To Tell the Truth

“Post-truth.” “Post-fact.” “Fake news.”

These are terms I hear flying around lately, and I feel obligated to step in.

Talk to this guy about formal and objective reality.

Talk to this guy about formal and objective reality.

There are and have been philosophical debates on truth and reality for centuries.[1] Is truth only what is verifiable? Is it correspondence? Is it coherence? Is reality only the material reality through which the natural sciences are practiced? Is reality always already filtered through a subjective, phenomenological perspective?

Truth and reality are messy concepts, because truth and reality are created, defined, and evaluated by human-made standards.

Truth isn’t one thing. The truth of an event isn’t “what actually happened,” because when anything happens to a person that particular experience is happening to someone with a perspective. And with any perspective comes bias. Bias from actual limitations of human sensing, pattern recognition, and comprehension, but also bias from socialized beliefs and bias from a personal agenda, all of it.

You are biased.

Likewise, what is real and fake isn’t necessarily clear-cut either. You don’t think of reconstructive surgery as “fake,” but you would call a breast augmentation fake. 

Even the word “reality,” usurped by mostly-scripted-anyway television shows, isn’t one agreed-upon thing.

When I hear, say, white supremacists speak, I don’t feel like they live in the same reality that I do. My sense of what is real has been informed by my experiences. Part of this is a basic experience of a shared physical world, but reality as we understand it is also a social reality. There are human beings from other cultures, other backgrounds, and other beliefs in my world, and there isn’t a universal right or wrong that governs our behavior.

Even the reality of the natural sciences, which is measurable and verifiable in many ways, cannot totally predict, explain, or rationalize the behavior of human beings. And science is a tool that can be manipulated to serve political agendas just as easily as anything else. Science (even math—statistics, for instance) isn’t free from bias either.

Truth, facts, and reality are messy, in part because human beings use these concepts as if they aren’t messy. When you have political and economic agendas at stake, when news profits from viewership and readership, when politicians want voters, when businessmen want profit, there is necessarily exploitation and manipulation of what we call “truth,” “facts,” and “reality.” All news is presented with some kind of bias or agenda, and it always has been—intentionally or unintentionally.

We probably shouldn’t associate news with truth or fact or reality at all. In spite of supposed “journalistic integrity,” we must rely on ourselves to be critical thinkers.  Even seemingly innocuous word choice is open to interpretation, and we have to recognize that, because our narratives shape what we consider reality.

Manipulation of the “news” happens on both the Right and the Left. It just seems that the manipulation on the Right, especially during this past presidential election, has been egregious, not even trying to sound plausible or aiming at a some kind of shared truth or agreed-upon understanding of the world.[2] Donald Trump outright lies or contradicts himself nearly every time he speaks publicly or tweets, and there is a lot of supportive evidence of this.

The upshot, though, is that we can still call out bias or manipulation, because not all opinions, beliefs, and facts are equivalent or equally as plausible.

John Stuart Mill said that we are obligated in a democracy to form the truest opinions we can, and actions that stem from the truest opinion will result in the most amount of good for the most people and do the least amount of harm. (Of course, this ideal is contradictory with capitalism and neoliberalism, which don’t value truth or freedom from harm, but I digress.)

There is enough of an overlap with some kind of shared reality and generally understood truth that we can reasonably live with other human beings in spite of our biases—we’re pretty much all in agreement on basic mathematical functions in a base 10 system, that dark clouds usually mean rain, and even something as mundane as the general agreement that The Godfather is a good film.

There are measures you can take to evaluate what you hear and read. There are some things that are truthier and more factual than others. There is such a thing as evidence. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily point to what the majority believes, but we can get close to an reliable picture of events based on the information we have available. We can reasonably rely on some findings of science and some interpretations of data in order to understand the likely consequences of certain actions. We can rely on probability and constant conjunction.

If we want to be responsible human beings who live with and get along with others, we can’t just kneejerk reject anything we don’t like or don’t understand.

Climate change is such an obvious example, but it’s a good one. If you deny climate change, then you are being willfully ignorant. Period. You might have something to gain from the industries that have been identified as contributing to the human-caused impacts of climate change. Or you might have put your blind trust in people who have something to gain from those industries. But to deny climate change is as close to wrong as you can get in the 21st century.

We can listen to the narrative experiences of other people to expand our understanding of human experience, and to realize that life is not the same for everyone. The more perspectives you get, the more agendas you see through, the fuller and less one-sided the picture of reality gets. The more you are able to recognize biases—you own and those of others—means that you can at least call your understanding of truth and reality into question.

But what you cannot do is assert that your opinion is true or fact. Your opinion might govern your reality, and the neoliberal model of individualism has enabled this way of thinking. But you don’t really live in a world with other people if you don’t recognize or validate others. And if you don’t recognize others, you cannot expect reciprocation. You cannot be surprised when the people you have ignored or oppressed don’t like you, don’t respect you, and don’t share your truth.

It also doesn’t make your particular, individualistic truth true.

The scary thing about propaganda, because that’s really what we’re talking about here, is that it is an inevitable feature of governments, of media, of information-sharing because of inevitable bias and agendas.

The scary thing is that people don’t know and refuse to recognize the biases they have.

The scary thing is that people are not critical thinkers, and they don’t question the plausibility or verifiability of what people they trust tell them.

The scary thing about truth and facts and news, is that there is not, nor has there ever been, infallible, objective, universal, reliable truth or facts or news.

But the scariest thing for me is that people use terms like “truth” and “news” as if these things are fixed, as if we don’t create them. By accusing others of bias and falsity, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility for creating them. What we say and what we do perpetuates a world that could be otherwise. What we say makes things what they are.

There is a strong sense of individualism that runs on all sides of this, but you aren’t an individual in a vacuum. You live in a world of systems and institutions. You live with other people. The good thing is that we can come to have shared senses of truth and reality—or else we couldn’t communicate with each other at all.

We muddle through, we do the best we can, we can reach shared understandings and most likely scenarios, but we shouldn’t forget that history, news, facts, are all written by people. And people are fallible.

[1] I say centuries and not millennia because what is meant by truth and reality changed with the Enlightenment—at least in the Western philosophical context.
[2] Of course, I recognize that I am biased. But in this case, I’m also pretty sure I’m correct.

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