False is the New True

Truth is what you want others to believe.

Posted Jul 23, 2017

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Source: public domain

I recently published a scholarly paper in a philosophy journal.  The instructions to authors for this journal were surprising: basically, the editors did not want to publish papers with the words “real” and “true” in them. Also banned were “reality,” “truth,” and their opposites “false” and “not real.”  I thought, “Surely they are pulling my leg.”  Nope.  All uses of “true,” “false,” and their derivatives were banned.  Really and truly.  The editors insisted, for example, that the term “real” really just means “meaningful” or “genuine.”  (This all made for a long editing process.  A couple of times the editors insisted that it was true that “real” means “meaningful.”  The logician in me struggled not to yell.)

I was...quite surprised.  No science journal ever does anything like this: “Dear Author: Please don’t use the terms “real” and “true” to describe how your theory and experiments fit the world.”  Of course, new scientific theories are hedged.  But old established ones are true. The theory of evolution is true, not meaningful or genuine. (It’s not clear what those words even mean when discussing evolutionary theory.)

Now, most philosophy journals do not ban “real” and “true.” Explicitly. But it is universal “best practice” nowadays not to use the words “true” and “real” except very sparingly.  All modern philosophy books and papers hedge their claims:  “X seems true,” “Y is real, to the relevant class of people” and so on...

What the heck has happened to truth?

Diversity, for one thing.  We are all waking up to the fact that there are over 7 billion other humans on the planet—all with their own points of view of everything imaginable. Agreement is rare; disagreement is very common. And humans are not the only inhabitants of Earth that matter.  So there are literally trillions of points of view on Earth—at least!

But, as they always do, philosophers over-reacted—they took this diversity thing and injected it with steroids. This resulted the movement called Postmodernism.  Postmodernism was a mid-to-late-20th century, mostly European intellectual movement.  In essence, it was an “incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, 1979).

“Incredulity towards metanarratives” is fancy philosophy speak for not believing that the history of human culture makes any sense in the long term. There is no long-term march towards justice, or Enlightenment (of the kind extolled in the 18th century here and in Europe). There is no long-term march toward progress, not even scientific progress. Our lives are not getting better...or worse; our lives are just our lives.

I hurriedly point out to my kind reader that “incredulity towards metanarratives” is a metanarrative! So the Posties (as they are playfully called by those who hate Postmodernism) are in fact just as much in love with metanarratives as the great metanarrative philosophers: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant.  So, Postmodernism is flatly contradictory—and not in a good way.  My inner logician has long desired to point this out in print.

What the Postmodernist philosophers concluded was that humankind comprises a plurality of points of view, a plurality of stories (narratives) that have various connections of various strengths to each other, and that all of them were equally deserving of high respect and of guiding policy.  In short, philosophers concluded that all these myriad stories were...true!

Well, to paraphrase what they say in the wonderful movie The Incredibles: If everything is true, then nothing is. Not even science, not even “the fact” that you have a body. The Postmodernists were happy with that.

The result: Relativism—the idea that all points of view are correct, true, real.

I know, I know...you’re saying: No one takes philosophy seriously. You say that, but in fact you take it very seriously. And philosophy is so foundational that when it rocks the boat, every one feels it.  At this point, it is not clear whether Postmodernism was born from everyone’s felt need to embrace diversity, or whether everyone’s felt need to embrace diversity resulted from Postmodernism’s subtle influences behind the scenes.  Probably, it was both—in some sort of feedback loop.

I have personally known philosophers who claimed that, if they had some terrible disease, they’d be indifferent between going to the Mayo Clinic or going to someone who practiced only indigenous/folk medicine.

This all resulted in major pushback from the scientists and other Truth-champions.  A major salvo come from Allan Bloom’s famous book The Closing of the American Mind (1987).  Bloom argued that relativism—especially at American colleges and universities, where it is rampant—was destroying American democracy.  Democracy doesn’t mean everyone is right, it means that everyone is treated fairly and justly.

However, like a bioweapon, the contagion of Relativism continued to spread.  Inoculations against it and treatments for it weren’t working.  Today, scientists and others who love Truth have a major fight on their hands—and they are losing.  The American Association of Science, in the journal Science, in several items every week frantically points out how wrong the path we are on is.

So philosophers have blood on their hands.

How did we get from the relativism of the late 20th century to lying in the 21st?  Easy. Relativism says truth is relative to individuals. Truth therefore becomes inexpensive.  It is everywhere abundant. It is not some hard-won kernel of knowledge. It is just what you believe. It is now an easy step from “Truth is what you believe” to “Truth is what you want to believe” and then, finally, to “Truth is what you want others to believe.”

Let’s set that off:

Truth is what you want others to believe.

Other people are just iron fillings to be aligned in your direction.

It turns out there are several books on the topic of treating people as iron fillings to be magnetically pulled in the direction of the "truth."  A particularly good one is 1984 by George Orwell.  And Orwell was very clear: Treating people as mere iron fillings is immoral.  But in this age, you will say this is my truth, it is true only for me. 

This deplorable situation is not only philosophy’s fault. Others also have blood on their hands. There are the usual suspects: Racists, sexists, the religious who hate science, fanatics, and the power-hungry...to name but a few. And, as we've just seen, there are the unusual suspects: the relativist philosophers.

So philosophy is crucially implicated in our modern era where False is the new True and lying is ascendant.  And not just lying, but audacious lying (e.g., the Earth is 6000 years old; global warming is a Chinese hoax).  Philosophy has blood on its hands.

As everyone knows, the year 1984 was nothing like the book 1984, where War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength (the doublethink “truths” the superstate, Oceania, is based on). But it does look like we are on track for 2084.