The Death of Truth

Introduction

I recently wandered into a local bookstore and in the display of recent releases I saw a copy of The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani.  I don’t read any of the current lucubrations of the chattering class, Trump has certainly invigorated them, but I was intrigued by the title so I read the dust jacket blurbs and found the phrase “objective truth.”  That was enough for me.  I replaced the book on the shelf and wandered home.  I carried in my mind those two phrases, ‘the death of truth,’ and ‘objective truth’ and thought about them with each footstep.  I had previously written “I find that truth has an evolutionary history.  Truly there was a time before truth” and now Ms. Kakutani was declaring the death of truth!  Between those two assertions is an astonishing narrative arc – the birth, life and death of truth.

I liked the phrase “the death of truth” but not Ms. Kakutani’s context: that someone or some social force embodied in that person killed truth.  So, I stripped the phrase from her context of current politics and in my mind turned it upside down.  The problem that she perceives is not the death of truth but too many truths competing for attention and for control of thought and behavior.  Too many people hawking their personal truths.  Too many tribes with their conflicting truths and social classes with their truths and politics.  A plethora of ‘truth births’ and a dearth of ‘truth deaths.’

As I turned a corner, literally and figuratively, I replaced her “the death of truth” with ‘the death of mutually agreed upon truth’ – shared stories, myths, and meta-stories: essential elements of tribalism.  The marketplace of ideas has become a civil war of truths and values, each competing for allegiance, for contributions, and for votes– tribalisms within the boundaries of a nation.  Too many myths, too many stories, too many mutually agreed upon truths: The Protestant Problem.

As I walked on, I thought about ‘objective truth.’  Does truth need the force multiplier ‘objective?’  Is an objective truth bigger, better and more powerful than a plain simple truth?  By what signs would an objective truth be known?  What would a non-objective truth be – a subjective truth?  Isn’t that an oxymoron or is it another way of saying ‘a personal truth?’  Can a subjective truth also be an objective truth?  I have by now wandered into the thicket of truth.  The sun is hidden and shadows abound, all because an editor wrote “objective truth.”  Trying to find it, I lost all track of it. Was it ever really there?

The Psychology of Truth

I did not find ‘the death of truth’ so I’ve shortened my story to the birth, life and functionality of truth.  My first series of essays was a long meditation on the birth of truth – how words appear in my mind, sometimes on rather unexpected occasions, and how they appear to me to be true.  I cannot easily deny the children of my mind.

I call that phase the ‘psychology of truth’ for it occurs in an individual mind.  But not all minds.  None of my friends do it, but the results of ‘words in a mind’ are on display in libraries, bookstores, magazines, soapbox orators, and the soapbox of the Internet, so a significant number of people experience the irruption of words into their minds.  Words and stories in the mind present as truth and carry the impetus toward evangelism – the spread of their truth into other minds and finding acolytes.

There are both personal and social aspects to the perception and evangelism of personal truth.  Individual social capital may be earned in many ways.  A very partial list of these ways might include attitudes such as humor, decisiveness, and kindness, and aptitudes such as music, dance, and making things.  Knowledge of the resources within the environment and their extraction and usage is perhaps the most important aptitude – think food and water.  High on this list must be story and truth telling.  By these means social capital may accrue to an individual: esteem, status, respect, authority, dominance, and even sexual access.  There is a large element of competition within these attributes – the desire to be the best, and to gain the most.  All this may be subsumed within ‘significance’ – an integral and necessary attribute for a social species: we are significant unto each other – to some more than to others – and in various ways.

Perception of danger also generates social capital.  “Doctor Reveals Most Common Vegetable is Toxic” is the title of an article on the Yahoo home page.  What are the authors of those types of headlining articles doing?  They are sentinels watching for danger and alerting their readers, telling danger stories thereby gaining significance, social capital, and not incidentally, cash.  The parallel with prairie dog and savannah baboon sentinels is obvious.  We experience gratitude and I think it not too much of a stretch to suggest that the great apes may also experience it.  Gratitude grants social capital to the sentinel.

The Sociology of Truth: My Mother and Me

Truth is never satisfied to remain in one mind, it seeks expression, transmission and reception.  The desire for transmission and reception is one of two major reasons for writing my essays.[note]The other is the discovery of what my mind can produce.  And I hasten to add, what my mind cannot produce.  This is the essence of self-realization, the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.[/note]  This phase is the ‘sociology of truth’ as ideas, words and stories pass from one mind to another.

My mother got into trouble at the advanced age of her mid-seventies.  She was a grade school teacher for many years and now she was teaching Sunday School.  She was a devotee of Edgar Cayce, a famous psychic,[note] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Cayce[/note] which she mixed with Protestant Christianity.  This did not quite fit within the institutional truths of the Methodist Church, and responding to complaints from her fellow parishioners, the pastor removed her from her position.

She was transmitting her personal truth.  Her students disagreed and objected.  Her truth violated their personal truths and the solution was to invoke institutional truth, mutually agreed upon and controlled by authority, and upon that authority the pastor declared my mother a heretic and cast her out from the fellowship.  So far as I know she never returned and was buried without a Christian funeral.

Her message could have resonated in other minds and could have in effect rewired their minds: a conversion experience.  She could have formed a study group and been its leader thereby gaining converts and acolytes, the triumph of telling truth, creating a new tribe, and gaining social capital.

Her story is truncated at the end for she did not take away with her any converts.  There was no acceptance within the church or within her family.  I never told her that I had read Edgar Cayce’s books at the tender age of 11, and thought him a nut case and still do.  Edgar Cayce captured her mind but she in turn did not capture others.  It must have been very frustrating for her to have found the truth and have it utterly rejected by those near and dear to her.

There are several themes in this simple story: an individual finding a new personal truth which replaced or altered previous truths, evangelism of this truth, acceptance or rejection of the new message by the recipients, institutionalization and the control and authority of truth, heresy – cleansing the institution of filth and error – and finally, in her case, the failure of a personal truth to transmit and its consequent death.

Communication: The Functionality of Truth

Why does truth seek to move from one mind to another?  I phrased this idea specifically to eliminate the individual social capital aspect and emphasize the tribal social capital which is rather different.  While individual humans survive and reproduce qua individuals, their survival and reproduction occur within the ambit of a social group.  The concept of survival of the fittest is predicated upon the idea that survival is an individual battle against the forces of nature, where the fastest escape predation and the smartest eat best.  Survival within a social species is less than ‘of the individual fittest’ and more of ‘an individual within a better organized, more cooperative, and more knowledgeable group.’

Individual social capital is summed within a group thus generating tribal social capital.  A group that takes advantage of the experience, learning and insights of individuals within the group, that is well organized and cooperates to locate and extract resources from the environment – that is, one in which stories are freely told and listened to, will generate shared knowledge and the consequent survival advantages.  A group also requires social synchronicity, telling the same or sufficiently similar myths and stories, and thereby minimizing truth conflict.

Richard McKenna, in his novel The Sand Pebbles, gave the Chinese engine room coolie, Pohan, the line ‘too much face b’long teachman.’  ‘Too much face’ is significance and social capital accruing to a teacher.  Other animals teach or learn, a lot of it by imitation, but we take teaching to a new level, in particular, by telling stories.  Truth in my mind does not earn social capital unless it is spread via evangelism.  The advantage of tribal truth is not realized unless each individual contributes.  The process of moving information and truth from mind to mind is one function of communication and this is essential to a social species.  That is an excessively narrow statement, for communication of information is essential to most living species including plants.

Afterwords

There is a residual unresolved problem, a cognitive dissonance, to use a phrase which I tend to overuse.  On the one hand I told a story of the advantage of communicating individual knowledge to the group to generate tribal capital.  On the other hand, I told a story of the danger of such communication: that is, too many truths: The Protestant Problem.  I’ll tell that story in a future essay.

The core problems in the market place of ideas and truths, is ‘how does an individual cope with conflicting truth stories?’  On the display case of new books at the local library I noted a book titled Why Buddhism is True.   I simply do not have the time, energy or interest to even take the book off of its display stand and read the dust jacket.  In addition, I give a rather complete discount to any such claim of truth.  I protect my truth and my tribalisms.  They are a source of my identity and that book with its claim will remain ignored.  I used the phrase “I hardened my heart” in a previous essay.  It fits here.

I continue this train of thought with the parallel question “how does a tribe cope with conflicting truth stories?”  By hardening tribalism.  Conflicting truths may generate more intense tribalism.

There is another way: conflicting truths may be a source of new knowledge, that is, in the interstices of two disparate stories there may be a better story.  I will take that up later, in a new series of essays.

I introduced the concept of danger stories told by those of us who suffer from words irrupting into our minds.  These stories are particularly powerful for we are basically prey animals and retain the danger systems of prey even though we are now an apex predator.  The sentinel has a particular role in society and continues to play it even in the absence of danger.  This topic will likewise be the subject of future essays where I will take up some of these socio-moral-behavioral inversions.