I think we can all agree that this is a pretty terrible time to be a fan of truth. Politicians have always lied, of course, but few have dared to deny the verifiably obvious, such as the size of an inauguration crowd. Few have perpetuated conspiracy theories, such as the one about Obama’s place of birth. Few would have defended their distortions by claiming that their words were “not intended to be a factual statement,” that there are “alternative facts,” or that “facts don’t exist any more.”
Meanwhile, an absurdly high percentage of the population believes that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that human-made climate change is a hoax, or that vaccines cause autism. What we’re witnessing, in these cases, is a dismaying decline of trust in expert knowledge combined with a creeping disdain for analytical methods of reaching judgments.
Is this a good thing for our society? I very much doubt it. Hannah Arendt put it best, as she so often did: “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule,” she said, is “people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”
You might think that philosophy is the antidote to this terrifying decline in the level of public discourse—and on the whole I’d agree—but it may depend what kind of philosophy you have in mind. There have, after all, been philosophers who cast wholesale doubt on the notion of truth; some have even said that we’d be better off without it. Richard Rorty, for example, said that “vocabularies are useful or useless… but they are not ‘more objective’ or ‘less objective’ nor more or less ‘scientific’”; after all, “there is no sense in which any [scientific] descriptio[n] is an accurate representation of the way the world is.” (So if I say the human beings are contributing to climate change and you say it’s just God hugging us closer, your claim is every bit as scientific as mine.) Rorty also said that we should give up “the distinction between discovery and creation, finding and making.” (There’s no difference, then, between me discovering that there was statistically insignificant level of voter fraud and you inventing three million illegal votes.) And he said “the very idea of a ‘fact of the matter’ is one we would be better off without.” Arendt would beg to differ.
Of course, there’s plenty of cause for doubt when it comes to knowledge of the world, including the fact that different conceptual schemes parse the data of sense differently, as well as the fact that different features become more or less salient within different conceptual schemes. But if such worries lead us to say that science is no more scientific than scientology, or that we’d be better off without the notion of a fact of the matter, I think maybe that’s a sign that we’ve gone too far.
Some people defend philosophers like Rorty by arguing that their theories were necessary counter-forces to hegemonic narratives. I don’t think that’s right: in real life, when you see people successfully attacking hegemonic narratives, they generally do so by showing that these narratives are false, not by suggesting that there is no truth to be had. The critiques were absolutely necessary, but Rorty-style skepticism was not.
Others try to defend Rorty-type philosophers by arguing that they have been misinterpreted: they didn’t really mean all those things they appeared to be saying; they were just using lively language to talk about some technical issues in philosophy, and they’d be the first to admit that there’s a fact of the matter about whether there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that it’s important that there’s a fact of the matter about that, that you can’t just invent what you want and say you discovered it, and so on. Maybe; but it’s worth remembering what Rorty and company did, as well as what they said. I remember once asking Rorty why he attributed a view to Nietzsche that Nietzsche himself repudiated in his published works the vast majority of the time. “Well,” explained Rorty, “it just makes him into a more interesting and innovative philosopher.” Rorty and his ilk didn’t just say that we should care less about the truth; they lived the idea, saying things they themselves did not believe.
So did people like Rorty contribute to the situation we’re in today? Daniel Dennett thinks so. “Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren’t quite so innocuous after all,” said Dennett. “I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.”
For my part, I wouldn’t go so far: I don’t think philosophers got us into this mess. What happened, instead, was a conglomeration of circumstances, including the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine, the rise of 24-hour news, and the amplification of fringe views via the internet and social media. But even though philosophers didn’t get us into this mess, I do think they can help us get out of it, by training generations of students to be allergic to lies and to what Harry Frankfurt calls “bullshit.” All we need to do is stay firmly on the side of truth. As Tim Williamson recently put it, “Obviously it wasn’t mainly postmodernism or relativism that won it for Trump… Still, those who think it somehow intolerant to classify beliefs as true or false should be aware that they are making it easier for people like Trump, by providing them with a kind of smokescreen.”
So: no more smokescreens. Let’s hang on to our facts of the matter and start getting our truth back.