Followers of my religious tradition are fond of saying: I know the church is true. While the passion behind this sentiment reflects the greatest strength in religious devotion, it also reveals a great weakness. To me, labeling an article of faith as factual or self-evident is, at best, dishonest. At worst, an inability to examine personal convictions—whether political, religious, scientific, or otherwise—seems dangerous. The result is akin to letting home team fans referee ballgames: To them, the opposition fouls every change of possession and there’s nothing you can do to convince them otherwise.
People once believed Euclidean geometry to be an accurate description of the world and that its elegant symmetry reflected the mind of God. For a millennium it was deemed absolute and without need of improvement. Then suddenly the mathematical world was turned upside down. One of geometry’s underlying postulates—the one about parallel lines never intersecting—was found to be untrue once curved space was brought into the picture. Logicians everywhere were devastated. What did the discovery mean to the body of work they’d considered flawless? Was the entire bridgework of proof and reasoning corrupted?
Out of the ensuing period of doubt and introspection emerged some of the most important developments in the history of mathematics, including the creation of new geometries that were based on differing sets of axioms. Had it not been for these advancements, Einstein would have lacked the basis for modeling curved space, which was necessary to his General Theory of Relativity. Euclidean geometry, too, was strengthened by an improved understanding of its limitations.
In this way, true learning begins by questioning the past. Concepts such as faith, idea, hypothesis and goal have far more to do with uncertainty than knowing anything is true. Once a set of beliefs is deemed beyond reproach, each follower becomes a swaggering apologist, who must force new experience and discovery into a sometimes tortured conformity with the worldview. Any learning that can’t be made to fit is rejected without consideration.
We can learn from children in this regard. They are capable of tremendous growth, in part, because their favorite word is: Why? On one of those rare days, when time was less scarce than gold, I decided to follow my son, Matthew, on a walk. With virtually every step he took, the earth seemed to beckon and ask him to speculate a prior chain of events. Suddenly I saw through his eyes and became fascinated again with a world I’d thought I had figured out. Perhaps children understand what most adults have forgotten—that the particle of faith that is the source of our passion lies in a treasure-filled sea of uncertainty from which there is much to discover. Their insatiable curiosity and ability to say, “I don’t know,” is more powerful than the collected wisdom of generations.
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