How certain are we of what ‘truth’ means? Does objective ‘truth’ even exist?
The psychologist Richard Gregory once claimed that each person’s perception of ‘truth’ is, in effect, an hypotheses, a construct built on past experience and stored information.
This idea has been explored by many thinkers, including Kant, Derrida and Foucault but really starting with Aristotle, who claimed that human beings could never truly know the world.
With quantum physics, this mystery deepened further. The physicist Richard Feynman once said that quantum mechanics deals with “nature as She is – absurd”.
As an example, he’d cite the uncertainty principle, which explains why two linked properties (e.g., particle position and speed) can’t be simultaneously measured, nor even precisely defined, since the accurate measurement of one will necessarily diminish the accuracy of the other.
Not only can’t we fully measure – by nature – the physical world, we’re also limited by our own mental faculties. Studies show that every human being is plagued by biases (e.g., confirmation bias, availability bias, the anchor effect, the Halo effect, etc.), all hard-wired into our consciousness, preventing us from fully comprehending key facets of reality.
This inherently flawed perception has led mankind to war, conquest, slavery, empire. Devastation writ large. As Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman once said, the human race has been plagued by an “almost unlimited ability to ignore its own ignorance.”
Saying that humans can’t fully measure the world is a gross understatement.
Ascendance of relativity
Given it’s long history and traction, it’s no surprise that relativism has been (and still is) at center stage, not only in academia but in nearly every corner of civilized Western society. In books, media, boardrooms and cabinet meetings, the idea that individuals can’t fully ‘know’ the truth has been (and still is) de rigueur.
This said, relativism remains controversial. Defenders consider it a touchstone for tolerance and open-mindedness, while detractors dismiss it for incoherence and permissiveness. In a way, it’s become the most popular and most divisive doctrine of our time, impacting not only philosophy but politics, psychology and religion.
As Adam Kirsch of The New Yorker recently wrote: “Few intellectuals today speak of ‘the truth’ without a certain embarrassment. Isn’t the truth merely an ideological construct, always determined by the power relations prevailing in a given time and place?”
Among educated Westerners, one must always ask, ‘Whose truth’?
Social media and truth
Is this any surprise? Now more than ever, people no longer believe that so-called truth can fit into neat and definable categories. This can be seen in all its living gore on Facebook and Instagram, but its roots go back to quantum physics (i.e., the uncertainty principle, the foundations of relativity) that showed – without any doubt – that our knowledge of the world is at best incomplete.
And if we can’t fully know the physical world, how can we ever define (much less measure) the complex motives and emotions that drive human behavior?
Relativists even blamed language itself, at least in part, for if the notion of predicate and object is misleading – that most things can’t be described in fixed or categorical terms – then what happens to our conventional notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘true’ and ‘false’?
Hypocrisy in ascendance
The problem is not just our inability to grasp the ‘facts’ but our refusal to recognize our own limitations, both in discerning reality and in recognizing how unstable and disorderly the world really is.
In this way, prestigious organizations committed to ‘telling the truth’ are often just as guilty of pretense and dishonesty as the worst lying politician. Not a single news outlet, for example, doesn’t use ‘emotional resonance’ to gain wider readership, or manipulate information (however subliminally) to coincide with their so-called mission. It’s part of who they are, both as an institution and as individuals. In the new Instagram world — just like in the old world of print mags and newspapers — it’s not just about what you say but what you leave out.
For what matters are not facts per se, but our interpretations of what those facts mean.
Science alone can’t account for everything… for so much in life makes no rational sense, not to us or even to scientists. Every human being – as behavioral psychologists are now discovering – struggles to comprehend the facts of their own lives, compelled (often inexplicably, sometimes tragically) to rely on what isn’t true – or what isn’t completely true – to maintain an illusion of order and stability.
It’s part of what makes the human operating system so unreliable.