The Illusion of Truth

What is Truth

Truth: a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphisms. Basically it’s a sum of human relations that have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, translated and embellished. After long use, however, these truths become fixed, canonical and binding. Nietzsche called truth “illusions” of which one has forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors that have become worn-out and deprived of their sensuous force.

But to those who love truth, keep in mind that truth has no essence. Truth has no qualia that one can point to and say, “Ah yes, there it is!” Truth is like God, utterly ineffable and cannot be described – except by vague and ambiguous anthropomorphisms of which come from the speaker’s interpretation. Thus Ptolemy says it is true that the earth is the center of the universe; and all believe while holding secure in their own comfortable metaphysics. Then Copernicus says it’s the sun that is at the center. Not only with Ptolemaic astronomy, the same illusion of truth has been mistakenly reasoned in Euclidean space, Aristotelian logic and scholastic metaphysics. In modernity, truth claims are flung around effortlessly, most of the time without any justifications or scrutiny. But if truth allows us to prove our personal viewpoint and dominate an argument, then “truth” it will be – no matter how vacuous it is.

Truth Happens

Truth is something that happens to a proposition – it is an event. It is a process of deliberation and verification that is stacked against a host of considerations and weighed out. Ultimately, however, truth is the consequence of people democratically saying, “proposition X is better than the others.” Think of, for instance, the truth claim: “it is wrong to spank your child.” This claim was a non-controversial sentiment throughout past centuries where paddles, switches, belts and the back-of-the-hand were accepted (and condoned) as punitive measures. In other words, democratic deliberation and verification came to an agreement and said: spanking works best. This sentiment has changed, however, due to new studies in sociology and psychology in which the trend across the United States is revealing a new truism: spanking is definitely not the best. Thus, new truth claims are being made. Truth is not something floating in the ether waiting to be discovered. Furthermore, truth is not something that exists independently on its own. Truth is made by humans.

It is usually at this juncture that the religious person will say: “If truth happens and is made, then the consensus can agree on, say, genocide.” This ridiculous claim is easily dealt with. The democratic process of deliberation allows us to revolt and dissent against inhumane truths that subjugates, exploitates and harms people. Protests happen all over the world, in fact every day. Granted not everyone is privileged to live in a democratic society, but we can still expose how the truths of horrific acts need to be abolished. Furthermore, intellectual progress has resulted in moral progress in recent centuries, and the truth claims that justify genocide and torture have proven to have a short life span [Steven Pinker writes on this topic in Better Angels of Our Nature]. There is absolutely no indication in our current post-Enlightenment climate that any pendulum will swing towards justifying torturing babies, killing off a race or kicking puppies for fun. In fact, in order to justify such atrocities, you would need a religion or ideology built on absolute truths. We have history to verify this claim.

“Truth” is an unfortunate consequence in the human language that grants the ego the expedient right to assert one beliefs over and above others. After all, it feels good to win an argument or to make a point when cornered. But more times than not, the illusion of truth only serves to weaponized language and ideology so that one can detonate worldviews that are different than theirs. The result is evident when you look throughout history (especially religious blood baths and genocide through territorial expansion) at the hammer of truth pounding every nail that stands in its way. The historical evidence is convincing: absolute truth results in polarizing, marginalizing and inciting rage between groups of people.

My suggestion is that we stop relying [T]ruth and begin looking at things in consequential terms of better and worse rather than absolutes. If we assess morality in terms of better and worse, we leave room for democratic dialogue and less sectarian hostility. Moreover, ethical discussion around better and worse outcomes holds to a provisional way of looking at morality. A provisional – always open to revision – way of holding on to beliefs allows for the evolution of culture, ideals and values to inform ethical outcomes. All you have to do is look to the 20th century regarding women’s rights, civil rights and gay rights to see the evolution of better/worse thinking. It took dissent, protests, and a democracy to turn truth towards an open-minded, albeit better, perspective.

When ethical issues are held provisionally we escape the trap of creating absolutes that only serve to foster black/white and either/or thinking. An analogy would be how we understand the concept of physical health and well-being. With physical health, the science community doesn’t rely on an absolute truth of health. Rather, through rigorous scrutiny physical health is refined so that we can better understand what is better or worse for our well-being. In fact, physical health is likely to remain perpetually open to revision as we make progress in science. Today, a person can consider himself physically healthy if he is free of detectable disease, able to exercise, and destined to live in his eighties without suffering obvious decrepitude. But this standard may change. Moreover, we must occasionally experience unpleasantness – medication, surgery, etc. – in order to avoid greater suffering or death. My point: all sane people would prefer to have good health over bad health; and we can have consensus to what good (or better) and bad (or worse) health would look like.

There is No Correspondence to Reality

The most expedient way most people reason is to call something true if it corresponds to reality. An example would be the statement: the fork is on the table. We see a fork, it’s on the table, so we utter a truism. This works for trivial examples but crumbles swiftly when sentences have negations, disjunctions, conjunctions and conditionals. It is one thing to say “Jupiter has moons” given what we can verify through a telescope. And it sounds slightly less plausible for “The earth goes round the sun”, less still for “There is no such thing as natural motion”, and not plausible at all for “The universe is infinite.” Furthermore, there is no actual “way the world is” for the world to truly represent. We don’t have a floating representation of, say, beauty in the ether so that we can point to and say: that is true representation of beauty. Instead, we bring our own plethora of presuppositions, history, and experiences to each situation. All of which, culminates into an interpretation – not objective truth.

Speaking of Truth is Fruitless  

Speaking of “truth” is a fruitless endeavor. As a pragmatist [of which camp I am in], we can talk about justification, but we cannot tell you about truth because there is nothing to be said about it. We know how we justify beliefs; and we know that the adjective “true” is the word we apply to the beliefs that we justified. We also know that a belief can be “true” without being justified; that’s about all we know about truth. Justification, however, is relative to an audience and to a range of truth candidates, and truth isn’t relative to anything. And because it isn’t relative to anything there is nothing to be said about it.

Simply think of these modern truth claims:

Life begins at conception.

Life begins when the fetus is a viable entity.

Life begins when the child is physically born.

Which one is the truth? All three propositions have intelligent advocates with evidence to support their claims. Furthermore, these propositions are not a trivial examples given the tectonic shifts felt throughout American culture in recent decades. Yet, many different groups claim to know the truth to this question and voraciously defend it with the upmost intellectual vigor. So who is right?

The mistake people make is to assume that there is a “pure understanding” that sits in between us and the text. Moreover, most people think that it is possible to get to the pure truth or pure understanding. However, these propositions regarding the life of a fetus are simply texts. This begs the question: Is it possible to transcend the text and get to the objective truth?

There is Nothing Outside the Text

Jacques Derrida’s key phrase was “there is nothing outside the text.” In 2001, the movie Memento hit the screens and captured the essence of Derrida’s phrase. The lead character, Leonard has a major problem: he can’t remember what he did five minutes ago. Since the tragic accident involving the death of his wife, Lenny has not been able to make new memories. He can remember everything from before the accident and thus can remember where he’s from and how to navigate his way through day-to-day life: how to eat, how to drive, and very importantly, how to write. So how does someone with short term memory make his or her way in the world? Leonard comes up with simple system: writing. Leonard’s navigation through existence is governed by writing, by a collection of texts and notes – that substitute for memory. His pockets are filled with little texts, some written on napkins, others written on Polaroid’s, all providing the framework for him to understand his world. Without texts, Leonard lacks a world. And without a pen, Leonard lacks a text. So here is the question: how does Leonard know his texts really represent the world outside his mind? In fact, this is one of the nagging doubts that requires a constant faith and reassertion of belief on his part. One of Leonard’s fundamental beliefs – though he has to keep reminding himself – is there a world outside his mind. As he confesses at the end of the film (which is at the beginning of the story): “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember it. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. Do I believe … ?” Ultimately, the question he puts to himself is not whether the world exists outside his mind but whether he believes it.

According to many, Jacques Derrida is a kind of philosophical Leonard, or; conversely, Memento is a “deconstructive” film. What is the link between Derrida and Leonard, between Memento and deconstruction? It is the central role of texts and writing for mediating or putting together our experience of the world. For both Leonard and Derrida, language is the necessary filter through which the world comes to us. Just as Leonard depends on writing of notes to give his world coherence and order; so Derrida argues that all of us interpret the world on the basis of language.

What is the point? The point is that we can never see the world “as it is.” We can never really get “behind” or “past” texts; we never get beyond the realm of interpretation to some kind of kingdom of pure reading. It is impossible to step outside our skins. We can’t say we know what Shakespeare was meaning in Othello; we can only give our interpretation since we cannot put ourselves in Shakespeare’s skin. Reading or interpretation cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language. That is to say in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general.

If I seem to be talking ambiguously, here is an illustration.. In the movie The Little Mermaid, Ariel [who is a mermaid] expresses her main goal is to be part of the human world rather than her under-the-sea world. Every once in a while Ariel ascends to the surface, where she befriended Scuttle, a seagull who, obviously, lives above the sea and has contact with the human world. Scuttle is thus the mediator between the undersea world of Ariel and the human culture she desires to join. One of the ways she harbors this desire for human culture is by collecting artifacts from the human world and storing them in a kind of “room of wonders.” Scuttle is one of her primary resources, not only acquiring the items for her but also naming and explaining them. When he gives her what we recognize as a smoking pipe, Scuttle tells Ariel it is a “snorflap,” which is used for making music (and bubbles) by blowing into the mouthpiece. When he adds a fork to her collection, he names it a “dinglehopper” and explains that it is used for styling one’s hair, like a comb or brush. Each of the items in Ariel’s collection – and her understanding of what they are – is situated by Scuttle’s explanation. Eventually Ariel finally gets her chance to make her foray into the human world. Skipping ahead in movie, she meets a prince who invites her to his palace for dinner. When she is seated to dine and finally recognizes something familiar in this strange world, she is eager to demonstrate her facility with this cultural artifact. And what could this wondrous artifact be – but a dinglehopper! Immediately she seizes the item and begins brushing her hair with the flair of a longtime user. The prince, as you can imagine, is puzzled by such a strange use of a fork!

This thing, this strangely shaped piece of metal – even when we find it sitting on the table right in front of us, is subject to interpretation. Given our horizons of experience, our past history, what we’ve been told, and thus a whole host of presuppositions that we bring to experience, we immediately see the object as a fork (and find it difficult to really see it as anything else but a fork) But for Ariel – with her different history, different experience, and thus different presuppositions- the item is interpreted as a dinglehopper. So we never get past the texts and interpretations to things “simply as they are” in any kind of unmediated fashion; rather, we move from interpretation to interpretation. All the world is a text. Thus, “there is nothing outside the text.”

There Are no Facts, Just Interpretations 

When we take all of this into account, it leads me to my final point. As Nietzsche made clear: there are no facts, just interpretations. What is meant by this statement is that we have never seen objective reality for what it truly is, rather, we only know our experience of what we think is objective reality. There is really no way to tell how strong the correlation is between what we perceive and what is perceived, because we would have to bypass our own subjective experience, and that’s impossible as our subjective experience is the only way for us to know the reality that surrounds us. So, what comes out of this, is that what we typically refer to as objectively true, is in fact intersubjectively true. German professor Rolf Bazuin illustrates this best when he speaks on the illusion of perception:

“Probably the best example of differentiating in this manner is the fundamental axiom of psychology: the construction of one’s own reality. We know that the brain has a very limited capacity to process data; for instance, the retina has about a 127 million optic receptors, yet the image sent through the optic nerve is equivalent to about 1 million ‘data units’. Also, the retina is scanned about 15,000 times per second, yet only 24 frames per second can fool our brain into believing that we are looking at a motion picture. As can be seen, the nervous system has to discard about 99.999999% of visual data even before it gets to the primary visual cortex. All this data will never even be presented to your brain. From these facts alone, it must be argued that what we perceive must have an extremely low correlation to what there actually is. All in all, the chances of us overlooking some bigger picture are extremely high.”

So, what this amounts to is that there are no facts, just interpretations. Inside our head, we have all kinds of ‘perfect’ Ideas in the form of logical concepts. But they are just that: logical concepts. And as is argued above, proving these concepts to be objectively true is completely impossible, due to the fact that it is doubtful that we’re experiencing objective reality for what it truly is. Therefore, as far as mankind is concerned, we must accept that what we think of as objective reality, is nothing more than our interpretation of it – from our viewpoint, there are no facts, only our interpretations of what we believe to be facts.

So perhaps we should put truth on the shelf, and speak in different terms. Better yet, maybe we should loosen our grip on our worldviews, beliefs and values and leave room for open dialogue, revision and improvement. I believe this can help us when we discuss current hot-topic issues such as immigration, re-distribution of wealth and even rights of the LGBT community. Ultimately, I am contending that resting on an absolute truth is a dangerous trap that fosters an “us” versus “them” mentality. Imagine if we transported a slave owning Thomas Jefferson or a 17th century Protestant Christian to 2016? Given the progress made regarding human rights, can you imagine how ashamed and embarrassed each would be in holding absolutely to such polarizing and oppressive ideals? There is something to be said for bringing one’s mind from a “heaven” of ideals down to a culture that is always changing and progressing.

~ Wes Fornès