Truth isn’t Truth

Or so said Rudy Giuliani to an interviewer last month. The interviewer responded with the typical level of shock, and even started to argue the point, going so far as to suggest that the statement would wind up an internet meme. It probably will spawn multiple memes, actually, and no two of them will have exactly the same motivation or meaning, and that, actually, is the point that New York’s former mayor was awkwardly attempting to make. It isn’t that truth isn’t truth, it’s that truth isn’t Truth. The capitalization is important, because it shows a subtle, but critical difference.

As for the context, They were discussing whether President Trump should or shouldn’t testify before the special counsel investigating whether or not the candidate Trump did or did not have contact with a Russian official and whether such contact involved discussing Russia’s alleged intervention in the election of 2016.Whew, what a mouthful that was. Fortunately, or unfortunately, as your preferences go for my readers, I’m not going to write an entire essay on the President or the investigation. I don’t care one way or the other, because it doesn’t really matter. Issues like this are, like the Lewinsky scandal, a show for the partisan viewers, the equivalent of a baseball game between the political parties where zealous partisans can ooh and ahh at each new twist in the case in the same manner as a sports fan when the home team hits a home run. If the Republicans win, they won’t be able to do that. That’s my take on that situation.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, this entry is about philosophy. Indeed, I’m going to take Rudy’s statement on its face, because its something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately. When I heard that Giuliani had made such a statement, it actually increased my respect for the man. I already respected him for his leadership of the city of New York after 9/11, but this showed me that he actually has a deeper grasp on the meaning of truth, the nature of humanity, and the inseparability of the two. You see, if we add the capitalization truth isn’t Truth, then Rudy is right, and almost inarguably so. Indeed, philosophers have been debating the fundamental question ‘what is truth’ for thousands, yes thousands, of years. There are dozens of schools of philosophy, each with divisions and subdivisions thereof. As you might expect, they don’t all agree. Some are religious, others not, some dodge the question entirely, while some posit that there is no legitimate answer. So, when Rudy Giuliani says that truth isn’t Truth, he is demonstrably correct. The search for Truth has been happening for millennia, and will continue for the foreseeable future.

Many of you may not know I have considered myself a philosophical rationalist, since I’ve known the meaning of the word. Rationalism, broadly speaking, means I believe in searching for truth through meditation, logical thought, and careful consideration of the answers to fundamental questions. Rationalism stands opposed to empiricism which instead looks outside the self, to the physical world, for answers. It’s an argument that goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, and there are many, many variations under the broad umbrellas of rationalism and empiricism, but I came to my realization through a more plebeian vehicle.

What crystallized my position on the issue was actually a movie, “The Matrix”, a movie which posits a world where humanity has been placed in pods and fed an electronically simulated reality by machines which use the humans as a power source. It’s a suitably ridiculous concept subject to numerous reasonable logical objections, but we’re talking about a sci-fi movie. As often happens, a bit of real wisdom slips itself into the absurdity when a question is articulated by the character Morpheus. He asks of Neo, and of us, “How do you define ‘real’?” His answer is illuminating “If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, taste, and see, then ‘real’ is just electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” At the time, I was enrolled in a philosophy 101 class, and I had a teacher point out that we could all be in the Matrix, right now, and we wouldn’t know it. I’ve always been a skeptic, a doubter, by nature. I don’t trust easily. I don’t take things at face value, I ask questions. I question peoples’ motivations, their reason, their prejudice, their authority, and society as a whole. Most of all, I question myself, for how can I hold myself to a lesser standard. If I were in something like the matrix, how would I know, how would anyone ever know, how would science prove or disprove that particular hypothesis? Would the revelation come as the result of arduous scientific research, or of a vision from heaven easily dismissed as psychosis or drug induced hallucination? I didn’t seriously believe we were all in a simulation, but I couldn’t completely discount the possibility.

Over the years since, I’ve considered many other questions, both mundane and profound. I remain intrigued by philosophy and by the deep sciences that attempt to explain the nature of the universe, and though exploring those questions often leaves me physically tired and mentally exhausted, I am still drawn to it, perhaps as a way to challenge myself in a way most of  life fails to do. I encountered various points beyond which I can make no satisfying conclusion based on logical thought alone, intractable problems with no obvious solution, logical paradoxes, unexplained realities that defy what statistically ‘should’ be true. I started finding them everywhere, even in simple things.

Consider this statement. Either it will rain, or it won’t. This must be true, because it exhausts all possibilities. Both things can’t be true at the same time, except they actually can. I can say with a fair degree of certainty that it is raining, while simultaneously holding that it is in fact also not raining. This is not an example of doublethink, but rather a question of perspective. At any given moment in time, it is raining somewhere on planet earth, and it is also not raining somewhere. So, without further clarifying the statement, either it will rain or it will not, by specifying a particular area, the statement can be both true and false at the same time. I have discovered that many of the questions I asked myself depended upon my particular perspective. If I asked the question differently, it suggested different possible answers. Truth is, to a large degree, dependent upon one’s perspective, one’s individual thoughts, one’s philosophy, their underlying assumptions. As demonstrated by the above example, even the language by which a question is asked can change the answer.

Often the answer says more about the person giving the answer than about the question itself, or about any truth their answer might contain. We are all prisoners of our own assumptions, our experiences, our genetics, our heritage. I’ve often been wrong in life. I used to believe there was a person named Santa Claus living at the North Pole, but no more. My eyes tell me that the chair I’m sitting on is solid, but scientific inquiry tells me that it is not solid at all, but in fact composed of tiny particles which are joined together chemically, but are composed mostly of empty space. The chair I’m sitting on, scientifically speaking, is mostly empty space. If something as obvious as solidity is, in fact, illusory, what else might be wrong with our understanding? As humans, we are prone to error, our senses deceive us, we each hold unconscious biases, assumptions we’re not even aware we’re making.

Those are just the problems of individual perspective. How much more or less fallible are we likely to be collectively. The conventional wisdom would suggest that many people are more reliable than one, but why and how did we decide on conventional wisdom, and is it correct? If biases exist for individuals, why not groups of people? We know that people have a tendency towards conformity. We are aware of some of these biases, and we have names for them, names like racism, sexism, anti-semitism, etc. What other biases might exist within groups of people? Might some be so pervasive that they effect the whole species without anyone realizing it? It is possible. On a more fundamental level, what are the limits of our perception? What if the characteristics by which we understand our world, color, size, mass, energy, force, light, gravity are not the only characteristics of the universe? What if those are just the things we happen to be able to perceive and measure? These are just a few of the questions I’ve pondered over the years. No matter how I approach the problem, I can never reach a certain answer. My inability to ever finally settle on any one particular philosophy led me to a somewhat counterintuitive idea, and it’s rather similar to what was expressed by Mr. Giuliani, that truth isn’t Truth, or rather truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, a concept Mr. Giuliani tried vainly to explain to the interviewer. Many, perhaps most, are just convinced they are right, that their truth IS the Truth, the only Truth, the unquestionable Truth.

For someone like me, who believes exchanging and discussing our ideas is how we grow as people individually and collectively, the idea of all mankind uniting under a single Truth is anathema. I find there is a certain kind of arrogance, a haughtiness, in the declaration of Truth, a tyranny of Truth that enables the worst aspects of humanity to surface. If we decide there is an absolute, unquestionable truth, whether religious, philosophical, or scientific, it leads eventually to the denigration and ultimately the suppression of competing ideas. Every dystopian fantasy begins the same way, when one particular group decides to impose a Truth on others, and succeeds in doing so. This is where we get stories like 1984, where truth is decided by the party and tightly controlled. Truth becomes the motivation and justification for indoctrination, thought control, reeducation camps, and in the worst cases, the purging of all dissidents. We don’t have to travel very far in our history to find examples. I don’t need to name them.

Our modern technology and our current culture is not immune to this tendency. I’ve written before on the idea of ‘scientific heresy’ where dissenters to a popular theory are unceremonious labeled as lying heretics, and cast out into the wilderness of scientific thought. Like religious dissenters, they are assigned a derogatory label ‘pseudoscience’, and generally ostracized from the ‘respectable’ people. To the proselytizers of scientific truth, this is justified because they have evidence, but this raises further questions. It sounds reasonable, but who decides what counts as evidence? Why is a double blind study more reliable than the rantings of a madman? We all seem to agree that it is, but why do we think that? Ultimately, I think it comes down to the assumptions we make. In order to have a beginning point for any knowledge at all, we have to accept certain assumptions without question. We have to assume we’re not in the Matrix, or dreaming, or part of some kind of simulation, or, what I suspect is an endless list of other possibilities. We assume the measurements and conclusions we observe outside ourselves,  what we see, hear, smell,  and deduce through scientific study are a reliable way to uncover Truth. Put another way, in order to claim truth, or believe anything for ourselves or anyone else, we must make some leap of faith, however small. We all have faith, but most of us don’t have the courage to name it as such.

To me, the appearance of this same pattern in many different philosophies, religions, creeds, and nations, suggests the urge to elevate and promote some ideas while denigrating and exterminating, others is not a distinguishing trait of any particular creed, religion, or philosophy. Rather, it is a quality of humanity in general, and as it is a bias we all seem to share, we should be particularly wary of it, slower to judge others, and quicker to question ourselves.

In the news, one often hears of a “Post-Truth Era”. This is, I suspect, meant as a derogatory towards people whose ideas tend to question the absolute Truth of those who use the term. It seems to imply that the preachers of truth are unquestionably right, that they act solely for the good of all, that they alone know what is best for their fellow man, In a world of unquestioned Truth, all who disagree must be marked for the evil that they are, hated, reviled, and cast out. I would more accurately describe it as a “Polarized Truth Era”, where two sides, each hell bent on making sure its own Truth triumphs, fight with each other in every way short of outright violence.

It is also a very dangerous time, because regardless of who wins, we all suffer when ideas, even the most ridiculous ideas, are suppressed. What we seem to lack in this era is any degree of humility. Too many are too convinced of their own certitude. We really should understand by now, that regardless of how much evidence we collect, there remains the possibility, however great or small it may be, that we are wrong. Many who have come before us have been equally certain of their own correctness. They were certain the world was flat, certain the earth was the center of the universe, certain the ground they walked on was solid and continuous. What do we think of their certainty now? If anyone asserted such things today, they would be laughed at, but it begs the question, will future generations be laughing at us? To me, that seems all but certain.

If a real “Post Truth Era” were to come, I would be first to welcome it. You see, a world without absolute Truth is a world of absolute Freedom. A world without Truth is a world without reeducation camps, propaganda, or thought police. It is a world without excommunications, witch trials, heretics, or crusades. A world without Truth is a world where each of us, both individually and collectively, can look at the world around us, search our own souls, and decide what we want to believe. It is a world where we can talk to each other and explore each other’s ideas, rather than simply shouting at one another about what is or is not “True”. It is a world where we can accept and love one another, regardless of differences, where we can try to understand each other, rather than convert each other. It is a world where many different ideas can coexist, compromise, thrive, and grow from one another. It may be difficult, because diverse ideas encourage us to think, change, grow, evolve, and those processes are often frightening. We can make it better by consoling, rather than condemning, one another. This writer looks forward to a day when many more of us will accept the notion that truth isn’t Truth.


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