Why the Truth is so Elusive

It seems to me that we in the West have begun to take our democracies for granted. Most of us, particularly our younger citizens, want the freedoms our democracies provide, often abusing them, but without having invested in the maintenance of such freedoms.

Only a generation or two ago many young men fought and died to protect these freedoms, Those generations had a vested interest in protecting this hard won way of life as a result.

But today, with little knowledge of the march of Western history fuelled by the Enlightenment that resulted in the attainment of our freedoms, many show little concern for the defence of our institutions that underpin our democracy. Indeed some surveys have showed that our young people don’t believe that democracy as a form of government is particularly special!

Not only that, but many young people believe that the truth is relative. We often hear people now proclaim that they have to express their “truth” as though truth is something we each manufacture.

Our educational institutions, including both our schools and our universities, having been taken over by left wing ideologues, who in fact denigrate Western society. There is little in the curriculum any more that celebrates Western culture and Western history. Consequently many are led to believe that the “truth” is a social construct which cannot be possibly reconciled with our privileged Western cultural history.

The European settlement of Australia is often decried as an “invasion”. There is no doubt the settlement of Europeans in Australia resulted in dispossession, some atrocities and instances of racial vilification. But the Australian occupation was no worse and often better than the myriad examples of colonisation around the world. If you look at the prehistory of Australia, this country was originally settled by successive waves of immigrants over the last 13,000 years or so which often resulted in displacement and atrocities. This is a characterisation of the populating of the world and it is difficult to make value judgments that any particular invasion was worse than any other.

The question to ask, and I suspect, impossible to answer, is whether Australia’s indigenous population is worse off or better off as a result of European settlement? Indigenous Australians have more health issues and shorter lifespans than other Australians. But there can be no doubt that they live on average longer lives now than before colonisation.

It is easy to be distracted by Rousseau’s notion of the “noble savage” or Bruce Pascoe’s fictional narrative about sophisticated indigenous societies.

At its heart the current crisis belongs primarily to the realm of epistemology, or how we know what we know. Why is it when viewing the same evidence people can come to such disparate positions? I am going to outline some of the reasons for this bewildering phenomenon in this essay.

In 2020, former President Barack Obama said:

If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.

And although I don’t often agree with Obama I think he is probably right on this issue. But I suspect that even he doesn’t appreciate the difficulty of establishing the “truth”.

So let us get to the core of the issue – what’s true and what’s false and can we ever be certain?

Oftimes people look towards science for a template as to how to establish the truth. But those without a scientific training and an understanding of the philosophy of science do not appreciate the inherent uncertainty in scientific theory. Karl Popper, the most famous writer on the philosophy of science reminded us that all scientific knowledge is provisional. A particular scientific theory describes the world and predicts scientific outcomes better than alternatives but it does not suggest that it can’t be supplanted by a better explanation. For example Newtonian mechanics provided an adequate description of the world for a couple of centuries. But eventually because of difficulties at the extremes (describing the very small and the very large) it was displaced by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

(As an aside it always amazes me that with regard to climate change seemingly well-educated people can say “the science is settled”. The science of climate change as evidenced by the failure of climate change models is hardly “settled” and we would hope that in the future current climate theories will be displaced also by those that provide a better fit to the evidence.)

Popper promoted the Falsification Principle as a way of demarcating science from non-science. It suggested that for a theory to be considered scientific it must be able to be tested and conceivably proven false. As an example he suggested that, based on European experience over the eons, it would have been appropriate to have made a hypothesis that “all swans are white”. But, of course that hypothesis was contradicted once explorers came to Australasia where in fact swans were black!

Well if science can’t provide the certainty that people want, perhaps mathematics can. And just as in physics, mostly it can. By definition 2+2 is always 4 and 3×7 is always 21. But just like Newtonian Physics at the extremes we can’t be so certain. At the age of twenty five, after finishing his doctorate at the University of Vienna, Kurt Gödel published his Incompleteness Theorem in 1931. In it he proved that “all consistent axiomatic formulations of number theory contain undecidable propositions”. Hence even mathematics was plagued with uncertainties.

Thus the two forms of knowledge, physics and mathematics, that appear to be the most quantitative and objective cannot always be relied on to point to the truth. How much more difficult is it in other forms of knowledge that are more subjective?

Sometimes however, rather than being led towards the truth we are deliberately coerced into avoiding it.

George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty Four wrote:

The party directed you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.

In Orwell’s dystopian world individuals weren’t allowed to think for themselves, they had to yield to the dictates of “the party”. In today’s world individual freedom of expression is also constrained. Now it is not “the party” that constrains our freedom of expression but the proponents of identity politics and “wokeness”.

There is no doubt that social media has exacerbated the problem. As Jonathan Rauch, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution has written:

Digital media have turned out to be better attuned to outrage and disinformation than to conversation and knowledge.

And much of the demands “to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears” initiates from passionate and often illogical diatribes from such sources. In today’s discourse it is perhaps more meaningful not to refer to “the party” as Orwell did but to recognise the various “tribes” that seek to influence debate.

Such “tribes” include people who zealously pursue such causes as:

  • Climate change
  • Indigenous victimhood

And so on.

Most of us would like to believe that when it comes to making decisions (political or not) we do so in a rational manner. But human beings have many failings when it comes to making rational decisions. Let me discuss just two of these failings.

The first of these is confirmation bias. This is something we are all guilty of and I can confidently assert that you and I both fall into this trap. When we submit to this diversion from reason we seek out opinions of others who are like minded to reinforce our particular views. We shy away from dissenting points of view and often characterise those who promote such ideas as delusional. In colloquial terms we speak of “echo chambers” wherein we are comfortably reassured by having those that think similar to us dominate our discussions and critique of ideas and events. We elevate the opinions of those that think like us and dismiss out of hand the opinions of others who don’t.

And of course confirmation bias underpins the “cancel” culture, where people can’t afford to listen to dissenting ideas.

The second (and related) human failing that obstructs our capacity to make rational decisions is the simple fact that our reason is slave to our passion. Once we become emotionally attached to something our reason will be co-opted to rationalise such belief.

Scottish philosopher, David Hume, in his Treatise on Human Nature wrote;

Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

Of course such a belief would have been an anathema to Socrates who taught that we should be humble about our beliefs and not have such attachment to them. We should assume that we are often wrong and seek out challenging information and opinions. In today’s world, being part of a “tribe”, allegiance to which defines our identity, this is usually the last thing we want to do.

(One of the admirable traits of the founder of the Theory of Evolution, Charles Darwin, was his intellectual honesty. I remember reading an extract from one of his diaries where he wrote:

When in the field I encounter data that seems counter to my theory, I immediately write it down because I know from experience that is what I should soonest forget.)

As we saw earlier, we have a vested interest in reinforcing our beliefs rather than challenging them. And indeed the stronger we hold such beliefs the more aggressively we avoid having them challenged. American Social Psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, has written:

Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive.

We get a fix from asserting our particular extremist position and it consequently blinds us from considering any other point of view.

The same biases which distort our thinking are the very same biases that work to ensure that such biases cannot be acknowledged.

As I have explained in other essays all of us are subject to a hierarchy of needs, viz our:

  • physical,
  • social,
  • intellectual and
  • spiritual needs.

In today’s society where mostly our physical needs are routinely met, many of us spend inordinate effort in trying to assuage our social needs. In simple terms our social needs are our basic needs to belong. This is why we gain solace from our families, our friendships, our social groups and belonging to the “tribes” I mentioned above.

In a recent book the philosophers of science Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall wrote:

Our ability to successfully evaluate evidence and form true beliefs has as much to do with our social conditions as our individual psychology.

(This of course explains the phenomenon of “group-think”. The literature of psychology is replete with examples of individuals who were not prepared to disagree with others because “belonging” was more important to them than voicing a contrary opinion.)

Again as Jonathan Rauch has written:

For each of us, as an individual, it makes sense to sing in harmony with the tribe, and to believe harmoniously too.

As individuals, we benefit from preserving our status and sense of self. Yet as Yale’s Dan Kahan points out, if a whole community behaves this way, the collective effect is devastating: the whole community loses touch with reality.

Once ensconced in such a “tribe” it is tremendously difficult to wrench oneself away from it. In his book The Constitution of Knowledge, Rauch related the experience of someone who left a fundamentalist church. She described her experience as:

….losing everyone and everything and being left to a world that I had spent my whole life antagonising.

It is because of the above reasons (and more) that the “truth” is so hard to discern.

When we take pause and consider how we might better approach the truth two thoughts spring immediately to mind.

Firstly we might remember and try to emulate the humility of Socrates. A man or woman at peace with themselves does not need to be always right. Such a person, secure in their own sense of self, does not need to rely on the approval of others to prop up their own inherent well-being. From such a secure place an individual is able to look at the world more objectively.

Secondly we might ponder on how we might each get to this exalted place where we can find contentment without needing the approval of others and consequently be immune to the need to pander to the various “tribes” that jostle to garner our support and in return repay us with their conditional approval. Well this is not an easy process but someone who described it better than anyone else was my good friend Dr Phil Harker. He described someone who is comfortable in their own skin as being psychologically mature. The path to this exalted state required three steps. These steps are:

  • Know yourself,
  • Accept yourself, and then
  • Forget yourself.

So our pursuit of truth is not advanced so much with grappling with the world “out there” but being reconciled with the world “in here”. No one who enables their sense of self to be part of the equation can ever hope to approach truth.

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