Citizen Action Monitor

The inherent contradictions of truth

We say we value truth but favour our own version of it

No 569 Posted by fw September 16, 2012

“There are no facts, only interpretations.”  ―Friedrich Nietzsche

Continuing with the theme of truth, and with excerpts from Ophelia Benson’s and Jeremy Stangroom’s book, Why Truth Matters, Continuum Books, 2006, this post features selected passages from Chapter 1, The Antinomies* of Truth. (*inherent contradictions). Although the original text has been edited and abridged, the main ideas and supporting arguments have been maintained.

Chapter 1 – The Antinomies of Truth

We do not always love and embrace the truth

It is no great wonder that we do not always love and embrace the truth. We suspect that at least part of the truth (in some times and places) is that we are a nasty, brutal species with a strong taste for torture and murder, that whenever there is an opening we make serious sustained energetic efforts to eliminate whole branches of our own kind, that even in peaceful times we persecute and coerce and extort labour from each other, that anything the smallest bit admirable, disinterested, ameliorative about us is only a thin surface …

So it could be said that we have good reason to hate and fear the truth; to resist and reject it in order to take refuge in more emollient, hopeful interpretations. “Facts are precisely what they are not, only interpretations”, Nietzsche said: so if one interpretation makes us feel lost in space, we might as well pick another. That is the thought.

Thus the upshot is we don’t love the truth, not all of it, not all the time. We reserve the right, most of us, to accept some truths but to reject others, no matter how well warranted, how supported by evidence, how tightly argued. “That’s as may be”, we say or think, smiling thinly, “but there are other ways of viewing the matter.” No one is infallible, no one knows for certain, and I will think what I like.

The mental reservation method — We say we value truth but favor our own version of it

On some topics, many people are not really interested in believing the truth. They might prefer it if their opinion turns out to be true, but truth is not too important. To make it clear that truth is neither here nor there, they declare, “I am entitled to my opinion.” Once you hear these words, you should realize that it is simple rudeness to persist with the matter. You may be interested in whether or not their opinion is true, but take the hint, they aren’t.

The mental reservation method is useful and popular because it is simple and therefore easy: a labour-saving device. It obviates the need to come up with alternatives, suggest other hypotheses, give reasons, offer evidence, and think through implications.

We say we value truth but too often rely largely on authority figures to tell us what to think

Another method that shares this labour-saving character is the appeal to Authority: external denial rather than internal. This role of Authority – to tell people what to believe and think, or at least what to appear to believe and think – can be seen in two ways, or from two directions. It was coercive and authoritarian, but it was also in a sense liberating: it liberated people from responsibility and the hard work of thinking. It was external, imposed, top-down, but that very top-down externality made it a source of inner security and comfort.

Nevertheless, it may be that the basic idea – that the truth is what the higher authorities say it is, rather than what it is independent of any human – had its effect on habits of thought over all these years. The notion that certain special humans can decide what truth is entails believing that human decision has some sort of transformative effect on reality, bestowing truth or withholding it. Thus for instance it is still a very popular thought that, whatever the truth may be, the important thing is that everyone should be on the same page; that social cohesion and peace are much more important for everyone’s wellbeing and smooth functioning than are truth and free enquiry. On this view, truth is a political matter. It is what is good for the community, religious groups, union members, political parties, or other collectives.

This system or method is still popular not only because it promotes unity but also perhaps because it frees up a lot of energy. Letting the higher authorities, whether autocrat or majority opinion, do our affirming or denying for us saves us large amounts of time and effort, allowing us to get on with other things – earning a living, having fun, improving the world, smelling the flowers.

We say we value truth but block out opposing viewpoints by declaring certain topics to be taboo, sacred, off-limits.

Another tactic is to cordon off certain sets of ideas, to declare them special, inviolate, taboo, sacred: different from ordinary mundane sets of ideas. Salman Rushdie (who has intimate experience with this distinction) talked about this cordoning off in an article:

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

This tactic has become a powerful way of shutting people up, because it operates not as external authority and coercion, which can be resented, resisted, laughed at, but as internalized guilt and bad conscience, which are much harder to resist or laugh off. If “The Bosses” tell us ‘you may not think that’, there seems to be a certain nobility in defiance and rebellion. But when the taboo issues not just from “The Bosses” but also from “The Community”, especially from The Community speaking on behalf of the victimized and downtrodden, then resistance becomes altogether more difficult.

This is arguably one of the most powerful and effective tools of denial going at present. Simply invoke the holy name of “The Community” or “Religious Beliefs” or “Their Culture”, and very often disagreement will slam to a halt, in a fog of embarrassment and guilt.

There are at present many such ring-fenced, Taboo no-go areas in disputes over truth; places where disagreeing with people is treated as tantamount to peeing in their soup. Where people see themselves and are seen by others as entirely justified in declaring themselves “Offended”, which being interpreted means, not “Let us eagerly continue this discussion in an attempt to discover the truth“ of the matter, without fear or favour’, but rather, “This discussion must immediately cease in order to spare my outraged feelings, and it would be no bad thing if you rescinded what you just said, apologized humbly, and made a large donation to a charity of my choice by way of recompense.”

We say we value truth but, if all else fails, we resort to maligning or ridiculing the messenger with opposing viewpoints

Shooting the Messenger is generally more difficult in modern times – although not always and everywhere difficult enough. Galileo was coerced. Books were placed on the papal index. Stalin and Hitler silenced people in wholesale lots, as did the Red Guards and the Khmer Rouge, Mao and Pol Pot, Pinochet and the Shah. Salman Rushdie was fatwa’d, a translator of his book was murdered, Theo van Gogh murdered, and so on, into the bleak future.

We say we value truth but sometimes employ techniques of confusion and obfuscation to support our own versions of “the truth”…

Confusion and obfuscation are arguably the best way to go. Obfuscation is legal, it’s easy, there is always an abundant supply and it often does the trick. The more abstract or unclear it is exactly what one is arguing, the more trouble one’s opponents will have in refuting one’s claims. Confusion is easily created by using a shotgun approach – spray the opponent with a profusion of claims until they give up and wander off in fatigue and exasperation. It’s always worth a try.

We say we value truth but then search for opposing evidence to support our version of “the truth”

Looking for rival evidence, evidence that will support the opposite conclusions from the ones the searcher dislikes looks at first blush like a perfectly legitimate move – like not even a move at all, but simply what enquirers and researchers and truth-seekers do: look for evidence. It looks as if we’ve left the territory of truth-denial and are back in the well-lit world of properly conducted research. But no. The trouble is that an enquirer who starts with a claim he wants to find evidence for is extremely likely to overlook disconfirming evidence.

What we called looking for alternative evidence, that is, knowing, in advance what one wants to find and then searching it out is fundamentally at variance with the methods and values of rational enquiry.

We say we value truth but won’t hesitate to seek a rival explanation that “fits our facts”…

A similar approach – similar in that it starts from a desired conclusion, then devises a way to get there, and then proceeds to carry out the plan – is that of seeking a rival explanation. If you don’t like the theory that (as far as present knowledge can tell) best fits and explains the evidence, then you set to work and think up another. It is always possible to think of alternative explanations for any set of data. The alternative explanations may be awkward, contorted, uneconomical and generally far-fetched and ignore norms of elegance, beauty, plausibility, avoidance of supernatural explanations and gods of the gaps. But if one is not deterred by such considerations, alternative explanations can be generated and made to ‘fit’.

We say we value truth but when it comes to a choice between the path of rational enquiry versus that of personal wishes, beliefs, desires, hopes and fears, we choose the latter

Should rational enquiry, sound evidence, norms of accuracy, logical inference trump human needs, desires, fears, hopes? Or should our wishes and beliefs, politics and morality, dreams and vision be allowed to shape our decisions about what constitutes good evidence, what criteria determine whether an explanation is supported by evidence or not, what is admissible and what isn’t? After all, what is important to us is important to us.

The truth is important to us, but so are our needs and desires and hopes and fears. Without them we wouldn’t even recognize ourselves. Without them, we think, we would merely be something like an adding machine. An adding machine can get at the truth, given the right input, but it doesn’t care. We want the truth but we also want to care – wanting the truth is indeed inseparable from caring. We want it, we care about it, it matters, and so do various other things we want and care about, some of which are threatened by the truth. So we’re stuck, and keep arriving back at the fork in the path again.

But we have to choose. Even though our choosing doesn’t make the crux go away, even though we still have to go on making micro-choices over and over again, still, we have to choose which fork in the path we are going to take. If we don’t, we have a tendency not to notice the crux when it does appear. If we’ve never bothered to decide that truth matters and that it shouldn’t be subject to our wishes – that, in short, wishful thinking is bad thinking – then we are likely to be far less aware of the tension. We simply allow ourselves, without much worry or reflection, to assume that the way humans want the world to be is the way the world is, more or less by definition – and endemic confusion and muddle is the result. There may be reasons to prefer true beliefs to false ones.

Why should we prefer to believe true beliefs over false ones? What reasons? There are many. One is that truth is something of an all-or-nothing proposition. It is intimately related to concepts such as consistency, thoroughness, universal applicability, and the like. If one decides that truth doesn’t matter in one area, what is to prevent one from deciding it doesn’t matter in any, in all?

It is surely of the nature of truth that it has to be all of a piece. Its norms have to apply here as well as there, if they are to apply at all. That’s why relativism about truth is always self-undermining. If we say ‘there is no truth, truth is an illusion, a myth, a construct, a mystification’, then that statement is not true – so there is truth then. If we say ‘your truth is as true as mine’ then you can say ‘my truth is that your truth is not true’, and round we go.

Such reasons are especially cogent as soon as we leave the comfort of our own minds and enter the public realm; as soon as we start influencing each other, by talking, arguing, persuading, communicating – and above all, by teaching. If we are going to influence people, it’s important that we get it right.

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This entry was posted on September 16, 2012 by in evidence based counterpower, moral & ethical counterpower and tagged , , , , .
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