Wednesday, July 20, 2016

What is Truth?

Argument versus Assertion in Discourse

In the 18th Chapter of the Gospel of John, the following exchange takes place:
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.  Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”   “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.
To a large extent, this dialogue represents much of the thinking of our time.  
One side sates that there are certain things that are absolutely true, while the prevailing thought is that truth is either a statement of preference i.e. I prefer A to B, or that it is simply a matter of perspective, meaning that there can be as many interpretations of an event as there are observers.
The reason that this latter view holds such sway in our modern society is that there is great distrust of the "true believer".  This is easy enough to understand: in the 20th century, non-religious ideologies, specifically Fascism and Communism led to the deaths  of well over 100 million people.  Without higher principle, the argument of the "ends justify the means" makes such acts easy to justify for their perpetrators.  To insulate against this, the philosophy of postmodernism states that there is "no overarching metanarrative" which, as explained by William Marsh in Nothingness, Metanarrative and Possibility means that since there are many assertions that cannot be verified objectively, then there are no universally accepted truths.  In short, there is no truth that is valid at all times for all people.

The impact of this thinking on modern discourse cannot be overemphasized.  As a more conventional thinker, I think of debating ideas as a kind of High Noon showdown.  Two opponents, armed with the ideas they have and the evidence supporting these ideas face each other and exchange fire until only one is left standing.  The problem with this however is what Mark described in his recent post about the debate on sharia.  Often there is no effort even to understand the other side's point of view, and a cheap game of one-upmanship ensues.  Even under the best of circumstances for me to comment on one of Mark's posts on Facebook is a dubious proposition.  I ignored good judgment in this case and got in the middle of the fray about the article.  I mainly took exception with the polemics of one worthy who kept on sneering at the 

ignorance of everyone about the Quran and Hadith, which are the key components of sharia without sharing anything about what his own views were.  In the spirit of this blog (and genuine curiosity about where he was coming from intellectually) I offered to have a substantive offline discussion, even to the point of posting my personal email address.  I was told no thanks because he did not wish to have a "theological" discussion.  Think about that reply - how does one understand sharia, which means "the way" and is about the rules by which a good Muslim lives without having a theological discussion since they are based wholly on who Islam says God is?  This is an example of the reluctance there is to really having one's carefully held viewpoint challenged.  So while we say "there is no overarching narrative" none of us live that way truly.  Our own cherished beliefs, whether secular or sacred, are not to be denied.

Another problem we have is whose facts do we accept as valid?  As Mark observed, there are any number of sources for information on the internet.  Some years ago, a book was published on how this phenomenon had affected selling products.  The book was called Mastering the Art of the Complex Sale by Jeff Thull, and one of the ideas in the book was that so much information was available on the internet that buyers went into informational paralysis and defaulted into the only thing they could readily understand - price.  The book argued that ironically this made the role of the outside sales force more vital than ever as educators as much as salespersons.  This same role is served in political discourse by the pundits: it is rare indeed that we look at raw data and come up with our own conclusions.  We depend on the opinions of others for much of what we believe and, since it is an acceptable idea that truth is subjective rather than objective, the quest becomes to find validation for what we already believe instead of testing our ideas against others.

The worst problem of all though, is when facts are ignored when they don't fit our narrative.  A case in point is the Black Lives Matter movement.  Some view it as a noble continuation of the civil rights struggle.  Others view it as an anarchist movement against the very concept of law of order.  What is frustrating though is trying to have a rational discussion.  The first question it seems to me is whether the premise of the movement is a valid one, namely is there a measurable bias in the way the police treat and react to people based upon the color of their skin.  Two statistical studies have been published recently that challenge this notion.  One is the book The War on Cops by Heather MacDonald, a Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.  She makes a compelling case that, if anything, African Americans are underrepresented in numbers as victims of police shootings.  The same thing was found in a recent Harvard study.  (Note the NYT headline uses the term "surprising new evidence" in summarizing the story since it seems to go against conventional wisdom).  Now comes the frustrating part - instead of being happy that the statistics do not fit the narrative that cops are engaged in open season on African Americans, the response is either disbelief or, more tellingly, so what?  The facts don't fit the narrative, therefore they must be wrong or ignored.  This is where a fundamental breakdown of dialogue happens (and C.S. Lewis is once again proven correct). 

I will close with an op-ed piece from the New York Times that I came across researching this post.  I think it presents a good argument that there is no mass insurrection going on, as some think.  Truth is complicated and often elusive, but we all owe it to ourselves to try to find it objectively and without bias or agenda.  Otherwise there can never be any kind of meaningful dialogue.

No comments: