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Sunday, August 4, 2013

"What is Truth?"

"What is Truth?" Pontius Pilate's question echoes down history. 

Today I read Chris Hedges' account of Assange and Wikileaks "The Death of Truth."

He ends his article thus:  

The world has been turned upside down. The pestilence of corporate totalitarianism is spreading rapidly over the earth. The criminals have seized power. It is not, in the end, simply Assange or Manning they want. It is all who dare to defy the official narrative, to expose the big lie of the global corporate state. The persecution of Assange and Manning is the harbinger of what is to come, the rise of a bitter world where criminals in Brooks Brothers suits and gangsters in beribboned military uniforms—propped up by a vast internal and external security apparatus, a compliant press and a morally bankrupt political elite—monitor and crush those who dissent. Writers, artists, actors, journalists, scientists, intellectuals and workers will be forced to obey or thrown into bondage. I fear for Julian Assange. I fear for Bradley Manning. I fear for us all.

For the naive realist, the question of truth is easy.  Verum (the true) and Ens (reality) are Unum (one). Truth is what is really already our there. If mind mirrors reality, it is true. If the person says the words that match that reality, s/he speaks truth. If not, it is a deception or lie.

Not so easy for us "constructivists" who have studied neuroscience, cybernetics, and scientific method; that is, how the brain works, how language works, how science works. Some constructivists see truth itself, including its search and achievement, as a dangerous deception. But most of us see it as an interaction between the embrained human organism and its environment out of which both mind and world are born. Truth we think is a social construct having varying degrees of veracity. 

There is the truth of commonsense or conventional wisdom (usually pretty close to or starting with the naive realist concept of truth). This is a truth undistinguished from language that works in the day to day world. This is the truth of the sun rising and falling and no change under it, of everything coming to him who waits and fortune favoring the bold.

There is the truth of artistic (and religious) expression in which aficionados who, by entering and reliving the expression of artists, experience the sentiment, emotion, feeling of the artists.  Art pulls its audience out of the day to day world to encounter the imaginative value structure "behind" and giving meaning to that world and its truths.

There is the truth of science in which formulations are not meaningful unless they can be falsified, in which formulas are tested by experiments that can be replicated by peers also trained in science, and in which presently verified models can be modified within a larger more inclusive model. The truths of science often conflict with the truths of common sense, art, and religion.

We constructivists appreciate and recognize the interrelation among all these "truths." We also think that truth is never fully expressed in words, expressions, or formulas but is discovered in the never-ending pursuit. Truths are provisional. They are what the society speaking a common language, the culture sharing common values, or the scientific community communicating experimental results agree to at a certain time and place. 

Philosophy is the examination of truth by the study of the human behaviors (commonsense living, artistic expression, and scientific inquiry) that discover truths. Because it is a study of human behavior (i.e. knowing and acting), philosophy culminates in or boils down to ethics and politics; that is, to the examined life both personal and collective. Thus philosophy becomes a guide to the perplexed; that is, to those of us in daily living, artistic appreciation, and scientific inquiry searching for truth. Yes, it is foolish to ignore the commonsense of social leaders, the expressions of great artists, the collective knowledge of the scientific community. But it is also foolish to accept their pronouncements and especially their directions uncritically as we shape our personal lives and public policy.

So to respond to Pontius Pilate and Chris Hedges, what is truth and has it died? Truth is neither absolute as the naive realists would have us believe, nor owned by those who dominate the social order whom the naive realists often unintentionally support. Those who assume that truth is what they believe, those who assume that the truth is what the authorities (whether in government, academia, or religion) think and say, and those who object to putting "truths" out there for the public to examine are indeed killing truth by blocking the ongoing communal search for truth. 

George Orwell in his "1984" described the state in which the search for truth had ended and so truth was dead. It is the state of telescreens, social creeds, doublespeak, memory holes, newspeak, and endless war by terrorists. It is the state where those who question and dissent are considered enemies of the people to be punished or are mad and need treatment. Pontius Pilate relativizes and absolutizes truth by making it the province of the mighty as well as a dangerous deception. Chris Hedges, I think, is Orwell challenging that newly prevalent notion and action by returning truth to the public. Where it belongs.