Truth: What Really Matters Now

In the nearly ten years that I have been contributing to Secular Outpost, I have enjoyed conversations with a number of outstanding theistic thinkers. I will not name them since that might lead some respondents to focus on these individuals rather than the general point I am making. While we deeply disagree on philosophical issues, I have learned a great deal from these interlocutors, and I regard them with a deep respect that I hope is mutual. Though our differences are deep, there is something deeper still that unites us, namely, the simple but supremely important recognition that truth really matters.

Of course, we all have commitments, and we are passionate about our commitments. There is nothing wrong with that. However, when your commitments are so obsessive that you are willing to resort to dishonesty to promote them, then something is deeply wrong. It is better to lose honestly than to win dishonestly. Even in the most passionate debate you have the duty to report as true only those beliefs you have responsibly acquired, and to employ reasoning that is the clearest and most cogent of which you are capable. Any failures in these regards must be due to human frailty, and not dishonesty or disregard of the truth.

Recent events have impressed upon me more than ever the urgent need to assert the value of truth and of the rational virtues that are conducive to truth. It is time for all who value truth—theist, atheist, liberal, conservative, libertarian, or whatever—to stand up and unite our voices. When a culture disrespects truth, when persuasion is not distinguished from manipulation, when gullibility is esteemed a cardinal virtue, and when rational critics are demonized, terrible things soon happen. As shown by the most cursory study of the history of the last century, genocide, war, and oppression follow when a society’s leaders adopt a policy of systematic deception. As Voltaire observed (paraphrasing), whoever can get you to believe nonsense can also get you to commit atrocities.

As I noted in a previous post, in the United States we have now moved into the post-truth era. Donald Trump’s campaign speeches were not even lies. Lying is intentional untruth, saying what you believe is not so. When utterances have the grammatical structure but not the function of declarative sentences, and are intended only to arouse particular emotions, we have a different genre of untruth. When Trump said that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals, the locution was not intended to convey information, but merely to galvanize a response in a targeted audience. It fulfilled that purpose marvelously. Trump immediately jumped to the top of the polls, and every other such utterance, however outrageous, only solidified his position.

Trump’s victory seems to have been the dam burst that released a flood of other monstrous falsehoods. Just lately we have seen the terrible damage that fake news can do. Wacky conspiracy theories, outrageous accusations (e.g. a pizza parlor is a front for the sexual trafficking of children), and other preposterous allegations, all made in total disregard of evidence, are swallowed by millions, including an unhinged few who are prone to violence. With the disregard for truth comes a disregard even for common decency and the concomitant attitude that it is fine to say anything whatsoever about opponents as long as it hurts them.

This shit has got to stop. It is dangerous. Very dangerous. We academic/intellectual sorts have long basked in the privilege of engaging in recondite debates with other enthusiasts. True, intellectual discourse is very important, but we are now facing a cultural emergency. If you are outraged to see truth and the most fundamental principles of rationality flouted, you need to speak up—loudly and clearly. We may never agree on metaphysics or epistemology, and that is fine. Where we have to agree is that truth, not a particular truth but truth itself, is unutterably precious. And truth will not prevail automatically. We have to fight for it.