Is this re­ally a post-truth world?

The Guardian Australia - - Science - Ju­lian Bag­gini

The prom­ise of the truth has al­ways been al­lur­ing. The mostquoted Gospel verse on evan­gel­i­cal posters and lit­er­a­ture is John 14:6, in which Je­sus pro­claims: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” It res­onates be­cause we all have a sense that truth is some­how es­sen­tial to liv­ing well. If your life turns out to have been built on noth­ing but lies, it is as though it has not been real.

Paris is the cap­i­tal of France, Ge­orge Washington was the first pres­i­dent of the United States, water is H2O… There are in­nu­mer­able truths like this, which only id­iots or ob­tuse aca­demics (of­ten thought to be the same thing) would deny.

Some­how, how­ever, the truth has ceased to be plain or sim­ple. In­deed, it is not un­com­mon to hear peo­ple deny that there is any such thing as the truth at all, only opin­ions: what is “true for you” or “true for me”. The prob­lem is not that we lack a proper un­der­stand­ing of what “truth” means. For prac­ti­cal pur­poses, it is hard to im­prove on Aris­to­tle’s early def­i­ni­tion: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false; while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”

If that sounds ob­vi­ous, per­haps it’s be­cause there’s noth­ing mys­te­ri­ous about the or­di­nary mean­ing of truth.

Our prob­lem is not pri­mar­ily with what truth means but how and by whom truth is es­tab­lished. Truth used to seem sim­ple be­cause it was easy to as­sume that most of what we thought to be true re­ally was true, that things were as they seemed, that the wis­dom passed down the gen­er­a­tions was time­less.

This sim­plic­ity has been eroded by a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent forces. Sci­ence shows us that much of what we think about how the world works is false, and that we are even mis­taken about the work­ings of our own minds. The pace of its de­vel­op­ment has left us ques­tion­ing whether to­day’s or­tho­doxy will be to­mor­row’s out­dated fal­lacy.

The open­ness of demo­cratic so­ci­eties has also al­lowed the free press to ex­pose more and more of what goes on in the cor­ri­dors of power, mak­ing us in­creas­ingly aware of the ways in which we are de­ceived. Truth has be­come much less plain and sim­ple, but I see no ev­i­dence that most peo­ple have ceased to be­lieve in it. Peo­ple re­main as out­raged by lies as they ever have done.

That’s why talk of a “post-truth” so­ci­ety is mis­guided. We wouldn’t even be talk­ing about post-truth if we didn’t think truth mattered. The world is nei­ther ready nor will­ing to say good­bye to truth, even in pol­i­tics, where it some­times seems as though it has al­ready taken its leave.

The an­ti­dote is not a re­turn to the com­fort of sim­ple truths.

To re­build be­lief in the power and value of truth, we can’t dodge its com­plex­ity. Truths can be and of­ten are dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand, dis­cover, ex­plain, ver­ify. They are also dis­turbingly easy to hide, dis­tort, abuse or twist. Of­ten we can­not claim with any cer­tainty to know the truth. We need to take stock of the var­i­ous kinds of real and sup­posed truths out there and un­der­stand how to test their au­then­tic­ity.

His­tory and phi­los­o­phy can be our guides, the former en­abling us to see how the idea of truth has ac­tu­ally been used and abused, the lat­ter help­ing us to see how it should ide­ally be. They can also show us that with hon­est in­tent and clar­ity of mind, we can guard against such mis­use and see that the claim that we live in a post-truth world is the most per­ni­cious un­truth of them all. It serves the in­ter­ests of those who have the most to fear from the truth, plain and sim­ple or not.

A Short His­tory of Truthby Ju­lian Bag­gini is pub­lished by Quer­cus on 21 Septem­ber, £9.99. Or­der it for £7.49 at­book­shop.the­guardian.com

The world is nei­ther ready nor will­ing to say good­bye to truth – even in pol­i­tics

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