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Sunday, February 19, 2017

We are entering the post-post-truth era

We aren't just in a political battle. We're in a struggle to decide who gets to determine what is true.

T his week Democrat John Podesta, the guy who became famous for using p@ssw0rd as his login password, wrote this about President Trump:

It is more than his narcissistic incapacity to receive bad news. It is more dangerous. Trump is deploying a strategy, used by autocrats, designed to completely disorient public perception. He's not just trying to spin the bad news of the day; all politicians do that. He seeks nothing less than to undermine the public's belief that any news can be trusted, that any news is true, that there is any fixed reality.

If Trump succeeds, something fundamental will be lost. ... It ruins everything.

“No fixed reality”? This is not just the histrionics of the losers of an election. Podesta's language is apocalyptic: abandon us and you will have chaos. It is the language of someone trying to prop up a failing authority by creating fear of what might happen in its absence.

How we know whether something is true is one of our species' most important questions. Since truth and value are inextricably linked, what we take as true determines our values. A civilization has no past and no future unless it respects the truth.

Since we cannot perceive absolute truth, identifying truth comes down to the problem of identifying an authority. Religion granted that authority to a hypothetical supreme being, who was said to be infallible, omniscient, and good, which meant he would invariably act in our interest and therefore would not lie to us.

We think of religion and science as opposites, but in fact they are close relatives. Religion is not dying. It has evolved into science. Science retains many of the characteristics of its religious heritage; the main difference is in how they decide whether something is true.

In science, the authority is nature itself. Truth comes from experimental testing of results and constant questioning of assumptions. Getting at the truth requires considerable effort and education, huge pieces of expensive instrument, tens of thousands of H-1Bs, and boatloads of grant money. Its truths, spoken in a language as unfamiliar to most of us as Latin was to the medieval peasants, became complex and inaccessible. People wanted simpler, more comforting truths, so they turned to politics.

Pink caterpillar
Picture of a pink caterpillar, not faked in any way, hardly

Thus a new challenger emerged: postmodernism, or political truth. In this paradigm, truth is defined by whatever promotes one's political agenda. It is a handmaiden to collectivism: collectivism cannot survive without the ability to dictate truth. If this ability disappears, collectivists will lose their hold on power. This is what is happening now and it is why the Democrats fear President Trump.

For better or worse, Trump has had thrust upon him the role of bearer of the message that the postmodern worldview is fake. Here is a quote from one of his recent speeches:

I also want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news. The dishonest media, which has published one false story after another, with no sources, even though they pretend they have them. They make them up in many cases. They just don't want to report the truth. And they've been calling us wrong now for two years. They don't get it. But they're starting to get it. I can tell you that. They've become a big part of the problem. They are part of the corrupt system.

This isn't just another campaign speech. It is a religious sermon. The raucous applause from the audience showed that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the post-truth era, and a renewed demand for truth.

Each of the three challengers for deciding truth was created in response to the weaknesses inherent in its predecessor. All three still have many adherents, but none fully satisfies our need for truth and meaning. What comes after post-truth?

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that science required truckloads of grant money. This has been corrected to ‘boatloads’.

Last edited Feb 20, 2017, 11:36 am

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