monograph · The Skeptical Razor
Truth in a Post-Truth Age
Michael P. Lynch
Truth, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, is rarely pure and never simple. Given everything that has happened over the last year—from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump the U.S. presidency—you could be excused for wondering if it exists at all. As more than one commentator has noted, we seem to be living in a “post-truth” society where lies are tolerated and facts are ignored.
So what is truth, anyway?
That’s a question so philosophical as to seem rhetorical. But it is not rhetorical. As today’s dark political situation makes clear, it is an absolutely fundamental political question. Reflecting on this question—on what truth is, can help us see why truth still matters for democracy.
When we ask about the nature of truth, we are usually interested in what makes a belief or statement true (and others false). Unsurprisingly philosophers (being, you know, philosophers) have been divided. Historically speaking, two ideas, each organized around a central metaphor, stand out.
The first idea is that true statements are like maps. The roadmap Google pulls up on your phone is accurate when it represents the roads as they are, and inaccurate when it doesn’t. In the same way, the thought goes, a statement is true when it corresponds to the facts as they are. Truth is found; it is a matter of correspondence to the world.
The correspondence theory is an old idea, going back to Aristotle. But it is not without problems. The prevailing objection echoes Wilde: the theory seems to make truth too plain and simple. It may be plausible when we are talking about physical things in our immediate environment: roads and bridges, roses and bees. But most of the statements we make are riddled with value judgments, and it is harder to see statements about values as maps. That’s because statements like “deporting immigrants is morally wrong” aren’t empirically verifiable. You can’t verify it in a lab—which is precisely what makes some think that political or moral truth is a philosophers’ fantasy.
But such cynicism is unwarranted and dangerous. Give up on the thought that there is any truth in values or politics and you give up on both the idea that people can make moral and political progress and the idea that they can make moral and political mistakes. You can’t make sense of political progress without the idea of truth because to make such progress requires that a culture has improved in its political judgment. What was once thought true (racism) is now known to be false. We must appeal to truth to understand that we got it wrong, and to remind ourselves that we may still have it wrong.
This last point is doubtless what is most salient to us now. As George Orwell knew, without the idea of truth, we can no longer make sense of talking truth to power. Political criticism becomes just an expression of sentiment, not something that can be justified by, or defeated by, evidence.
So the correspondence theory of truth is promising, but it fails to explain political and moral truth. And that can, sadly, encourage people to be cynical about the possibility of such truth.
It has also encouraged other thinker to construe truth as something else entirely, to see it as a coherent story that we all agree on. According to this second view, true statements are those that fit into a workable narrative, one that we can use to explain things to ourselves and others. False statements are those that don’t fit, that we can’t use, which run up against the other things we believe. Call this the coherence theory of truth.
There is something right about the coherence theory. Not all statements are like little maps. Statements about values and politics are more like stories; very messy, disorderly stories with which we weave the fabric of much our lives.
But the mere coherence of a story can’t by itself make it true. That’s because you can make any story internally coherent as long as you are willing to say enough crazy stuff. Nonetheless, there has been a disturbing tendency in both the US and certain parts of Europe to mistake coherent narratives for truth. This is a tendency that has only been encouraged by social media – plaforms that encourage coherence by wrapping our communications into tightly formed webs or “social networks” of like-thinking individuals. It is incredibly easy—too easy—to achieve coherence on platforms that, by their very design, encourage consensus. If we make our political claims only to our friends and fellow travelers, then it is no wonder we are lulled into thinking that their unchallenged internal coherence makes them true.
Mistaking mere internal coherence for truth is a grave mistake, just as it is a mistake to think that all truth must be a matter of correspondence with a physical world. The truth about political truth is that it is a combination of both.
To be true a political narrative has to more than internally coherent; it also must cohere with what else we know about the world. It has to be nailed down to the outside facts. White supremacists can (maybe) tell an internally coherent story about what they value; but their whole story isn’t true because it contains assumptions like “science tells us nonwhites aren’t as intelligent as whites”. And that sort of statement would have to correspond to certain measurable facts in the world were it to be true. (Newsflash: it doesn’t).
In short, we need both metaphors: stories and maps. Truth is not just about making up coherent stories, but it is not always about charting the world either. Truth can come in more than one form; but it is still real for all that.
There is an important lesson here. When it comes to values, aiming at truth is as important as it is in science, even if it is messier, greyer, more confusing. But it is a mistake to think that our stories of values are wholly separate from what else we believe about the world. The coherent narratives we weave about justice and values can be true, as long as they also fit whatever evidence the world supplies. Of course, knowing when that happens is the hard part, especially—as is the case in our polarized, digital society—we don’t agree on what “evidence” is. But while that’s so, it doesn’t excuse us from taking truth and evidence seriously, and from holding others to account for not doing so.
Truth is a complicated and distant target; one that is difficult to know you’ve hit. But there is value in even aiming at it; and we must continue to do so, while there are still arrows left in our quiver.
Michael P. Lynch
Michael P. Lynch is the author of the Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data; a professor of philosophy, he directs the UConn Humanities Institute’s project, Humility & Conviction in Public Life.