Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What is truth?

In a previous post, I mentioned the dual intellectual heritage of the West: moral reasoning from the Bible and logical reasoning from the ancient Greeks. I would like to say more about that. It is now plain that we have squandered two inheritances. Neither kind of reasoning holds sway today. Instead, what people are interested in is affirming the things they want to be true and finding pretexts to do so.

The title of this little piece quotes Pontius Pilate, who condemned Jesus to suffering and death. Its modern echo is  "That may be your truth, but it is not my truth." Either saying uses a little philosophical dodge and wriggle to produce a single answer that will work against all challenges. It is intellectual laziness so phrased as to seem clever and wise. Try it: If I tell you that something is surely true, you can simply respond that it is true for me but not for you.

At times it is a fair enough thing to say. If I tell you that Mossberg makes a better pump gun than Remington, you may disagree using terms much like the above, and be perfectly correct. What I have told you is a statement of taste and nothing more. As a practical matter, a hunter may use whichever he wishes, and it will make no difference in practical outcomes: it makes no difference to the bird.

There are other statements I might make, though, that have practical consequences. What today's little Pilates do is act as if every question is a question of taste. They can then fall back, without saying so, on the old bromide that there is no accounting for tastes. If I say that the drunkard or drug abuser will seem a fool to all his friends and likely die early and poor, that is hardly a statement of personal taste; it is a fact. The morally relative rejoinder: Well, what if that is an acceptable outcome to him?

I need not go into detail about how that kind of reasoning works. There are too many examples before us every day, of sound reasoning, moral or logical, denied because the hearer wants to hear a different tune.

I think the reason why the re-election of Barack Obama seems, to American conservatives, like such a watershed event is precisely that the voters who voted for him set aside so many sound reasons not to, moral and logical. They instead voted their hopes and desires. That was a majority, and in a country that decides so many things by voting, it is spooky to think of the majority acting that way. The things they voted for, benefits for everyone, free phones, health care subsidies, socking it to the evil rich, 'marriage equality,' saving the planet from the exploitative, polluting energy companies, and all the rest, were considered apart from the moral and practical downsides. Much of it amounts to unsustainable, impossible fantasy. People wanted it all to be true, though, so they voted for it.

This is the triumph of long efforts at derailing our culture's ideas about what is true and how you know. Now anything is true. Put another way, nothing is false. Matters are simply as you would like to see them. Make no mistake: It is conservatives who have sought to preserve Biblical moral reasoning and if-then financial logic from the forces on the left, whose efforts in the legal system, in education and in media and entertainment have been all to the contrary. Of course we are disappointed that the country went the other way. We were telling it not to. Now a new reasoning is in place, one that operates on contrived neologisms, knee-jerk reactions and political correctness. Four legs good, two legs bad!

The reason conservatives were holding out against all this was not simply to be annoying. There are consequences for abandoning wisdom and reason. But there is not much more we can do about it. A part of the blame for this disastrous election must, though, go to the Republican Party's curious propensities in nominating candidates. It is quite possible that some other candidate could have won, for the vote was far from unanimous.

Not everyone has lost track of the idea that a thing might be true despite one's preference in the matter, or false despite one's hope. Perhaps, as the consequences of this election sink in, the numbers who think "true" has some meaning beyond taste or preference will increase.

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