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"What is truth?" the Roman governor Pilate asked Jesus at his trial — and did not stay for an answer, adds philosopher Francis Bacon. It’s beauty, says poet John Keats. It’s rarely pure and never simple, says playwright Oscar Wilde. It’s what witnesses swear they’ll tell in court (and usually do). And to some these days it’s an illusion: there are only opinions, so what’s true for you may not be true for me, and that’s just fine.
No, it’s not, says British philosopher and humanist Julian Baggini. He finds "alternative facts" and talk of a "post-truth world" pernicious, a breeding ground for cynicism. Truth matters, he insists, and everyone needs to work on it.
Yes, Baggini concedes, truth is complex. So in his latest book, A Short History of Truth, he offers 10 perspectives for testing truth claims. I touch on four.
Somewhat surprisingly for an atheist, he begins with eternal truths, those conveyed in a bewildering variety of divinely-revealed scriptures. Each text is sacred to adherents of the religion it serves. Each would be rejected as inadequate by members of other faiths.
What that sacredness means, however, will differ widely. Some people will insist on total literalism — "if it’s in the Bible (or Koran), it must be true", including stories of creation, nature-bending miracles, and an afterlife in a supernatural realm. Others will affirm their scriptures as a source of truth for living in personal and social relationships, but not as science. People should feel free to see the mythic truth in the Adam and Eve story, for example, while dismissing it as a factual alternative to evolution.
Baggini does not consign the eternal truths of religion to the rubbish bin. He sums up: "Religion and secular knowledge clash when both see themselves as offering competing realities. When they accept that their truths are of different species, coexistence is possible."
Eternal truths overlap with authoritative truths, Baggini’s second perspective — and they are by no means limited to religion. Science and every other sphere of knowledge share an instinct to appeal to authorities and, unfortunately, that sometimes spills over into discouraging the further search for truth.
Expertise in a specific field is the soul and substance of authoritative truths. Usually the expertise is limited to a particular profession or discipline. Religion adds another strand: an appeal to the divine. If, for example, you grant that a pope, priest or pastor has not just formal training but an authority bestowed by God, you’ll probably go along with whatever they say.
But not always. It’s as well to remember that the experts can get it wrong — too often, indeed, to trust them unquestioningly — and that applies not only to priests and imams, but also scientists, economists, generals, lawyers, and a host of others. So authoritative claims to truth must be sieved, critiqued, and subject to modification. Truth always has a growing edge.
Esoteric truths take us into more dubious territory. They flower as conspiracy theories, the secret "facts" clear only to the "truthers" who harbour them. Examples are that the moon landings were faked in a film studio, the CIA demolished New York’s Twin Towers on 9/11 to provide a pretext for war in the Middle East, the Royal Family plotted to kill Princess Diana.
Sure, there are mysterious, even murky, undercurrents running in state affairs — look at President Trump’s Washington. Some things will always lie hidden, and it’s impossible for the public to know everything. That leaves room for suspicion and distrust to grow, but it doesn’t justify flipping into fantasyland.
Baggini comments: "One of the perennial challenges of being a critical thinker is to be appropriately sceptical without being indiscriminately cynical. When we slide from the former to the latter we swap one form of gullibility for another, from being too willing to buy the official line to too quick to accept any alternative to it."
On firmer ground are reasoned truths. Reason was once exalted as the road to all truth, "a kind of logic machine into which we could feed indisputable facts and first principles, and out of which would come a complete understanding".
Baggini demurs. The reasoned truths of geometry are no use for real-life problems. Reason works best when it considers not just logic, but also experience, evidence and judgement, and when it allows for ambiguity. It is, therefore, "more like a navigation tool that can help us get closer to the truth, if we know how to use it and what we’re looking for".
Other truths another day.
- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.