CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JANUARY 10: Prince Harry's memoir Spare is offered for sale at a Barnes & Noble store on January 10, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. The book went on sale in the United States today. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Sounding Board

Back to reality

Objective truth is critically important. It is one of the greatest defences of our liberty

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“There’s just as much truth in what I remember and how I remember it as   there is in so-called objective facts.”

So says Prince Harry, and it’s lucky he thinks this because Spare, where this profound philosophical reflection on epistemology can be found, has a number of rather well-recorded moments where the truth as he remembers it (hearing, for example, about the Queen Mother’s death in his room at Eton) do not stand up to the so-called objective facts (his actually being in Switzerland with his father and brother when the news broke, and having to make a well-publicised return from holiday).

There are many other examples in the book of situations where, as the late Queen put it, “recollections may vary” and I don’t really want to rehearse them because there is something far more interesting going on behind it.

Let’s look at that claim again. “There is just as much truth in what I remember and how I remember it as there is in so-called objective facts.” Just as much truth? Really? Truly? Is there anyone, even in the most ivory of post-modern academic towers, who would believe this? 

Who would accept that these words — really and truly — are now effectively meaningless. What does reality mean if it is true to say that you were in a place that facts (objective facts, if you like) prove that you were not? 

Without wanting to sound all Pontius Pilate, what is truth?

Without wanting to sound all Pontius Pilate, what is truth? What does it mean if we assert as “truth” things that are not, in fact, to the best of our understanding, true? This is not just a philosophical game, it runs to the heart of everything, of how we engage with the world and how we engage with each other. This is a question of reality.

And because it’s a question of reality, it’s deeply serious. If we cannot accept a basic premise for how truth is discerned — if reality is only what you remember, or understand, or wish it to be — then reality is not, in fact, real. 

This is bad when discussing the historical record, potentially fatal when discussing medicine and deranged when attempting to redefine maths. This last is not hyperbole. In those parts of the United States that have adopted framework teaching documents such as A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction, children are taught to treat objective facts as the imposition of Western-orientated racism. 2 + 2 need not equal 4.

While we all might have been willing to tolerate postmodernism when it was the preserve of eccentric academics in philosophy faculties, now it is out in the wild, being swallowed whole by Princes of the Blood Royal, it has suddenly become all of our problem. Reality is, well, real. 

It is the basis on which the world is built. It is the great equaliser: gravity will pull you down to the ground, be your status ever so high or ever so low. Death will find you, no matter how well you hide from taxes.

But for “your truth” to have just as much validity as so-called objective truth? That’s a power-play. You need raw power to force unreality on the world, and there is no good word for a society where people have to profess that which they believe to be untrue in order to hold office, hold down a job, or avoid public humiliation. 

History is not kind to the various occasions when my profession has demanded people confess that which they did not believe, but until very recently, theocracy was not a model anyone in the West sought to resurrect. 

Neither was totalitarianism, but this assault on objective reality was flagged up by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four for a reason.

In the end, the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable — what then?

Objective reality is one of the greatest defences of … liberty

Objective reality is one of the greatest defences of the liberty of us ordinary human beings. That we are able to look at footage of a incredibly rich and powerful young man in Switzerland and to say that he was not, in fact, in Berkshire (no matter what he might claim) may seem a small battle to bother fighting. 

But lose it and we concede that everything, every single thing, every single claim ever made, is merely a reflection of power and that we, with our so-called objective facts, have none of it.

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

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

Critic magazine cover