Ideas

Truth and Its Consequences

We know less than we think. How we deal with that determines who we are

Published by
Martin Gurri

Let me be blunt: Truth, for the human animal, is always partial, temporary and local. We never attain the “whole truth”—eyewitness testimony is notoriously faulty. Rather, truth comes to us in bits and fragments, like a jigsaw puzzle with most pieces missing. As we learn new facts and with time shift our point of view, truth alters its aspect. That process never ends. Finally, truth is dependent of the level of analysis: It appears wholly different through the lens of the atom collider than it does through that of the Webb telescope. We earth-bound creatures can hold no conception of what truth must look like to an immense universal being.

Because we are symbolic as well as biological animals, we find truth’s imperfections difficult to accept. It goes against logic. A proposition that is partial and is soon to be overthrown feels like an error. Truth—complete accordance with reality—must be one and eternal. This craving for wholeness in human experience eventually inspires a desperate maneuver: Truth is removed from earth to a higher sphere. For Plato, the world of objects was a flitting shadow on a cave wall; reality could be found only in the realm of perfect and unchanging forms. The great world religions, like Christianity, have made a similar move. Truth abides in heaven while doubt torments earthly life. The result is a curious but all-too-human inversion, whereby the attainment of truth now demands an act of faith.

Truth and the Scientific Ideal

The pursuit of objective truth without regard for consequences has been a persistent ideal in the Western tradition, starting with the Socrates of the “Apology”—that relentless “gadfly” for whom “the unexamined life is not worth living”—all the way to Anthony Fauci, who has claimed “I represent science.” Socrates went serenely to his death on behalf of this ideal. Fauci is retiring just in case the Republicans take over Congress. Evidently, for Fauci, as for most of us, truth is only one of many values in the balance of a human life—more on that later.

The scientific ideal presents many difficulties. As Charles Taylor has observed, to study the world “objectively” our perspective must be reduced to that of a geometric point, abstracted from all objects. Yet we, too, are objects in the world and of the world. For scientists to deny this fact causes no greater harm than a professional deformation, like the oversize arm of the tennis player. But for an entire civilization to adopt this perspective, as ours has done for at least a century, can lead to mass psychoses and delusions—the opposite of truth.

When can we be certain that science has delivered truth? Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, maintains that we can never be certain. Popper’s science is simply a fruitful way of organizing uncertainty. Since we can’t exist in perpetual doubt, we make best guesses, call them “hypotheses,” and push forward by trial and error. The accumulated knowledge works fine to send a manned spaceship to Mars, not so much if you need to know the “truth” about the best approach to immigration or abortion.

Thomas Kuhn, author of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” has a somewhat different take on the matter. Kuhn agrees with Popper that the grand explanatory “paradigms” of science, like Einstein’s theory of relativity, can never explain all the phenomena involved. They suffer from gaps, contradictions, “problems.” New research may multiply the problems and place the paradigm in crisis, until someone proposes a new paradigm. But how do scientists weigh the truth value of competing paradigms?

At this point, Kuhn breaks off in an interesting direction. To embrace a new paradigm, he writes, scientists “must have faith” that it “will succeed with the many large problems that confront it, knowing only that the older paradigm has failed with a few. A decision of that kind,” Kuhn concludes, “can only we made on faith.” If so, the progress of science must be viewed as a twisting, turning trail rather than the superhighway exiting Plato’s cave.

Truth and Information Systems

Truth can’t be “socially constructed”—but social truth is always constructed. Reality is hard. If I jump in front of a speeding truck, I can’t socially construct myself out of being flattened. But social reality is mediated. Its truth depends on our acceptance: a condition philosopher John Searle describes as “ontologically subjective but epistemically objective.” A dollar is only a paper rectangle until I exchange it for the value of a dollar. On our wedding day, nothing changed in the chemical composition (“ontologically”) of my wife or me, but everyone agreed (“epistemically”) that we were well and truly married. Most institutional relations are settled this way—it’s how we answer questions like “Can the government really take my money in taxes?” or “Is Joe Biden, in fact, the president?”

Since modern society is highly mediated, it is possible for our shaky grasp on truth to be bandaged over. All it takes is a strong consensus on basic principles and public trust in the authorities—that is, in the mediating class. I was born into such an Eden. It was called the 20th century. During savage ideological conflicts that included two world wars and a Cold War, Americans felt an existential need to band together around essentials and push doubt aside. Republicans and Democrats disagreed about little of substance. Ideology itself fell out of favor: Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972 endured landslide defeats because they were perceived to be too stuck on their own principles. We preferred technocrats who relied on science and know-how. Our heroes were people like Jonas Salk and Neil Armstrong, who mastered the natural world in different ways. There were few mysteries in this era: Impressively credentialed elites were happy to explain everything from the “new industrial state” to the meaning of détente.

The old regime rested on an information system that was top-down and “authoritative”—meaning, “I talk, you listen.” The digital age has ripped off the bandage and exposed what Marx might have called our “real relations” to the truth. We can’t avoid seeing that it’s partial, temporary, local. As we gaze into the abyss of our own ignorance, social and institutional bonds have begun to melt into thin air, and something akin to a cosmic panic has gripped large numbers of otherwise normal people. For the public, it’s the horror of a vacuum and the old craving for wholeness. For the elites, who are now distrusted and dethroned, it’s the desire to regain control.

That urge explains much about our moment. Media “fact-checkers” are not concerned with checking facts but with regaining epistemic control. The politics of climate change are not about the climate but about generating a crisis atmosphere to abort contrary opinions. The obsession with race and sex is not about oppressed victims but about silencing dissent by the application of moralistic pressure. The fever dream is to return to a simulation of the 20th century, with the right people once again in charge—yet, plainly, this isn’t a cure but another symptom of the sickness of truth in our time.

“Post-truth” is the inevitable consequence of information overabundance. For every fact, there is a counter-fact. For every assertion, there is a refutation. A desolate information landscape is shaken by billions of screaming voices, as the human need for recognition turns against itself and nullifies itself. Steve Fuller considers “post-truth conditions” to be more democratic and market-like than the elite-controlled system of the last century. Fuller is right in one respect: The guardian class is in panicked retreat and its monopoly hold over the narrative has been lost forever. But what is left behind looks less like a democratic assembly than a void, a nothingness, in the shadow of which obscure oracles and barbaric war-bands have sought to dominate.

Our disputes are no longer about the interpretation of reality but about the very frameworks of interpretation. Every attribute, even “democratic” and “market-like,” is framework-dependent—and how are we to judge between competing frameworks? Decisions of that kind, Kuhn informs us, can only be made on faith. And how are we investing the wonderful human capacity for belief? The antifa believe that the United States is a new version of Nazi Germany. The disciples of QAnon believe that the federal government is controlled by a ring of pederasts. Black Lives Matter activists believe that slavery and Jim Crow never ended. It is, quite literally, impossible to judge, but let me offer my opinion that these professions aren’t acts of faith but of anti-faith, of nihilism—a surrender to nothingness and the void.

Truth Against Life

This may be the proper place to bring up a question first raised by Nietzsche: Is truth at war with life? For all his irony, Nietzsche was an extreme Romantic who exalted strength and the instincts as the “will to power”—the great myth-making impulse that engendered meaning and dignity both for a civilization and the individual. To this end he opposed the “will to truth,” which he held to be cold, rational, instinct-denying and myth-destroying. That was the particular disease of the Western world, which “proposes as its ideal the theoretical man equipped with the greatest forces of knowledge, and laboring in the service of science, whose archetype and progenitor is Socrates.” The rise of theoretical man meant the death of the Christian God and a paralytical incapacity to pursue any other high ideal. The examined life, in that sense, was the affirmation of decadence and death.

Is truth at war with life? Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882. Photo by Gustav-Adolf Schultze

Such notions may sound paradoxical, if not preposterous, to a modern hipster, but I make it an iron rule always to take Nietzsche seriously. Consider: Science is a neutral method, not a value system. It’s not by coincidence that scientists served monsters like Hitler and Stalin with as much loyalty and brilliance as they have dedicated to democracy. Heroic materialism as a way of life, which science ordains, typically degenerates into hedonism—the love of money and things. Obsessive self-examination leads directly to the mirror of Narcissus. A society built on self-worship has no conceivable future.

But still … to choose a life of fantasy or error, confusing up with down and evil with good, is to erect your home on the edge of the chasm: Come the first strong wind and it will topple. Our relationship to the great myths is, to put it mildly, an enormously complicated subject, and I don’t intend to deny that the master narratives of religion and community are in the midst of an extinction event. Nevertheless, there is, in all of this, a crucial element of personal volition, and William James was right to observe that even a broken culture like ours places before the individual mind a large number of transcendent possibilities, on which we may exercise our will to believe. Socrates himself, precursor of theoretical man, confessed to us in the “Apology” that he heard and obeyed the voice of God.

The opposition of truth and life sets up a false choice. The fundamental question concerns priorities: whether life should serve truth or truth should serve life. Maybe I’m missing something, but I think the question answers itself. A society that places truth above all human values—love, family, decency, tolerance, dignity—would resemble the most fanatical kind of theocracy. Furthermore, it would be corrupted from the first. Power would appropriate truth, truth would be bent to serve power and, following the blueprint of Plato’s “Republic,” the official narrative would end by sanctifying the “noble lie.”

It strikes me as self-evident that truth is, and ought to be, the servant of life. That’s the arrow of causation for human evolution. We may wonder why we haven’t evolved to be receptacles of perfect knowledge, each of us a philosopher-king. But what would be the point? Our heads would be stuffed with data but we wouldn’t be more likely to survive in a dangerous and haphazard world—possibly less.

There is a difference between truth and conception, between knowing and understanding. The riddle of existence is solved by each individual with a variable mix of fact and faith. You don’t need a college degree to become a moral exemplar. An untutored person can be a devoted spouse and an excellent parent. Conversely, we have before us an endless parade of experts who turn out to be bullies or sexual predators, on the model of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein.

Since most authors are weighed down with intellectual credentials, they tend to overvalue the accumulation and regurgitation of data, making this the gold standard of the information sphere. But, as a general proposition, the amount of truth needed for a good life is yet another of life’s baffling uncertainties.

Truth and Analysis

No doubt the cleverest of my readers have figured out by now that I am not a disinterested party in this discussion. I’m an analyst. I, too, am a regurgitator of stuff. My association with the truth is mainly negative: I live in terror of conveying falsehood. I wish I could say that I have devised a mathematical formula or computer model that delivers infallibility on demand. Socrates’ personal divinity, we are told, at least warned him off from error. All I can do is what every analyst since the dawn of time has done, check and cross-check, over and again, leaving me wide open to the illusion that an opinion shared by 100 random sources must be equal to the truth. That’s the trap I fear the most.

The analyst is not the guy who will storm the mountaintop or steal the sacred fire. He doesn’t deal in Platonic forms but remembers every instant that truth is partial, temporary and local. His task, then, is to perceive his subject from as many perspectives as is humanly possible, including past and future, friend and foe, then cobble together a framework of understanding that answers the only question that really matters: So what? The effort is as much one of imagination as of intellect or research. The output, I suppose, resembles Kuhn’s paradigms, in that some patterns are shown while many are assumed.

Far more than his readers, the analyst is aware of his vast ignorance and many shortcomings, and he hopes these will be forgiven as a friend might forgive, on trust and kindness. Lastly, for as long as he works, the analyst is compelled to perform an act of faith of his own. He must believe that the circle of understanding can be enlarged, no matter how slippery the truth is—that he, along with the rest of the human race, can inch, ever slowly, toward perfection. Otherwise, why take the trouble to pound out all those words?

Martin Gurri

Martin Gurri, a visiting research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, is a former CIA analyst specializing in the relationship of politics and global media.  His book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, first published in 2014 and updated in 2018, has been praised for foreshadowing the political shocks of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump.

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