The Brookings Institute published an essay “Covering Politics in a Post-Truth America” referring to the campaign and character of the current American President. Some observers blame our post-truth nation, evident in the total disregard for facts and evidence in political statements, on our “postmodern” culture.
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, i.e. 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.”
In politics, this modern culture reached its extreme in whatAyn Randpreached as “objectivism.” Objectivism becomes the philosophy of the individual who can obtain reality without any help and certainly without giving any help to others. Mind is a clean slate that is written on by objects that are absolute, permanent without any human or divine intervention. And individual self-interest, the aggrandizement of life is the essence of happiness, the goal of every individual self. Capitalism as economic and political theory and practice is founded on objectivism. Objectivism neglects the social and constructive dimensions of existence.
The objectivistic assumption of modernity is undone in the postmodern world.
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. Knowing is a progressive, communal dialogue with nature in which both mind and world change. Thinking is not totally rational or objective but uses feelings and poetic forms to perceive and understand the world. All knowledge, including science with its method of verification by evidence and peer review, is provisional and subject to reform.
Modernity taught that reality could be reached through human inquiry (perhaps guided by divine revelation). Postmodernity teaches that knowledge and reality are not certain. There are no absolute truths achievable by humans or gods. This reframes Pilate’s question. The question is not what truth is but is there truth at all.
It is a supreme irony that modernity’s commitment to objective truth by neglecting or denying the socially constructive nature of the enterprise becomes a major obstacle in the quest for truth. Rational objectivism results in a cover-up of specious activities to undermine truth. It separates science as well as religion from politics by distinguishing not only methods of knowing, but also different truths. Truth is manufactured without attempt to question, falsify, and ultimately verify positions, propositions, and formulas. The stories of religion, like those of poetry and good prose, are divested of meaning by treating them as literal and invariable. These propositions are then removed from the queries of history, archeology, and social sciences which produced them. And politics becomes, as a recent article in the New Yorker labels it, a “Lie Factory.”
In a postmodern culture, there are (at least) three responses to the question of truth. 1) Reject the postmodern insight and return back to the culture of real fixed truths self-evident or revealed by the gods. 2) Adopt cynical nihilism in which all things are permitted. And 3) Try progressive inquiry based on evidence and discourse with others.
Cynical nihilism makes our postmodern world into a post-truth world. Fake news is manufactured and spread; Data does not matter. Opinion dominates over facts. Leaders affirm or deny things without evidence. Business and politics are games concerned with winning over losing. Marketing to consumers replaces engaging people in decision making.
The postmodern turn rejects the absolute or what John Dewey call the “objectivistic fallacy.” It accepts what physicist Ilya Prigoginecalls the “end of certainty.” 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 it. It is offered in our limited present for the inquiry of future generations. Knowledge is a process of ongoing inquiry, experiment, and verification.
A case in point is a warming earth. If any science has the element of randomness and indeterminacy, it is meteorology. Geophysical scientists continue to collect data and revise their models. But to deny the consensus of 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. And to confuse truth with the convenient or the conventional, whether in science, art, religion, or politics, is morally reprehensible.
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. Farm managers and workers argue against restrictions on tobacco or harmful pesticides. Civilians might consider that restrictions on driving automobiles or using guns are unnecessary. But to pretend that climate change, lung cancer, or preventable gun death are hoaxes is downright irresponsible.
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 critical thinking is so important. And we need to resist the truths that are uttered without thinking. We have learned in our postmodern age that truth is crucial to the collaborative 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.
If there are no absolutes and no certainty, the quest for truth is a matter of faith, hope, and love. Sure, cynical nihilism is a rational choice. The belief that the quest for truth and the desire for meaning is meaningless prompts us to live only for ourselves. That belief makes charity and justice ridiculous, nonsensical aspirations. Nihilism, like true belief, annihilates the transcendent dimension of humanity — the desire to know, the desire to love, the desire to give to the future.
As Pascal indicated, the choice between nihilism and transcendence is a wager. But, contra Pascal, it is the choice itself that makes one or the other so. Consider the quest for truth in science and politics a futile endeavor and it becomes so. However, if we act as though that there is purpose, meaning, and future to the human experiment, we will discover and create such a future for humanity. You can bet on it.