A Monopoly on Truth

Truth, holding a mirror and a serpent (1896). Olin Levi Warner, Library of Congress

As a follow-up to my recent post about truth, I would like to clarify what I see as the grave danger of being certain that one possesses the truth. As for truths in the natural sciences our concerns are irrelevant. Science by its nature is provisional; it is always open to contrary evidence and willing to adjust its views based on new evidence. Thus arrogant dogmatism is virtually impossible given the scientific method. The attitude of searching for truth and accepting provisionally what the evidence reveals prevents the kind of absolute certainty which is our main concern.

However, when humans believe strongly in areas where truth is difficult or perhaps impossible to attain, or where truth might not even exist, the situation is dire. Unlike in science, where the evidence constrains our thinking, in religion, for example, one can believe virtually anything. Moreover, these beliefs are often held with great fervency. It takes no willpower to believe in gravity or evolution—because the evidence overwhelms an impartial viewer—whereas in religion it often takes much faith. If we combine fervency of belief with strong faith we have a potent mix. If we feel strongly and we reject anything that will contradict our beliefs, naturally we may soon regard our beliefs as infallible. Crusades, inquisitions, persecution, and religious wars are the natural outgrowth of such attitudes. The great American philosopher John Dewey reflected on our concerns:  

If I have said anything about religions and religion that seems harsh, I have said those things because of a firm belief that the claim on the part of religions to possess a monopoly of ideals and of the supernatural means by which alone, it is alleged, they can be furthered, stands in the way of the realization of distinctively religious values inherent in natural experience…. The opposition between religious values as I conceive them and religions is not to be abridged.  Just because the release of these values is so important, their identification with the creeds and cults of religions must be dissolved. 

The contemporary American philosopher Simon Critchley also captured our revulsion at arrogant dogmatism in a column in the New York Times entitled: “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson From Auschwitz.” Critchley advocates tolerance regarding our assessment of other persons; thereby rejecting the certainty that leads to arrogance, intolerance, and dogmatism.

The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades. … We always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.

Critchley also includes a moving video excerpt from Dr. Jacob Bronowski, a British mathematician, and polymath. In the old video, Bronowski visits Auschwitz, where he reflects on the horrors that follow when people believe themselves infallible. The video serves as a testimony to remind all of us of our fallibility.

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5 thoughts on “A Monopoly on Truth

  1. I have been making notes on reality and truth for several years, trying to make sense of those concepts/ideals. The more note-making I do, the more ambiguity and contradiction I find. Truth depends on who you are, what you believe and to what lengths you are willing to go to convince someone else of your truth. The term, belief , is pivotal here. Reality is like a reptile or other life form that can change its’ appearance so as to be less-visible and therefore, less-vulnerable to attack. In the human world, reality changes with passing time and changes in what is known. It depends, again, largely on belief and, secondarily, on what is known, a posteriori. It can’t be pinned down for very long.

  2. The future of the scientific method, with its lovely radical skepticism, is precarious. Social science already essentially is an arm of politics, and politics is nipping at science, starting with the periphery (anthropology, linguistics, etc.) and working its way to all of STEM.

    ‘Publish something good or perish from tenure track’ has morphed into ‘publish data conforming to the Scripture or perish from the profession, and no admittance to fancy schools for thy children and thy children’s children, amen.’ It is getting to the point where, if a reader knows the subject of a social science peer-reviewed article, they can usually predict the gist of its conclusions. Social science as Nouvelle Theology, a Deductive Science. 5 minutes ago it became safe to come out as a heathen, it was SUCH RELIEF, and now time is up.

    Some people misread the history of science, believe there is necessary tension between the true and the good, and thus, they undervalue the search for objective truth, undervalue the sacredness of skepticism in the search for truth. Such tension can exist and needs attention, but is hardly ever the facts’ ‘fault,’ and most important, the good can’t exist without facts, or not for long.

    Much has been said about the is-ought fallacy, but not enough about the (well-meaning) Lyin’ for Jebus Syndrome and its ubiquitous equivalents. Meaning well while using falsehoods or poor data, is worse than insufficient, it can be as lethal as bad intentions. The absolute quantity of human misery remains at best constant through the ages, and i attribute this to over-reliance on good intentions, narcissistic relationship with facts, and tenuous understanding of the proper uses of skepticism. More generally, the complicated realities that humans have brought about may be more cognitively taxing than most of them (including myself) can optimally deal with.

  3. There are numerous takes on the truth/reality issue. I have some of my own, on both. These terms are irreparably connected. I won’t complain because when/ where I express views, those are suppressed, subsumed or erased, before they appear as comments. Anywhere. So, here is my last , abbreviated stand. Truth, when it IS truth, is either physical or statutory. Examples: water is comprised of hydrogen and oxygen. In this environment, this is irrefutable. Murder is a crime. We made that up, because it is factually evident. It is also, morally evident and we made that up too. Now, how about contextual reality? Well, we make that up as we go, based on interests, preferences and motives. Which change, etcetera, etcetera. We arrive, sooner or later, at complexity. Complexity is another creation of humans. Because it connotes progress, ‘our most important product.’ This came about, around the time we were advised, ‘it’$ the tobacco that counts’.
    At some point, I learned of Eisenhower’s concern about the military-industrial complex.
    That is back. Thanks, John, for your patience.

  4. When I was early to philosophy, I loved Plato’s theory of the perfect, unchanging Forms, while recognizing all we observe through our senses are pale imitations. Why is it so hard for people to say “I don’t know?” Priests and Kings have not been shy to proclaim their divine right to rule or interpret the “Truth.” Even Marx thought religion was the opiate of the people. After all, how do you argue with God? Einstein pretty much showed the relativity of much that we believe. So much is relative to the time and culture we live in. Sadly, this is lost on the absolutists in our religions and politics. May I conclude with the old prophet’s observation: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” I’m afraid.

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