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Contributor Perspectives

Feb 1, 2017 | 08:07 GMT

Alternative Facts in a Post-Truth World?

Board of Contributors
Jay Ogilvy
Board of Contributors
Next time you hear a cynic spouting rhetoric about truthiness in a post-truth environment, know that in the end we have ways to deal with all of the seeming facts before us: namely, careful science and a free press.
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

I began my career teaching philosophy: seven years at Yale, four years at Williams College and one year at the University of Texas at Austin, where Stratfor's headquarters would eventually be located. There's a point to my resume mongering: When I hear phrases like "alternative facts," or "fake news," or "truthiness," it's like red meat to my philosophical lion. As our political discourse lurches into the depths of epistemology, I can't resist applying a little hard-earned professional expertise to try to relieve the skeptical despair.

Let me reassure you: Where this column will come out is in support of a commonsensical realism. Yes, there are facts. We can know some things for sure and we better use our best science to discover as many objective truths as we can.

But if that's the truth, then how in the world did we get to this point of radical skepticism and cynicism bordering on nihilism? And what can we do about it? The point of dipping into the dark depths of philosophy is no less than to salvage some grasp on reality.

The History of Doubt About the Truth

Once upon a time there was a kind of sublime innocence about epistemology. Plato and Aristotle touched on the theory of knowledge — what it is to really know something rather than to just have an opinion about it, and what the different kinds of knowing are — but they suffered nowhere near the crippling doubt that Descartes infused into the Western tradition in the 17th century. Preoccupied with phenomena like the oar that, half in the water, looks bent even though we know it to be straight, Descartes came to doubt the evidence of his senses, leading him to the famous if potentially blasphemous question, "Could God be deceiving me?"

Descartes' insidious doubt motivated centuries of never-quite-satisfactory attempts to find secure foundations for human knowledge. Now fasten your seatbelt for a dizzyingly fast recount of those centuries.

Closely following Descartes, the rationalists, Leibniz and Spinoza, argued for the importance of innate ideas. It's all in your head. But then the empiricists, Locke and Hume, insisted that nothing could get into your head except by way of the senses. Hume's skepticism about causality — he pointed out that we cannot actually see any necessary connection between causes and their effects — woke Immanuel Kant from his "dogmatic slumber" and drove him to erect a philosophical edifice that managed to resolve the subjective vs. objective, rationalist vs. empiricist dialectic by sweeping both sides of it into an idealism that says we never actually know "things-in-themselves," but only things as filtered through our categories of understanding — things like causality, unity, possibility, necessity and so on.

While Hegel accepted Kant's idealism, he put those categories in motion. Whereas all previous philosophy — from the ancients through Aquinas and Descartes, the rationalists and the empiricists, up to Kant — had been a long search for a kind of timeless blueprint in the sky, Hegel put philosophy into time and showed us that consciousness has a history; that the Greek worldview is not the same as the early Christian worldview; and that the rationalist Enlightenment was a titanic struggle with ancient superstition.

Aristotle was confident in an eternal order in which the species of animals are fixed in both their nature and number. This Aristotelian confidence was undermined by Darwin's discovery of evolution: Its dynamism replaced the old with the new and its proliferating pluralism replaced the old few with the new many. Likewise in philosophy, all aspirations toward some eternal order were undermined by Hegel's demonstration of tectonic flux at the foundations — what Thomas Kuhn later re-discovered and called "paradigm shifts."

During the 19th century, the idealism of Kant and Hegel fractured into Marxism on the left and a series of Hegelians on the right who we leap over to get to Friedrich Nietzsche's chilling dictum, from his essay "On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense":

"Truth is a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation and decoration […]; truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigor."

Now we're in trouble. The very idea of truth has fallen from the honorific height it enjoyed for centuries, from Plato to Kant. Now that Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche have historicized it, let's see how the proliferation of disciplines in the 20th century has relativized it.

The New Tower of Babel

If the last section was a bullet train ride through four centuries of Western philosophy, this section is a Nascar race around the modern university. Speed is of the essence, precisely to grasp the vast distances that separate one vision of the human condition from another.

As the old saw has it, "If all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." (Or in my case, a thumb.) So, too, the lengthening and deepening of our many different humanistic and scientific disciplines have carved our world into a series of maps and theories and portraits that are at times unrecognizable, one to another. It's not just a matter of C.P. Snow's famous "two cultures" — the sciences and the humanities — that make it increasingly difficult to talk with one another. Within the humanities and sciences themselves there is such a proliferation of specialties and subspecialties, schools and topic-focused institutes, that few are the college deans who can keep up. I should know. I've been a dean.

How are we to understand ourselves? As vast stacks of computer algorithms programmed into the wetware of advanced primate bodies? That's one way: Load billions of dollars in cognitive sciences research into the computational metaphor for the mind (it's all in your programming) onto billions more devoted to genetics and physical anthropology (it's all in your genes) and presto: You get a picture of the human condition as a hybrid of armies of laptops squeezed into individual lives that are temporary chassis for longer-lasting selfish genes.

Then, of course, there are other ways of understanding ourselves. As children of God for whom all things are gifts of God (it's all in your predestination). As speakers of different languages, each of which is only partially translatable into every other, each of which allows us to understand our world in slightly different ways, from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics to George Lakoff's work (it's all in the language you happen to speak). As rational economic actors forever maximizing marginal utilities, from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes to Milton Friedman (it's all in your greedy self-interest). Or, as more recent behavioral science is teaching us through the likes of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and Cass Sunstein, as less than perfectly rational beings whose biases are many and varied (it's all in how you have been, and can be, nudged).

Dizzy yet? The point of this whirlwind tour around the campus is to capture the almost kaleidoscopic complexity of images of humanity comprising a new Tower of Babel. The point is not so much that any one image is right or wrong — that's the old, innocent, pre-Kantian way of thinking about truth. Rather, the point is that in their proliferation, the veracity of each and every image of humanity is undercut by its partiality relative to all other images.

The problem is not too few truths, but too many.

What Can Be Done?

So where does this leave us when it comes to evaluating the cynical claim that we now occupy a "post-truth" environment? The answer: Don't believe a word of it.

Yes, consciousness is historical, and the bad news about that is there's no going back. There's no hope of laying our weary heads on the comforting pillows of eternal truths or how things used to be. But the good news about our historicity is that progress is possible.

So where does this leave us when it comes to evaluating the cynical claim that we now occupy a "post-truth" environment? The answer: Don't believe a word of it.

That isn't to say progress is inevitable, as the 19th-century progressive modernism would have it. Nor is the very idea of progress a mistaken dream of the rationalist Enlightenment, as postmodernists like Theodor Adorno and Michel Foucault would have it. But progress is possible.

Yes, the university has fractured into the multiversity, and the bad news is there's no comprehending the whole without traversing each of the parts — more than any one of us can do in one lifetime. But the good news about this proliferation of disciplines is that we are actually learning more and more about more and more, right down to the tribal customs of people very unlike us.

Not only are there now dozens of different disciplines for understanding the nature of humanity, but there are also disciplines for understanding the nature of our differences. Cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder writes:

"For anthropologists the confrontation with diversity in belief, desire, and practice can be a radical one. Here is a short list of the things we can observe out there...: people hunting for witches, exorcising demons, propitiating dead ancestors, sacrificing animals to hungry gods, sanctifying temples, waiting for messiahs... flagellating themselves in public, prohibiting the eating of pork..."

The Moral of the Story

Marx once gave us a vivid image for having inverted Hegel. He accepted Hegel's understanding of the dialectical unfolding of consciousness throughout history, but he "stood Hegel on his head." Rather than seeing history as the march of ideas, Marx saw history as the march of men and machines and the changing ownership of means of production. Similar story, but different stars. For Hegel it was all about the evolution of the World Historical Spirit (Weltgeist). For Marx it was all about the expropriation of the expropriators.

In much the same way, I want to stand the academy, from philosophy to cultural anthropology, on its head. Centuries of epistemology have taught us so much about how we know that we've almost forgotten how much we know. Decades of cultural anthropology, from the works of Clifford Geertz to those of Richard Shweder, have taught us so much about how differently we know that we've almost forgotten how widely we know.

But now let us stand these academic achievements on their heads: These scholarly successes are nothing compared with the real-life, on-the-ground experience of the pace of change and the face of the other. Academic theories of historical dynamism and cultural diversity are no longer just theories. These theories have come true.

Future Shock by Alvin Toffler

Forty-seven years ago, a relatively unschooled journalist named Alvin Toffler published a book called Future Shock in which he foretold a day when people would experience "too much change in too short a period of time." Toffler's future is our present.

But we needn't despair. We need only hold on to those truths that have not been rigorously falsified, while acknowledging that surviving truths are not necessarily eternal truths.

Shweder puts it best:

"People live differently in the world of Kali from the way they live in the world of the Virgin Mary. It is a supposition of cultural psychology that when people live in the world differently, it may be that they live in different worlds. It is an appreciation of those different worlds that cultural psychology tries to achieve."

Cultural psychology, behavioral science, cultural anthropology, geopolitics — we have ways to understand and appreciate our differences. So the next time you hear some cynic spouting rhetoric about truthiness in a post-truth environment, gird up your loins, grant our historicity, grant our diversity, grant our proclivity to wishful thinking and our unconscious biases, but insist that in the end we've got ways to deal with all of these distortions: namely, careful science and a free press.

Jay Ogilvy joined Stratfor's board of contributors in January 2015. In 1979, he left a post as a professor of philosophy at Yale to join SRI, the former Stanford Research Institute, as director of research. Dr. Ogilvy co-founded the Global Business Network of scenario planners in 1987. He is the former dean and chief academic officer of San Francisco’s Presidio Graduate School. Dr. Ogilvy has published nine books, including Many Dimensional Man, Creating Better Futures and Living Without a Goal.
Alternative Facts in a Post-Truth World?
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