Rediscovering truth in a post-truth world

rrediscovering truth

As if the COVID-19 pandemic has not been testing enough, modern life has never seemed more difficult than it does at present.

We are bombarded on all sides by masses of information, misinformation, expert opinions, and the relentless, strident voices of social media browbeating us into accepting the dogmatic conclusions of leading influencers.

Amongst the cacophony of voices striving to be heard, contending for attention and recognition, truth is the first casualty since, in contemporary Western society, it is no longer important. Echoing Pilate (John 18:38), the modern world asks, ‘What is truth?’ It is subjective feelings that rule.

The genesis of the contemporary estrangement from truth is the post-modern rejection of Modernity and the Enlightenment project in which the hope of humanity was taken to lie in reason and science alone.

Theology, once the queen of sciences, was quarantined from the Enlightenment project and banished to the private sphere of individual religious belief.

The Enlightenment project expressed confidence in the power of human reason and the natural sciences alone to uncover the secrets of nature, replacing superstition and credulity with knowledge.

Faith in human progress through the discoveries of science replaced belief in God. Religion, along with theology, became a private matter, an individual pursuit with little relevance in the public arena.

In reaction to the Enlightenment elevation of reason and its faith in an objective discoverable scientific reality, the nineteenth century witnessed the beginning of the turn to the subject.

German idealism, represented by such figures as Hegel, Schiller and Goethe, later by Brentano and Husserl, sought to re-introduce the human subject into discourse about the nature of the world.

Taking his lead from Descartes, at the beginning of the twentieth century Husserl developed phenomenology as the study of experience from the first-person point of view, that is, the study of the nature of perception, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, bodily awareness, embodied action, social activity and language activity from the perspective of the self-conscious individual.

To be suspicious of grand narratives

In another development of the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels introduce historical materialism to theorise the relationship between capital and labour as one of conflict.

In the hands of Lenin, it becomes a class struggle, a war between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. What emerges from these great currents of thought is firstly the marginalisation of religion, which enabled Nietzsche to declare that human beings have killed God and to warn that this had consequences.

The most obvious of these is that human beings themselves become the absolute authors and arbiters of their own destinies.

The connection between the eternal law, natural law and human law is broken and only human law remains.

Secondly, phenomenology, since its subject matter is an individual subjective experience, allowed individuals to not only focus on their subjective experiences but also falsely assume that these experiences reflect what was real.

In contrast, Husserl’s development of phenomenological or transcendental reduction was meant to enable us to have an intuition of the essential structure of the object experienced.

That is, to apprehend the objective world. What things are does not lie in the phenomenological experience of them, a proposition rejected by post-modernism.

Post-modernism, and its close relative, post-structuralism, emphasise the fallibility of knowledge and invite us, as Lyotard counselled, to be suspicious of grand narratives.

That is, we should critique the great institutions of society, such as its justice system, education system, democracy, social structures and market capitalism and where necessary, replace or, more radically, do away with them entirely.

Hence, if we are dissatisfied with the police force, some ideologues insist, we should defund it and either let anarchy rule or accept a new social and political order in which they hold power.

This is because social structures, such as our system of justice and law enforcement, post-modernism claims, are humanly constructed and there is nothing about them that is necessary or essential. The narrative can be changed.

The Australian justice system, for example, Critical Race Theorists argue, is the product of white British colonialism in which injustice towards non-whites is structurally embedded. Social justice can only be achieved if the current holders of power, the oppressors, are replaced by the oppressed.

Another key tenet of post-modernism is scepticism about the nature of knowledge. According to post-modernity, all knowledge claims are embedded in particular historical, cultural and social contexts and are determined through the exercise of power by elites.

Knowledge claims, therefore, express a particular hegemonic conception of the world imposed by a powerful ruling class.

A claim to know is an expression of power and in its most tyrannical aspect, it is a demand that others agree to a particular proposition or standpoint or face the wrath of public opinion, manipulated through the media.

Whether something is actually true does not matter, because all that is in important is whether it suits our purposes to affirm or deny something.

If it does not suit us, we assert that it is fake news, misinformation or media bias. The claim that truth is the correspondence between how the world is, how we experience it and what we say about it in language, is explicitly denied in post-modernism.

The post-modern rejection of Modernity and the Enlightenment

Since post-modernism sees knowledge as inextricably bound up with a particular context, it reduces to a particular view held by the subject at a particular time.

The opinion or view will be reinforced by those who are persuaded by that same view or opinion. Knowledge is replaced by received opinion.

There is no longer the need to offer evidence, but to use a variety of methods to persuade.

Power can be deployed to coerce through threats and intimidation to achieve compliance, but there are a variety of other methods, more subtle, in the armoury of the persuader, called a sophist by Plato more than 2000 years ago. One of these is the use of language.

If we assume that language describes the world, that is, that words and sentences refer to existent states of affairs in the world, then when someone makes various statements about the world, we will assume that these are about what is actually the case.

If, however, language is an expression of our subjective experiences and not anchored or connected to referents in the world, then there is no external world, only subjective experiences which are what validate what we say in language.

Moreover, language itself creates descriptions and since words are what enable us to describe the experiential or phenomenal world, language creates the world itself.

There are plenty of examples to be observed. Euthanasia, for instance, is redescribed as ‘assisted dying’, abortion is redescribed as ‘family planning’ or ‘termination of pregnancy’. The killing of civilians in war becomes ‘collateral damage’.

We could, perhaps, redescribe genocide as ‘targeted population reduction’.

Other methods in the armoury of the sophist will include the use of flattery, appeal to authority, statistics and the weight of public opinion.

Knowledge is not about what is true about the world, but about what is useful for the achievement of desired ends.

The remedy to the post-modern malaise is well-known. It can be found firstly in the great canons of Western philosophy and theology. Plato insisted long ago that it is not opinion that matters, but knowledge and truth since these enable us to live in the light.

The great Church Fathers, especially Augustine, urged us to seek wisdom and truth, to live by that great light that is God.

What this means is that what is real does not lie in self-absorbed love of our feelings and satisfaction of our desires, but beyond us, in a transcendent, objective world.

The way to this for Christians is Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth and Life. (John 14:6) Secondly, it can also be found in other religious traditions, including Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander religious traditions.

For the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, life was regulated by kinship relationships and adherence to the Law laid down by the Creator when the world was created.

The pursuit of wisdom and truth is not exclusive to particular traditions but is the common heritage of all human beings.

This demands that we should be open to the truth to be found in other traditions, other ways of thinking. This will include post-modernism critiqued here.

  • Jānis (John) T. Ozolinš is Professor, College of Philosophy and Theology, University of Notre Dame Australia, former Professor of Philosophy at Australian Catholic University, and permanent Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, University of Latvia. He is Reviews Editor for Educational Philosophy and Theory.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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