A Crisis of Truth

Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”  Then later in the narrative, Pilate says to Jesus, “What is truth?!”  Modern philosophy, Rorty, for instance, says that there is no truth, only persuasion and opinion.  He is not saying that truth is relative to the individual, he is saying that there is no such thing as truth.  In fact, he doesn’t even say that.  He says, rather, that he will not argue a point [read truth], but instead persuade you to talk like him.  It would seem that contemporary journalism takes to heart the words of Pilate and Rorty, if I may paraphrase, “Who cares about the truth.”

Some of the most outlandish persuasion is broadcast on stations like Fox and Brietbart.  Persuasion that isn’t supported with facts–and facts do exist.  My favorite station is MSNBC.  They present facts, disturbing facts.  But what bothers me about this network is their rhetoric.  There is a crisis every day.  Every distasteful fact becomes a constitutional crisis.  And believe me, there are plenty of distasteful facts with Trump.  But that doesn’t justify a whole day of the same distasteful fact from 5 or so newscasters in succession, hour after hour.  There are other important facts to report, Chicago streets, employment stats, economic indicators, world events, how many and which regulations Trump repealed.

What I would like to see more of is balance in news.  Balance, and facts.  When I want a good laugh and fantasy fiction, I watch FOX.  When I have an unholy hatred for Trump, I watch MSNBC.  Neither are healthy diversions.  I’m old enough to remember Walter Cronkite.  He could say, “That’s the way it is,” and I could believe him.  Now, we are bombarded with messages that all say, “Nobody really knows the way it is, or cares.”


Dupery for Dupery

I was talking about God with an acquaintance who told me, “I just don’t see enough evidence.”  The absence of evidence led this acquaintance to disbelieve in God.  I made the observation that lack of evidence does not disprove.  His disbelief in God was on the same level of my belief in God.  Neither were founded on proof.  My acquaintance’s disbelief was actually a fear of being duped.  My belief was actually a hope that God is real.  His disbelief is fear; my belief is hope.  Both positions are emotive, not logical.

What I am talking about is not my own idea.  It was formulated in the nineteenth century by the philosopher William James.  I am paraphrasing James’ wordy language in the above paragraph.  James says it better—and funnier—but he is hard to read.  James says,

“To preach scepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. . . . Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear ? I, for one, can see no proof; and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist’s command to imitate his kind of option, . . .” (The Will to Believe).

Dupery for Dupery.  Is my hope worse than my acquaintance’s fear?  With a philosopher’s precision, James distinguishes between two approaches to truth.  There is the quest for truth and there is the avoidance of error.  Those are two different paths.  James:

“Believe truth! Shun error!-these, we see, are two materially different laws; . . . We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance.”

If we are talking about something that doesn’t matter all that much—like the appearance of sunbeams being due to a colloidal suspension of water in the sky—maybe fear of being duped is more important than the quest for truth.  But if something matters a whole lot—such as whether I should devote my life to love and thereby find eternal happiness—then fear of being duped may not be as important as the hypothesis that there is a God.  In the case of something that matters a whole lot, I think holding a belief that could be true based on some evidence may be more important than disbelieving out of a fear of being duped due to insufficient evidence.

Living life spiritually is something that we cannot be neutral about.  Either we decide to live spiritually, or we wait for sufficient evidence, all the while living according to only material norms.  But we can’t wait in some neutral space between spirituality and materialism.  People can live good lives, but not spiritual lives.  Spirituality to me means living from spiritual motives, for spiritual purposes, according to spiritual norms.  Without spiritual intentionality, good people appear to be living according to civil law, habit, common sense, but not conscience.  And I think there’s a difference.

So we’re back to the quest for truth and the fear of being duped.  James quotes Fitzjames Stephen effectively.  And I’ll let James’ use of Stephen conclude my reflections, too:

“We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘ Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.” [Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, p. 353, second edition. London, 1874.]