Earlier this month, I had occasion to hear an after-dinner talk by one of the authors of Truth Decay. Since the notion of “Truth with a Capital ‘T’” has not been in fashion in academic circles for decades, I went anticipating an excursion into the reasons why we needed to return to the pursuit of Truth that transcended our individual subjective experience of the world.
In one sense, my expectations were not disappointed. The speaker was concerned with the decline of a sense of “objective truth” in American culture. But the “Truth” that she was concerned about was a very particular kind of “objective truth”—facts—and, even more particularly, the kind of facts associated with scientific data and quantitative analysis. Her work is part of a larger project headed up by the Rand Corporation to analyze reasons for the seeming decline in public confidence in “objective” data and the growing tendency of people to cling to their own beliefs about a subject even when confronted by compelling evidence to the contrary.
I resonate with this problem. I certainly lament the intellectual gridlock, public incivility and cultural polarization that results when there is no authority sufficiently respected by all sides to move us toward constructive engagement with the questions at hand. I also tracked easily with the speaker’s analysis of what was happening—as far as it went. It is hard to refute the power of personal experience over abstract external data in shaping our view of the world, the confusion created by multiple sources of information available on social media and the declining public confidence in traditional sources of authority.
I left with two concerns. First, while we may yearn for a day when “objective” truth is once again taken for granted, we will not be well served as human beings by the return of a narrowly scientific and quantitative notion of what counts as “objective” truth. Part of the reason we are in the current quandary about authority is that the early modern notions of objective Truth grounded in Science and Reason turned out not to be all that we had hoped them to be. Science and Reason, by themselves, turned out to be overly reductionistic in their capacity to account for the richness and complexity of human experience. Neither the inductive tools of science nor the deductive tools of reason are adequate to account fully for the mysteries of human relationships, the puzzle of self-consciousness, the exercise of human agency that we think of as “free will,” and human hunger for some ultimate meaning and purpose to our existence. Furthermore, Science and Reason turned out not to be as free of human bias, individual perspective and the limits of contextual imagination as we had expected. (We are now coming to see the limits of the trends of “social constructive of truth,” “identity politics,” “the linguistic turn” and a host of other intellectual trends that reacted to the Enlightenment claims about the reliability of Reason and Science. But we don’t want to forget why they emerged in the first place.)
Seeing clearly is complicated. Any helpful effort to return to “objective” notions of Truth must reckon with the complex ways that human beings make meaning of their lives apart from scientific evidence. We tell stories. We form relationships of trust. Such efforts must also reckon with human finitude. We all see imperfectly from particular perspectives. If we are really to help people return to a place of renewed confidence in “Truth” beyond their own current beliefs about the world, we must include discussions about how to discern “trustworthiness” in stories and in people as well as in scientific treatises. It is ironic that the notion of a “liberal arts” education is treated most skeptically by our culture at a time when it could actually be most helpful!
My second concern with the speaker’s analysis was that there was nothing at all said about the role of desire or the will in relation to Truth. If our Christian faith has taught us anything at all, it is that, as individuals, we often do not want the Truth. We do not want to be challenged in the way we view the world. We do not want to be called to account. We prefer the comfort of our own construction of the world. As hard as it may be for our “modern world” to believe, we are told in the Book of John that “people loved darkness rather than light.” I would have liked to engage the members of that very academic audience that evening in a discussion of George MacDonald’s reflections on Truth contained in his two sermons “Life in Christ” and “Know Christ.” While decidedly Christian in their focus, they also offer compelling reflections on the nature of Truth-seeking that might capture anyone’s curiosity. “If he does not love the truth, if he neither loves God nor would be ready to die for his fellow men…he cannot know the kingdom of heaven or the liberty of the sons of God in the obedience of the truth” (George MacDonald, Getting to Know Jesus, p. 48).
As we seek to invite our society back from the brink of “Truth decay,” let it be a large and rich vision of Truth that we hold out before them—worthy of humans who are the object of God’s loving creative and redemptive purposes.
Grace and Peace to you today.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976