Over this past year, I have found that the middle of the night is my most productive reading and writing times. With so many things keeping me awake—none of them good—it was the best way to navigate that long-dark silence. However, I have been sleeping better as of late and a big part of that has been—for reasons only God knows—my endless twitching has diminished… a little. This has resulted in me getting way behind in my reading (I have 5 books partially read) and writing. But last night was the exception. I was hit early in the morning by what I think was intense side effects to the chemo I got ten days ago. While I did not feel well enough to get up and to write, I did lie in bed and ponder what I would want to write as I continued this subject.
This whole idea that we have reached a period in our history where TRUTH does not matter anymore, being replaced by truth, was on public display this week during the impeachment hearings. You had the Democrats and Republicans taking turns talking at the microphone and it was as if they were stepping in and out of two different bubbles of reality. If the two sides were equally concerned about TRUTH, then they would be practically on the same page, listening to the same evidence and making the same conclusions.
At this Juncture I must once again restate my intended definitions. The way I use TRUTH, is in the classical definition, meaning that which is consistent with reality. It is an is an absolute—not influenced by my point of view or desires—TRUTH. On the other hand, truth in small case, the way I’m using it, is our own personal truth, which is completely based on our point of view and means the same, in this case, as opinion. But I call it “truth” because that is what people now call their opinions and beliefs and anything that doesn’t support their point of view, “lies” or fake, instead of facts. Sometimes those things are lies, but often they are not.
I have a great love for history, especially the history of western civilization and the Church in particular. I spent a decade studying it very carefully. However, I realize there are still plenty I don’t know and sometimes I get things wrong. History itself is complex. It is not simply causal, such as event A caused event B, which caused event C. It is much messier, more like a (Costco-sized) can of alphabet soup being poured on the floor and then trying to connect the dots between the hundreds of As, Bs, and Cs.
Last time I was writing about the late theologian Francis Schaeffer. He described in his 1968 book, Escape from Reason, how western civilization was giving up on reason, having been disillusioned by the terrible world wars. During the 60s, there was a turn to the absurd in the area of the arts in response to this disillusionment. Schaeffer believed western civilization was on the verge of entering a new dark age and it was up to the Church to be the bulwark of preserving reason (God-given intellectual tool for finding TRUTH) and absolute TRUTH, itself.
The first dark age was a product of the Church when it, mistakenly, adopted the Platonic view that the material world, including reason, the arts, and labor, were insufficient when compared to the more important heavenlies or spiritual. The Renaissance was an awakening from that dark age with the rediscover of the works of Plato (and Aristotle in northern Europe) and redefining Plato’s higher realm as human experience rather than the heavenlies.
However, Schaeffer was wrong in his prediction. Reason had served western civilization so well after the Enlightenment, both in advancement of life and profit, that it would not be given up so easily, even though there was disillusionment with it. So, reason continued bring us great things like the silicon chip and the digital revolution. It has brought cancer cures (not fast enough), however, reason has also brought us increasingly destructive weapons, such as a nuclear bomb that can fit in a backpack, and drones that can deliver such a weapon, very precisely, to a distant target.
So now we find ourselves in the twenty-first century were there is a great dichotomy between TRUTH or truth in our social lives and in our scientific endeavors. In the scientific realm, TRUTH is still highly regarded, and the scientific method is very useful in finding that TRUTH by ruling out probability via statistically analysis. But on the social front, we are in a new dark age of the complete loss of TRUTH, having replaced it with truth (strong opinion). The Church was not the bulwark that Schaeffer had hoped for, but, in many cases, contributed to this loss of TRUTH, by its own insistence on a “cheaper” truth instead.
In my first article I mentioned that one factor causing this breakdown in TRUTH, is the loss of the reliable authoritarian TRUTH (e.g. Walter Cronkite), being replaced with the fragmentation of TRUTH into truth or niche realities. Ironically, our scientific technology brought us this “opportunity” through satellite-cable, and radio and now the web. These niche realities pull people further and further into that false narrative that is based on emotions, not reason. I will close this installment with an illustration of the point I’m trying to make.
Imagine that when you were ten years old your father lost his job when his company hired an immigrant, who was willing to do the same job for far less money. This was a very upsetting era in your life, leaving a bad taste in your heart toward immigrants.
When you reached adulthood, you find a cable news channel that had several stories about the problem of immigrants taking jobs away from white American men or doing bad crimes. This became your favorite channel because it reinforced your negative view of immigrants and you felt more justified in your negative attitude. But then, one day, this broadcast had a guest who described a theory (although presented as fact) that the immigrants have a strategy of taking all jobs away from white Americans, with the well-thought-out intention of making the white male unemployed and poor, so the immigrants can take over the country. This emotionally upset you even more, but you didn’t doubt it as factual because it was aired on your favorite news show. At the end of the broadcast, the guest commentator referenced his website, where he had more information.
You feel enough concern that you start to visit the mentioned website. On that site there were many stories of where immigrants were raping white girls, killing defenseless older-white-retired couples and robbing them. There were articles about how most immigrants are part of violent gangs that plan on talking over the entire country and turning the white man into slaves, while taking their white women as their girlfriends. This upset you even more, however, you never doubted the information because it was from a source that you saw as authoritarian truth and it was consistent with your prior belief system. You go out and buy weapons for the coming war with the immigrants and to defend your family. Now, during this course of events, your truth was arrived at by using the part of your brain (limbic) that is designed to handle emotions, not using (much) the part of the brain that is equipped with logical reasoning.
In contrast, I will describe how the scientific community would approach such a situation, when their only desire is TRUTH. Imagine that a premise was made that immigrants were taking jobs away from white men. You would suspend your emotional bias and look for objective data, not expecting one outcome of the other. You then collect data from the government agencies that keep employment records to see how many white men were displaced by immigrants. If needed, you would go out ad interview employers and employees. When you are done, you find that your father’s situation was extremely rare. That most immigrants come and work jobs that white men refuse to do, or they start their own small businesses.
My next, and hopefully last, article is looking at how during the twentieth century, situational ethics and the fudging of truth. I will also look how the American church, in many ways, lost its interest in TRUTH and became part of the problem rather than any solution to society’s general loss of TRUTH.
3 responses to “RAMBLINGS: The Loss of Truth from Aristotle to Trump, Part III”
I keep you in my prayers Mike. 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻
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I remember growing up around Labri and Francis Schaffer’s teachings about the perils of postmodernism and relativism, as well as how important it is to hold on to the principle of objective truth. But in recent years, especially after being so involved in science, I’ve come to think of the idea of “objective truth” as a category error. In as far as truth is comprised of propositional statements, and propositional statements can only be conceived of or communicated using socially-constructed language, and that language, by its very nature, is relative, subjective, and context-dependant.
Maybe the definition of “TRUTH” that you are using isn’t as strong as the idea of “Objective Truth”. I think it depends on what you mean by being “consistent with reality”. If two propositions are both be consistent with observations of reality, yet not consistent with each other, would you consider them both TRUTH?
I think a better understanding is that all truth is relative–that is to say, any statement that can be considered true or useful is dependant on context. A statement in English is no longer true or false in a context where nobody can understand English. It’s easy to dismiss this as a linguistic trick, but, while these ideas are easiest to see at the linguistic level, the principle extends all the way down into the fundamental foundations of ideas, logic, thought, epistemology, etc. Currently, the definition of truth that I like and find useful is ‘ideas that give understanding (explanatory power), predictive power, and are as simple as possible (Occam s razor)’.
Some great ideas that inform my understanding of how ideas interface with the world come from Alfred Korzybski who is famous for saying “the map is not the territory”, or George Box who is famous for saying “all models are wrong, but some are useful”. We have ideas (including propositional truth claims) that we find useful for making sense of the world. But these ideas are just maps or models of whatever reality really is. Sometimes it can be modeled equally well in multiple ways. We create maps and models as simplified abstractions of the thing itself so that we can navigate the world and make predictions. The world in-and-of-itself is ineffable and incomprehensible and is outside the realm of ideas or propositional statements where all truth claims live.
When it comes to these political divisions and this weird idea of post-truth, I think the belief in “objective truth” is the problem. Specifically contradictory claims of “objective truth”. If you believe there is a single objective truth, that is not dependant on context, and you believe that your chosen authority (Walter Kronkite, the Church, MSNBC, FoxNews, etc) has that truth, then there is no point listening or trying to understand anyone else’s view, they are by definition wrong. If however, you believe that truth is context-dependant, then it makes sense to try and understand other people’s models of truth and their context. Good science can’t afford to fall into thinking of “objective truth” otherwise it turns into dogma (just like the political echo chambers). Even science that is generally considered to be “settled” must always be open to new evidence and face the risk of being overturned by better models. I think we can learn a lot from how science handles truth claims.
Hey son, there’s too much here to digest or to respond to in a comprehensive way. But I will say I have almost finished my next article and in it, I bring up one (of possible hundreds) of developments since Schaeffer in the secular world and that was the movement in linguistic deconstruction, and that is partially what I think you are talking about. I don’t use the term objective truth and while some who have used it in the past mean the same thing as I mean by TRUTH others mean more like you said, dogma. I think science in the nineteenth century entered a phase of this kind of dogma, where alternative theories could not even be even considered once the dominate theory was established. But back to linguistic deconstruction, my point is that it went too far. To use your example (and mine from my first post) an example of what I call a TRUTH is that which is consistent with reality, is that the sky is blue. However, to a non-English speaker, this would be gibberish. However, if you showed a group of people, each speaking a unique language, a color reference chart, they would all (within a mild range of shades) pick the same color for the sky, although calling the name unique to their language. It is true that we are limited by our perceptions. The simplest example, in the previous case, would be a person who is color blind. But you can even talk about the psychotic who is delusional about much of the world. But such limitations cannot make us give up our aspirations of finding real TRUTH in the midst of a sea of dogma or propaganda. I think Occam’s Razor would be helpful much of the time to find TRUTH, at least to put down conspiracy theories. Did Jeff Epstein commit suicide or was it a part of a grand and complex conspiracy (the people on the right are saying Bill Clinton is behind it and I’ve heard some on the left say that Donald Trump’s people were behind the “murder”). But the reality is either he put the blanket (or whatever it was) around his own neck and killed himself by intent or someone came in and put it around his neck, against his will, and killed him, without ambiguity. Only one of these are consistent with reality, although many sides have political gain for promoting one false idea or another.Per Occam’s Razor, Jeff hung himself like many inmates do. So, back to linguistic deconstruction. They would have said that all narratives have the single objective of controlling others according to your agenda. That’s where it went too far. I will say many narratives have such hidden objectives, however, some are honestly interested in knowing reality as best of they can despite which political or religious view is served by the conclusion. While I may not use “Objective Truth” because of problems with the “objective” part, I will not give up on our aspirations to know TRUTH the best we can.