What relativity can tell us about the post-truth era
By now, fake news is so embedded in our minds it’s hard to remember when the term wasn’t around. It’s multifacetic, adaptable to nearly any type of discussion. People can use it to call out falsehoods, advance their political views, denounce bias and (when necessary) discredit their opponent’s claims prima facie.
Even before the rise of Donald Trump, our creeping (viral) obsession with falsehood and innuendo spurred the Oxford Dictionaries to elect ‘post-truth’ as the 2016 Word of the Year. Oxford defines ‘post-truth’ as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
But hasn’t this idea been around for a while? Since the first tribes co-habited the earth, human opinion has been shaped by appeals to belief and emotion.
For how can anyone make sense of anything in the world — even if it occurs right before our eyes — without first injecting our emotions and beliefs? Isn’t appearance (based on what we think) part of truth? Nietzsche once wrote, “if we were to abolish the ‘apparent’ world altogether… then nothing would be left of ‘truth’ either”.
The quantum impact on truth
If everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts, why are there so many competing sets of ‘facts’ on social media?
Eventually, shouldn’t we ask ourselves: “what is a fact”? What makes things ‘true’?
There are, of course, many answers to this question. One intriguing answer – a potential ‘upgrade’ of our pre-digital notion of truth – is provided by quantum physics, which claims that the more we know about certain facts of any given system, the less we can possibly know about other related facts. In other words, our knowledge of any particular system is limited by nature.
Quantum science also claims that nature’s basic building blocks aren’t particles or even substance but clouds of probabilities, diffuse patterns of light and dark that shift so quickly and imperceptibly that they could be both true and not true at the same time. These degrees of apparent-ness (the counter-intuitive notion that what you think something is it suddenly isn’t) means that the world, at its most elemental level, is not categorical.
Back in the mid 20th century, this strange new perspective resonated intellectually with people in many fields. It hinted that we all somehow knew, if we paid enough attention, that life couldn’t be fully captured by our standard forms of measurement. It was an admission that every notion we held about ‘reality’ may not be completely true.
Humanism and truth
Quantum mechanics disrupted not only the physical sciences but also the humanities and social sciences, which began to deconstruct language and truth in new ways. Starting with principles espoused by Kant, Foucault and Derrida (but really going back to Aristotle) late 20th century writers recognized that we humans filter the ‘world-in-itself’ – what the Romans called the world qua – through extremely limited categories of understanding. Just like quantum physicists, these modern thinkers concluded that all knowledge is relative, and that humans can never fully ‘know’ the world.
Although this viewpoint wore many labels (e.g., relativism, postmodernism, deconstruction, constructivism), it eventually took center stage, not only in academia but in nearly every corner of Western society. In books, media, boardrooms and cabinet meetings, the new standard of relativism — in all its guises — prevailed.
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 construction, always determined by the power relations prevailing in a given time and place?”
“When truth is invoked, we always have to ask, ‘Whose truth?’”
Intuition and truth
What I’m saying is that ’emotional resonance’ and personal beliefs don’t just affect our political views or moral choices; they govern how we live and interpret the world.
In his 2005 book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell analyzes the role of intuition; i.e., understanding things instinctively, emotionally, without the need for conscious reasoning. He calls it the “most direct and powerful” form of human cognition, claiming that “there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.”
Another expert on intuition is Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who calls it “the secret author of many of our choices and judgments”.
But despite its power and constancy, intuition has serious flaws, including gross simplification and a host of irrational effects and biases. Even memory, say behavioral scientists, tends to obfuscate the truth, for people are less obsessed with the veracity of facts than with the malleable shapes and forms that facts can take.
By relying on instinct, we tend to see things as being much more coherent than they actually are. Our reflexive discomfort with ambiguity is so deeply ingrained that we tend to favor familiar interpretations, even when they are only half-true… or false.
Faith and truth
Over a century ago, Nietzsche said that ‘the truth’ contained a divine element that he considered to be the foundation of Western thought. He called it a “metaphysical faith” on which even the scientific method rested.
By ‘faith’ what he meant wasn’t divinity or God but an existential belief in how we choose to measure (and judge) the world. For every man-made measurement, he reminded us, every so-called fact, is a second-order expression of reality. It isn’t reality itself.
Even ‘facts’ themselves are sometimes an illusion. For in the grainy light of day, there often are no truths – or at least not the type of ‘truths’ we expect.
As Michel Foucault once said, the human race is like a boat lost at sea “among the mirages of knowledge, amid the unreason of the world — a craft at the mercy of the sea’s great madness.”
For ‘out at sea’, in the torrents of existence, people need more than ‘facts’ and science to guide their lives.
After all, we know much less about the world than we pretend to know. We are shaped, from cradle to grave, less by ‘facts’ than by our emotions, beliefs and judgments.
How else can you explain why every single religion and political ideology in history started off as an intuitive vision in defiance of the facts?