I have been thinking about this concept of the loss of truth per society as a whole, for some time. While it has always been an interest of mine, during this phenomenon of “fake news” and politically oriented “facts,” it has become paramount in my mind. As I’ve tried to organize these thoughts, I considered putting all of them within one long posting, however, that would turn into many pages and would lose most readers in the process. So, I’ve decided to write an array of articles, each with a different perspective on truth and I will name them “Part I” and so on, so that you will know that they are connected, as there could be weeks between the posts. This first article is about the nature of “authoritarian truth,” explaining what I mean, as I go.
Before I get started, I must set some ground rules for my conversation about truth. The first is in the order of definitions. I will use “TRUTH,” with all capitals to mean truth in the classical sense of that which is consistent with reality. The sky is blue is one of those TRUTHs, although reasonable people could debate which shade of blue it is. On the other extreme, truth (without capitals) is a very abused word these days, usually meaning something along the lines of “perspective,” “view, or “belief.” I sometimes think of this later kind of truth as a “Niche Reality.”
Galileo and the Binocular Approach to TRUTH
I recently listened to the fabulous book, Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love, which brought this so much into focus, that I felt that I had to start this rambling with this concept of authoritarian truth.
I knew very little about Galileo from studying about him in history or science. I’ve visited his grave in Florence at Basilica of Santa Croce to show him my respect. From my general impressions, I had the idea that, as a man of science, he was a skeptic about Christianity and the Church. After all, I knew that he was in great contention with the Church in the late sixteenth century.
This book, mentioned above, was done extremely well with overwhelming contemporaneous documentation, via his daughter’s letters to him, his own writing, and the official historical accounts of eyewitnesses. As I listened to the audio book, I found him to be a humble man, deeply devoted to God and the Catholic Church. This was true of most people in the sixteenth and seventh centuries. However, he was also a man with great curiosity and a seeker of TRUTH.
In nearby (relatively speaking) Venice, they had the world’s best glass works. They had, as a side product, produced lens of clear glass, that was able to focus light and acting like magnifying glasses. Prior to that, it was found—serendipitously—that by looking through a clear glass of water, it helped some people to see details on the other side that they could not see with their own eyes. This was of course in the days before eyeglasses and some people had to give up reading entirely as they got older.
In the thirteenth century, the glass blowers in Venice attempted to create solid glass globes that functioned like the jars of water but much easier to use. Over time they reduced (by trial and error) smaller and smaller “globes” until they got to what we now know as lens, which had the symmetrical shape of two intersecting arcs (). These became useful as monocular devices that people could eventually wear around their necks or in their pockets. Later spectacles were created as forefathers to present-day glasses.
The fist telescope (two lenses separated by space) was invented by a Dutchmen around 1608. It was considered a “spy glass” and intended for looking across the terrain at other objects, such as watching your neighbor… or, in some cases, your neighbor’s wife. The hopes of a marketable device were in nautical and military uses. When Galileo heard about this invention, the next year, he created his own telescope that worked much better and then he was driven by his insatiable curiosity, pointing it at the heavens. He first gazed on the surface of the moon and saw the craters and mountains. He also saw the phases of Venus (like the phases of our moon), which made no sense unless it orbited around the Sun, rather than the earth. Remember, the Catholic Church held the official dogma of geocentrism, which is that the earth was the center of the heavens and the sun, moon, planets, and stars all orbited around it.
The reason that the Catholic Church adopted this dogma of geocentrism wasn’t due to anything that the Bible said, or even claims of their Judeo-Christian forefathers, but because of the Greek philosophers, specifically Aristotle. It was further defined the second century by the philosopher-mathematician Ptolemy. This view became embedded as dogma within the Church with the further assumption that God had created the universe as perfect and simple. Therefore, it made no sense to them that the moon would have irregularities, such as craters and mountains. Furthermore, it made no sense to the Church theologians when the Polish mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus first proposed a heliocentric view of the solar system around 1500, because that would suggest that humans were not the mathematical center of the solar system and the universe outside of our solar system was full of empty space. If God created the universe for the sake of earth’s humans, so they assumed, it made no sense that the universe was so big.
At this precise time the Catholic Church was also becoming more paranoid as critical splinter groups were starting to arise. Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church on October 31, 1517. Because of this rising of discord and eventually Lutheranism, the Catholic Church started an inquisition that included censoring publications. No book could be published in Europe without Rome’s approval. When Galileo first published his book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, it was approved by the Pope. However, with further study, Church leaders determined that Galileo was attempting to reach Biblical truth, and the Church had not given him this right. After a lengthy Church trial, Galileo was sentenced to house arrest and the banning of his book. They considered, torturing him and even burning him at the stake, however, due to Galileo’s friends who were within the Church hierarchy who advocated for him, he was spared.
We have at least two sources or truth and I will mention a third briefly. One source is what I call authoritarian truth. That is where we are told what truth is by someone we see as having authority over us and we therefore assume that it is reliable. I will come back to that after I mention two more sources. The second source of truth is from our own reasoning, based on the perception of our senses. I will call this cognitive truth. This is the bastion of sources of most of our established common knowledge.
The third truth, which I think is more of a cover for someone’s intent rather than real truth, is what I call gnostic truth. The word “gnostic” means “knowledge.” In the early Church there were those people who claimed to have truth or knowledge directly from God without having to study (cognitive) or being told this truth by any leaders. You can just imagine how this type of truth has caused much mischief through the ages and virtually every cult has this type of truth as the cornerstone to their movement.
To illustrate these three types of truth, I will use the metaphor of getting burned by a hot iron. In authoritarian truth, the parent tells the child not to touch a hot iron or it will burn and they will feel pain. In cognitive truth, the child touches the iron and gets burned. His senses (touch) tell him it was hot and he or she reasons that object is hot and not to be touched again, because it will cause pain. In gnostic truth, the child, having never seen an iron before or felt its heat, has an inner voice directly from God or intuition that tells them the iron is hot and will burn them.
Galileo had a binocular, vs a monocular, view of TRUTH. He did, indeed, see the Catholic Church as an authoritarian source of truth, and trusted the truth of the Church in all other areas that were not in conflict with his cognitive truth. However, in his observations of the universe through his telescope (senses gathering information) combined with his cognitive reasoning and the application of mathematics, he arrived at the clear notion that the sun and not the earth was at the center of the solar system. It is like looking at an object with both eyes. The visual perception must be in agreement. Since they are not in agreement, then he was obligated to do due diligence in finding why the two truths were incongruent. When he looked at the source of the Church’s truth on the solar system, he knew that it was based on extra-Biblical thinkers and by reviewing those thinker’s observations and mathematical computations, he saw errors in both. Therefore, even at the threat of losing his own life, he had no honest choice but to conclude that TRUTH was in the heliocentric model.
In our modern life, authoritarian truths come from many sources. Church dogma is still an important source for many people, but there are many others. Our parents are our first encounters with authoritarian truths and most of our early knowledge comes from this source. We trust this source, especially at a very young age, completely. Our next important source are our teachers, especially those of elementary school. In high school, we start to question some of those truths that teachers give us.
As adults, sources of authoritarian truths include those from our social groups, bosses, superior officers (in the case of military service), news sources, and political leaders.
In the 1960s, Walter Cronkite (the anchorman of CBS News) was considered the most trusted man in America. If he said it, people believed it and for good reason. It was likely that the truth spoken by Cronkite was TRUTH. But there was a reason for that. In those days it was unthinkable to intentionally present a news story in a bias way, as to persuade people to take a position that is favorable to one political view or another. Now there could have been some biases in those days, but they not profound.
Our politicians were also seen as good and trustworthy people (these were the days of such movies as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), but not to the level of the news people. In the 1950s, Edward R. Murrow (who grew up in nearby Edison) took on the Republican senator, Joseph McCarthy, who was behind an anti-communism inquisition against American citizens. Murrow won that battle as a more trustworthy source.
Time magazine had a cover issue that asked the question Is Truth Dead? We are in an age that is far different than the 1950s and 60s when these authoritarian truths were often TRUTH. Now, with the invention of the fragmentation of information, first with cable TV and then with the Internet and lessor so, with satellite radio. Cable TV brought in hundreds of stations that could start to focus on particular viewpoints, rather than a homogenous reporting of news. The introduction of the internet created an explosion of “media” opportunities, later re-named as “social media.” Now, it was cheap and easy to create a platform for ideas that could be accessed by the entire world. The difficulty was creating a niche that would work its way through the fray of other thousands of voices, to get attention. This fragmentation was further intensified with talk radio. A key moment in 1987 change everything. In that year, the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, which had been in place since 1949, was reversed by the FCC, yielding to financial pressure by those who saw big profits in niche realities. The Fairness Doctrine required the fair and balanced presentation of news stories and giving equal and fair time to opposing political views.
With these influences in place, the ground was set up for the present situation where there is more and more disintegration into increasingly extreme positions. So, in the area of “news reporting” you end up with positions on the political right as Hannity on Fox News, and far right such a Brietbard, Daily Caller; and Judicial Watch. On the left you have Lemon on CNN, and the far left, Palmer Report, Bipartisan Report, and Occupy Democrats. To achieve attention in this crowded field, they rely on conspiracy theories, which usually have no factual bases but have deeply emotionally pull. Example of such include stories about the Clintons and other democrats were running a child sex trafficking program out of pizza restaurants, promoted by the right wing; and the Trump’s Golden Shower dossier, by promoted, even now, by left wing advocates.
Conspiracy theories brings us back to gnostic truths. While originally, it meant truth that—conveniently—came directly from God without research or learning, in this case, it is created in the emotionally-charged truth from thin air, not based on supporting facts, but based on the appeal such views have, appeal to capture and retain market shares or followers. But in common with the early Church Gnostics, the political gnostics have great appeal because there is something very attractive about having secret information or truths, that the mainstream doesn’t have—even if that truth is wrong—if it supports your presupposed belief system. Since the Bible, especially the teaching of the historical Jesus centered so much on TRUTH, you would think the Christian would be most cautious of loss of TRUTH. However, I think the opposite is true. Authoritarian truth and gnostic truth have been a part of the Church’s historical heritage, long before this new development in media and political polarization. At least in recent decades, the evangelicals have additionally had seen themselves becoming more and more in conflict with a greater culture, which was growing less Christian over time. From this mindset, an opposition culture evolved, at least on the side of the evangelicals. Within their context, conspiracy theories about the larger, non-evangelical culture exploded and begin to mix with right-wing political ideologies.
While this first article ended up talking about the loss of TRUTH in the realm of politics, I want to expand that in future articles.