A crisis of truths

In our partisan, post-truth age of fake news and “follow the science”, the link between facts, narrative and power has never seemed more stark

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Pontius Pilate might have been the first postmodernist. Quid est veritas? — “What is truth?” — he asked the Truth Incarnate, before washing his hands and acceding to the baying mob’s demand for blood in order to keep his grip on power. Pilate’s question has been read numerous ways through the centuries, but has rarely been more relevant than today. Our society has a problem with the truth, though no one seems to agree on just what that problem is.

We’ve been here before — or at least somewhere rather like it. The meanings of “truth”, “fact”, “knowledge”, and related concepts are not timeless absolutes, nor has freedom of speech always been seen as the best way of arriving at truth, nor indeed as a self-evident good at all. Rather, our present assumptions about the meaning of truth and the way to obtain it arose relatively recently in historical terms, during what we over-enthusiastically call the Enlightenment.

While René Descartes’s search for indubitable truth is often credited with unwittingly ushering in the Age of Reason, the first wave of rationalism really began in late seventeenth-century England. Deists such as John Toland and Matthew Tindal argued that revelation was superfluous, since the essential part of Christianity, its ethics, was clearly apparent to natural reason. 

God became no longer the transcendent Creator and ultimate source of Truth, but merely another object in the universe about which truths could be derived by the application of human reason. All was to be subordinated to the individual human mind and its ability to apprehend.

Influenced by the English Deists, an international cabal of epistemic vandals set about purging society of customs, institutions, and modes of thought that failed to correspond to the new vogue for rationalism. This was a great era of image-breaking — and indeed of image-making. Voltaire was not above spreading falsehood in the pursuit of his truth; he used his gift for satire to pour scorn on the foundations of eighteenth-century society — the Church and monarchy — setting the stage for revolution. 

Rationalism in its most virulent form, promulgated by men such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine, found its ultimate expression in the terror and bloodshed unleashed in France and in British North America. Edmund Burke wrote his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, arguing that a political doctrine based on purportedly rational abstractions like human rights was no fit way to govern a society of complex and fallen human beings, and that the violent revolutionary disorder would inevitably lead to tyranny and single-man rule.

Phoenix-like, new institutions arose across the Western world from the Enlightenment bonfire of church and state. This new democratic era also called for a new sort of man: a professional class of technocrat whose superior knowledge would inform the deliberations and ultimately the decisions of the electorate, thereby driving government policy. 

Academic and other bodies arose to provide this expertise, professionalising knowledge creation and harnessing truth to political power. Free speech was enshrined in law as a way of disseminating information and opinion, in the belief that propositions would be sifted and winnowed in the public sphere, enabling a broad, though changeable, political consensus to be reached on the truths that were to govern society.

Mere societal pressure to tell the truth has no effect upon those who are immune to shame

This idealised state of affairs has never quite been realised, as historians such as Sophia Rosenfeld have pointed out. For a start, Burke was right: human beings are limited in apprehension, and the “general bank and capital of nations and of ages” is more likely to furnish us with a realistic, workable political consensus than abstract deliberation based on a heady admixture of often contradictory “expert” knowledge filtered through the varying intellects and personal experiences of individual members of the public. Contra Voltaire and the Deists, competition in information does not necessarily work to dispel errors in interpretation, and many truths have never been self-evident to natural reason.

More importantly, the Enlightenment left the question of what counts as truth and who ultimately decides upon it deliberately unanswered; truth was envisaged as a frangible, socially constructed consensus needing to be continually refined and renewed by means of public debate. Undergirding this process was the absolute necessity for trust: public trust in institutions and in one’s fellow citizens to act in good faith while seeking truth and exercising political power. This explains the elaborate public oaths, rituals, and modes of “plain speech” that developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which Rosenfeld chronicles in her 2019 book Democracy and Truth. 

But what happens when that trust breaks down? Maximilien Robespierre identified the parallel dangers facing Revolutionary society when he wrote in a February 1794 report promoting the Terror that “Democracy perishes by two excesses: the aristocracy of those who govern, or the contempt of the people for the authorities which they have themselves established; contempt in which each faction or individual arrogates to themselves the public power, and reduces the people, by the excess of disorder, to annihilation or to the power of a single person.” These words prophesied his own doom.

The tenuous and imperfectly realised Enlightenment ideal of socially constructed truth wed to political power still undergirds Western society and its institutions — as we now realise to our cost. We have retained much of the outward display that formerly marked truth-telling, including our reverence for “plain-speaking” politicians and some of the legal and journalistic apparatus that is meant to protect free speech and hold power to account. However, mere societal pressure to tell the truth has no effect upon those who are immune to shame, or who choose to prioritise power over verity.

Subsequent philosophical and political developments have deepened the fissure at the heart of our society into a chasm; in the 300 years that separate us from the Enlightenment, we have, step by blind step, so exalted the individual and subordinated the will to truth that only the will to power remains. Terrors greater than that of the French Revolution have been the inevitable result, as the great mechanised slaughters of the twentieth century show.

The Enlightenment ideal has come under fresh challenge in the political and social crises of the more recent past. Academics are still quoting (and misquoting) Michael Gove’s suggestion that “the people of this country have had enough of experts” over five years after the fact; challenges to epistemic authority obviously rankle. 

Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson, speaking to an audience of fellow academics at the 2021 Times Higher Education World Academic Summit, said: “With the vaccine, it seems like the public can’t get enough of experts. Many of our scientists have become household names. We have demonstrated through the vaccine work and the development of therapeutics and so on just how much universities can contribute and that’s enormously helpful to our cause.”

Venerating “the science” as a unitary entity is the opposite of scientific

Our cause? The Covid-19 pandemic has held up a mirror to the most disturbing aspects of our epistemic crisis. That it is impossible to have a dispassionate, rational, evidence-based debate on the merits and demerits of any aspect of public health policy has become a truism, as tribes have emerged marked out by whether (or not) they choose to wear masks or take vaccines. Each lays claim to certain bodies of experts, and expert knowledge, declaring that “the science” is on the side of their tribe.

This is not science; it’s scientism — a quasi-religious, totalising view of science as if it were capable of describing all of reality, and further that science is the only valid way to acquire true knowledge of that reality. Venerating “the science” as a unitary entity and speaking of those who interpret evidence differently or find different points salient as “deniers” or “sheep” is the opposite of scientific. It is, however, precisely what one would expect when ownership of the “truth” brings with it great power.

The Left has wholeheartedly and vocally embraced the idea of truth being about power. This is, in fact, one of the foundational axioms of much postmodern thought. Ironic, then, that their ostensible opponents on the Right are acting on the same fundamental assumption, seemingly without realising it to be such. The government’s seeking to enforce its particular definition of “free speech” on university campuses by threatening, inter alia, to withhold institutional funding arises, in the final analysis, from the same underlying worldview as the desire by university administrators to enforce their preferred orthodoxy.

Historical debates have ceased to be a reliable guide, because both the scale of the conversation and the stakes have increased. Access to information and to the means of disseminating it is now democratised to a degree unthinkable a generation ago, and arguments over the essence and location of expertise have proliferated with the sense that everyone has a right to provide their own expertise. Inexorably we have reached the point where truth, rather than being constructed collectively by means of reasoned debate, is constructed individually by means of self-identification — and there is no way of determining between “my truth” and “your truth” absent recourse to the truth.

As Rosenfeld writes, “Post-truth is, at heart, a struggle over people as holders of epistemic authority and over their different methods of inquiry and proof in an intensely partisan era.” Enlightenment philosophy does not provide the tools to resolve the conflict between groups who lay claim to truth in order to legitimate their claims to power, not least because it assumes the necessity and even the inherent goodness of that struggle. Likewise, it provides us no palatable method to repair public trust once it has broken down, and no recourse against those who wear their shamelessness like armour.

Michel Foucault was correct when he tossed out the idea of the “truth regime”: that what we consider to be the truth and how we arrive at it are at present both products of, and contributors to, existing structures of power. But this is a choice, not a law of nature. Better understandings of the meaning of truth and the methods and purpose for obtaining it are available.

One of these is another of the major schools of early modern thought: empiricism. Francis Bacon’s 1620 Novum Organum argued for the development of true knowledge about the natural world based on inductive reasoning applied to observation of events — a methodological scepticism that still forms the basis of our scientific method. 

While Bacon’s method of obtaining natural knowledge was scientific, as a devout Anglican his purpose for obtaining it was ultimately moral and theological: for the glory of God through the better understanding of Creation, and for the relief of humanity’s ills. In his preface to the Instauratio Magna, Bacon warns against attempting to gain knowledge “for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things. […] For it was from the lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”

Pilate chose to condemn truth to death in the pursuit of power, leaving himself no means by which to face his own nature in the hope of redemption. As Pilate subsequently found, however, power is illusory. The moment you make truth about power, you have sold the pass.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover