Nov 27, 2016 | By George Gantz
Living in a Post-Truth World – The Challenge to both Science and Spirituality
On November 16, the Oxford Dictionary announced it had chosen “post-truth” as the 2016 Word of the Year. After Brexit, the recent US election and the increasingly isolated and polarized nature of online communities where fake news stories get equal play or better than the real ones (see: Buzzfeed Facebook Probe), the choice seems entirely appropriate. This forum has posted 13 articles on the difficulty of knowing what is true and an extended series on the challenges of being rational. So perhaps being “post-truth” is no big deal? Nothing could be further from the truth! We ignore true facts of our experience, our science, and our spiritual teachings at our peril. The fate of the world, and the fate of our souls, hangs in the balance.
Knowing what is true is challenging. Despite our best efforts, “Our logic is flawed, our biases inescapable, and the foundations for our evidence have crumbled.” At the same time, this does not mean that we can, or should, give up. “As human beings, we are compelled to apply reason to experience – to exercise our capacity for being rational.” We seek the truth in order to “gain mastery of our circumstances [and] create understanding and meaning for our experiences in life.” (See: Meta-Principles For Being Rational.)
However difficult the rational search for truth, it is important to recognize that it is grounded in a simple fact. The world of our experience behaves as if there is an objective, shared reality — a single background universe of physics, chemistry, biology, human experience, and human consciousness. Experience consistently confirms that we all confront the same reality and have to deal with it; it is the same common, objective arbiter of truth for all humans. We are each embedded in this reality, and every human experience is derived from it. Some say this reality also includes an infinite multi-verse, cosmic pan-psychic consciousness and/or a Divine Creator. While we may disagree about whether these specific features of the universe are true, we do not disagree that whatever the true nature of reality, it is something that we are all subject to.
There are some humans who profess to believe in an extreme relativism or a form of idealism that denies an objective reality, and there are rare instances, such as hallucinations, where one’s subjective experience is disconnected from everyone else. Yet these are limited exceptions. Human beings behave as if they believe in an objective reality. That we communicate through shared language is a demonstration of that fact. We believe, and language confirms, that our reality is a shared experience. We believe that there are true facts about this reality.
This belief structure is constantly reinforced by experience. Kick a rock and the pain in your foot registers in your brain the fact that a rock is hard. This is a true fact about the world. Once we have learned this fact, we believe it is true and that belief shapes our behavior. If we fail to accept that fact, or forget it in a moment of anger, we will experience negative consequences, e.g. more pain in the foot.
Over time, we learn generalized “laws of nature” that guide our behaviors. We do not kick rocks. [Physics] We do not throw gasoline on a fire unless we want an explosion. [Chemistry] We plants seeds in our gardens to grow food. [Biology]. Some laws are more complex and need to be taught. The earth does not appear to be round in our visual field, but we understand this is just a matter of perspective, and we learn (at least, most of us do) to accept as true that “the earth is round,” along with many other statements of fact about the world. [Geology]
We also learn certain “laws” about dealing with people. We interact with other people and, based on these interactions and our inborn intuitions, we imbue them with the same sense of autonomy and desire that we feel in ourselves. We learn to believe in consciousness and intentionality, the idea that we and others are active agents. We also have internal states or feelings that strongly motivate us to behave in certain ways, and we learn that other people are also influenced in the same way. Facilitated by mirror neurons and deep evolutionary biochemistry, we also build emotional connections and empathic dispositions towards other people. We are taught, or learn through experience, that life is better when we treat other people the way we want to be treated, a simple lesson generalized as the Golden Rule. The process of learning such psychological facts, moral laws or spiritual truths may not be as straightforward as learning the laws of nature, but they are still an important part of the collective truth of human experience.
The bottom line of reality behaving as if it is objective, is that when we ignore or deny its facts, or seek to bend them to our own purposes, there are negative consequences. We may remain committed to falsity for some time – but at some point the truth will assert itself and we will suffer the consequences of having been wrong. Consequences can be minor. If you falsely believed your mail would be delivered on Saturday and it was not, you may be disappointed but otherwise experience no consequence. However, the consequences of false beliefs can also be severe. Denying the risks of driving after a few drinks can be fatal. Denying the risks of global climate change or nuclear war may be catastrophic for all of humanity and the earth we live on.
People can be sincerely mistaken in what they believe to be true, and truth can be quite difficult to ascertain, increasingly so when we are dealing with risks, probabilities and uncertainties. People also lie about the truth, largely on the basis of perceived benefits from economic or social advantages. Some individuals may see incentives to collaborate with deceit in order to secure their own rewards, while others may be misled. These tendencies can result in a cascade of falsity, a collective commitment that infests human institutions and culture. We have seen through history the evidence of such cascades resulting in death, destruction and suffering, sometimes on a massive scale. Similar cascades of falsity and denial of risk have contributed to numerous financial crises in recent decades.
Human civilization has now achieved vast technological breakthroughs that have given us the capability to permanently change or destroy our own future. Nuclear weapons, genetic engineering, global climate change, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence all raise issues of existential risk, while pandemics and geopolitical conflicts create negative consequences for large segments of the population. These capabilities and risks are not necessarily unmanageable. However, if we have simultaneously lost our commitment to the truth — if we live in a post-truth world — then our chances of navigating safely through these risks are significantly diminished. Ironically, giving up on truth also undermines the foundations of science, the very truth on which our modern technology is built. Giving up on the commitment to truth would be a catastrophe for civilization.
For individual human beings, the spiritual implications of giving up a commitment to the truth are similarly profound. If the truth no longer matters, then we have no need to consider any other basis for our behavior beyond the gratification of our individual needs and desires. In most religions, this would be characterized as a life of evil. One living such a life has sold their soul. The end state for such a human being would be hell. Indeed, a post-truth world sounds like hell on earth.
Prescribing a remedy for such a trend may seem impossible, but there are always many individual and collective actions underway to educate, to inform, to persuade and to enlighten people about the truth. This continues today across many spectrums in science, in religion and spiritual studies, in the arts and humanities, and in the actions of individual and groups to expose and confront falsity and to confirm what is true. All are worthy of support. It is time to up our game.
Yet, as we seek to promote what is true, we need to remain humble about our own flaws and honest about our biases.
The word philosophy derives from the Greek and means ‘love of wisdom’… If we accept that wisdom is the knowledge of what choices can lead to the best life, then we can agree that the goal of philosophy is consistent with what humanity is trying to achieve – to increase the wisdom that enables us to live a good life.
(See: Personal Journal.)