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Monday, December 12, 2016

Truth in Politics

Is Trump the first Postmodern President? 

The Brookings Institute just published an essay "Covering Politics in a Post-Truth America" referring to the campaign and character of the new American President. "Postmodern" to many cultural observers means post-truth. Hence my question.

I have done a lot of listening, reading, and writing about the shift of contemporary culture beyond modernity. As a recovering postmodern person, I accept that words describing historical eras, like prehistoric, ancient, medieval, modern, and postmodern, are arbitrary and artificial. The tags are tools to make some sense out of the procession of humanity--useful insofar as they lay out options in choosing our path as persons and communities.

The postmodern shift in culture is upon us for good and for ill. And that shift is shaping our economy and our politics. The biggest question that shift raises is truth, its possibility, meaning, and relevancy. Other ways of posing this question are: Is human understanding germane to human action? Does it matter that or what we know? 

Pontius Pilate's question still resonates: what is truth?

A key assumption in modernity is that mind can attain reality. Or, in other words, nature is knowable. This gives impetus to the quest for certainty through evidence-based inquiry—science. Moderns have absolute essences, immutable forms, natural laws for human understanding of human behavior and morality to ground the development of the best possible economy and politics.  When the structures of mind correspond to the structures of nature (or vice versa depending on whether you are a realist or an idealist), the intellect has truth. "Beauty bare," the poet says.  As a popular sci-fi TV series affirmed: "The truth is out there."

This fundamental assumption is transformed in the postmodern world. 

Here our culture, catching up with the study of language, neuroscience, and the philosophy of mind, recognizes the symbolic nature of human knowing and acting in the world. Thinking is a matter of analogy and categorization. Ideas, including the concepts of religion, the forms of art, and the models of science are constructs of the imagination that serve the human organism's adaptation to its environment.

This new understanding of thinking dispels the illusion of the absolute and the expectation of certainty. Truth is not the correspondence of subjective consciousness to objects in the real already there outside world. Knowing is a progressive, communal dialogue with nature in which mind and world both change. All knowledge, including science with its method of verification by evidence and peer review, is provisional and subject to reform. 

Modernity taught that knowledge or reality could be reached through human inquiry (perhaps guided by divine revelation). Postmodernity teaches that knowledge and reality itself are not certain and that there are no absolute truths achievable by humans or gods. This reframes Pilate’s question. The question is not only what is truth, but also is there truth at all.

In a postmodern culture, there are (at least) three responses to the question of truth. 1) rejection of the postmodern insight and reaction back to modern or even to tribal culture of real fixed truths self-evident or revealed by the gods. 2) cynical nihilism in which with the death of the gods, all things are permitted. And 3) progressive inquiry and critique based on evidence and discourse.

Cynical nihilism makes our postmodern world into a post-truth world: where fake news is manufactured, and spread, where data attainable to many does not matter, where opinion dominates and even replaces facts, where followers don’t care whether a leader has evidence in what he affirms, where business and politics is a game concerned with winning over losing, where words, propositions, formulas, policies do not mean what they affirm, where polling of individual opinions substitutes for thoughtful discussion, and where marketing to individual consumers through rallies and commercials replaces engaging people in decision making.

Because of the postmodern turn, the rejection of the illusion of the absolute or what John Dewey call the “objectivistic fallacy” and the realization of what physicist Ilya Prigogine calls the “end of certainty,” truth is an issue in our culture which defines our economy and our politics. However, to acknowledge that absolute truth and certainty are illusions is not to say that truth and its quest are illusory. It is simply to say that knowledge is never final, never ultimate. It is achieved progressively as part of a cumulative and collaborative process which builds on the past even as it corrects the past and is offered in our limited present for the inquiry of future generations. Knowledge is a process of ongoing inquiry, experiment, and verification. And erecting on the lessons learned by previous dedicated seekers and achieving a consensus among those trained in scientific inquiry, we reject their evidence based judgments at great jeopardy.

A case in point is a warming earth. If any science has the element of randomness and indeterminacy, it is meteorology. Scientists continue to collect data and revise their models.  But to deny the consensus of atmospheric scientists is disingenuous. To deny the human impact on climate change is reckless. More reckless than denying the consensus of pulmonologists regarding smoking and cancer.

Coal and oil people might well argue for short-term profits and against the expense of clean air and clean energy technologies believing this better for them and their descendants economically. Just as farm managers and workers will argue against restrictions on tobacco or harmful pesticides. Or that restrictions on driving automobiles or using guns are unnecessary and harmful to the success of persons as they define it. But to pretend that climate change, or lung cancer, or gun death are hoaxes is downright irresponsible.

To be most truthful in the postmodern age is to acknowledge that all stories, propositions, and formulas are artificial. They result from the combination of experience (data) and imagination (symbolic forms). Since ideas are images, words are metaphors, and models are works of art, they are subject to question, criticism, and ongoing verification by many exploring the same data for which they are accounting. All truths whether of science or religion, business or politics are to be questioned. 

But that does not make our postmodern world into a post-truth world. Far from it.

The postmodern understands truth as neither absolute, nor relative. Truth is relational. Truth emerges in relationships among many who check each other’s experiments and conclusions. The postmodern understands truth as neither self-evident, nor totally rational. Truth is progressive—the product of an ongoing process of questioning, imaging, and testing. Day to day life may require "thinking fast," but an examined life of truth requires "thinking slow."

More than ever, in acknowledging the limits and fragility of human thinking, we need to recognize why it is so important. And we need to resist the truths that are uttered without thinking. Because we have learned in our postmodern age that truth is the result of the human struggle for life, purpose, and community, when scientists fake experiments, when politicians claim without evidence, when journalists repeat stories without checking for accuracy, and when leaders give their judgments a divine status, they are committing crimes against the human prospect.

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