We live, or so we’re told, in an “information society,” where knowledge-creation and trading is a principal industry. It is customary now to rely on experts who tell us what to do and, frequently enough, perform those activities for us. Modern existence means going to doctors, teachers, religious leaders, therapists, lawyers, and tax preparers. Other job-holders repair our cars, fix our plumbing and air-conditioning systems, and guide our exercise routines. It is presumed that such people know much more about the activity-in-question than we do. That is the reason we pay them. As part of the bargain, we expect them to discharge their duties “professionally,” that is, to adhere to the published standards of their occupations, treat us courteously, and be honest with us in their descriptions and assessments.
We make similar assumptions about those who present us with more public forms of information – scientists, academicians, government officials, jurists, and journalists. We assume these people are doing their jobs with integrity. At least that is what we have assumed in the past.
In recent years, however, there has been heightened suspicion about the truthfulness - and thus the motives - of those dispensers of public information. The information society is accused of spreading disinformation. In some quarters, well-substantiated scientific understandings – global warming and the evolution of species come to mind - are doubted. Easily verified historical occurrences – such as the Holocaust or the Sandy Hook school massacre – are “denied.” Public figures are accused not simply of misrepresenting information but of “being,” in a characterological sense, “liars.” Terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news” are bandied about. Putting the matter extremely, we seem to be on the precipice of a “post-truth” era.
This essay is about such matters. More precisely, it addresses the issue of how people feel they “know” things – and about the now clouded connection between facts and their interpretation. Final comments suggest reasons why this has occurred.
What are “facts”? The 1950’s television drama Dragnet centered on the crime-solving of Los Angeles police detective Joe Friday and his associates. Inevitably, when Friday was interviewing someone about an incident, that teller would start to embellish or ramble. Then Friday would interrupt, “Just the facts.” Presumably, there are “real” things that go on in the world. Presumably also there are statements that describe accurately and directly - and in a way that most of us can understand – those happenings. “Yesterday, at 3:00 PM local time a certain man entered a certain room.” “There are 6 people seated just now in the front row of this auditorium.” “My mother died three weeks ago.”
Science centers on the systematic collection and analysis of facts. In the scientific view, worldly happenings acquire a certain status when we are able to register them by means of our senses, either directly (through sight, touch, taste, smell, or hearing) or indirectly (through the outputs of some instrument). Our readings of occurrences are deemed factual when they are “reliable” (that is, when other people using the same instruments in the same ways as ourselves make the same observations) and when they are “valid” (that is, when they describe actual events that may be verified in other, relatively “objective” ways). Stated simply, scientists believe it is possible to systematically record verifiable information about the goings-on of the world and to share this information openly. That information is the basis of theories about how the world works. When facts contradict theories, it is the theories that must be changed.
Few of us are scientists; we tend not to measure the world so precisely or systematically. Still most of us want a world where we can agree with other people about what has – and hasn’t – happened. These assessments should not be just shared opinions or musings. They should be descriptions that other people would also make if they had been observing as we were.
Truth is something much deeper and farther reaching. It expresses our general understandings of how the world works, that is, what it is and what it means. It expresses our belief that the world is a knowable place with relatively stable patterns that are accessible to people like us. Truth links objective goings-on with subjective experience. When we pledge to “tell the truth” in a court of law (and perhaps “the whole truth and nothing but the truth”), our vow is to produce statements that correspond to beliefs we actually hold.
Where do these feelings of certainty – and of consistency between behaviors and understandings – come from?
Consider first the idea that truth has different bases or “sources.” And those sources sometimes lead to contradictory conclusions.
A first of these is authority. Many statements we accept because a person we respect (or who is in a position we respect) says they are true. In that spirit, we listen to our doctors, teachers, religious leaders, and coaches.
A second source is tradition. Many things are believed because they’ve always been believed, or so we think. Great myths about the origins and destinies of countries and peoples are of this sort. So is folk wisdom about all manner of things – the causes and cures of various health conditions, the characteristics of different “kinds” of peoples, and so forth
There is also intuition. Some beliefs are consonant with deep feelings we have. That sense of rightness eludes our ability to comprehend it. As Pascal famously put it, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” So inspired we commit to our very private sense that there is – or isn’t – a God. We declare that we are “in love,” or decide that what we feel isn’t quite enough.
Fourth is common sense. Our experiences of practical, everyday affairs are important to our understandings of how the world operates – and to our judgment that other people are being straight with us. By such criteria, we decide that an advertisement promises a deal that is just “too good to be true.” We reject an ordinary-looking person’s claim that they are a top model. Such judgments come from the trials-and-errors of living, and from sharing information with other people who have lived through similar circumstances. In that latter sense, our beliefs are “common.”
Fifth is logic. The logical person believes that he or she can proceed to truth by following correct processes of reasoning. If we start with certain premises, then we can appropriately deduce certain conclusions. “If all bears are animals, and Joe is a bear, then Joe is certainly an animal.” Knowing Joe is an animal does not mean, however, that he is a bear. Some of the greatest philosophers and theologians have tried to comprehend the world is such ways. And the rest of us use less exalted forms of logic to reach our own conclusions.
Sixth, and last, is science. As already discussed, science tests the truth of propositions by systematically collecting “facts.” There is a real world that moves ahead on its own terms. We trust our sense-based perceptions of it. But only if other people are experiencing it in a like way. In that spirit, we record and count.
Why list these sources? Because people – all of us – use these different standards to determine what is “real” and “true.” We may have extreme difficulty separating ourselves from beliefs we’ve learned from those we trust and or from conclusions we feel in our “hearts,” or otherwise viscerally. Most of us share the “common sense” of our friends. Wisdom, for most of us, is collective.
Information about the world – including our perceptions of it – gets fitted to these standards. All too often, we cannot move on to important new understandings without destroying, or so it seems to us, the foundations of our lives. It might mean abandoning friends and family members. Nor do many of us apologize for our guiding beliefs. As the Declaration of Independence begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident ….” These are the “starting points” of our lives. Changing seems to renounce who we proudly are.
Even the circumspect scientist is influenced by beliefs. So guided, only some topics are addressed. Certain matters are thought to be “problems” while others go unacknowledged. Some categories of people receive more attention than others as subjects of study. Some “facts” seem to fit certain theories and are emphasized for that reason. Careers are made by pursuing certain lines of research, commonly supported by funding agencies. Only people of the fairest minds can renounce their wrong directions.
For such reasons, many of us do not choose to listen to dissonant information. We fit experience to our pre-established ideas. When cherished beliefs are threatened, we demonize our accusers.
Again, no one should await an apology from us for our truculence. For often, we will simply switch standards to find one that best supports our current understandings and lines-of- action. After all, appeals to authority, tradition, intuition, common sense, logic, and science are rather different things. Most of us can come up with something that justifies our sense of “truth.”
A similar way of thinking about this is to list the four standards that have guided philosophical inquiry through the centuries, effectively, the pursuit of truth, justice, beauty, and utility. Truth can be seen as a quest for “right” or “correct” reasoning and communicating, for describing the world as it is. Justice denotes our commitment to “right” behaviors and relationships. How “should” the world be? Beauty focuses on “right,” even sublime, feelings. As Keats put it, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty ….” And utility concerns itself with courses of action that advance the “interests” of ourselves and those we care about. Actions may be “right” in that sense. All of these patterns express “consonance” between worldly occurrences and our own standards.
Should we say that each of these quests produces its own type of truth? Let philosophers wrangle about that. The rest of us should simply acknowledge that there are quite different criteria by which we feel something to be “good,” “correct,” “proper,” or “right.” And those standards profoundly affect our life-choices and perceptions of reality. Few of us choose to run away from home, abuse drugs, quit our jobs, and so forth for logical or scientific reasons. We do these things because we feel – at least at the moment of their doing – that we must.
Acknowledging that we have these sometimes contradictory standards does not mean that we should be allowed to do whatever we want. Something that “feels right” may be morally improper. Lying to a potential employer (untruthfulness) may allow us to get the job we want (utility). Instead, acknowledging simply means acknowledging, that is, being honest with ourselves about what is we’re doing and why we cling to the particular view that supports this.
Outdated morality is dangerous. So is aesthetic indulgence. Cognitive correctness – “let me be absolutely frank with you – is often inapt. Very problematic is the mix of practicality with conceptions of the “right.” On such a basis, life becomes little more than a trail of situational self-justification, adjustments to whatever advantages we seek at that instant.
It is important also that we not glorify our own standards, to the detriment of other people’s. We may live in a defiantly “psychological” age, but narrow self-involvement is inadequate to the challenges we face. A gaudy subjectivism does no one, not even its possessor, any favors.
That view – “my understandings are the only ones that matter” – is especially dangerous when it is held by those in positions of power. For it signifies someone who will not, perhaps cannot, listen. And the pronouncements that result are consequential for other people’s lives. The poor man damages a few; the rich and powerful man damages millions.
None of the issues just discussed is new. All are results of the human condition, which includes the ability to envision the world in different ways. But some of the themes – especially the glorification of subjective experience and its linkage with practical “personal” interests seem to have found new energy in recent decades. From those stations – often encampments with similarly situated others - permission is granted to denounce others as liars and fools.
Some of this new suspiciousness is a consequence of a much broader cultural transformation, one that academics commonly call the shift from “modern” to “post-modern” culture. Modernism, the dominant tradition extending from the Renaissance to contemporary times, celebrated the possibilities of universal knowledge. People were thought to be fundamentally the same, whatever their earthly settings or patterns of practice. Public knowledge-creation and sharing - especially by science and formal logic – was idealized. People found their places under huge “tents.”
Less happily, modernism also meant the growth of large organizations - particularly governments, schools, churches, and businesses - which regulated people’s access to information and thus their life-opportunities. Colonialism, in both its foreign and domestic varieties, was one outcome. Despite modernism’s glowing pronouncements, many categories of people were blocked from full citizenship. That is to say, some stood at the center of the tents and others at their edges. Often, the marginalized ones were prevented from realizing the extent of their disadvantage. And even when they knew of this, it was difficult for them to express their concerns in political action.
Much of this changed with the de-centering of human connection that has resurfaced in contemporary times. “Society” now has less specified boundaries. The same can be said of “culture.” The information society, now as a global phenomenon, has opened. New forms of media, especially interlinked computers and cable television outlets, have changed the possibilities of knowing. Ideas flow more freely now.
Much of this is a wonderful thing. But it also means that discontent can be expressed more freely, and frequently anonymously. Communities-of-discourse, composed of people who may never meet in person, are formed. Media outlets, hungry for the advertising revenue connected to viewer ratings, craft their pitches to these socially and politically segmented audiences. Everyone, or so it seems, wants “followers.”
The effect of such processes to celebrate “difference,” not just of social circumstance but also of political perspective. The lonely malcontent is no more. For he can find a thousand soulmates at the click of a keystroke or touchpad.
Again, community-building, in this or some other form, is a fine thing. But it is dangerous when these gatherings are essentially “communities-of-complaint.” We – and our unseen supporters – now find it easy to justify our own politically-articulated worldview by denouncing others. We rise as they fall. Such is the logic of the clever jibe, unflattering photo, bit of gossip, or pernicious insult.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift satirized the war that erupted between those who opened their soft-boiled eggs at the big end and those who opened them at the little. Our differences are, of course greater than that. But they express a similar spirit of intransigence and defiance. Clearly, we operate with different standards of truth that harden into fixed “positions.” We must subject those standards – our own as well as others’ – to scrutiny.
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