Gene Bales, June 17, 2018
I wanted to day to speak to you about an issue I have come to feel very strongly about: truth in the age of Trump, in the age of post-truth, as it has been called. If I speak of the age of Trump, I am not going to make this a political speech, though it may initially sound like that. Rather, my focus is on the various ways our ideas of truth are being smashed to smithereens by various forces at work in our current world.
I am a philosopher and having to listen to a philosopher talk about truth on a Sunday morning is not something I would wish even on myself. But I am not going to trouble you with the kind of discourse philosophers usually engage in, which is admittedly not interesting to anyone except philosophers.
Let me begin with a few examples of things that have increasingly troubled me, and I suspect, many others.
I’ll begin with lies. People lie all the time.
It is well known that President Trump has an unusual propensity to lie about things. In an essay that appeared in the Brookings Institution, James Pfiffner lists a litany of such lies. I offer a small sample of these: Obama was a Muslim and was born in Kenya; millions of undocumented illegals voted for Clinton, thus denying him the popular vote; the unemployment rate was 42%; the U.S. had the highest taxes in the world; the U. S. has the highest murder rate in 47 years.
President Trump has not been alone in his lies—all Presidents have lied at one time or another. But the sheer number of these lies in the case of Trump far exceeds others—the count is in the thousands according to some. And unlike others who when caught lying might admit the fault, Trump typically doubles down. When contrary information is presented, the President has become famous for labeling such things “fake news”. So, the question becomes not whether the liar knows the truth and lies anyway, but what is at work in the resolute commitment to not recognize it. A lie told by someone with authority is an attempt to control the thinking of others, sometimes the thinking of millions of others.
Another assault on truth, quite different from this, has come with the emergence of the #MeTooMovement and the denial of sexual harassment and assault made by many famous men. While the truth of each charge must be evaluated on its own terms, the sheer magnitude of the charges in cases like those of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby makes them impossible to dismiss. Perhaps the most disturbing were the charges made against Eric Schneiderman, a man who had regularly embraced the causes of women in his career. In this case, I don’t know whether Mr. Schneiderman was lying in public about his opposition to assault on women, but I suspect he was caught in what amounts to a whopper of an existential lie about his life. There is always a gap between how we appear to others, and what we do or think in private. Ordinarily we adjust as we can to keep ourselves sane. But it is possible that our personal integrity is so compromised that our personal life gives the lie to our public life. Our personal integrity is a matter of the consistency of truth between our private and public lives.
Another important feature in the war on truth in our age is the deliberate effort on the part of the government to hide scientific, and especially environmental, information.
The most egregious example of this has been the wholescale scrubbing of scientific information from the EPA website. Anything that provides support for environmental concern has not only been eliminated wholesale, but other kinds of subtler linguistic changes have made it look as though climate is unaffected by human activity.
Hiding information from the public is a deliberate assault, not simply on the truth, but on the search for truth. I would not defend the claim that every bit of information of a scientific kind has infallible truth. But that is not really the point. Lack of information may well impede research into weather patterns, and directly impact public safety. The lack of publicly accessible scientific information has the effect of privatizing the search for truth, thereby rendering it much more difficult.
In Dec. 2016, not long after Trump’s election, many climate scientists began a feverish effort to download any information on a US government website onto independent servers, for fear it would disappear altogether. Much of this information went to Canadian scientists in Toronto. And sure enough, once Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke and others became cabinet members the scrubbing of publicly available scientific information began in earnest.
Another way to hide the truth in public life is to make transparency impossible. I think of the Kansas legislature in this regard. Many of our laws used to be developed in a bipartisan fashion by legislators. Now some laws are prepackaged by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization made up of many corporate leaders, whose legal playbook is an outgrowth of the Koch family’s commitment to the principles of libertarianism. ALEC is not usually labelled a lobbying group, because it works as a kind of educational forum for state legislators and others. Go to an ALEC meeting, come back with laws you can pass without change. It’s easier than ordering a Happy Meal at McDonalds, and about as healthy. Most people in Kansas and in other states are unaware of what laws are being passed that have previously come from ALEC. And legislators are not anxious to make this better known.
In 2015 the state of Kansas got an F rating from the Center for Public integrity.  The Kansas City Star ran a series of reports after that, focusing on the lack of transparency in Kansas government. Just recently there have been efforts to address the problem. But it says much that if you were trying to decide whether your representative had voted for or against a particular measure in the last few years, there was no record of it. The truth of legislators’ votes was deliberately kept from the public. According to a study published by the Brookings Institution in 2013, the most common bills pertained to immigration and the environment, followed by those relating to guns and crime. And Kansas was one of the states most targeted by ALEC.
There is one last example of the assault on truth in our society that I must mention—the assault on truth in the marketplace. There is an axiom in basic economics that a free market is only a just market when the buyer knows exactly what he or she is getting in product A, as opposed to product B. When corporations withhold information about the effectiveness or danger inherent in the use of the product, the consumer is tricked into thinking that he or she knows the truth in what is being purchased. But in fact, the deck is stacked against the consumer. The truth about many products is not just unknown, it is actively prevented from becoming public knowledge, lest the government interfere with regulations to prevent potential harm. Caveat emptor—buyer beware—is only effective or sensible when the buyer knows the truth of what is being bought. How many of the products sold relentlessly on TV do we know much about, other than what we are told?
When truth is hidden, especially when its hiddenness has a significantly negative effect on large portions of a population, the search for truth may no longer be as effective or urgent. In fact, what often happens is that everyone resorts to the next best thing—my opinion.
At the beginning of every course in ethics I have taught over the years, students will insist that in the end, they have their opinion of what is ethically right or wrong, and others have their opinions, and that is the end of it. Opinion is not a waystation toward truth for them, but a mask for giving up any search for truth. And occasionally, it is the basis for aggressive behavior toward people who disagree with them. It is perfectly true that we all have our opinions but clinging to that uncritically through one’s life commits the individual to a life of untruth. The reason is this: if the other person is always wrong about their opinions, then I have nothing to learn from them. Learning ceases. Thinking ceases. And the search for truth, especially ethical truth, can go nowhere with this. Truth demands openness and sometimes discomfort, but the warm and cozy womb of opinion closes it down.
Unexamined opinion can guide a life for a long time. But in some opinion becomes a weapon against others. Examples of this are common in social media, and in political discussions on Facebook and Twitter. For some it is very easy to prove the truth of your own position by vilifying, rightly or wrongly, the position of someone whose position is at odds with yours. The underlying assumption is that there are only two possible positions: mine and yours, and if mine is true it follows that yours must be false. This is one of the most common fallacies in elementary logic, but my experience is that many people commit it routinely. But logic is largely beside the point for some, who use memes and comments on social media like verbal hand grenades. In these instances, opinion is not a waystation on the path to truth; it is an effort to establish the truth through the will to power, the will to control and silence the other.
We often think of truth in abstract terms—a proposition is true if it corresponds to reality or is consistent with other things we know to be true. And it is very easy to think that a given fact proves an entire theory or generalization, when it all may do is offer weak confirmation. But the appearance of proving a generalization from a single fact is often used to hide the real truth. So, the fact that the oceans are gradually rising was explained by soil erosion and by rocks falling into the oceans around the globe by Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. And this shows, supposedly, that climate science is mistaken, that the poles are not melting, etc. Or that because I know somebody who routinely milks the government out of benefits and food proves that welfare for the poor is a very bad idea. These are all examples of bad generalizations, where purported facts or anecdotes do not really go to prove the conclusions that people want to draw from them. And if we ask what the real source of such generalizations may be, we are forced to conclude it is resistance to challenges to corporate interests. Bad generalizations serve a will to power that is often being hidden.
So, are we doomed because of this natural propensity? I don’t think so at all. One of the things that works against this tendency is the ability to carry on an internal conversation with oneself, to see a given issue from perspectives different from the one we have chosen. To do this, however, requires thinking, self-conscious and purposeful reflection. Not everyone is capable of this. It ought to be the purpose of higher education to create habits of personal questioning. But higher education frequently fails to do this because of a focus on specialization. While the search for truth demands openness to the other, it also demands an openness to the broader world, to the big picture. There is much in our educational system that works against this. Our concern about a narrow approach to the value of specialized education, ramped up by the need to begin making a good salary right after graduation, can and does lead to a narrow view of truth and a disdain of any truth not found immediately in our own realm of expertise. Specialization of knowledge is a good thing and inevitable in our lives today. But well-trained people can end up being naive about the big picture of our world. We do not produce good citizens when everyone has a business degree and has never read anything else. Any more than we produce good religious minds when the memorization of verses from scripture determines everything that can be known or should be known about the world.
The distance between openness to the truth and the will to control information can be seen very readily in the EPA’s decision to scrub scientific information from its web site. The goal here is to protect the interests of those whose profits are made activities that result, directly or indirectly, the pollution of air and water. Controlling the flow of information to the public makes it possible to destroy regulations which protect the public.
The will to control is not the same as the will to power. Power is shared with others; control is not designed to be shared, but to be imposed. Control is inevitable in human life and social institutions of all kinds; but control that attempts to limit the openness of power is a silent declaration of war on truth itself. The pursuit of truth requires openness to others and essentially empowers everyone in that pursuit.
The economic marketplace is another arena where control is often pitted against the power of truth. Certainly, manufacturers need control of the production and pricing of goods to sell; but all too often what goes into production and pricing is a total mystery to everyone. Telling the truth about what is being sold might well lead the consumer to reconsider the purchase. But our economic system is such that all producers are reluctant to say much at all about the potential dangers of their product, unless compelled by government to do so.
Perhaps the classic case of how control over the production of goods leads to wholescale denial of truth is the case of cigarette manufacturers decades ago in the battle by scientists against false claims of companies like Philip Morris and others. What really poisoned the well was the attempt by the manufacturers to hire their own scientists to help bolster their own claim that not only were cigarettes safe to smoke, but they were even good for your health. It has become a commonplace now for companies to hire their own scientists to make claims about safety. The net result with the public has been in part a decline in the believability of scientific method and findings. So, then what happens to truth? The individual lacks resources to pursue the truth, and increasingly the government is not interested in doing anything to interfere in the private sector.
It is the great irony of our age, an age of complex electronic systems of information sharing, that we also are living in a time when the truth about many things is no clearer than a heavy fog on a San Francisco morning. In the face of such uncertainty about truth, there are especially two forces that are often invoked to buttress one’s opinion about things. Those two forces are religion and politics.
For many, the belief in a deity is an extension of one’s opinions in a way which another person cannot easily question or challenge. While for some belief in God is an umbrella for the pursuit of truth, beauty and the good, for others the belief in God marks the point at which all pursuit comes to an end. One sees this in the notion that God has minutely planned every moment of our lives.
Bonhoeffer once spoke of “cheap grace”. I think I could also speak of a “cheap God” who appears at every moment of personal anxiety and offers absolute security from a world which might crucify me. This is a vision of the divine which excuses us from pursuing truth, because truth is already promulgated, either in person or in the Bible. Anything that raises questions about our understanding of God or the Bible is dismissed as temptation.
A second source for certainty in the search for truth is political ideology. Like religion, a political ideology provides all the answers to life’s questions in advance. No questioning is necessary, just obedience to the principles of the ideology or the autocrat whose authority mediates the ideology to ordinary people. Political ideology and authoritarianism are much like religion in solving the question of whether the search for any other truth is necessary at all.
True religion as well as true politics lives with the uncertainty that comes with an openness to the many sources of truth and knowledge and wisdom. In a curious way, the openness of the search for truth requires the same kind of openness to the stranger that Christian love does. In this sense, love of the neighbor and love of the truth are mutually reinforcing. And conversely, hatred of the neighbor and certainty of our own pretended knowledge often reinforce one another.
In a recent essay in The Atlantic, Salmon Rushdie says this:
We stand once again, though for different reasons, in the midst of the rubble of the truth. And it is for us—writers, thinkers, journalists, philosophers—to undertake the task of rebuilding our readers’ belief in reality, their faith in the truth. And to do it with new language, from the ground up.
While I agree this is an inevitable and necessary part of restoring a public commitment to truth, I don’t think this is the whole story. That is because Rushdie’s reconstructionist attitude toward truth leaves the origin of the search for truth unexplained and unexamined.
All truth is in part created by us and from us, with others and sometimes with divine inspiration. Truth is an openness to the being of others and the divine, which implies a fundamental rejection of the notion of the will to control others. When one detects a will to control others is behind what is being claimed as true, it is appropriate to ask questions.
One might say that one good sign of the possession of truth is the openness to questioning. People who are not open to asking questions, to discussing with others what may be the case, are probably more interested in controlling others for their own well-being than in finding the truth.
The search for truth has an origin in human nature that experiences not merely contradictions and puzzles but wonder and awe. Much of our search for truth in everyday life has obscured much of the wonder and awe that anchors our sense of truth. But there are times and places and individuals who demonstrate such wonder. I would note our human fascination with understanding the cosmos around us, the deep strangeness of galaxies and the odd components of the universe. Such wonder and awe may lead to a religious experience or may make one wonder about the nature of a divinity. I want to suggest that the reason it is not totally necessary to reconstruct truth is that the truth about existence itself haunts us. Our sense of truth is an anchor for our human nature, and while we do not know exactly how or why, we do know we cannot and should not escape the call of the ineffable mystery that directs us to raise our minds and eyes above our own individual lives.
There is a legendary story told about the first Greek philosopher Thales. The story is that he was so preoccupied looking up at the heavens that he didn’t see where he was walking and so he fell into a well. The original point of this story was that philosophers who spend their time focusing on the truth above fail miserably in getting the truth below in this world right. The point is quite well taken. Thales may have been a textbook image of the absent-minded philosopher, but it is in fact well documented that he predicted a near total eclipse of the sun on May 28, 585 B.C. Although we are not sure just how he did that it was clearly the result of his preoccupation with the heavenly bodies. So, the story about him falling into a well is in part a joke, but also in part a lesson about something the whole human species must be alert for: namely, that we must as humans always make sure our gaze is at what is above us. While our search for the truth beneath our feet must go on, our higher nature aims at the truth of the whole cosmos. Truth beckons us to connect with one another and with the cosmos.
 “Trump’s Lies Corrode Democracy,” James Pfiffner, The Brooking Institution, April 13, 2018.
 “ALEC & State Legislation: Who, What & Where”, Molly Jackson, Thursday, Dec.12, 2013, Brookings Institution.
 “Truth, Lies, and Literature”, Salman Rushdie, May 31, 2018, The Atlantic.