Why Truth Matters

No 568 Posted by fw September 15, 2012

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” ―Aldous HuxleyComplete Essays 2, 1926-29

In my post The politics of flagrant lying in U.S. elections, (September 10, 2012), I cited the host of an Aljazeera weekly video program who, in his introduction to a segment entitled, The Politics of Telling the Truth, asks – “Living in a post-factual America, does the truth even matter anymore when the prize for winning this election is the White House?

As the program goes on to evidence, it appears truth matters not at all in post-factual America. In the words of a Republican pollster: “We are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.

Well, truth may not matter that much to Romney, Ryan, Obama and many other U.S. (and Canadian) politicians, but it certainly matters to Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom co-authors of Why Truth Matters, Continuum Books, 2006.

To help explain why truth matters to Britons Benson and Stangroom, below are selected extracts from the final chapter (8) of their book, also titled, by the way, Why Truth Matters. The subheadings, added hyperlinks and text highlighting are mine. (I have not bothered to use ellipsis or to indicate gaps between the selections but they are in the same order as they appear in the book).

Ophelia Benson & Jeremy Stangroom

Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

Selections

REASON 1 — Truth matters because we are the only species that has the ability to discover it

Why does truth matter? It matters because we are the only species we know of that has the ability to find it out. In a way, that makes it almost a duty to do so. A duty imposed by no one, for which we don’t have to answer – but a kind of duty all the same.

However, some people prefer to protect their illusions

However, not everyone sees the matter that way. It’s a human impulse to try to understand and investigate, but it’s also a human impulse to try to protect our illusions, or at least a little breathing room for our illusions; to keep some possibility of optimism, which can often seem to require the kind of blurring or minimization of truth.

The Left seems to have a built-in motivation to improve social ills

There is a political dimension to this impulse. To the extent that the Left is committed to hopes for improving the intractable social ills that have tormented humans as far back as we can see – inequality, exploitation, injustice, violence – it seems to have built-in motivation for wanting to be hopeful about the future.

Social ills tend not to be on the Right’s radar

People who are less worried about social ills – because they happen elsewhere, to other people, or are better than they used to be, or are necessary for the economy, or are just generally not on the radar – are more willing to think the future will be much like the present only with more electronics.

REASON 2 — Truth matters when it liberates us from postmodernist, emotionally charged, rhetorical flimflam

Postmodernism has eroded public belief in reason, evidence, logic and argument

Thus if postmodernism  – [postmodernism is based on the position that reality is not mirrored in human understanding of it, but is rather constructed as the mind tries to understand its own personal reality] – has busily eroded public belief in reason, evidence, logic and argument for the past 40 years or so, as it has, then all too often it is the case that rhetoric is all that’s in play. And behold, it wins, even though the other side has the better case. All rhetoric has to do to win is convince people, it doesn’t have to do it legitimately.

‘Facts’, according to postmodernism, are held to be ‘relative’ to the speaker or group

So epistemic relativism – [facts used to establish the truth or falsehood of any statement are understood to be relative to the perspective of those proving or falsifying the proposition] — makes possible a world where bad arguments and no evidence are helped to win public discussions over justified arguments and good evidence. This is emancipatory? Not in our view. It is not emancipatory because it helps emotive rhetoric to prevail over reason and evidence, which means it helps falsehood to prevail over truth. Being trapped in a world where lies can’t be countered seems a strange idea of emancipation.

But how is justice to be served where there are just “points of view” alongside doubt that ‘evidence’ is even possible or attainable?

If postmodernism amounts to a thoroughgoing doubt that ‘evidence’ is possible or attainable, along with doubt-free respect and attentions for points of view, then what is to prevent extrajudicial but destructive and punitive show trials from being staged whenever anyone has a grievance no matter how ill-founded?

Too much attention to “points of view” with too little scepticism can get innocent people convicted of crimes, on the basis of testimony from people with “points of view” but no evidence. A number of US court cases dealing with putative recovered memory, Satanic ritual abuse and child abuse in day-care facilities have achieved just such a result in the past two decades. Law-enforcement officials and juries were solemnly instructed to “listen to the children”, and long prison sentences were handed out to people who were not, in fact, Satanists or secret child-murders. The dangers seem obvious, but not everyone sees them.

Historian Eric Hobsbawm feels a personal responsibility to rebut those who hold that “there is no clear difference between fact and fiction.” In the interests of social justice, truth does matter, as he illustrates

[British historian] Eric Hobsbawm used to think, he says, that the profession of history “could at least do no harm” but now he knows it can. Historians’ studies can turn into bomb factories. Thus historians have “a responsibility to historical facts in general” and to criticize the “politico-ideological abuse of history in particular.” He is obliged to talk about this responsibility partly because of “the rise of ‘postmodernist’ intellectual fashions in Western universities which imply that “there is no clear difference between fact and fiction.”

But there is [a difference], and for historians, even the most militantly anti-positivist ones among us, the ability to distinguish between the two is absolutely fundamental. We cannot invent our facts … Either the present Turkish government, which denies the attempted genocide of the Armenians in 1925, is right or it is not.

These and many other attempts to replace history by myth and invention are not merely bad intellectual jokes. After all, they can determine what goes into textbooks, as the Japanese authorities knew, when they insisted on a sanitized version of the Japanese war in China for use in Japanese classrooms.

Historical accounts must be better, i.e., more truthful, regardless of the outcome

The only way to counter historical lies, distortions, misrepresentations and disguises is with better accounts: better because more truthful. There is certainly no guarantee that the truth of the matter will be what one wants to hear, but the only alternative to trying to get at the truth is simply allowing exculpatory fictions to flourish. That outcome tends to outrage the many victims of historical atrocities.

Postmodernist fashion – or should we say ‘fiction’ – is afoot and real tyranny is being unleashed

But the idea is abroad – partly due to that “rise of postmodernist fashion” in universities – that in fact anti-realism, general skepticism (except about one’s own truth-claims), anti-scientism are indeed emancipatory, that the power of science, rational enquiry, logic, and evidence to get at the truth is a kind of tyranny, and something we need liberation from.

But the real tyranny is being required to let humans – the community, the mullahs, the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention [and, may I add, the politicians] – decide what the truth is independent of the evidence – cut free from the facts of the world. That’s tyranny for you.

Rhetoric alone, absent evidence, is not liberating

Rhetoric itself in the absence of evidence is not emancipatory; rhetoric not as a communication aid, an addition to reliable evidence and sound inference, but as a substitute in their absence, is the very opposite of emancipatory. It’s the equivalent of forced confessions – the kind that are thrown out of properly conducted courts, because they are not reliable.

Rhetoric represents the replacement of truth by will or, if you wish, truth by decree

Rhetoric is not emancipatory because it represents the replacement of truth by will. It is a Rube Goldberg contraption: a feeble contrivance of duct-tape and paper clips. But truth and will are two entirely different kinds of things. Will can do a lot, but it cannot determine what the truth is. A world in which people decide (wilfully) to pretend that it can, may be a lot of things – unified, reassuring, simplified – but emancipated is surely not one of them. That world is the Vatican’s dream-world where the pope declares what is true about anything he is moved to declare on, and his subjects accept that without further investigation. Mind-forged manacles, in short.

In the final analysis, truth that boils down solely to a matter of personal preference is no truth at all

In the end, this boils down to preferences. Even the preference for a world where the lies of genocidal tyrannies are eventually corrected is still ultimately a preference; a highly reasonable, well-grounded preference but still a preference.

If we didn’t have minds and emotions, and the moral thoughts that go with them, mass slaughters would just be something that happened, like rain.

Some prefer to live in a make-believe world, whereas truth seekers prefer to try to find out what really is true

Some people do prefer to live in a thought-word where priests and mullahs claim to decide what is true. Others prefer to live in a thought-world where ideas about what is true are lenient, flexible, fuzzy around the edges, where it is possible to sort-of-believe, half believe and half hope, believe in an as-if or storytelling or daydreaming way. Others prefer, genuinely prefer, to try to figure out what really is true, as opposed to what might be, or appears to be, or should be. This is a preference. One can adduce moral and psychological reasons for both preferences.

Truth may be tentatively based on “good reasons” without being final ones

The reasons we’ve given for thinking truth matters rest on preferences, and there’s no final definitive knock-down case for them, at least not that we’ve been able to think up or find. But reasons can be good reasons without being final ones.

REASON 3 — Truth matters, really matters, because it makes it possible for us to create a true self, a self worth having

And one last good reason for thinking that truth matters, it seems to us, is all about preferences. In the largest and most humanly important sense, it’s about happiness, flourishing, enthusiasm, about what makes life worth living, why we prefer being awake to being asleep, why it’s a privilege to be human. It’s about why truth matters. Really matters. Not in a dull perfunctory dutiful sense, but in a real, lived, felt sense.

This is the kind of mattering we’re talking about here – personal but also public, subjective but also communicable and sharable, immediate but also permanent, cognitive but also emotional. In a way, it’s about community and solidarity, but it’s a community that thinks truth matters rather than one that prefers solidarity to truth.

This reason is based on the thought that enquiry, curiosity, interest, investigation, explanation-seeking, are highly important components of human happiness.

Public rhetoric that promotes family, safety, money, and fame sells us short. Surely there is so much more to life

This doesn’t appear to be a terrible popular thought right now. Public rhetoric tends to aim so much lower, for some reason. It seems to see us all as hunkered down, and settling, settling for minimal, parochial, almost biological [and psychological] satisfactions – family, safety, money [and, may I add, fame]. But that underestimates us. We want more than that. We want to ask questions, we want to learn, we want to understand. That’s a very human taste and pleasure. It seems a waste not to use human capacities and abilities. Anyone can settle for just survival and reproduction and comfort, but we can do more. That’s a privilege – and it seems a kind of sacrilege not to use it.

Real enquiry presupposes that there are worthwhile things to discover and that truth matters in their discovery

And real enquiry presupposes that truth matters. That it is true that there is a truth of the matter we’re investigating, even if it turns out that we can’t find it. Maybe the next generation can, or two or three or ten after that, or maybe just someone more skilled than we are. But we have to think there is something to find in order for enquiry to be genuine enquiry and not just an arbitrary game that doesn’t go anywhere. We like games, but we also like genuine enquiry. That’s why truth matters.

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