Truth in a Post-Truth Age

Last week BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series of 15 minute podcasts over five days on the topic of Truth. It was noticeable that each of the five podcasts mentioned Donald Trump in one context or another, who seems to have become synonymous with the idea that the world is suffering from an epidemic of truth decay. In the first podcast we were told that an analysis of Trump’s tweets have shown that he misleads the public 7.6 times a day (this did make me wonder what counts as a 0.6 deception). However, having listened to the five podcasts (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bjz95t), it is clear that whilst Trump might be the current and most spectacular symptom of post-truth America, he is not the sole cause (Kurt Anderson, Episode 2).

The series was launched with a podcast by Dr Kathryn Murphy, Fellow in English at Oriel College, Oxford, who examined the striking contemporary parallels between Sir Francis Bacon’s 1620s essay ‘On Truth’ with today’s pressing issues. In his time, Bacon protested against ‘corrupt lovers of the lie’ and classified the intellectual fallacies of his time under four categories which he called idols:

  • Idols of the tribe – common tendencies of the human race to exaggeration, distortion and disproportion. Bacon diagnosed confirmation bias before the term existed.
  • Idols of the cave – within the mind of the individual. These are the blinkers and silos of our identities which blind us to different points of view.
  • Idols of the market place – errors arising from the false significance bestowed upon words, the imprecision of words and slippery terminology. Bacon thus anticipated the science of semantics.
  • Idols of the theatre – the human tendency to adopt authority uncritically.

Kathryn Murphy’s question was – doesn’t this all seem very familiar? In other words, this is not the first time in history that there has been confusion about the meaning of truth. But she also suggested that we might now need to add Idols of the algorithm to Bacon’s list, to name new confusions.

Bacon advocated writing in aphorisms to give us brief glimpses of possible truths which would demand active engagement, probing and testing what is read. In a post-truth world it is not that truth is dead, but that too many people refuse to engage critically with truth and test ideas. Could a tweet act like an aphorism?

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 1)

We live, we keep being told, in a “post-truth” world, suffering an epidemic of “truth decay”, but we are not the first to fear information overload, disinformation and fake news.

‘In the 1620s, the statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon opened the final edition of his Essayes, which had been the first book of their kind in English when first published in 1597, with an essay entitled  ‘Of Truth’.

He was driven by his own personal political woes but also by the preoccupations of his era: rapidly changing technology (the telescope and microscope made the world feel at once bigger and smaller); America and its inhabitants challenging European understanding and sense of identity; passionately opposing factions continuing the arguments of the Reformation; war in Europe forcing the question of just how far Britain should get involved in the Continent; and – to spread the news and unrest about it – the first organised distribution of newspapers in England had just begun.

In the second podcast in the series, Kurt Andersen, author of ‘Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History’, discusses America’s ‘iffy’ relationship with reason, rationality and empirical truth. This was an interesting podcast for a non-American, such as myself. Andersen suggested that America was created from scratch by dreamers, gold hunters and the promise of Eldorado. It was a blank slate new world for wishful thinking and fantasy, shaped by natural selection of those willing to believe in advertising eagerness and to credit the untrue because it was exciting.

In the mid 20th century America’s immersion in fantasy accelerated with the arrival of Disneyland and TV which enhanced the unreal and make-believe.  For three centuries America’s gatekeepers managed to relegate ‘nonsense’ to the fringes, but by the 1960s, they lost the will and ability to keep true and false separate. From the 1960s onwards, America (and from my perspective, not only America) has seen the growth of extreme individualism, the pursuit of happiness above all, and undiscriminating acceptance of all understanding of reality. During this time, large numbers of academics have moved away from reason and a scientific world view, to a social construction of reality in which all is equally true and false and the paradigm is one of anything goes. Factual reality is now just one option. Americans feel entitled to their own facts as well as their own opinions.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 2)

As he unpicks the fantastical beliefs that run through America’s past and present, the writer and broadcaster Kurt Andersen asks if the US is now entering a post-truth era.

The author of Fantasyland and co-founder of Spy magazine, Kurt has spent many decades separating fact and fiction and in this essay he explores the historical roots of America’s weakness for alternative realities.

From the religious visions of the Pilgrim Fathers and Joseph Smith, to the showbiz dreams of PT Barnum and Walt Disney, the proliferation of conspiracy theories and the new age of virtual reality and internet chat rooms, Kurt tells the story of a nation in which fantasy and reality have long been intertwined.

In Episode 3, Juliet Samuel discusses the role of markets in defining truth.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 3)

In the depths of the financial crisis of 2008, American bankers-turned-regulators met to discuss plans to restore market confidence by injecting vast quantities of cash into the failing system. “What about $1 trillion?” , Neel Kashkari is reported to have suggested. “We’ll get killed,” Hank Paulson is said to have replied. And so the figure of $700 billion was agreed, the biggest bailout in history calculated not on market truths but on political realities.

Juliet Samuel writes for The Daily Telegraph and in this essay she looks back at the recent history of financial markets to ask whether markets really are, as many economists believe, vast mechanisms geared towards discovering truth – the true price of assets, the true risks and rewards of investment and therefore the most efficient allocation of cash.

As she considers financial market failures such as the 2008 crash and the euro crisis, Juliet argues that, ultimately, there is still a compelling reason for believing that markets are as close to economic truth as we can get and it is almost impossible to beat them. Investors who try to do so, so-called “active managers” who are probably managing some of your pension fund right now, have consistently failed to get to the truth more accurately than the market. What we are learning is how and when markets can discover the truth – and when it’s simply undiscoverable.

The fourth podcast was presented by Pankaj Mishra, who discussed Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography – ‘The story of my experiments in truth’. Gandhi always kept an open mind and thought that there were at least seven points of view, but that they were not all correct at the same time and in the same circumstances.

The focus of this podcast was on the necessity, as expressed by both Ghandi and Nietzsche, to recognise that human beings can only know partial and contingent truths and perspectives; there are a multiplicity of truths and perspectives. Nietzsche thought rational truth an illusion.

In our post-truth age we agree to agree because we share the same perspective, not because of rational truth. We advance our own truth claims with our own biases and live in echo chambers which are amplified by social media. There has been ethical and epistemological breakdown, with people entrenched in different value systems and viciously hostile to each other’s truths. We rationalise and justify anything at the expense of ordinary reality. But we don’t have to remain imprisoned by our biases.

Gandhi’s message was that to see/find truth we must be prepared to hear the other side, but he rejected all claims of objective truths. Relative truth was his beacon and he thought relative truth was best found in action. We must hold fast to truth by exploring the attitudes and motives of our opponents. Man is not capable of knowing absolute truth and therefore not competent to punish. Truth in action does not admit a violence inflicted on one’s opponent. The golden rule is mutual toleration. We will never all think alike. It is openness of mind that strengthens truth in us.

Gandhi realised that an age of pluralism has the potential to degenerate into an age of nihilism.  For him truth is too important to be left to politicians, technocrats, journalists and the like. We must all strive for truth in our everyday practices of altruism, humility, compassion and self-evaluation.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 4)

Mahatma Gandhi wrote “Devotion to this Truth is the sole justification for our existence. All our activities should be centred in Truth. Truth should be the very breath of our life.”

The final podcast in this series was by Simon Blackburn, author of the ‘Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy’ and until his retirement Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University.

Simon Blackburn’s message was that even in a post-truth world we are pretty good at judging what is true. For example, we know when it is safe to cross the road and we know that not everyone should be trusted equally about everything. On the whole we grow into being good, practical epistemologists. But we find it difficult to settle doubt ourselves. We dismiss inconvenient facts and find conspiracy theories irresistible . Bewilderment about where truth lies can be quick to set in.

Blackburn claims that the issues are more verbal than substantive. We find ways of describing things difficult. All our terms can be controversial and contested. He quotes Charles Sanders Peirce as saying that we must not begin by talking of pure ideas, we must begin with men and their conversation. We shouldn’t lose ourselves in abstract thoughts about truth, thought and reason, but look at the actual uses of words to sift out descriptions that really matter. Some descriptions have consequences and some sources of information are more trustworthy.

So long as we have thoughts and beliefs at all, we have notions of truth and falsity.

Truth beckons but it does need careful wooing. If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 5)

“In simple affairs of life we’re often pretty good at judging what’s true. We have designed, tested and trusted instruments to help detect whether an electrical circuit is live, whether there is petrol in the car or pressure in the tyres. Given this background of success, it is perhaps surprising to find how often scepticism about truth and about our capacities has reared its head in the history of human thought…”

So where does this series of podcasts leave us.

It seems that truth decay has happened before in history and is likely to re-occur in eras of information overload when there is a blizzard of information and disinformation and conspiracy theories can gain traction. Perhaps America’s history, in which fantasy and reality have long been intertwined, makes it particularly susceptible to truth decay, which given its position of power in the world, cannot be good for the rest of us. Financial markets can be equally irrational and unpredictable. According to Juliet Samuel, economic and financial truth is a constantly moving target and cannot remove the next crisis.

This all sounds like doom and gloom with no hope for finding truth. But as McGilchrist says (he would have been a good addition to the programme), this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to seek truth or a multiplicity of truths. For Gandhi this requires action in every day practices of altruism, humility, compassion and self-evaluation. For Simon Blackburn it requires sifting out descriptions that really matter and sources of information that are more trustworthy.

We shouldn’t give up on seeking truth. The word ‘true’ suggests a relationship between things and is related to the word trust.

McGilchrist tells us in his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World)  that Heidegger related truth to ‘unconcealing’. It is come at by a process, a coming into being of something. It is an act, a journey, not a thing. It has degrees. It is found by removing things, rather than putting things together. Truth is process, not object.

From my perspective this means that we have work to do.  We must critically engage with it. This must surely have implications for how we live our lives in this post-truth age.

There are No Things. There are patterns.

As we can see from his website, Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,  is working on a number of further books, but the one that he talked to us about on the Field & Field course that I recently attended in the Cotswolds, was the one which bears the title: ‘There are No Things’, a book on epistemology and metaphysics.

Iain told us that this follow up book to The Master and his Emissary will focus on how everything is changing, flowing, connected and never fixed. He told us that if we could slow things down enough we would be able to see the mountain behind his house flowing.

Source of image: http://player.lush.com/tv/matter-relative-matter-iain-mcgilchrist

Iain’s new book will make the case for no static and separate things, but instead relationships and patterns. For me, this brings to mind Stephen Downes’ work on the theory of connectivism and an early article that he wrote on his blog in 2009, where he wrote:

[Knowledge] is not an object (or objective), it is not discrete, it is not a causal agent. It is emergent, which means that it exists only by virtue of a process of recognition [pattern recognition], as a matter of subjective interpretation. 

  • Knowledge is not an object, but a series of flows; it is a process, not a product.
  • It is produced not in the minds of people but in the interactions between people.
  • The idea of acquiring knowledge as a series of truths, is obsolete

Even earlier than this in 2007  Stephen was writing about connectivism as follows:

At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.

It shares with some other theories a core proposition, that knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing (https://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html)

The first time I heard Iain speak he told us that his follow up book to The Master and his Emissary would be a book entitled: The Porcupine is a Monkey.  The intention was to write ‘a popular Master and his Emissary’, a book that would discuss how science and education have become increasingly left-brained, but this book has been abandoned. He felt it would be repeating much of the work he has already done.

So Iain has moved away from an explicit focus on education, although clearly his work has implications for education, but Stephen has addressed how connectivism might influence pedagogy. He has written that connectivism:

… implies a pedagogy that (a) seeks to describe ‘successful’ networks (as identified by their properties, which I have characterized as diversity, autonomy, openness, and connectivity) and (b) seeks to describe the practices that lead to such networks, both in the individual and in society (which I have characterized as modeling and demonstration (on the part of a teacher) and practice and reflection (on the part of a learner)). https://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html 

But both authors, as philosophers, are interested in the relationship between knowledge and ‘truth’.

Iain told us that the first part of his new book will attempt to answer the question of what we mean by ‘truth’. In the Master and his Emissary he writes

‘Truth is a process.’ (McGilchrist, p.154).

‘No single truth does not mean no truth.’ (McGilchrist, p.150).

‘The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’. If we had no concept of truth, we could not state anything at all, and it would even be pointless to act. There would be no purpose, for example, in seeking the advice of doctors, since there would be no point in having their opinion, and no basis for their view that one treatment was better than another. None of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.’ (McGilchrist, p.150)

Stephen, in one of the quotes above, doesn’t write about a single truth so I am not sure what he thinks about this or whether or not he and Iain would agree about what we mean by truth. But it does seem to me that they agree on some epistemological positions, principally that ‘One must never [] lose sight of the interconnected nature of things’ (McGilchrist, p.154). The importance of patterns, relations and processes seem to be recognised by both.

The work of both authors work has implications for education, epistemology, and understanding our world and our existence.

16-03-2018 Update: Stephen Downes’ responds (Thank you).

I’ve said in the past that knowledge is recognition, and if I were pressed to describe what I think truth is, I would say that it is a strong feeling of recognition. This I think is consistent with what the early empiricists (like David Hume) would say. Formally, truth is an attitude toward a proposition: we say that a propositoon is ‘true’ or ‘not true’ and then try to explain that through an interpretation (such as Tarski’s theory of truth, or model theory, or some such thing). That makes truth easier to work with, but only because it abstracts the messier reality. Having said all this, I think this puts me in accord with Iain McGilchrist, cited by Jenny Mackness in this article, when he says things like ‘No single truth does not mean no truth.’ http://www.downes.ca/post/67894 

16-03-2018 Update

See also notes from last years course – Where we can go for Truth – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/08/31/exploring-the-divided-brain-where-can-we-go-for-truth/

Exploring the Divided Brain – Where can we go for truth?

21st August 2016 am – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 3 (am)

This is the fifth in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

 

Where can we go for truth? (Some thoughts about the question of what constitutes truth)

I think this may have been a repeat of the Laing Lecture that Iain gave earlier in the year at Regent College in Vancouver. It bore the same title. I can’t find a video recording of that lecture, but the introductory text on the web page  is …

How do we think about truth? Where do we go to find it? While science and reason have undeniable power to disclose many aspects of reality, they do not reveal everything. In this lecture, Iain McGilchrist explains why we cannot rely only on the reports of science or the power of rational argument and demonstrates that it is both unscientific and irrational to do so.

… and these were the same topics and questions that Iain covered in our session.

How do we think about truth? Iain’s answer was that if there is a God (and for him God is a process, an eternal becoming) then how can we stop ourselves thinking about truth, but he believes there is no definitive answer to this question.

On reflection I wonder if underpinning all Iain’s work is a search for an understanding of the meaning of ‘God’ (and here I use the word ‘God’ for want of an alternative). As he writes on p.150 of the Master and his Emissary, ‘Things are not whatever we care to make them. There is something that exists apart from our own minds’… and on p.151, he writes, ‘[Truth]is an act, a journey, not a thing. It has degrees. It is found by removing things, rather than putting things together.’

For the left hemisphere where understanding is built up from parts, there is objective evidence for truth, but for the right hemisphere, truth is derived from the whole and can only ever be provisional (p.142, The Master and his Emissary).

Where shall we go for truth? Iain suggested that we go to the beauty and awe-inspiring magic of the non-academic, non-religious natural world, where opposites tend to coincide as much as disperse and where intuition and insight is more directly compelling than reason. Reason, he said, is the endless paperwork of the mind, but for truth uncertainty is essential.

We cannot go to science for truth. Science cannot fulfil the role of purveyor of truth. Good science is always aware of its limitations, but science cannot discover the purpose of life nor tell us about God’s nature or existence and science promotes the use of models. There is always a model whether we are aware of it or not, but the model we choose determines what we find.

Science places a high value on precision, but what about things we cannot be precise about, where apparent opposites come together? Science passes over entities that cannot be measured; it takes things out of context and decontextualizes the problem. We put our faith in science because it is seen to be objective, but science is not value free. A lot of scientific research is not adequately designed; we know that the Hawthorne effect can influence scientific results and positive findings are more likely to be published than negative ones. We can’t ask science to do what it can’t do. A hypothesis cannot be proved nor disproved. Each comes with many assumptions. Proof used to mean a trial run (as in a printed proof).

Science cannot provide us with dependable ultimate truths. It’s not pointless, but it does not provide us with reliable truth. Philosophy equally has problems with notions of intuition, uncertainty, rationality, reason and the complexity of truth.

Iain quoted Edmund Burke as saying – ‘It is the nature of all greatness not to be exact’, and Rabindranath Tagore:

Tagore

Source of image

Truth is not a proposition but a disposition towards the world. It is related to trust and what one believes. Belief is not signing up to a proposition but about a relationship. Truth and belief used to be embodied. We can’t passively wait for them. We have to make a move to meet them. There is no fail-safe path to truth.

Iain believes that truth has intrinsic value not just instrumental value. He mentioned but disagreed with Pascal’s wager. Pascal proposed that whether or not there is a God, we should live our lives as though there is one – just to be on the safe side! Iain believes truth is a moral value, like beauty and goodness. It is not a human convention. There will be truth when we are no longer around to see it. The pursuit of truth is greater than the possession of truth. Potential is greater than actuality.

Personal Reflection

I don’t remember God being mentioned on last year’s course as much as on this year’s course and it was interesting to hear Iain describe briefly what ‘God’ means to him. There was virtually no explicit reference to religion during the course. It seemed to me that the word ‘God’ was being used to identify or name ideas for which there is no adequate universally agreed explanation.

Reflecting on this session I remember that I have, in the past, done my fair share of searching for answers to the question of what is life all about and thinking that there must be more to it than all this. I was a child of the 60s (actually I wasn’t a child, I was already in my twenties), so I followed the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, owned a copy of the I Ching and practised meditation, before becoming dissatisfied and moving on to ‘religion’ (Christianity), with which, after a few year, I became equally dissatisfied.

I also remember that in the 90s when doing an MA in Education I read and wrote about the meaning of truth in relation to an assignment on research methods. On digging out this assignment, I find it includes these quotes:

‘No finitely describable system, or finite language, can prove all truths. Truth cannot fully be caught in a finite net’ (Nagel & Newman quoting Godel’s Theorem, 1959).

‘… there can be many points of view, or many faces of truth, some even mutually contradictory, and yet all equally real in the potential sense …’ (Zohar & Marshall, 1994).

So on reflection I can see that questions about truth have accompanied my life since my twenties and maybe even before, which perhaps explains my interest in Iain McGilchrist’s work and why it resonates. Having said that, what I like about Iain’s work is that whilst it makes reference to spirituality, it is more about how the right and left hemispheres view the world than about ‘God’ or religion. As he writes in The Master and his Emissary (p.92)

‘There is not likely to be ‘a God spot’ in the brain, and the area is fraught with problems of terminology and methodology: but there are areas that are often implicated as accompaniments of religious experience.‘

It’s not religion, but the idea of being able to see the ‘big picture’ and what it means to have an open mind that intrigues me.

 

Authors/people referred to during the session

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Sir William Empson (1930). Seven Types of Ambiguity

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

Edmund Burke 

Rabindranath Tagore

 

Authors/philosophers who have most influenced Iain’s thinking

Of most interest for Iain is Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE)

Heidegger (1889-1976) – a struggle but a revelation

Hegel (1770-1831) – also a struggle but a revelation

The early and late phases of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work (1889-1951)

Friedrich Nietzsche  (1844-1900)

Scheler (1874-1928) – difficult

Mary Midgley – a modern philosopher – born 1919

John Cutting – psychiatrist and author

Louis Sass (1994) Madness and Modernism. Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought. Harvard University Press.

The work of A. N. Whitehead (1861-1947) on God and the Cosmos