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Opinion: Finding truth in a world of fiction

A letter to my students

If there is a definite, right way to understand the world, how can so many people be completely wrong, and why do our debates seem to go nowhere?
Nicole Wilcox, Unsplash

Dear students,

The confusion and cacophony of conflicting opinions that you see around you today has had a deep effect on all of you. It’s natural that it would. Americans disagree dramatically on an amazingly broad range of questions, including many of the most important ones.

Is climate change an urgent threat to national security, or a noble lie concocted by activists? Is socialism the path to prosperity for all, or to poverty for all but the ruling class? Is the U.S. the least racist country on Earth, or a country founded to preserve slavery? On issue after issue, where half the country feels strongly in one way, the other half passionately affirms the opposite. We disagree on the questions where we most badly and urgently need the truth.

Given what you see, it can be hard to take seriously the idea that there could be such a thing as “objective truth,” even on some of the questions where we most want to say that there is. If there is a definite, right way to understand the world, how can so many people be completely wrong, and why do our debates seem to go nowhere?

One of the central aims of education is to be able to see beyond the blindness of the cultural moment. And our culture at this moment is seriously blind. Given how deeply and broadly we disagree, there’s no question that at least half of us are seriously wrong about a significant number of deeply important issues. However, if you think the disagreement you see around you is proof that there is no objective truth, you are giving people too much credit.

Objective truth doesn’t mean something that everyone already agrees on. It means something that everyone should agree on if they took the time and trouble to study the evidence and figure it out. How many people are doing that?

The fact that many people you hear talking so loudly around you clearly are not in touch with objective truth does not mean that there is none. It does mean that if you want to be in touch with objective truth, you will have to see better than they do.

Here are some choice words by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, spoken in a Harvard commencement address, that prompted me to write to you:

“Harvard’s motto is ‘Veritas.’ Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit.”

Truth is elusive, but we can find it. Many important truths we know today were hardly known by anyone for most of human history. Most people thought it was obvious that the sun goes around the earth until Galileo and Kepler showed the opposite. Everyone can see that children inherit traits from their parents, but no one could explain why until the discovery of DNA in the 1950s. There are a lot of truths that are objectively known and generally accepted. We may even forget about these because no one is arguing about them. These truths seem straightforward now, but it may have taken a huge amount of skill, creativity and persistence to discover them and make them clear to others. The same is true for many important truths today. Other truths may not require skill or creativity to learn, but do require a pure heart.

The serious pursuit of truth calls for courage and self-confidence, partly because most people aren’t making such a pursuit, and many of them hardly know what truth even means any more. Often people seem to adopt beliefs more to express their tribal affiliation than as statements about “things as they are” in the world. By contrast, the serious pursuit of truth means being very choosy about how far to believe what people around you are saying.

This is especially true in the age of the internet, when most of the messages you hear are designed to bring (someone) money, popularity, emotional thrills and power. Truth is pretty far down the list of priorities when speech is commercialized or prioritized by the number of views or “likes.” We have built elaborate mechanisms for rewarding people who tell us what we want to hear, regardless of whether it is true.

The richer the media we can easily produce and disseminate with our fancy gadgets, the more effectively people can achieve the goals of money, popularity, emotional thrills and power in ways that are disconnected from reality. We now have enough bandwidth to bury reality under a mountain of fabrication — another word for fiction — or even fantasy. The more we immerse ourselves in our media, whether entertainment or “likes” or political theater, the farther we sink into a fabricated world where truth is increasingly invisible.

In other words, there are special circumstances today, which have arisen just in your lifetimes, that make it uniquely difficult to find or be confident in the truth. We have built a social ecosystem of thought that is actively hostile to truth. In fact, we have built an information ecosystem in which controversy — dramatically disagreeing with one another — is one of the most profitable commodities. Our “information age” has made truth even harder to find than it was before, and given even greater power to ignorance and manipulation. To see truth, then, requires finding your way through the social fog and the internet funhouse of mirrors.

Perhaps you don’t feel very confident that you will see the truth when so many apparently smart and well-credentialed and institutionally validated people around you either can’t see it or are actively misrepresenting it. You’re young, and finding truth is hard, but don’t give up. Truth is out there, behind, beneath and beyond the smoke and mirrors, and it continues to be vitally important. In fact, sometimes truth is obvious. In front of your nose. When you are in touch with it, truth will provide much greater rewards than our fictions, as powerful as they may be. Truth will save us from hazards that no amount of multimedia obfuscation can eliminate. We still live in a real world, whether we are paying attention to it or not.

Truth, at least on the hardest and most urgent questions, is often not easy to find. However, it is not nearly as hard as you would think from the levels of confusion and error you see in our cultural circus, in which the shallowest thinking is given the biggest megaphone. Give yourself some credit and keep after it.

Best regards,

BH

Benjamin Huff is a professor of philosophy
 at Randolph-Macon College.