On the Matter of Facts

Many fear that we are entering a so-called post-truth era, where public discourse is no longer concerned with what is true. During his presidential campaign in the US and in office, for example, Donald Trump has made plainly false utterances that he has refused to retract. Indeed, by all appearances he has made things up on the spot during his speeches and interviews, e.g., he doubly lied when he claimed Sweden had experienced a terrorist attack and then that two days later people had died in a subsequent riot there. Likewise those campaigning to persuade UK citizens to leave the European Union made the wild and unsupported claim, among others, that the union was costing the nation £350 million per week. In both countries, despite being called out on these falsehoods, an alarming proportion of their populations accepted the claims as true. Such displays of mendacity have always existed in politics, so why the fear now? The fear is also fueled by a recognition that the influence and authority of the mainstream media are being usurped by alternative online news sources. Perhaps the majority of adults in western democratic societies now receive their news through social media. These sources are unreliable. Indeed, increasingly items passed off as news are simply fictitious, that is, fake. It is very difficult to stem the tide of unreliable and phony news reports. But most worryingly many suppose that the truth or falsity of our claims in general cannot be objectively determined, and so whether a news report is true or false comes down to a difference of perspective. Your facts may simply not agree with my facts, as it is sometimes put. Hence fighting against this tide of misinformation and lying is futile. It is this pernicious relativism I want to take up and argue against.

  1. What Is Truth?

The concept of truth is vague by its foundational nature. It stands prior to all other concepts insofar as their uses, to utter sentences, presuppose a grasp of the concept of truth. Yet it is very difficult to define exactly what we mean by it. Philosophers have long argued about what is the best theory or account of truth. Now many concepts that we commonly use are vague, e.g., happy, good and beautiful. We cannot offer precise definitions of them but nonetheless we are confident in our use of them. The problem with the concept of truth, however, is that its very usefulness is based on its allowing us ultimately to agree and disagree. Without a clear understanding of the concept we would be unable to define the difference between asserting a belief and denying it, hence the possibility of genuine agreement or disagreement would be threatened. All beliefs would effectively have to be treated as empty utterances or dispositions. If one day I were to say climate change is man-made and on another to say, on the contrary, it is natural, nothing of substance would have changed by this measure. I would merely be making different noises on each occasions. Such a situation is of course intolerable. But that is exactly what the relativist describes when she claims that in the end we cannot deny someone her belief, even if we have good reasons and evidence to show it is false. The relativist, explicitly or otherwise, holds that a belief is true relative to a particular point of view and there is no possibility of privileging one point of view over all others.

Relativism can seem reasonable. It denies that the world, i.e., reality, can be given one unique true description, as if ultimately it would be possible to write the book of facts, that is, a complete list of the truths that constitute the world. It seems more plausible to imagine that the world cannot in this sense be reduced to a single descriptive set. All the different perspectives on the world that we take cannot be tamed in this way. Truth has an ineluctable subjective element to it. The idea that we could in principle produce such a book of facts rests on the assumption that there is some authority or tribunal that imposes the truth on us, where this authority is independent of anyone’s viewpoint. But we do not acquire truths from outside ourselves in this way – we don’t suddenly see the truth, as we might come across an object while on a walk. This observation led Friedrich Nietzsche, in his inimitable poetical style, to remark: “‘Truth’ is…not something there, that might be found or discovered – but something that must be created and gives a name to a process, or rather to a will to overcome that has no end…”[i] The will here names the subjective element.

It is useful to think of scientific knowledge as the best means of determining truth that is available to us. As a rule the truths science provides are the most reliable ones we have. How do we know, for example, that there is a universal force of gravity between objects? It has been confirmed by our tremendous success in calculating the various trajectories of heavenly bodies like planets and asteroids. All told our scientific knowledge is founded on our best theories being carefully confirmed by observations. But these theories are dynamic. At times in history one theory thitherto held true has been replaced abruptly by a better one, as measured by various criteria that needn’t detain us. A classic example is the replacement of the Ptolemaic geocentric theory of planetary motion, i.e., that all the planets and stars orbit the earth. Over the centuries adjustments to the theory were made to accommodate anomalous observations such as the retrograde motion of planets, e.g., Mars’ appearing to go backwards in the sky. But eventually Copernicus provided a heliocentric theory of planetary motion that fit far better with our observations, e.g., better explained retrograde motion. These sorts of abrupt revolutionary changes in scientific theories were highlighted by Thomas Kuhn. He points out that what we count as a truth in science at bottom depends on the theory underpinning it, and all such theories are always open to radical revision or replacement.[ii] So even truths as reliable as those provided by science are not invulnerable to change – the foundations of their truths are not fixed and immutable. These changes come from us – they are not the result of our looking harder and ‘seeing’ the truth of some other theory in the world. Rather, we create the theories – a thought that echoes Nietzsche’s claim that truths are ultimately created by us and not discovered.

It is the provisional nature of scientific theories in this sense that is appealed to by those who want to deny the truths they furnish. A clear example of this is those who deny man-made climate change. Deniers often argue that the claim that climate change is a result of the excessive emission of greenhouse gases is merely based on ‘a theory’, that is, something that is only provisionally true. Therefore, it is always reasonable to reject it. The assumption is that for any claim it is not possible demonstrate it is true or false by some absolute standard. Hence there is no reason to give up any belief one might hold dearly, e.g., that a drastic reduction in the burning of fossil fuels is unnecessary. No argument the climate change proponent can provide will satisfy the denier given such relativism. Indeed the demand for absolute truth is obviously wrongheaded in some way. And so, again, relativism can seem to be a perfectly moderate position to hold.

  1. Are All Your Beliefs True?

As we see, despite the absurdities that apparently follow from it, there are reasons to believe in relativism. We have no intuitive power that might enable us to see how the world is directly. Indeed, it is hard to make sense of this idea. Instead we come up with theories and beliefs and hold them true to the extent that they agree with our observations, and are not plainly contradictory with any other theories or beliefs we hold true as well. This fact seems to allow for the possibility that two distinct cultures could each have theories and beliefs that are true by the above measures, but that some of the theories and beliefs of the one culture contradict those of the other. Moreover, there are no effective means of determining if the theories and beliefs in question of the one culture are true but false according to the other, since there is no outside perspective – no God’s-eye-view – to be had by which to adjudicate in this way. The act of holding a belief true must originate with us. These subjectivist origins of truth lead some to maintain that in the end what is true is determined by us. This line of reasoning encourages the view that we each own our beliefs in the sense that our holding them true somehow makes them true.

An analogy with money can help to lay bare the nature of this view. Imagine that someone is convinced that the money issued by her bank is worthless since its value is not ultimately backed up by something she takes to be intrinsically valuable, e.g., gold insofar as it is naturally scarce. In such a case when someone else tries to pay her the rational thing for her to do would be to refuse the money. The result would be so catastrophic for her that she’d likely prefer to pretend money does have value. If, likewise, one maintains, as the relativist does, that no belief can ultimately be shown to be true or false from some metaphysically privileged God’s-eye-view, then one might conclude that the rational thing to do would be to disbelieve everything. But this would have an equally catastrophic result. No sane person would do this and so instead she acts as if beliefs can be true or false. But while denying the value of money on each occasion is almost always inconvenient, denying that the truth of someone else’s belief or the falsity of one’s own is often quite convenient. Accordingly, the relativist will act in such a way as to maintain her own beliefs and resist any reasons for rejecting them. For as the nineteenth century American philosopher Charles Peirce observes:

Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into a state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state that we do not wish to avoid, or to change into a belief in anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe.[iii]

And so we see that relativism is naturally attractive. It allows people to hold on to their own beliefs, as we are naturally inclined to do, without the inconvenience of having to defend them – one can assume there is no ultimate justification for them – it comes down to one’s perspective.

Nonetheless, Peirce notes that by degrees we are all driven to doubt some of what we believe, and so just to hold them true tenaciously, while heroic in a perverse way, is on many occasions madness. If we doubted nothing we came to believe then we would come into irreconcilable conflict with others who do not share our beliefs and we would be confronted with facts that we could not ignore. As much as we want to hold our beliefs true we recognise that we cannot do so unconditionally. In this respect Peirce observes that throughout history societies have often overcome the natural conflicts between their members by imposing a doctrine, such as religious dogma in western societies. By bringing up its members to hold a reasonably consistent set of beliefs about creation, the natural order of society etc., conflict within society will be minimised. If, as in the case of Galileo for example, individuals dissent on key points of doctrine, authorities can impose punitive measures. All told this arrangement is an improvement on a society of individuals tenaciously holding onto their own beliefs. Peirce called this the method of authority, as against the method of tenacity.[iv] A present-day manifestation of this method of authority is perhaps the convergence of people with like-minded opinions with respect to the news sources they consume – the so-called ‘echo-chambers’ many of us effectively inhabit.

Peirce recognises that the method of authority does not provide an ultimate resolution of the conflict between beliefs. The conflict is merely transposed to one with outsiders and those insiders, like Galileo, who could not reconcile a difference between what is observed and the doctrine. For Galileo this consisted in the observations he made through the newly invented telescope and the description of the universe according to the Bible. And so, Peirce observes, we have developed science as a means to overcome the doubts manifested on this larger stage. This method of science has the advantage of being properly universal, at least in its scope. But while Peirce appears to think that the method of science leads to progress on all fronts regarding conflicts of beliefs, we have come to realise that science is no panacea. A great many of our beliefs are value-based, that is, moral and aesthetic in nature. For example, the belief that capital punishment is morally wrong is neither confirmed nor disconfirmed by science. Likewise, the belief that Mozart was a great composer is not backed up by any sort of scientific experiments. And in politics particularly it is these value judgments which come into play. Moreover, we’ve seen that science is not immune from relativism. That said, many scientists are not relativists, believing instead that our theories are converging on the truth – we are on the way to writing the book of facts in some sense. Here it is useful to ask: which theories do scientists believe will remain unchanged and at what point? Clearly the nature of scientific inquiry, in terms of creating theories to explain and predict phenomena more efficaciously, is itself unpredictable. At best the scientist might reply that scientific theories are mostly true, though which ones are close to being immutable is perhaps impossible to determine. This thought is key to offering a coherent answer to relativism.

  1. Most of Your Beliefs Are True

The relativist as I have described her is in part a caricature – what we might call the convenient relativist. Few would explicitly claim that holding a belief true is a matter of choice. Everyone is aware that beliefs can be shown to be false, against one’s hope. But I have argued that many people behave as relativists in this sense insofar as they feel that many of their beliefs are safe given that they assume there is no ultimate objective measure that could show they are not so. I say ‘feel’ to suggest that they are not able to justify this behaviour in any robust way; they adopt it because it fits with their inclination to avoid doubt as much as possible, to paraphrase Peirce. But the assumption that nearly all one’s beliefs are true is in itself very reasonable. In fact it must be the case, but not because of any epistemic prowess.

To understand why our beliefs must be mostly true and what follows from this, we have to turn to the American philosopher Donald Davidson. Davidson’s teacher, the equally eminent W.V. Quine, asked how it is that we acquire language. As part of his answer he imagined the following scenario: a field linguist encounters a tribe whose language no one has ever translated. The only way he could come to know what the utterances of the speakers of this language – which he dubs ‘Jungle’ – mean is to interpret them in the field. Quine gives the example of a tribesman saying ‘Gavagai’ on several occasions. The linguist observes that on each of these occasions there is a rabbit in the vicinity. Accordingly, he interprets the utterance as meaning something like “Lo, a rabbit!’ or perhaps ‘Lo, a set of undetached rabbit parts!’.[v] The second interpretation is offered to emphasise that the linguist cannot unambiguously interpret any utterance in Jungle based solely on the information available to him. By this process of radical interpretation, Quine asserts, the linguist is able to translate Jungle into his native language. Davidson is  persuaded that Quine is right in supposing that the only way of translating such an unknown language is through such a process of radical interpretation. Davidson notes that this process describes exactly how we come to speak a language at all.

We share a language to the degree that we are able to interpret the utterances of those around us. We do this, Davidson argues, according to what he calls the principle of charity.[vi] This involves the listener assuming that the utterer’s statements on each occasion are true, and charitably interpreting them on this basis. For example, someone might say ‘God is omnivorous’, which you’d likely interpret as ‘God is omnipotent’ or ‘God is omnipresent’ perhaps. Davidson’s point is that we charitably interpret each other in this way all the time, and it is by this process that we come to agreement of use regarding words. And so we are all in essentially the same position of the field linguist, it is just that over time we have come to cooperate by altering our linguistic behaviour to maximise our ability to communicate with one another. He happens to be suddenly surrounded with speakers whose utterances he’s not used to, and so interpretation is purely situationally based – he has no customs he shares with the Jungle speakers.

The key idea to take from Davidson here is that the meanings of our utterances or statements are intimately related to their truth. More exactly, statements have meaning to the extent that we take them to be true. Only if, for example, you assume that the speaker who utters the sentence ‘God is omnivorous’ is speaking the truth is it possible for you to interpret her at all – this means of course that you must suppose that the speaker uses the word ‘omnivorous’ differently to yourself. If, instead, you were to assume that her utterance is false, then you are left with no clue as to what she might mean by it. By this measure, crucially, most of our statements are likely to be true given that we have come to interpret one another successfully. Their truth, then, is not the result of their literally corresponding with facts in the world but rather because we can only come to understand each other on the basis that what we say to each other is true. Given that what we say to each other constitutes to a large degree what we believe, we can say that most of our beliefs must be true. But, like the scientists and their theories, we are not always able to determine which of our particular beliefs are true, but, again, we must assume that most of them are true given that we manage to understand each other. Of course most of the time we do not struggle to interpret each other in this way, but Davidson’s point is that this process of radical interpretation is always in the background – it is the root of our ability to use language.

How exactly does this understanding of the meaning and truth of our beliefs in terms of radical interpretation overcome the threat of relativism? Consider again the cultural relativism I briefly described earlier, where two wholly separate societies develop distinct ways of talking about the world. If the members of one society were to encounter the members of the other, it seems possible that, insofar as they could translate each other’s language, there could be theories or beliefs that one society holds as true and the other as false. This discrepancy is possible so long as one supposes that how each society describes the world in virtue of their concepts is separable from how they experience it, so that first they observe the world and then they go about developing concepts with the aim of describing it. But Davidson denies that there is this dual process of first grasping the world, e.g., through sense experience, and then constructing a set of concepts to describe it. Rather there is only one process involving arriving at concepts, in terms of maximising interpretation of each other’s utterances, through our shared experience of the world. As such there is no room for disagreement on how they use terms since this very process is based on gaining such agreement. None of this is to deny that genuine disagreement is possible. Our both understanding the statement ‘Climate change is man-made’, for example, does not guarantee we both hold it true. Truth is initially assumed in order to enable speakers to interpret one anothers’ utterances in their own right. Once speakers’ uses of words generally coincide, they are each in a position to judge the others’ utterances.

  1. Relativism and Bullshit

The convenient relativist, as we have been characterising her, reasons that some belief of hers cannot be shown to be false by her opponent if that opponent does not share her perspective, since the truth of her belief depends on the perspective she adopts. Therefore, to the extent that she is resistant to some opposing view she is tempted to assume her opponent does not in the end share her perspective. He might be right from his perspective, but she is right from hers, she reasons. Relativism, therefore, is an appealing view to adopt if one finds comfort in holding to one’s belief and is averse to the discomfort of doubt. And that is a very common human inclination. Therefore, relativism appeals to very many people. It offers a convenient excuse for dismissing contrary beliefs out of hand. There has always been a homely version of relativism in this respect; that is to say, people have always been tempted to assume some sort of naive, i.e., undefended, relativism for these motives. But with the recent fear of a post-truth era, some have begun to consider the more sophisticated philosophical defences of relativism, as espoused by such diverse thinkers as Michel Foucault, Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Rorty. My arguments are an indirect response to many of these philosophically informed versions of relativism, but there is obviously not the space to consider each of  them in detail here. All told however, it is unlikely that the convenient relativists of today – both the electorate and politicians – are directly influenced by these thinkers in any major way.[vii]

In reply to relativism in general, following Davidson, I have argued that while what we count as true is determined by us, this fact does not imply that truth is relative to some cultural or individual perspective. Rather what we count as true is determined by us in our collective endeavour to interpret each other’s utterances, that is, in our very use of language. This cooperative project entails that what we each count as true cannot ever diverge very far at all. For the act of interpreting one another demands that we largely assume we are each being truthful, otherwise we could never successfully come to understand one another as we clearly do. It is the continual process of cooperation in this respect which connects how we use words with our shared environment, thus ensuring what we count as true bears a direct relation to the world. Thus insofar as we share the same environment and a form of life, as human beings, we are bound to be able to construct a way of interpreting one another, and therefore of evaluating each other’s utterances in terms of their truth and falsity. Therefore, there is no unbridgeable gap, as the convenient relativist assumes, between us, no distinct perspectives by which we measure our own truths. There is no ownership of truths in this way.

According to The Economist magazine one of the main reasons for the increasing disregard for truth in public discourse is, as we have already noted, the migration from traditional news media to social media as the main source of information and news for the public. As the magazine points out, social media corporations like Facebook and Twitter do not see themselves as news outlets or publishers.[viii] They have accepted little journalistic responsibility for the content of the ‘items’ whose dissemination they facilitate. Without any effective gatekeeping in this respect more and more misinformation and unreliable reports will occur in the public arena. There is no one to stop the likes of Donald Trump from using these platforms to promote their political agenda with no accountability for the falsehoods they spread. But insofar as Trump is a product of this phenomenon, he is a reflection of a culture in which concern for the truth is declining. This describes what Harry Frankfurt colourfully calls bullshit, that is, the abandonment of any attempt to tell the truth or, for that matter, to lie. The bullshitter, rather, simply doesn’t care if what they say is true or false. The liar, by contrast, does care about the truth to the extent that she wants to conceal or misstate it. As Frankfurt has more recently observed, bullshitting best describes Trump’s attitude.[ix]

Frankfurt offers a plausible explanation for bullshit, that is, for why many are inclined to jettison any concern for the truth when expressing their opinions and reporting on political, cultural and social issues. He suggests that in open democratic societies like ours people are expected or encouraged to offer their opinions on various issues, even though they have no expertise or have negligible knowledge on the subject at hand.[x] Feeling licensed or obliged to offer an opinion people therefore must say whatever comes to mind irrespective of whether what they say has any factual content. In place of informed opinion we get sincerity, that is, opinions earnestly advanced in proportion to the ardour of conviction. Social media have fostered a climate conducive to these sorts of pressures while at the same time offering anyone the opportunity to express opinions that can potentially achieve widespread dissemination. The vast majority of ill-informed opinions stay within a small circle, but under the right circumstances some of these opinions gain a wide audience and affect the immediate political conversation. Unsurprisingly politicians recognise the selfish gains they can make by embracing this phenomenon, and increasingly exploit social media for their own ends.

Finally, as Frankfurt also observes, a deeper source of the proliferation of bullshit is the relativism we have been addressing. He talks about this in terms of a sceptical attitude, where many people believe that there is no objective reality against which we can judge our beliefs. Therefore people  tend instead to focus on being true to themselves, i.e., sincere, as if this is a virtue that can replace that of leading an examined life based on inquiry. Scepticism – as a willingness to inspect one’s beliefs – is the source of inquiry epitomised by science. Frankfurt is suggesting that relativism is a pernicious influence encouraging people instead to channel their sceptical inclinations towards a futile form of self-affirmation. Narcissists like Trump are natural adopters of this attitude, but most people are more measured in this regard. I have shown how relativism is an ill-founded view. While disagreements will of course always arise, it is important to keep in mind that they are not ultimately unresolvable even though we are naturally disposed to hold to our own opinions.

© Hugh Alcock

[i] Friedrich Nietzsche (1967) The Will to Power, Kaufmann, W., and Hollingdale, R.J., trans, NY: Random House, p. 298 (Bk III, #552).

[ii] See Thomas S. Kuhn (1996) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd Edition. Chicago, IL: University of  Chicago Press.

[iii] Charles Sanders Peirce (1988) ‘The Fixation of Belief’ in Charles Peirce: The Essential Writings, Moore, E.C., ed., Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books., p. 125.

[iv] See ibid, pp. 120-37.

[v] See W.V. Quine (1960) Word and Object, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 26-40.

[vi] Davidson rarely presented his views in a sustained manner, i.e., in book length form. Mostly he articulated his views and arguments issue by issue in various technical journal articles. Of these perhaps his most comprehensive discussion of the issues concerning us here is given in his ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’ reprinted in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984, pp. 183-98.

[vii] This idea has recently been discussed by Russell Smith (‘How Postmodernism Is Infiltrating Public Life and Policy’, Globe and Mail, Tuesday 18th April 2017) and by Casey Williams (‘Has Trump Stolen Philosophy’s Critical Tools?’, The New York Times, April 2017).

[viii] See ‘The Post-Truth World, Yes I’d Lie to You’, Briefings, The Economist Magazine, 10th Sept 2016.

[ix] See ‘Donald Trump Is BS, Says Expert in BS’, Ideas, Time Magazine, 12th May 2016.

[x] See Harry G. Frankfurt’s well-known essay, published in book form, On Bullshit (2005) Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.


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