely to the authority of our ecclesiastical government, or do without it completely. It is not for us to decide what portion of obedience we owe it.”

As I said in my essay on Augustine, what bothers me about this kind of talk is that it abdicates personal responsibility. We need to have the test of conscience and faith to make sure we really believe what we say we believe and to make sure that it is right.

To that end, we need to have methods for testing ideas and finding truth. We need to be able to make judgments based on rules we understand and evidence we can gather. At that point, if there is something that we cannot figue out, then, perhaps, as Kierkegaard might suggest, we can make a movement of faith similar to what Abraham did when he took Isaac on a little walk.

But long before we start sacrificing our children, we had better make sure we have exhausted every other option. What Montaigne fails to do is find a way to make himself and the rest of us responsible for a least trying to judge the truth or falsehood of a statement or situation we face.

This is why I think a scientific method is so important. It gives us a repeatable way to test things and isolate variables. This way we can truly figure out what is the appropriate value to assign to a truth question and its possible answers. We define a problem or question as completely and specifically as we can. We research what else has been done to find an answer or solution. We create a hypothesis that we think answers the question. We devise an experiment with measurable results and controllable variables to test that hypothesis. We run the test, examine the data and come to a conclusion.

Even if we run across a situation outside of our realm of experience, we can use this method to start to understand it.

In the humanities, this method is more difficult to aply, but formal rules of logic and rules on evidence should help us test ideas and develop a greater understanding of the question we are faced with. For example, in the case of the miracles, can we find any other evidence or writings about these miracles? Can we find any detractors or counter-reports? Can we find any evidence to say that the authority offering us the ‘truth’ has a stake in what truth we believe.

My belief is that a simple apeal to authority is not enough. We need to examine, test, and understand for ourselves, or we will never truly experience anything.

“All this is a dream. Still examine it by a few experiments.” — Michael Faraday


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