Ahead of his appearance at Southbank Centre as part of our Belief & Beyond Belief series in September 2017, British philosopher Julian Baggini mused on the notion of truth.
I’m not convinced we live in a post-truth world. But truth is certainly in some kind of trouble, challenged on many fronts. Surprisingly, the sources of several of those challenges are good things.
Science is the most efficient truth-generating machine humankind has created. However, such is its power to overturn common sense that its growth has arguably contributed to scepticism that we can ever know the truth at all. Science tells us that the apparently solid objects around us are “really” just collections of particles, which are themselves made up of smaller parts we don’t really understand. Time and space are relative. Today’s orthodoxies are tomorrow’s discredited theories. Science made humanity doubt its own perception of reality and helped sow the seeds for the idea that ultimate truth was beyond us.
The freedom to think and choose for ourselves is a precious one. However, it has created an exaggerated sense that we are sovereigns of our selves, the sole authors of our lives. The right to a point of view became so sanctified it became detached from the responsibility to ensure that view is well-grounded. One consequence is that we assert “my truth”, “our truth”, “your truth” as though there were no truth independent of a point of view. But this extremely subjective approach ultimately undermines the whole idea of truth, which if it is to mean anything at all, must involve a recognition of things that are the case whether we perceive them as so or not.
3. The decline of elites
For most of human history the fates of the many have been in the hands of too few. Elites decided what was best for us, whatever we may think. The forces of democratisation have eroded this privilege. This has been accompanied by a decline of respect for expertise. No longer deferential to the great and the good, we have seen more clearly how experts often get it wrong. However, there is so much we cannot know for ourselves that if we do not defer to experts at all we are left only with our ill-informed hunches and gut feelings. Truth is not a democracy but democratisation has made us less willing to trust those whose expertise can point us to the truth.
Our massively interconnected world has brought us closer together and enabled us to understand and celebrate our differences more than ever. It has also exposed our arrogance in believing that “our” way – whoever “we” are – is superior and that we have a monopoly on truth. The moral should have been that we need to consider as many perspectives as possible if we want to get a fuller picture of the truth. Instead, too many have concluded that there are no universal truths, only culturally relative “truths”, none of which is more valid than any other.
Everyone now “knows” that the conscious, rational mind is not in the driving seat. Unconscious often irrational processes dictate the vast majority of what we do and all the conscious mind does is rationalises it. That’s the message many have taken from the work of psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. It has undermined our confidence in our rationality and with it our capacity to get to the truth. But of course it was only by using reason that these psychologists mapped its limitations clearly. Knowing the limits of conscious rationality should enable us to use it better, not lead us to throw it out.
6. The free press
Journalists have traditionally seen themselves as discoverers and defenders of the truth. That role is as vital as ever. But in some respects journalism has undermined confidence in the possibility of knowing the truth. Every time a scandal is uncovered it adds to the sense that nothing we are told really is true. At the same time, the less savoury episodes in the history of journalism mean that people don’t necessarily trust newspapers and television channels to tell the truth easily, especially when so many are clearly partisan. An atmosphere of distrust has been created in which suspension of all belief seem preferable to commitment to any truth.
What these six things have in common is that they are all positive developments in human culture than have nonetheless made the possibility of knowing truth – or even of there being a truth to know – seem more difficult than ever. But none should make us doubt that there is any truth there at all, or that it is always beyond us.
The way forward must start with an acceptance that all six factors show that getting to the truth is difficult and that when we find it, it is often complicated. We should be humble and modest about our ability to know any truths for certain but unless we believe truth is out there and can be discovered, all we have to go on is prejudice, opinion and power.