In light of recent events, many have argued that we are currently living in a “post-truth” era. The mainstream media’s focus on compelling narratives over facts, the celebrity and election of Donald Trump, and the birth of “fake news” all suggest that this claim has some basis in reality.
The irony, of course, is that the post-modern rejection of truth (not just absolute truth, but truth generally) among liberal academic circles and universities has helped to precipitate and exacerbate this problem. In a world that accepts “alternative facts,” the concept of truth and its importance for human civilization is always devalued.
If we are all welcome to our own “truth,” how can we possibly construct an educated, stable, and productive society? How can we have meaningful interactions or solve difficult social and political issues if we can’t agree on the nature of our reality and lived experiences?
What kind of a society are we building which accepts the truth of the gang member’s conviction that they are justified in shooting the police as well as the police officer’s conviction that they have a right to shoot unarmed suspects? How can we possibly achieve ecological and economic sustainability if the opponents and proponents of global warming and free-market capitalism are equally right?
Although there is no absolute truth to help us navigate the moral and scientific darkness of our world, this does not mean that we should stop pursuing scientific and moral truth altogether. God may be dead, as Nietzsche proclaimed, but God was just a placeholder for something higher and grander, just as tyrannies were placeholders for liberal democracies.
To stop asking questions or pursuing truth now would be like scientists refusing to look for cures for cancer because disease still dominates our world. The inability to know anything with absolute certainty, like the inability to cure all diseases, shouldn’t diminish our desire to know the truth; it should strengthen and embolden it.
For this reason, I think it’s high time we had a second Enlightenment – a return to the value of truth and the application of reason in private, public, and academic discourse. We should do this in not only to rediscover the value of truth and its effects on our own lives, but to promote a more rational and humane society for all people.
Although some people like to associate reason and science with the history of European imperialism and colonization, it’s also important to remember that reason and science were also responsible for liberating Europe from the depths of the Dark Ages, giving birth to humanism, liberal education, and to the liberal principles which form the foundation of democratic societies.
Therefore, we can no more blame reason for its use by unethical societies than we can blame all of religion for the dogmatism that brought us the inquisition and the crusades. Reason and belief are merely tools, which, when put into capable hands can accomplish amazing feats, and when put into incapable hands, can lead to bloody atrocities. Still, this has not kept some people from trying to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
Richard Rorty, a prominent Postmodernist philosopher, has his own alternative definition of truth which he applies to both to ethical and non-ethical systems of thought. For Rorty, truth is nothing more than “an intersubjective agreement between members of a community” for the purpose of establishing group solidarity (Geuras 53). In other words, truth is merely whatever a group of people agree to be true.
On the surface, this idea seems to make sense. After all, academic circles, civil rights organizations, political parties, and democratic societies all agree that they possess some kind of shared “truth” relative to their group which excludes other groups. The problem, of course, is that the ability for groups of people to reach agreements about ideas does not make those ideas true any more than wishing for Santa Claus to be real will make him climb down the chimney and appear in your living room.
After all, we know that the “truth” about black people agreed upon by the KKK is not on par with the “truth” among the scientific community regarding biology and genetics. We also know that the moral “truth” of Ted Bundy is not equivalent to the moral “truth” possessed by Tibetan monks who preach compassion.
However, Rorty would argue that because neither the white supremacist nor the scientist can establish the absolute truth of their claims, they must both be equally right or equally wrong; or at the very least, we cannot really know who is really right or wrong. In order to illustrate the absurdity of this position, let’s think about a experience shared by all human beings: the sensation of pain.
Unless you are a robot, you know that pain is something that people experience. In fact, people tend to have an “intersubjective agreement” about the phenomenon of pain and what it entails. We also know that groups of people tend to experience varying degrees of pain, and tend to categorize degrees of pain ranging from mild to severe. For human beings there is a recognition of a “truth” regarding pain, although this “truth” is neither objective nor absolute.
We cannot, for a fact, prove that the sensation of pain exists in any real sense, independently of our experience of it. We simply observe our own sensations, observe the reactions of others, and draw a logical correlation between the two. While it’s true that we can use neuroscience to map where pain occurs in the brain and explain how pain is tied to the central nervous system which sends messages to it, none of these things can show us what pain is really like. They only show us how something related to the feeling of pain operates within the brain.
To say that a brain scan can give someone an accurate idea of the “truth” about the sensation of pain would be like saying that observing a massive release of dopamine in someone else’s brain can give the observer an accurate idea of what it feels like to be in love. In other words, pain is ultimately a subjective experience that is felt by individuals, but which is negotiated and confirmed by other people who presumably have minds and can also feel pain.
According to Rorty, because there is no objective or absolute truth regarding the sensation of pain, our subjective experiences of pain and the degrees of pain we experience are no more true than Santa Claus. However, I want to argue here that this whole idea of “absolute truth,” like the idea of “good in itself” or “knowledge for its own sake,” is incoherent to begin with.
To say that an idea is absolutely true or objectively true regardless of what minds think about it is just as incoherent as saying that something is objectively valuable regardless of what values we ascribe to it. In the case of both science and morality, our knowledge hinges upon the evidence we have before us, and on our ability to use our reason to construct accurate models which make sense of that evidence.
To talk about absolute truth as a kind of “knowledge in itself” which is independent of minds, scientific models, reason, or evidence, but which somehow stands alone, completely impervious to the influx of new knowledge, is to talk about an absurd concept. It is like asking someone to conceptualize and draw a square circle or to suggest that Chomksy’s semantically meaningless sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” has some kind of deep semantic meaning which is both profound and useful.
The idea of something being “absolutely true,” like the idea of a behavior being “objectively wrong,” is mistaken because it reverses the relationship between subject and object while obscuring the causal chain from observation to evaluation.
In the same way David Hume argued centuries ago that moral evaluations regarding murder (i.e.“Murder is wrong”) are nothing more than an expression of our individual and collective dislike for murder (albeit, a rational one); when we make factual evaluations such as “Evolution is true,” all we are really saying is that the evidence we have available to us suggests that reality appears to behave in a way consistent with the models we’ve constructed to understand it.
Another problem with Rorty’s stance regarding truth – or rather the rejection of truth – is that he bases it on a fallacious either/or premise that can be summed up thusly: if there is no objective, absolute truth (which we’ve already shown to be a meaningless term), then we have to choose between relativism and ethnocentrism.
But why should this be so? When has our inability to know the whole of something meant that we have to abandon all attempts to study and understand it? Also, why does a rejection of absolute truth mean that we have to abandon assigning value to moral and scientific models just because nothing can ever be fully known or understood? If we applied this type of reasoning to science and philosophy, our understanding of the universe and our relative place within it would be permanently stuck in the bronze age.
Clearly, if Rorty practiced what he preached, he would have to admit he has no real business being in a university, or even in education for that matter. After all, why ask questions or research anything if you will never know the real “truth” about the answer? Why bother teaching students if your “truth” is just as good as the mentally-ill vagrant that shouts the “truth” of the impending apocalypse on the street corner?
Not only is Rorty wrong about truth, but I argue that he doesn’t understand what truth is. There is no “Truth” with a capital “T,” but only approximate “truths” which are nevertheless qualitatively distinguishable from each other. As we discussed earlier, the “truths” based on evidence, reason, and consensus are always more accurate and meaningful than “truths” based solely on feelings, lack of evidence, and lack of consensus.
Truth is not some kind of independent standard that falls from the sky, nor is it an emergent property of the universe that is “out there” to be discovered. Rather, truth is – for us, for those who came before us, and for those who will come after us – the best educated guess at the way reality works given the tools and resources available.
When the Enlightenment killed the anthropomorphic, vengeful, and racist deity of the Old Testament, we had to find better models of negotiating appropriate human behavior. When Copernicus presented the heliocentric model of the solar system, we had to re-think our place in the universe. Our realization that there is no “Truth,” like others, is just one more step forward on the long, winding path of human progress.