Does truth have a history, itself has been history, or has become a thing of history in a world that increasingly tends to look at truths as alternative facts? It is a common perception that truth is an integral value of human nature, or all living creatures’ instinct. Seen from a historical perspective, truth is considered a behavioural trait that humans have nurtured over time and that has been tested through civilisational and sociocultural processes. Religion is considered the prime custodian of the value of truth; it claims to purify and establish this value and develop an instinct to recognise falsehoods.
While civilisational processes have sped up, new perspectives to look at the truths and falsehoods of life — including that of ‘post-truth’ — are emerging. However, Julian Baggini, a historiographer of
philosophy, contests the idea in his new publication A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World. He argues that though there is no species of truth that cannot be questioned, that does not mean that truth cannot be established either. He identifies 10 types of truths which are basically an overview of the philosophical debate on reason; he extracts the history of truths from these debates. The 10 kinds of truths he explores are: eternal, authoritative, esoteric, reasoned, evidence-based, creative, relative, powerful, moral and holistic.
A philosophical exploration of truth provides interesting insights
Baggini himself appears to be an advocate of moral truths and suggests restoring faith in the value and possibility of truth as a social enterprise. By asserting that truth-seekers need to be sceptical, not cynical, he indeed judges truth as an essential value of human civilisation that should not be eroded in this rapidly changing world. Though truth has become much less plain and simple, there is no evidence, Baggini claims, that most people have ceased to believe in it, and that the world is neither ready nor willing to say goodbye to truth.
Baggini explains that distinguishing truth from falsehood is not an easy task and emotions also factor in our going with our guts and hearts instead. Truths can be, and often are, difficult to understand, discover, explain and verify. Emotions not only hurt truths, but also create a situation in which one creates or conceives one’s own way of understanding truths — probably not deeming it a process of post-truth conditionalisation, but a paradoxical behaviour where a majority does not accept a majority opinion. “In other words, a majority believes in at least one revelation that the majority judges to be false. This is a salutary lesson for anyone who trusts the wisdom of crowds,” he elaborates.
One interesting category of truth-seekers, according to Baggini, is the absolute literalists, but even they see their faith as no more than metaphor and allegory. Most take a pick-and-mix attitude to literality, accepting some things as facts and others as just stories.
The fourth chapter, on reasoned truths, describes the process of reasoning and in the process own judgement becomes important, which may not be justified rationally. However, hidden or esoteric truths have their own domain. This is an old notion that there are few truths about whom only a few people know and this is the domain of faith, where not only religions, but science and suspicion also mingle with each other.
Baggini does not reject ‘conspiracy theories’, but considers them a way to find out the truth. He underscores that when experiments do not work, scientists usually do not completely abandon the hypothesis they are testing. Rather, they review their methods or assumptions to figure out what they got wrong, tweak the experiment and try again. Similarly, those analysing the effects of placing reason and truth at the centre of government should not give up yet. Perhaps we have been testing the wrong things. Baggini agrees with the view that pure reason may not arrive at some absolute truth; according to him, reason works best in a blend that includes not just logic, but experience, evidence, judgment, subtlety of thought and sensitivity to ambiguity. Reason is more like a navigation tool that can help us get closer to the truth.
The author discusses at length fact-based truths that basically deal with the 18th century approach of scientific and imperial truths. He takes a typical theologian’s view in asserting that such an approach leaves us with uncertainty rather than knowledge, as lack of certainty is part of empirical truth. In contrast, he agrees with the view that remaining constantly open to being tested makes the truth more reliable.
He also explains that power or authority does not make a statement truth or fact-based, arguing that when former United States president George W. Bush appeared before a joint session of Congress 11 days after 9/11 and told the world, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” he was not stating a fact, but issuing an ultimatum. “This was made clear by the sentence that preceded it, usually omitted when it is quoted: ‘Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make.’ Bush wasn’t stating a fact, he was creating one. By saying that nations were either with him or against him, he was making it true.”
Modernism expanded the horizon of truth and creative truths became popular. Just as words can change truths, new truths can change words. For instance, Baggini argues, same-sex marriages have changed the meaning of ‘marriage’, creating new truths about what is required to be married. Baggini also deconstructs relative truth, but disassociates it from exaggeration.
Baggini concludes his philosophical argument while admitting that truth is complicated. Each of the 10 types of truths he elaborates can be summarised thus:
- Spiritual ‘truths’ should not compete with secular ones, but should be seen as belonging to a different species.
- We should think for ourselves, not by ourselves.
- We should be sceptical, not cynical.
- Reason demands modesty, not certainty.
- To become smarter, we must understand the ways we are dumb.
- Truths need to be created as well as found.
- Alternative perspectives should be sought not as alternative truths, but as enrichers of truth.
- Power doesn’t speak the truth; truth must speak to power.
- For better morality we need better knowledge.
- Truth needs to be understood holistically.
Like Baggini’s other publications, A Short History of Truth not only connects past and present perspectives, but also widens the scope of the truth we use in our daily life, even as it contests that post-truth is a different form of truth.
By: Muhammad Amir Rana