by Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D.
Truth is a problem. Throughout history, philosophers have quested for truth and politicians have pretended to know it. Yet truth, as Heraclitus once said, “loves to hide.” Thales thought it had to do with water, and Parmenides thought it was the substance of the ideal, heavenly realm. Later, Plato too thought it was an ideal discovered dialectically, and Aristotle thought purpose was a window to truth. More recently, philosophical thinkers have parodied these early philosophers but something novel was also forwarded. While many philosophers have thought the discovery of truth began with the world in which we live and the communities we call home, modern philosophical thought started to concentrate on sensation as the way to truth. Empirical philosophers like
John Locke thought that we know the truth of something through perception and later, David Hume argued that if a thought is not grounded in empirical observation, it is nothing more than a fanciful fiction. Empiricism found its extreme in Logical Positivism, and while that perspective has been debunked, correspondence theories of truth are respected in the natural sciences. Still, many today resist reducing everything we know to some sort of sensation and argue that truth—whatever it is—must be more broadly defined to include things like emotions, love and nonempirical realities that human beings find meaningful. Immanuel Kant’s synthetic a priori is a case in point, and phenomenology led Martin Heidegger to conclude that truth is found in meaningful events that come into the light and reveal themselves to us through the facticity of our world.
But there are also those who have wondered if truth has ever played an important role in society, or whether it is simply the function of a controlling narrative designed to secure power for the elite. Truth, they hold, is defined by those who succeed in life and sit atop the social order controlling what we think and do. Some postmodernists held that truth is a totalizing discourse rooted in xenophobia and a paranoid desire for hegemony. If people are to free themselves from the autocracy of such totality, they must embrace difference, a playfulness that lies at the heart of all discourse, which ultimately deconstructs the dominate power narrative of the elite. Truth, in this case, needs to be discarded for a more honest appraisal of reality that is predicated on difference, a type of relative dialectic, the buzz of which dismantles all forms of “truth,” even the truth of the natural sciences. It is better to talk about knowledge than truth and when speaking of knowledge, knowledge is never absolute but begs the context in which it presents itself, what Donna Haraway calls “situated knowledge.”
I must admit that I am a postmodern thinker, or as my dissertation director said, I am a “post-postmodern thinker.” I will discuss what I think he meant by this later, but my work relied upon the insights of Emmanuel Levinas, whose writings led me to look on the other side of discourse, so to speak, in an effort to find a way of formulating ethics within the digital relativism/contextualism that is our world today. The development of computers and the consequent reduction of all things to packets of information, has elevated systems theory and cybernetics where being is equated to feedback loops making sense of the noise of digital signification that in an act of ultimate deconstruction, effectively
erases the boundaries defining many notions that have provided meaning to human beings and which everyone living in the world assumes on a day-to-day basis. Ideas like self, agency, responsibility and accountability have been deconstructed, erased by the playful buzz of the digital revolution, and digital reconstruction takes place in the form of preference bubbles and the algorithms that define them. In this, truth is a reference to the preferential ideals of the bubble and becomes a source of belief often devoid of what used to be called “facts.” In this sort of world, playfulness triumphs over assessment; beliefs and emotions are the substance of knowledge and the ideals of one’s preference bubbles define certainty.
Here—in the digital world of preference bubbles and the algorithms that define them—the meaning of post-truth begins to take shape. Even though Vittorio Bufacci (2021) argues that post-truth is nothing new, he does a good job of defining a post-truth world, a definition that seems to deny his claim that post-truth is not novel. He states:
As the Oxford Dictionary explains, rather than simply referring to the time after a specified situation or event – as in post-war or post-match – the prefix in Post-Truth has a meaning more like ‘belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant’ . This nuance seems to have originated in the mid-20th century…. [T]he prefix ‘post’ in Post-Truth is not a chronological reference to something that occurs ‘ after’ truth, instead it is a statement about the fact that truth is no longer essential, that truth has become obsolete and that truth has been superseded by a new reality (348).:
Regardless of Bufacci’s spurious notion of history, his point is well-taken. Post-truth is a phenomenon that in part marks an age, a time in which something new is taking place. This age, as I have mentioned above, is the age of the computer, the digital age, and its distinguishing characteristic is the erasure and redrawing of boundaries to favor algorithmic ideals. In this age, not only is self and agency being erased, but so also is truth because it no longer serves a purpose. If this is the case, is this the type of world we wish to live in? How does this impact the ability of human beings to live with each other and is the consequences of a post-truth age something that advantages all people equally? I think these questions need to be addressed before we embrace the digital world wholesale and without critically assessing its merits and its dangers.
That we live in a digital world can no longer be denied and what is more, there is no going back to a world without computers. They are here to stay and as I have argued elsewhere, since we cannot escape them, we need to learn how to live with them in a meaningful way. The problem, however, is that when computers and computer technology become so readily available as they are today, and when every aspect of life is conditioned by digital technology, such technology operates tacitly and its presence is taken for granted. As a digital immigrant—one who can remember what life was like without personal computers and smart phones—there is still an over-and-againstness in the advance of the digital world, but for those who are digital natives, the over-and-againstness, I fear, has vanished. A couple of stories might illustrate my point.
While teaching a philosophy course about 25 – 30 years ago, I asked students what they thought people used to write their assignments on before the advent of the PC. Without hesitation, a young woman toward the front of the class spoke up: “I don’t know. An Apple IIe?” I was thinking of a typewriter…the class burst out in laughter. Another incident was similar. This also took place in a philosophy course. Students were grousing about the research paper assignment. In response, I asked them to imagine a computer program where a person could give the program a few ideas about the paper topic and the program would write it. They all seemed to think that such a program would be worth its weight in gold. Interestingly, last week I watched a rant by John Oliver about Artificial Intelligence. On that show, he spoke of ChatGPT. It is a program that when asked to write a paper on a particular subject, it does. It is not perfect, but the texts it has produced are impressive even if sometimes wrong. It has become one of the more popular apps with over 100 million active downloads in about a 3 month period. I have no doubt it would have made my students giddy with anticipation that it, instead of them, could write their research papers. I wonder what grade the program would have received. More recently, I was reading a paper to the Colorado Association of Marriage and Family Therapists when one of the younger therapists spoke up and said that he couldn’t remember a time without smart phones. To people who are digital natives, the digital world is not something strange. It has lost its over-and-againstness. Instead, it is something taken for granted making one much less sensitive to what might be called algorithmic control, or what digital immigrants used to called digital determinism.
For you that don’t know, this is an Apple IIe, one of Apple’s first personal computers.
To better understand algorithmic control, we need to understand how algorithms work and how they start to bring order to the digital world. While it is true that an algorithm is a small program written by a programmer, it is also true that “bottom-up learning” is a part of their programming. What this means is that an algorithm “learns” from its environment. If that environment is your buying habits on Amazon, Amazon ads and search results will be biased by these interests. You will see what the algorithm thinks you want to see based upon what your buying habits have taught it. This is also true of search engines, meaning that search results differ according to what their algorithms have learned from your searching habits as well as any other data collected about you from the Internet.
When this type of thing is applied to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, etc., preference bubbles are birthed. People like to associate with those who are like them and that is what social media algorithms make possible. Likeminded people are grouped with likeminded people. As a Coloradan, I might be grouped with Coloradans, but now as someone living in California, I might be grouped with other Californians. As a Californian living in an area where it doesn’t snow, I am not offered snow shovels whereas when I was living in Colorado, a snow shovel might be something I may need so the smart algorithm will offer me one to buy. People living in California have different needs from those living in Colorado and it is the job of the algorithm to figure out the difference.
Snow shovels are one matter, but friendship is quite another. If I am a person who is a member of a mainline denomination such as the United Methodists, I have beliefs related to the teachings of that church, and teachings of say, Southern Baptists, tend to irritate me because they conflict with some of my cherished beliefs. The more information I put on Facebook about my Methodism, the more Facebook’s algorithms learn about my beliefs and rather than pairing me with Southern Baptists, it pairs me with Methodists or others who share my preferred beliefs. The people I begin to associate with on Facebook are Methodists and I don’t have to be disturbed by Southern Baptist beliefs. A “United Methodist” preference bubble has come into being. It is a preference bubble defined by beliefs and because everyone in it agrees with me, I don’t have to worry about whether the beliefs are true or not; from the perspective of the bubble, they are right. Furthermore, if the algorithm can identify the centrality of my belief, it can pair me not only with other Methodists, but other preference bubbles that also share some of these beliefs. As the preference bubbles branch out, a narrative takes shape based upon the values and beliefs of the preference bubbles. For those living in this preference bubble, its values are right despite what others might think and that is all that matters. The narrative lives based upon a common mindset and shared values to which I pledge my loyalty for it is one with the way I think.
This is as true of political beliefs as it is religious ones. The thing to note, however, is that the central values of a preference bubble orient us to all aspects of life whether it be political parties, churches, schools, or science. Loyalty to the narrative determines how or if I accept the lessons taught by all of these domains. However, and this is the point I wish to make, the world of preference bubbles is a post-truth world. In this world, as Bufacci noted, truth has become obsolete and irrelevant. What matters is loyalty to the narrative. In effect, the digital world has erased and redrawn boundaries around many different narratives and to the extent that any one of these narratives defines the beliefs of large numbers of people, the boundary is marked by intense emotions and is not likely to change. This is ironic when one thinks that the original hope of early digital advocates was to create a “global village” in which all people regardless of their differences could live in harmony. Many thought that the digital age would deconstruct hegemonic autocracies laying waste to their paranoid xenophobia. Instead, it seems to have created tribal realities that vie for power and dominance but are incapable of meaningful discourse with each other about their differences. The issue is not truth; the issue is power and dominance of one’s own narrative. This, it seems, is the post-truth world. The post-truth world is guilty of totalizing discourse, xenophobia and hegemony that characterized truth narratives previously, but now they are value narratives defined by algorithmic drawn boundaries that because they are defined emotionally, have little need for truth but instead, demand only loyalty.
Because algorithmic control discourages interaction with competing narratives, discourse—that is, the ability to rationally discuss and debate the merit of an idea with others who may disagree—is something that is being erased by the post-truth world, and with it, knowledge is beginning to fade. When discourse is erased, many other areas suffer being defined not by critical thought, but the analytic logic of the algorithm. Indeed, algorithms, which define and create preference bubbles and the self-defining narratives that result, are the gatekeepers of the post-truth world measuring the degree of loyalty and commitment to the values and beliefs of the narrative. When a narrative becomes dominant, the spokespersons assure its sanctity by systematically erasing the thoughts and worldviews of anyone who is different. This assures that those who live in the narratives of a preference bubble need not be bothered by the possibility that things may be different. Truth and knowledge are unnecessary; propaganda has erased them. Discourse is looked upon with suspicion and critical thought is branded as heresy, the punishment of which is banishment from the preference bubble. Because all of this is managed by the digital age, which operates tacitly in the background, many are taken up by the promises of the narrative without giving it a thought, for after all, thought along with truth is unnecessary. This is the post-truth world.
I hold that the post-truth world is not only philosophically devoid of merit, it is also unacceptable to democratic societies. While truth remains a difficult term to wrap one’s head around philosophically, at the very least truth denotes the character of a narrative, consistent definition of terms, an honest and open appraisal of the topic considered, and the willingness to invite public scrutiny. Nothing is hidden. Transparency is the name of the game. In this, facts are not determined by the narrative alone, but are those evidential realities normally developed from a meaningful and systematic examination of the topic and used either to substantiate or deny a claim. It is not appropriate to refer to “alternative facts” that can somehow be accepted prima facie, but it is essential that all serious claims are considered. If, at the end of this process of scrutiny, the narrative stands, then it earns a status of most likely true. While certainty is something many people desire, it is not a likelihood given the complexity and evolving nature of human existence. Yes, we can be certain that 2+2=4, but such claims are certain only given a base 10 number system. 2+2=4 is meaningless in a base 2 number system of 0s and 1s, the language of computers. Certainty, in other words, is always contextual. It is never absolute. Likewise, the narratives we construct are contextual as well and an honest assessment of their “truth” is never complete without an accurate assessment of the context out of which they have arisen.
This has profound political implications as well. Political narratives claim to be true. They offer an analysis of both the problems and promise of our nation and propose ways of making our nation stronger and more advantageous to its citizens. But how do we know if these narratives are true? While the complexity of this issue evades a full examination in this essay, suffice it to say that a political narrative needs to consist of the above-mentioned traits as much as any other narrative claiming to be true. The narrative and the person(s) standing behind it need to be brought into the open that their lives might be examined to see if the claims they make align with the life they have lived. A recent example is that of NY State Representative, George Santos, if that is indeed his name. As has been
pointed out by the News Media as well as members of the Republican Party of which he is a part, the correlation between the claims he made on his resume during his campaign are totally out of line with his experiences as a person leading to probes from the House Ethics Committee and likely probes from the Justice Department into illegal use of campaign funds and other activities from his time in Central America. He made himself look good; he made himself seem successful; he claimed to be a member of the LGBQ community, a novelty among Republicans. But as all these claims were “fact-checked,” it became apparent that most of what he said were lies. None or very little of it was accurate with the result that Santos is an unknown quantity; no one knows what to expect. If politicians are to be given the honor of serving their community as an elected official, such behavior cannot be tolerated for it lacks the integrity necessary for a truthful narrative thereby further diminishing the confidence of people in their elected officials. However, the responsibility is not the politicians alone. As a democracy, we have a responsibility to demand that the political narratives of politicians maintain transparent consistency so we can be assured that they are who they say they are and are doing what they say they are doing. Politicians and political narratives shown through public scrutiny to be false and filled with lies do not deserve the office for which they run and should be eliminated from the race if they refuse to embrace truth. If in office, a politician who lies pathologically should be made to resign. Today, with the knowledge of the world at our fingertips, no one is excused for being uninformed. One of the essential functions of the schools we attend is at the very least to teach us to think critically and use the Internet in a responsible way to assure that our democratic environment is one that values truth and the open and free inquiry necessary to determine it. Honesty and truth is not a luxury of the controlling elite; it is the lifeblood of a democracy. A democratic society, if it is to survive, must be intolerant of lies and reject the legitimacy of post-truth.
As I said at the beginning of this essay, my thought has been heavily influenced by the work of Emmanuel Levinas. According to Levinas, the presence of totalizing discourse is the context for post-truth narratives. Since language is the substance of the stories we tell and the narratives we embrace are too often citadels of assurance, language is given to totalizing discourse. From an individual level this, as Rene Descartes noted long ago, roots the individual in an ego that becomes the interpretative center for thee rest of the world. The resulting egoism is a narrative of self-fulfillment where what is good for me is good for all. Socially, the egoism of the self is writ large and justice becomes that which assures the communal narrative that defines it. This is totality, a totality secured by the digital age.
To deconstruct the totality, Levinas thinks we must exist beyond the narrative. What does this mean? From his perspective, it means that we define our responsibility and accountability based upon the “face of the other.” If we are to avoid totalizing discourse, our lives are shaped by an ethic written not by the power elite, but those who live on the margins of life. This means that we quit talking, quit our quest to redraw boundaries based upon our needs alone and begin to listen to the voice of the other. We don’t demand; we watch and when we finally see, we change, a change not for change’s sake, but a process that is guided and informed by the “least of these,” as Jesus put it. Listening to the voice of yhe other while paying close attention to faces scared by the oppression of power narratives is difficult, and means that we be willing to give up some of the comforts of our digital age. If it comes to choosing between the least of these and Facebook, Facebook must lose. If we wish to live in a democracy, we cannot be under the influence of algorithmic control, we need to be led by the least of these. If we are, totality will be deconstructed and we will find that we do not tolerate a post-truth world and political candidates that embrace such a world will be those upon whom we turn our backs. In a world defined by the Other, democracy will thrive.
I began by suggesting that truth is problematic. It is difficult to define and is a concept too easily used by power elites to support narratives of lies. The result is that, buttressed by the digital world, many have given up on truth in exchange for certainty grounded in self-glorification and the desire for certainty. For the post-truth world and our digital age, it is easy to imagine a world where truth is inconvenient and hence, irrelevant. However, in our rush to embrace the lies of the post-truth world, the very foundations of democracy have been placed in jeopardy and for many, autocracy appears to be the way our world is to be redeemed. I hope that I have demonstrated how such a world comes about and the dangers it poses. As Heraclitus said, “truth loves to hide,” but this does not mean that we cease looking for it. Truth, while problematic, has value, for in seeking truth we look for a way out of the lies and totality of autocracy by seeking its reality in the face of the other, the least of these who live on the margins of society and whose lives help us to appreciate that a democracy is a government open to an honest discourse informed by all people. That…is truth.