Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The myth of post-truth

The assumption is that my truth is as good as your truth, and hence all truths are immaterial and irrelevant. Such extreme relativism is a problem


Tabish Khair in The Hindu


It has been remarked that ‘post-truth’ is very different from similar terms with the prefix post-, such as postcolonialism and postmodernism. No one who uses postcolonialism or postmodernism argues that colonialism and modernism are no longer relevant. However, the assumption behind ‘post-truth’ is that the concept of truth is no longer relevant.

Why is there no post-falsehood?

The philosophical (or, in my view, anti-philosophical) aspects of ‘post-truth’ cannot be covered in a column — they would require a voluminous thesis. However, it is worth asking: why do we not talk of ‘post-falsehood’? After all, the opposite of truth is not post-truth but falsehood. In that case, if we can have an age of post-truth, we should be able to talk of an age of post-falsehood too. Having gone past truth, we should also be able to go past its opposite: falsehood. This, however, is not the case.

Partly, this has to do with the nature of truth and how we have understood it across cultures. Truth is seen as singular and fixed: it is generally felt that there can be only one truth, while there may be many falsehoods. Hence, we feel that to go past truth is to go past a singularity, but to go past falsehood might well mean to choose among multiple falsehoods.

There is another reason why ‘post-falsehood’ does not exist: strangely enough, it would come to mean ‘truth’. We instinctively feel that to go beyond generic falsehood is also to reach truth. That is because the positivity of truth cannot exist without the negativity of falsehood. The essential lie of ‘post-truth’ is exactly this: it is supposed not to suggest falsehood. But if there is no falsehood on the other side of truth, then there is no truth either. ‘Post-truth’ dismisses the very possibility of truth — and, by that act, it dismisses the existence of falsehood.

In short, it dismisses critical and scientific thinking, which are based not on eternal truth, which is religion’s penchant, but on a methodical and endless elimination of falsehoods. This is essentially what Karl Popper meant when he stressed that a scientific statement needs to be falsifiable.

It is nevertheless interesting to stand the matter on its head and pose this question: if we cannot talk of ‘post-falsehood’, surely the fact that we are talking of ‘post-truth’ means that there is actually a difference between truth and falsehood? And if that is the case, then, by definition, we can never have an age of ‘post-truth’ — in the sense of equating truths and falsehoods.

Truths are contextual

On the other hand, belief in a singular, unchanging truth is also what has led to the mistaken notion of an age of ‘post-truth’. That is so because the idea of one eternally fixed truth has been radically shaken over the past few centuries in different ways, most of which do not lead to extreme relativism but instead to a kind of contextualisation. However, this necessary shaking of given and fixed truths can be and is often converted into an extreme relativism by the loudly ignorant — a relativism in which all truths seem relative to you as an observer, and not to the complex context of the observation. This slippage inevitably leads to talk of post-truth, especially in fields outside the hard sciences.

In fact, truths are contextual — not relativist — in hard science too: the ‘truth’ of subatomic particles exists in the context of atoms, and the ‘truth’ of planetary systems in our universe exists in that context. These are not necessarily exclusive contexts, but only a seriously confused student would expect the rules that obtain within an atom to be the same as the rules that apply to our planetary system. This is what I mean by contextualisation.

Relativism, on the other hand, or at least extreme relativism (for many versions of what is called ‘relativism’ are basically contextualisation), extracts the observer from the context and makes the observer’s version paramount.

This is what lies at the core of ‘post-truth.’ The assumption is that my truth is as good as your truth, and hence all truths are immaterial and irrelevant. Need I note the problem of such extreme relativism, for it puts the observer outside a context, a context that can be and should be used to determine the ‘truth’ of his or her observations. Truths might not be eternally fixed, but we do get closer to what is true by comparing and contrasting our versions of it: to you it might be superman, to me it is a bird, but enough and better sightings will ascertain that it is actually a plane.

Hence, while one can argue about the details of evolution, the fact that both human beings and apes evolved from a common ancestor is more true than the claim that human beings were directly handcrafted by a god. There is overwhelming evidence of the former, and it can be dismissed only by stubborn acts of belief (or disbelief).
However, one should not oppose the myth of post-truth by returning to older and faulty myths of fixed, eternal truths. This too would block the necessary and fledgling project of critical inquiry. We need to maintain a balance between the dismissal of the difference between truth and falsehood and blind acceptance of given truths. The future of humanity depends on our precarious ability to maintain this delicate balance.

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