The Professor's Note: I know this is a bit esoteric, but sometimes a bit of philosophy is needed.
There is no question more fundamental to both one’s personal philosophy of life and to the political ideology than the nature of truth. While most people do not ponder on this question, it forms the bedrock of all other philosophies. Pontius Pilot is often mocked by Christians for his simple question "What is truth?" yet few Christians when pressed can give more than sound-bite answers as to the nature of truth.
A few years back, with the rise of Donald Trump as a political phenomenon, we first began to hear the term “post-truth society.” Initially, I thought this was just an overreaction to the man’s constant stream of lies, yet over time, the rejection of empirical facts has become the hallmark of the political movement he founded and appears to have legs that will live on past his time of political relevance.
However, while the open rejection of truth is more flagrant and public in the past few years, I would contend that there have always been those who reject truth, or more correctly mislabel things to be truth when they are no such thing.
I have had the privilege of having attended graduate schools with very different political and philosophical outlooks; but ironically they both share the same answer to the question, "What is truth". At Bob Jones University, a self-proclaimed fundamentalist Christian institution, they taught the Bible, in the original, was the only truth in the universe. All other sources of knowledge be it science or things we determine by empirical evidence or reason are secondary, and thus not actual truth at all. Of course, they really did not mean the Bible per se, rather they meant their interpretation of selective passages found in the Bible. When push came to shove, they would admit that they believed that "truth" and "belief" are interchangeable. This is a profound statement: belief is the same as truth. It underpins their entire worldview.
To understand this in context, realize that Bob Jones went to the US Supreme Court because they believed God created three races (white, black & Asian) based on the three sons of Noah and that intermarriage between those three races was a violation of God's truth. However, in the 1990's, they quietly dropped that "truth".
Once a person or group decides they have the power to create truth simply by their belief, there are no boundaries to what they might determine truth to be. Conservative Evangelicals believe all sorts of things that have no foundation in the Bible. They even hold to be “true” many things that are in direct contradiction to the words of Jesus. To put it simply, when belief becomes "personal truth" then any belief you hold has the validity of actual empirical evidence. Thus, the concept of truth completely loses its meaning.
To the school's where I obtained both my B.S. and M.S., truth was simply a construct of their religious beliefs. This is how religious conservative monotheists in Evangelicalism, Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam and even ultra-orthodox Jews all interpret truth. This is how all these people order all the rest of their view of reality. This is also why people in these groups can do so many patently immoral things, yet claim they are working the will of God.
While you might expect that my experience at a top-tier public university would be different, it was not. The very first lecture at my very first class at Clemson University was an hour-long "sermon" on why the scientific method could not be trusted and that truth was an individual construct of the mind. In short, that professor taught that there is no external benchmark of truth, we all create truth and all truth is equally valid.
Well, not really equal, because those who hold beliefs that are out of sync with the speaker’s personal view of "truth" are patently invalid. For instance, the speaker that day was quite sure that the personal truth of those people at Bob Jones University (which was only about 30 miles away) was invalid; while his “truth” was implicitly valid. This view of truth is labeled post-modernism. Over the next four years, it became clear that this epistemology was almost universal among the younger professors in the university's humanities departments. The most damning thing I could say at Clemson was to (correctly) point out that the post-modernist at Clemson and the fundamentalist at Bob Jones actually believed the exact same thing. The two groups just simply create their own truth that excludes the other, yet neither has one wit of empirical evidence to support their views, and both pride themselves that they don't need or even want empirical evidence to support their beliefs.
Both groups’ view of truth is nonsense. No matter how much justification one gives for this nonsensical belief, it still defies all reason.
Let me quote myself from a paper I wrote on the nature of scientific inquiry in my PhD program.
Truth exists independent of human thought or involvement. Humans can be seekers of the existing truth, but they are never its existential creator. While truth is not subjective, the process by which it is found and interpreted is bound by the experiences and expectations of the seeker. This process gives the false illusion that there are multiple truths. It is the search for the underlying truth via multiple illusions of truth that is the mission of the scholarly community. Human endeavor is in the finding, organizing, explaining and applying truth; this is the essence of knowledge production.
In plain English, truth does not depend on humans at all. Whether we accept or reject truth is irrelevant, truth exists outside of our reasoning regardless. We as humans have the obligation to seek truth and to verify it by empirical methods, but we do not create truth.
For example, last weekend, I flew to Dallas, Texas to see my father. That is true. It is not true because I said it or because you believe it. The truth of what happened is not subject to my words or your belief. It is true because it actually happened.
Back in the 1970's when I first began to look into philosophy a popular question was "If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, did it make any sound?" The scientific answer is yes, sound waves were produced. The existentialist answer is yes, the sound exists outside of human control. But to those who believe that truth is created by the individual, the answer is maybe yes, maybe no: what do you think?
While the last answer might sound intellectual and deep, it is in fact nonsense.
Why does this matter?
It matters because a pluralistic society and democratic government are founded on the proposition that there is a universal truth that exists outside of any religious/philosophical tradition. These ideas were first created about four-hundred years ago during a period of time called The Enlightenment. This philosophical movement began in the aftermath of centuries of religious wars in Europe where all sides claimed to be Christian and all sides claimed to have a unique handle on truth based on their beliefs. To put an end to this kind of war, the founders of the United States envisioned a world based on two things. First, the only thing that can be called truth were those things that had been discovered by empirical methods and extended by human reason. Second people had the freedom to have any religious or personal belief they wanted, but the power of their belief did not extend to the point of imposing on others who did not share that belief. This was foundational to the creation of a new country. When the a-priory belief that all men have equal value no matter their social or financial status is added to the commitment to empirical truth, we call it liberalism. Sadly, it took many years to include non-white men and women, but the foundational belief of human rights was there from the beginning.
What is imperative is that we realize that political liberalism, and hence all Western society, was predicated on the clear distinction between truth and belief.
Though there have always been those who tried to substitute belief with truth in public policy, until the 1980's they were lone voices in fringe groups. The basic tenants of political liberalism were not seriously challenged until the rise of the illiberal conservatives. Driven both by religious ideologues that sought to substitute their beliefs for truth in the public sphere; and, by economic ideologues often called neo-liberals (like Milton Freedman) who used liberal words like "freedom" to promote an illiberal caste system run by oligarchs.
While this was bad enough on its own, at the same time a new challenge to political liberalism was rising on the left. The explosion of what was first called The New Left and their ideology with its post-modernist view of reality came as a direct result of the rise of the neo-liberals. Initially confined to the elite universities, the European New-Left ideology, now refined into something called Critical Theory, soon crept into the American mainstream under the name "identity politics." In this new-left (post-modernist) world, evidence does not matter. The mantra now is feelings are as valid as scientific proof.
In a practical sense, this ideology says that if you feel offended, then someone has, in truth, mistreated you. The idea that one's own demons warped your understanding is not even entertained. Even if the person tries to explain your hurt feelings were due to a misunderstanding, it does not change their personal truth that someone committed a misdeed. Your reality trumps all others, and thus you are justified in casting blame and imputing evil motives without a shred of evidence.
Hence, we arrive at our post-truth world. Just this morning, I read how the State Superintendent of Education in Oklahoma said that public school teachers should not tell students that the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 (where some 300 black Americans were killed by a white mob) was about “skin color.” (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/jul/08/oklahoma-republican-tulsa-race-massacre) This is nonsense. But in a post-truth world, empirical facts simply do not matter.
Those on the right and left who simply ignore empirical evidence and choose to believe whatever they want have taken over what used to be civil discourse. Why is anyone surprised that the right in the United States has resurrected white supremacy as an open political goal, and created the myth of American oppression of Christians when the left has transformed itself into an amalgam of disparate aggrieved groups? While (currently) the right is more vitriolic about how oppressed they are by focusing on anecdotal outrages by leftists, the left is all too busy focusing on who has committed a minor offense to whom. All the while, the big issues get unaddressed; like the fact the vast majority of Americans are increasingly disempowered to positively shape their own lives, or that we have a criminal justice system that is inadvertently creating the very criminals it is supposed to prevent.
While the vast majority of America’s middle-class and wage-earning people are falling behind the living standards of their parents, the extremists hold the bullhorns to talk about high visibility irrelevancies. Anecdotes, especially with dramatic photos, feed the "facts don't matter" trend. It doesn't matter how many thousands of poor black kids spend years rotting in jail because they can't afford bail when one person is gunned down on video steals the narrative. It doesn't matter if the victim is a black kid or a policeman, the effect of obscuring the larger issues is the same. Cold hard facts are increasingly irrelevant in the world where the sensational rules even if the story is misleading or downright false.
If the American experiment (and Western Liberalism writ whole) is to survive another century, we must, WE MUST, call out those on the right and left who substitute personal belief for empirical fact. We must reverse the efforts to mislabel our personal beliefs as truth and impose it on others. And no, calling out those on the other side of the political divide doesn't help. We must be willing to call out those on our side as well, the people with whom we have influence. Only when our own house is in order can we demand others do the same.
Truth, real truth, matters.
Addendum: To be fair, at Clemson, the engineering and agriculture schools are the core of the university's identity. My son just finished the engineering program at Clemson and never once in his five-year program ever ran into post-modernism. In the engineering department, the scientific method is still accepted and the gulf between belief and truth is still wide. While in right-wing media the excesses of college's post-modernist left are often highlighted; what they don't say is that these excesses are almost always at elite (read insanely expensive) schools that focus on the humanities. In colleges and universities that focus on the "hard sciences" and career prep, the scientific method is still the benchmark for reality.